Ancient History

There are innumerable theories and stories about the origin of cremation and the practice of cremation as a means of disposal of dead bodies. Stories abound and it is indeed fascinating to see the various changes that have taken place in the area of cremation along with changing beliefs. Some believe that the finding of the Mungo Lady, the remains of a partly cremated body found at Mungo Lake, Australia was the first and therefore proclaim that cremation dates back at least 20,000 years.

There is another strong belief that cremation began in a real sense in the Stone Age, around 3000 B.C in Europe and Near East. In the last Stone Age it is believed to have spread across northern Europe. Moving to the British Isles in the Bronze Age (2500 to 1000 B.C) cremation slowly became popular in Spain and Portugal. Cemeteries later developed in Hungary and Northern Ireland.

Establishing strongly in the Mycenaean Age in the Grecian burial custom it was also embraced by the early Romans around 600 B.C. Alternating between burial and cremation one death ritual has been preferred over the other throughout history. In some places like Middle East and Europe both burial and cremation have been evident.

Hinduism and Cremation

It is to be noted that both Hinduism and Jainism prescribed cremation but did not practice the same. The Indus Valley Civilization saw the advent of the Cemetery H Culture around 1900 BCE in and around western Punjab region (presently located in India and Pakistan). The cemetery was located in “area H” at Harappa and was one of the three cultural phases developed in the Localization Era of the Indus Valley Civilization.Cremation, by some has been associated with fire sacrifice and human sacrifice.

The Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages cremation was forbidden by law and punishable with death and used as a punishment for heretics. For fear of spread of contagious diseases after battle, pestilence or famine mass cremations were also performed. The practice of cremation as a retribution continued into the modern times. This was seen when the bodies of 12 men convicted of war crimes in the Nuremberg Trials were cremated instead of being returned to their families and later disposed of at a secret location thus denying the use of the location as a memorial site. On the contrary in Japan the erection of a memorial building for the remains of executed war criminals was allowed.

The Modern Era

Cremation in the modern era found the support of Queen Victoria’s surgeon, Sir Henry Thompson, who founded the Cremation Society of Great Britain in 1874. Crematorium were then built in several parts – in 1878 in Woking, England and Gotha and in Germany, in North America in 1876 In 1886 ten cremations took place and crematoriums opened in Manchester in 1892, Glasgow in 1895 and in Liverpool in 1896. With the passing of the Cremation act of 1902 there were procedural requirements that were imposed which were to be followed before a cremation could take place. One of the social factors that influenced the widespread practice of cremation was the increase in the population of industrial towns and major cities, with cemeteries being unable to cope with the increase in volume of the dead. Burial of corpses near the surface of the ground was seen as a potential health risk and with ideas of progress and creativity there were even societies established in several cities to promote cremation. The acceptance of cremation in the modern era led to the building of ovens for the purpose of combustion of the bodies.

New Technology

With the emergence of cremation as a topic of academic interest with the turn of the twenty-first century, there were seen major technological advances. The machines like the cremulator which was principally meant for grinding larger bone fragments to dust were the breakthroughs in the field. The crematorium resembled church buildings in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Since then there have been great technological advances in crematoriums. The “Hot Hearth” which opened in the early 1980s allows the bottom of the machine to heat up from the hot gases underneath the hearth thus allowing the machine to maintain the higher temperature thus saving gas and reducing the impact on the environment. Today there are crematorium that are fully automated with PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) touch screens where the weight and name of the deceased have to be entered before “start” of operation. There are also crematoriums that use LPG as the primary fuel.

Journey after Death (A Vedic Perspective)

“BIRTH AND DEATH is the beginning and the end of earthly life, and no human being who has within him even a faint longing for the Truth can disregard the two important questions – how does life enter the physical body, and what becomes of it after death?” – Herbert Volkmann

There are several sacred texts in India which speak about the theory that the way one leads one’s life decides one’s fate after death. In the Hindu tradition Agni the lord of fire being the center of all ritualistic celebrations, offerings are made to Agni and these are consumed and transformed by the same Agni. The last ritewhich is the final sacrificial fire ritual performed after the death of the individual is believed to establish the person well in the afterlife. In the Vedic times there was also a belief that cremating the body helped in returning the physical remains of the person back to nature as smoke and ashes. Afterlife thus depends to some extent on the performance of the correct rituals.

Circumstances of the Human Body after Death

Hindu Death Rituals and Beliefs:

There are strong beliefs in the Upanishadic teachings that propound the giving up of one’s desires in order to escape the ceaseless cycle of birth and death – Samsara. This belief further propounds that the soul has the capability and the means to break free of the constant cycle of birth, death and rebirths. The outer or gross bosy is seen to fall away and the subtle body composed of the karmic tendencies, knowledge, mind etc. also begins to disappear. The soul or jiva after death remains near the body and later departs from the body entering into a temporarily delightfulexistence until it takes on a new physical body as per its karmic inclinations.

In the Hindu culture the time of death of a person is given great importance. There is therefore great emphasis on assisting the person in the crossover to the other realm and therefore the need for the rites and rituals. The manner in which the body is disposed off is also very significant in this respect.

The two most common funeral rites adapted are cremation and burial. Hinduism requires that bodies be cremated at the earliest unless the deceased is a child who less than three years old.

Spiritual research has examined the effect of modern types of funeral practices from the view point of helping one’s ancestors in the afterlife. The two predominant methods of disposal of the human body as per the Hindu religion and custom as we know are Burial and Cremation. Here we look at the Spiritual Effect of burial and cremation as per the Vedas.

At the time of death the body expels excretory gases which are regular physical gases like putrefying gases etc. The frequencies and vibrations are negative in nature which increases the tama component in the immediate environment. These in turn attract the negative energies to the dead body. With this in the background the various methods of disposal have evolved in the Hindu tradition.

Spiritual Effect of Cremation

The cremation ritual is not meant just for the disposal of the human body but means much more in the religious and spiritual context. It is meant to help release the soul from the bosy as well as ensure the peaceful passage of the soul to the other world. There is a strong belief among Hindus that cremation is far more beneficial to the soul than burial. This is based on the theory that the ‘astral body’ will remain lingering as long as the physical body remains in sight. This would lead to the soul remaining for a few days or months which is not considered conducive to achieve liberation from samsara.

From a spiritual perspective, the goal of a funeral rite is to:

  • Reduce the ill-effects of negative forces and to ensure that negative forces do not go near the body of the deceased.
  • The ritual should aid the subtle body in shaking off its bonds to the physical body.
  • To make the subtle body light and give it the momentum in its upward journey in the afterlife.

From a spiritual perspective the cremation method is believed to have the following benefits as per the sequence of events.

  1. The process itself is meant to be performed at the earliest and before sunset. This is meant to minimize the possibility of any negative forces approaching the body after death when the body is most susceptible.
  2. By the process of cremation which is accompanied by the lighting of the funeral pyre and the recitation of mantras, the five vital energies, sub-vital energies and excretory gases in the corpse are expelled and they disintegrate in the atmosphere.
  3. It is believed that as the body burns on the pyre a subtle protective sheath is formed around the body by the fire element and the reciting of mantras thus further protecting it from any negative forces.
  4. Since there is complete disintegration of the five vital elements and sub-vital elements any bond that may have existed between the subtle body and the physical body is broken.
  5. The fire along with the mantras destroys any rajasic or tamasic tendencies that the body had and provides a protective sheath around the body. The subtle body thus cleansed becomes lighter and more sathvik in nature. It has now gained the necessary momentum for its onward journey to the other realm.

The Environment Perspective of Cremation versus Burial

People weigh the consequences of different forms of funeral rites and methods. An analysis of cremation done scientifically has shown that it meets most of the criteria of an effective funeral rite whereas burial has been found to be wanting in several respects as far as Hindu rituals and beliefs are concerned. It is believed in the Hindu culture that people who have led relatively good lives, by the very act of burial increase their chances of being affected by negative forces in the afterlife. Burial is also a source of environmental contaminants, with the ‘casket’ or ‘coffin’ itself being the major contaminant. The other concern with burial is that of radioisotopes that may enter the body before or after death although cremation does not seem to take care of this aspect either. Cremation is found to return the radioisotopes quickly back to the environment.

The other concern about burial is that it seems to take up a lot of space. In traditional burial the body is buried in a casket or coffin which is made of different types of material. All this requires space and even many big cities have run out of permanent space. Therefore there has been the need for an alternate and that is the present day crematorium.

The spiritual angle is indeed important in the decision making process. From a purely environmental point of view there have been several controversies surrounding cremation. This has led to the modern day crematorium consisting of one or more cremulator furnaces.

Open air cremations are becoming less frequent in urban areas. There are crematoriums in most major cities, which are in effect indoor electric or gas based furnaces. Most cremations take place in these indoor crematoriums.

Hindu Cremation – Its Impact and Future:

The estimate is that about seven million Hindus die each year and most of the bodies are cremated traditionally. There is another estimate that eight million tonnes of carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases are emitted from Hindu funeral pyres every year. There is growing concern about the smoke arising from these outdoor crematoriums as they are seen as a major health hazard and the wood consumed by these crematoriums lead to the felling and use of a large number of trees. Around 50 to 60 million trees are being consumed every year. The Hindu religious customs and ceremonies around the disposal of the body are seen as a threat to the living according to environmentalists. These are not the only pollutants; there is the large quantity of ash that comes from these funeral pyres that are later thrown into the rivers thereby increasing the toxicity of the waters.

To tackle all these problems the Government and Environmental groups have promoted the use of crematoriums, which use LPG as the primary fuel.

These developments have been welcomed by many as these help retain tradition while still protecting the environment while being viable solutions as they are cost effective. It allows the Hindus to perform all the rites that they are meant to.

Modern Cremation Process

Cremation is meant to reduce the dead body to 3-7 pounds of bone fragments and other organic and inorganic compounds. Cremation is performed in a cremation chamber which is in a crematorium and this may have many cremation chambers.

Modern cremulators are capable of generating temperatures of 870–980 °C (1,598–1,796 °F) and they ensure quick disintegration of the corpse. Coal and coke were used until the early 1960s and modern day crematoriums have been using natural gas and propane as the fuel. There is also widespread use of LPG as the primary fuel in these crematoriums and they have adjustable control systems that monitor the interiors and the furnace shuts down automatically when the process is complete. The time needed for cremation in these modern crematoriums varies from body to body and is roughly about one hour per 45 Kilograms (99 lb.) of the weight.

Cremation furnaces are not made to cremate more than one body at a time unless it is the bodies of a mother and her still born child / children in which case all the bodies are placed in the same cremation container.

The body is placed in a container called the retort which is lined with heat- resistant refractory bricks. The container with the body has to be inserted into the retort quickly to ensure that there is no heat loss from the top-opening door. The latest crematoriums are computer-controlled to ensure that is legal and safe. Also the retort door cannot be opened until the crematory has come to its operating temperature. The modern day crematoria also allow relatives to view the charging. This is done for religious reasons especially for traditional Hindu and Jain funerals.