Cremation: historical attitudes to human remains


UK – From 18th century religious battles over the revival of cremation to colouring tattoo ink with ashes, Thomas Laqueur on how attitudes to human remains have changed.

Cremation of the dead was the norm in the first century AD and the exception by the fourth. No one has explained why, although everyone agrees that it was not, as was long thought, due to the rise of Christianity. It is true that some early Christians had objections to cremation, and that their pagan opponents associated their strange Christian belief in resurrection with a need to put the dead body into the ground. But there were no theological grounds to believe that the prospects of a happy afterlife had anything to do with whether a body was burned or buried, or eaten by a lion. Besides, the new religion was too small to have had so great an influence on funerary practices so early on.

By the time of Charlemagne, in the ninth century, inhumation had become the mark of the Christian way of disposing of the dead, and cremation was associated with the pagans. The emperor insisted that the newly Christianised Germanic tribes abandon their fiery pyres. By the 11th century, in all of Europe – and much earlier in some places – the only proper place for a dead body was in a churchyard. Exclusion from burial in sacred ground and from priestly rites was understood as the most terrible consequence of excommunication or suicide. Only heretics, witches and other miscreants of the worst sort were burned – alive, not dead – and their ashes scattered, to symbolise the eradication of the evil they represented.

It made no difference to the first 18th-century proponents of cremation how and why the world of antiquity gave up burial. For more than a millennium it had been the Christian way of caring for the dead body. Fire and ash thus took their place on the frontline of the culture. The embracing of cremation again in the 18th and 19th centuries was a way of honouring the classical world and rejecting the new one that had supplanted it. Frederick the Great, always ready to show his philosophical hand, supposedly asked that he be “burned in the Roman fashion”. Of course, that didn’t happen; he even failed to be buried as he had wanted – with his dogs, in the grounds of Sanssouci. But one of his aunts fared better: in 1752, she was cremated “for aesthetic reasons”. It may have been the first documented cremation in the west in modern history.

Cremation is on the side of progress

Cremation in its neoclassical inflection was on the side of progress in the sense of a return to a long-gone and better time. But it was not necessarily on the side of revolution, secularism, materialism and the new cult of reason. Jacob Grimm, the philologist and collector of fairytales, in his address to the Berlin Academy in 1849, made the case that the advent of cremation in preclassical antiquity had represented a step forward in the spiritual or mental cultivation of a people: the use of fire distinguished humans from animals. He argued that it coincided with the advent of religion: spiritlike fire rises to heaven, whereas flesh is earthbound; burnt sacrifices were a way of connecting humans and the gods. Broadly speaking, there were “aesthetic merits of a fiery grave”. But cremation is practical as well, Grimm continued: ashes are easier to transport. And it is rational: fire does quickly what earth does slowly. Finally, he said simply, to burn the dead was to honour antiquity. In other words, cremation is on the side of progress. But he did not go on to draw the conclusion, as others would, that burial – dank, morbid, the quintessence of baroque darkness – is therefore retrograde. Nor did he think that a return to ancient practices would be easy: burial was too embedded in the Christian symbolic system of the sleeping dead, and their eventual rising into a life everlasting, for that.

An alternative to Christian burial

In 1794, burning the dead took on new meaning. After 1,000 years in which all the dead – excluding heretics – were buried, Jacobin revolutionaries in France reintroduced public cremation to Europe: an explicitly public alternative to Christian burial. More precisely, they produced the first full-scale, Roman republic–style cremation in almost 2,000 years, and the first cremation of any sort in France for 1,000.

The 18th-century body in question was that of Charles Nicolas Beauvais de Préau, a doctor, member of the national assembly from the department of the Seine, and, at the time of his death, the representative of the Convention to the politically divided city of Toulon. After a royalist takeover, he was put in prison; there he fell mortally ill. When Toulon was retaken by the armies of the Convention in late December 1793 – the siege of Toulon was one of Napoleon’s first great moments – De Préau was too sick to travel back to Paris and was moved instead to Montpellier. There he died, on 28 March 1794.

The following day, the revolutionary municipal government reinvented cremation: the body of this “martyr of liberty would be cremated in a civil ceremony”, it announced, “and his ashes gathered in an urn which would be conveyed to the Convention” in Paris. In what is almost an act of historical enactment, De Préau’s body was laid on an old-fashioned wood-fuelled pyre, which might have been seen in The Iliad or the Rome of Cato. The flames took all day, and well into the night, to consume the body. The next morning, the ashes were collected and taken first to the local Temple of Reason – the site since 1793 of the explicitly anti-Christian Cult of Reason and its festivals – and from there sent on to the capital, to be ensconced in the national archives.

The legalisation of cremation in 1795

The link between cremation, on the one hand, and support for an alternative to Christianity (that is, the Cult of Reason), on the other, became even more explicit when the law of 21 Brumaire in the year IV made cremation legal on 11 November 1795. Its political bite was clear: “Whereas the greater part of the people in antiquity burnt their dead,” begins the decree, and whereas “this practice was abolished, or in any case fell into disuse, only because of religious influences” – read Christianity – it would now become available again as part of an effort to create a new national cult of the dead and to discredit the old one.

Never mind that the law of 21 Brumaire got its history wrong: Christianity had not caused the decline of Roman cremation. The fact that men of the Enlightenment and revolution believed that it had was enough to make reinstating cremation both an anticlerical protest and a neoclassical alternative to long-established practice. It also set the stage for the battles of the next century.

In 1796, the Convention solicited ideas for the reform of funeral rites, intended to make them less dependent on the church. Père-Lachaise, the new kind of space for the dead, was a product of this cultural ferment; many harebrained schemes that were suggested came to nothing. Cremation stood in between. Having been made legal – or rather, having entered the cognisance of civil law – for the first time in Europe in 1796, as part of the cultural reform programme of the Directory, it could be made illegal when political winds shifted. The Third Republic made cremation legal again in 1889: the laicisation of the dead.

At issue in all this was not a particular view of the consequences of cremation versus burial; cleanliness, which loomed so large in later debates and in contemporary arguments for closing churchyards, played almost no part. Nor did materialist philosophy – there was no interest in technology. Cremation was meant to strike a blow at a 1,000-year-old community of the dead buried in sacred ground, and to offer a historically based alternative. The reasons the church opposed it are clear. But even Louis-Sébastien Mercier, the dramatist who opposed cremation on ecological grounds, disliked it for aesthetic and sociological reasons: the pyres were hateful; the flames were cadaverous; and the private sepulchres made possible by having one’s dead grandfather and uncle in urns that could be put in the cupboard were “an affront to the calm and repose of society”.

Later, the same image was used to make the opposite case. Ferdinando Coletti, a distinguished Italian medical academic and liberal reformer, reflected on the French experience. Having the urns of one’s relatives at home would exercise “a very healthy influence on the morality of the individual”; they would become a “sanctuary of the family, which is the eternal base of social order”. This makes a would-be collection of ashes seem like a Chinese ancestral altar. The remains of the dead call the living to imagine a moral order.

In the first few decades of modern cremation – from the 1870s to the late 1890s – the necrogeography of ashes mattered less than the process of making them in the first place. Recreating the republican funeral pyres of antiquity was associated with revolutionary anti-clericalism and neoclassicism. Employing hi-tech methods married that pedigree to progress, materialism and reason.

The Italian pioneers of cremation

Nowhere was cremation more politically and religiously charged than in Italy. The Italian pioneers of cremation were doctors, scientists, progressives, Positivists; they were republicans and supporters of the Risorgimento; they were anti-clerical. Most important – or rather, representing all these ills, from the perspective of the church – they were Freemasons. For religious conservatives, Masonry connected the French revolution and all its sins with the rebirth of cremation in the second half of the 19th century. The pope had condemned it first in 1738, and did so again many times after that. More pointedly, the Abbé Barruel’s widely translated and immensely influential history of Jacobinism argued that the revolution itself could be summed up as a Masonic conspiracy: “what evil is there not to be feared” from them, “deists, atheists, sceptics”, begetters of “Liberty and Equality”, plotters all?

The Masonic lodges of Italy, especially of Milan and Turin, provided an institutional infrastructure for the advocacy of cremation, as well as for the invention of new rituals and for construction of purpose-built crematoria. Jacob Salvatore Morelli, one of the main early publicists for cremation, was a freethinker, feminist, campaigner for more liberal divorce laws, and a Mason. The minister of the interior who gave permission for the first legal cremation in Italy, on 22 January 1876, was a Freemason, and so was Alberto Keller, the German Lutheran businessman who was cremated. He had died two years earlier and been embalmed, in the hope that when technology reached an advanced enough stage he could be cremated. Before a great concourse of worthies, and in an up-to-date crematorium modelled on a Roman temple, Keller finally got his wish. His ashes were placed in a tomb that he had had built in the Protestant part of Milan’s municipal cemetery. There, according to the New York Times, it was visited by “great numbers of Milanese who are desirous of looking upon the ashes of one who had been the originator of an epoch in the civilised world”.

Giuseppe Garibaldi, 1866, photo from wikipedia, public domain

Giuseppe Garibaldi, 1866, photo from wikipedia, public domain

Giuseppe Garibaldi, representative of populist democratic nationalism in the wars that led to a united Italy – and a Masonic grand master – wanted to be cremated, too. For him it would be one last blow against the clerical establishment whose hold on the dead, he thought, was the foundation of its power. He wanted to go in the style of republican Rome, and had no interest in proving the hygienic virtues of the technologically advanced furnace, or in the politics of funeral reform. The great man had left his widow precise instructions for the size of the old-fashioned pyre (no modern coke or gas oven for him), the kind of wood to be used, and the disposal of his ashes: they were to be put in an urn and placed near his daughters’ graves.

Like a Roman gentleman, he wanted to rest with his family. The ceremony was to take place privately, and before his death was announced.

But no one was interested in following Garibaldi’s wishes. Burning him on a Roman pyre would clearly be a snub to the church. When he died, in 1882, cremation was legal only under special circumstances. The so-called Crispi Laws of 1888 – named after Francesco Crispi, the Garibaldian, decidedly leftist, strongly anti-clerical Italian prime minister – made cremation generally legal and mandated access to ashes to state-supervised cemeteries. As for the rest of Garibaldi’s wishes, they represented, to almost everyone, the hero’s posthumous refusal of one last public service to the secular state. No one was for it, not even the cremation societies, which distanced themselves from the young widow. In the end, Garibaldi went to his grave with great civic pomp; his dead body lying in wait for six weeks while his followers quarrelled.


A show of human power in the face of death

The church forbade membership of cremation societies and the demanding of cremation for oneself or for others – not as acts contrary to dogma, but as acts hostile to the church. Missionaries were never to condone the practice, but they could baptise high-caste Hindus on their deathbeds, even if they knew that they would have wished to be cremated. Meanwhile, a conservative Catholic journal understood cremation as hubris. The deceased “orders that his body become not dust, but ashes. It is he himself who imposes this destruction, not God … [He] escapes God’s authority and the duty to submit to him.” Death, it reminded readers, was inflicted on mankind to punish sin. Cremation was a show of human power in the face of death, a gesture at mastering the dead, even if mortality itself could not be mastered. Cremation self-consciously represented – much more than the cemetery had – the disruption of a cult of memory that Christianity had helped create and sustain. The author of the 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia summed up the case: cremation was making a “public profession of irreligion and materialism”. And so it was with variations elsewhere on the continent.

German progress and advocating hygiene

In Germany, the impetus for cremation came not from Freemasons’ lodges but from municipal and military doctors (advocates of hygiene), from working-class movements, and from others who wanted to align themselves with progress, with the forward march of history defined in a number of ways. The fact that some of the 19th century’s most hardline radical materialists – Moleschott and Vogt, among others – embraced cremation helped make it attractive to many on the left. In 1920, when one might think more consequential matters were at hand, a small debate took place between German communists and social democrats about whether members of cremation societies should be obliged to remove their children from religious instruction in public schools. Yes, argued the communists, because at stake was cultural revolution; half steps were not enough.

And indeed they weren’t when the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia. They very quickly took up the cause of cremation because it was both practical and scientific (“Side by side with the car, tractor, and electrification – make way for cremation,” read one poster), because it was a rejection of religion, and, perhaps most important, because it seemed to offer an alternative to the dangerous space of the cemetery, where citizens might create communities outside the socialist sphere. In 1927, the new revolutionary Russian cremation society would identify itself unabashedly as “militantly Godless”. The first crematorium in Moscow was built in 1927, on the site of the great Donskoi monastery, technology on the site of the old religion. (A pit within its walls would hold the ashes of cremated victims of Stalin’s purges.)

Socialists in Germany also aligned modern cremation with their freedom-loving ancestors who had burned their dead in the primeval forests. Progress was rooted in nostalgia. Those with “an ardent zeal for progress … might not be sorry to find from the records of history … that with the Teutonic race also cremation was once the ruling custom,” wrote Karl Blind, the German revolutionary and member of Marx’s circle since 1848 days.

Half a century earlier, the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814) had a strange utopian vision of Germany in the 22nd century, in which burning the dead had become a unifying ritual. Populist, free from aristocracy, and nationalist, the Christian churches in this Germany had all agreed among themselves to cremate their dead: the ashes of a soldier who had fallen in battle would be put in an urn and sent back to a sepulchre in his hometown, where it would be placed – along with his name – on the highest shelf; on a rung below would be the urns of those who had counselled the state wisely; then those of good householders, men and women, and their good children, all identified by name. On the lowest level would come the nameless, presumably those not brave, nor wise, nor good. Through this intensely local and intimate columbarium, Fichte was able to envision a new community of the dead, defined not by the churchyard or by old hierarchies, but by service to home, heart and nation.

Whichever appreciative interpretation of cremation one adopted in Germany, or elsewhere on the continent, the alternative was always clear: religious custom. Evangelical churches opposed the burning of the dead because of its association with socialism and radical materialism, its general disregard for religion, and its seeming lack of interest in communities of the dead rendered into ashes. In the Catholic south it was unthinkable. Priests were forbidden to give last rites to those who had asked that their bodies be cremated; ashes were excluded from burial in church cemeteries. It was beyond the pale. There could be no doubt what the mass membership of working-class socialists – not just in Germany, but in the Netherlands and Austria – signified.

Could ashes be buried in a Jewish cemetery?

For almost all Jewish authorities, cremation meant the same thing: apostasy. There were a few exceptions to the almost total rabbinic condemnation. When the chief rabbi of Rome, Hayim (Vittorio) Castiglioni, died in 1911, he was cremated and his ashes buried in the Jewish cemetery in Trieste. A Reform rabbi in the United States argued in 1891 that cremation was practised by the ancient people of Israel and it had fallen into abeyance only for practical or contingent reasons: wood was expensive, and burning bodies had become associated with execution at the stake, and thus had horrible associations. Modern cremation, on the other hand, was aesthetically attractive and avoided “the slow, loathsome dissolution of the body in a pit”, with all the attendant poisons in the air and water, and all the dangers to health that these created. Even most of his Reform colleagues demurred. And in Europe, the only real question was not whether it was lawful to cremate – the answer was no – but whether the ashes could be buried in a Jewish cemetery. This in turn raised a number of religious-legal issues. Were ashes a dead body? If so, were they ritually impure, and hence did they need to be dealt with properly? Did they require burial as did other bodies, no matter how sinful the deceased had been in asking to be cremated?

The resolution of the cremation question varied from place to place. The British burial society condemned cremation but permitted ritual care of the dead and burial in Jewish cemeteries; some rabbis in Germany allowed burial and prayers, but would not themselves see the body to the grave. In general, cremation emerged as a symbolically defining issue for modern Jewish communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and even more so after the Holocaust, a new litmus test for how far one could deviate from historical practices and remain Jewish. An astonishing percentage opted for modernity: in Frankfurt, Dresden, Hamburg, Nuremberg and Stuttgart, in Turin and Bologna, a higher proportion of Jews were cremated than were Protestants. Significant numbers chose cremation in Budapest and Vienna, too. Perhaps the Holocaust changed the calculus. (Although 10% of Israeli Jews today claim they want to be cremated, fewer than 100 availed themselves of Israel’s only crematorium, which opened in 2005 and was burned down by arsonists two years later.)

Opposition by the working classes

In Britain, neither anti-clericalism – battles over church rates and access to churchyards were essentially over – nor a strong revolutionary tradition, nor an explicit commitment to materialism had much to do with the advent of cremation. The organised working class was indifferent, if not affirmatively hostile, to it. The tone was set in 1874, by what a local newspaper called an “exciting demonstration” by women, from the humbler parts of town, against a motion before the West Hartlepool Improvement Commissioners. Instead of burning the dead – a “revolting idea” – the commissioners should spend their time providing “suitable burial-ground for their decent interment”.

The Labour party, unlike continental socialist parties, never took up the cause of cremation. Perhaps hostility to the Anatomy Act went too deep; smoke in a poorhouse chimney signalled a pauper body not decently buried. No writer in Britain was quite as outspoken as the widely read American freethinker Augustus Cobb, who saw in the history of burial the heavy hand of benighted clerisy: “by adroit management [the grave] became a connecting link between things seen and unseen, and was the most potent factor that the church possessed for retaining its hold over its prostrate votaries,” he wrote. Edward Gibbon had it right, Cobb thought, when in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire he scoffed at the late-imperial emperors, generals and consuls who, out of “superstitious reverence”, “devoutly visited the sepulchres of a tent maker and a fisherman”.

Cremation in the 19th and early 20th centuries was the cause of the cultural avant garde, the professional upper middle class allied with a sprinkling of aristocrats (the dukes of Bedford and Westminster, for example), hygiene specialists, Freemasons, eccentrics of various sorts – it was a Welsh Druid who legalised cremation – religious progressives, spiritualists and Romantic socialists such as Robert Blatchford, the Fabian follower of William Morris, who loved Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne-Buriall because it evoked a layered English deep time: archaeological remains of an ancestral and communal past. Set beside the bracing discourse of cleanliness, ecological efficiency, expertise and progress – cremation as a force in world history – there was in Britain a sense that it was also a way to allow everyone to imagine and care for their dead as they wished.

It gradually became acceptable, if not yet widespread. The first burial of cremated remains in Westminster Abbey was in 1905, 20 years after cremation became legal; that year, 99.9% of British men and women who died were buried. By the late 1960s, for the first time, more than half the dead in the UK were cremated; today, the proportion is around 70%. In the US the idea of cremation lost its strangeness more precipitously: in 1960, fewer than 4% of bodies were cremated; today the figure is around 44%.

Creative ways in which the living can abide with the dead

But as cremation has become more commonplace and unremarkable, it has also enabled new and wildly creative ways in which the living can abide with the dead. There are precedents. In the fourth century BC, the wife – also his sister – of King Mausolus of Halicarnassus loved him so much that not only did she build him a great tomb – the first mausoleum, and a wonder of the ancient world – she also ingested some of his ashes so that he would live within her.

Today there are endless possibilities. In rural Virginia a hunter I knew told me that he and his buddies took some of the ashes of a dead friend, loaded them in the black powder shells that he had made, and shot them into the forest air. The rest they put on a salt lick near their hunting cabin, so that the ashes could be ingested by the deer they might kill and eat some time in the future. (I am sure they came up with the first of these rituals themselves, and had not read about Hunter S Thompson’s funeral in 2005, when his ashes, along with red, white, blue and green fireworks, were fired into the air from a cannon.)

One woman told me that her grandmother’s ashes coloured the ink that she used for her tattoos; another, who had divorced her husband in large part because he was more interested in sex with himself than with her, that she had put his ashes next to a jar of Vaseline in her bathroom. The family of a professional photographer put his ashes into 35mm film cartridges and buried these all over the world, in places where he had worked.

It still matters in some circles today – as it did for those who revived cremation in the late 18th and 19th centuries – how we live with the dead.


Main image: The Funeral Rites of Auitzotl, photo from wikipedia, public domain