At some point we must take into consideration the manner in which our remains will be handled once we have passed. This is not a decision that can be taken lightly as they are our final wishes and are to be carried out by our loved ones. The most basic of these wishes is whether to be given an earthly burial or to have our remains cremated. An earthly burial would consist of the placement of the body within the ground or sepulcher. Cremation is the alternative to an earthly burial. A typical cremation tradition consists of the burning of the body until the remains become ash. The act of burial tends to be an act of preservation of the human body, whereas the act of cremation destroys the human body leaving only the granular remnants of bone.
By all accounts cremation tradition began as a military process that was associated with battlefield honors in or about 1000 B.C. Introduced by the Greeks who may have adopted the practice from another northern people, cremation was an imperative of war. The bodies of the fallen were burned on the battlefield. Their ashes were then gathered together and sent home where they could be given proper ceremonial entombment. In addition cremation tradition was employed as a method of preventing an enemy from ravaging the bodies of the deceased. On through history the burning of human bodies was carried out as a way of preventing the spread of diseases such as the Black Plague.
Evidence of cremation tradition is prevalent in historic works of art and literature dating back prior to the eighth century B.C.E. References to the act of cremation are made in the famous masterpiece of The Ashes of Phocion by the seventeenth century French painter Nicolas Poussin. Homer’s Iliad makes evident the significance of the act of cremation in ancient times. The greatest of all the gods, Zeus made Achilles return the body of Hector to his father so that it could be cremated royally. This idea was mirrored in another of Homer’s works, Odyssey. The Romans paid great heed and decorum to every aspect of cremation. One cremation tradition that was not unheard of for the Romans to call a temporary truce in the midst of battle so that the dead could be given proper ceremonial tribute. The Romans would cover the funeral pyre with leaves and front it with cypresses. Once the fire was started, fellow troops circled it, shouting war crimes and casting trophies taken from their slain enemies into the fire. The blood of animals was poured on the flames, and when the fires were put out, the remaining bones were washed in wine and placed in urns.
Every culture carries its own beliefs regarding the social custom of cremation tradition. Eastern beliefs tend to vary greatly from western beliefs, and the process of cremation is no exception. Hindu beliefs are centered on what lies ahead, and therefore the act of cremating the deceased has to do with releasing the soul from its’ earthly bonds so that it may be offered to the gods. Hindus believe that the human body is a combination of bones from the seed of the father and blood from the mother. Once the body is formed, the soul of a human being enters the person through the suture of the cranium. The heat of the womb is thought to be the catalyst by which all elements come together and form a human being. Conversely, the human spirit is separated from its earthly form through the heat of the funeral pyre. The process of cremation allows for the release of the “self” or eternal spirit so that it may free itself and be the last sacrifice to the gods.
The Buddhist culture holds the belief that the identity of a being is not constrained to one existence but moves from one life to the next. Based on the concept of karma, or the merit accrued during the extent of one’s life, a person will continue on after their physical form has long since expired. It is this very reason that made the practice of cremation suitable to the Indian culture. The act of burning the human form so that the eternal spirit can be released and allowed to move on to the next life was a logical and acceptable method of passing. It also stands to reason that that the process itself completes a cycle that is equally logical.
It was during the fifth century C.E. that the practice of cremation tradition became less commonplace. During this time social and religious factors played a large part in the transition from cremation to earthly interments, and especially those that utilized burial coffins or caskets. The concept of an earthly burial followed suit to that of the burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This practice continued on through the centuries and served as a symbol of religious respect and homage. It was during the late 1930’s that the act of cremation took on a very different and negative stigma. When Adolph Hitler began disposing of the bodies of his victims by mass burial, burning them by the hundreds and thousands, the idea of cremation lost all respectability and decency. As more and more information emerged concerning the disposal of millions of people within Hitler’s concentration camps, the idea of cremation no longer held much of the sacred significance it once had. The Holocaust can be attributed to the mass decline of cremations throughout the centuries.
Throughout history cremation tradition has played an important role in establishing social customs and traditions. Early history shows that cremation was a form of sanitation, preventing the spread of fatal diseases. At the same time cremation was associated with valor and patriotism on the battlefield, and a just ending to an epic life. Later cremation lost stature with the likes of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Charlemagne, and the atrocious acts of Adolf Hitler. As it stands today, the practice of cremation is commonplace and socially accepted by society. It is a personal choice and has become very widely accepted in our present state.