The first evidence of cremation in the archaeological record dates to approximately 20,000 B.C. in Mungo Lake, Australia. In the Middle East and Europe, there is evidence of cremation as early as the Neolithic period, approximately 9500 BC.
Early Persians practiced cremation, which was later prohibited in the Zoroastrian period, approximately 600 BC. In Zoroastrian scripture, a body is a host for decay and fire was considered sacred. The Phoenicians practiced cremation approximately 1100 BC, burying the ashes in a trench with the urn on one side and household furnishings on the other. The Greeks practiced cremation from 3000 BC until about 1200 BC when new Christian burial practices emerge. Romans also practiced cremation, typically associated with military honors, upper class citizens, and imperial family members, but by approximately 400 AD, inhumation was more common.
Evidence of European cremation practices date to approximately 3000 BC (the Stone Age), and more and more common in the Bronze Age, as evidenced by finds of pottery urns in Western Russia. Early German people also practiced cremation, but this died out as their Anglo-Saxon descendants converted to Christianity. During the Middle Ages, cremation was forbidden by law and in some cases, punishable by death. Frequently, it was used punitively by governing bodies, particularly burning at the stake. However, during the plague, mass cremations were carried out for fear of contamination to living people.
Indian religions, such as Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism, prescribe open-air cremations as the body is seen as a means of carrying the soul. This began approximately 1900 BC, based on the vedic believe that the god of fire receives sacrificial offerings on behalf of all the gods.
In 1874, the first Cremation Society was founded in England by Sir Henry Thompson, surgeon to Queen Victoria. Two crematories were built, one in England and one in Germany, and shortly thereafter one in Manchester, Glasgow, and Liverpool. Formal legislation permitting cremation in England and Wales followed with the Cremation Act of 1902. In Australia, the first crematory was built in 1901 and was in full operation until the late 1950’s. Also in 1874 the Association for Optional Cremation was founded in the Netherlands, but prohibitive laws were not removed until 1915, and cremation was not legally recognized until 1955.
At first the Roman Catholic Church was cautious about cremation because it believed the body to be an instrument with which to receive the sacraments, but in 1963 Pope Paul VI lifted the ban and later allowed Catholic priests to officiate at cremation ceremonies in 1966.
Cremation has come a long way since Mungo Lake, and currently the cremation in the state of New Hampshire hovers around 60% and nationwide, approximately 40%. In Japan and Tawain, the current cremation rate is approximately 99%.