The modern Cremation movement in America sprang from a sanitary necessity – concerns with overcrowded cemeteries and decomposing bodies infecting the survivors and contaminating water sources; but over time, as the embalming process evolved, and with the advent of medicine into everyday practice, the need for Cremation as a means of sanitation after death dwindled. With these aspects, the sanitary necessity argument in favor of Cremation was easily defeated.
In America, Cremation began under the tutelage of reform societies, but passed into the hands of enterprising businessmen – unlike in the United Kingdom and many European countries like Germany and the Czech Republic where the Cremation movement became a concern of municipal authorities. From Cremation’s modern revival in the U.S. in 1874 and into the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, Cremationists focused on the technical aspects of Cremation – and on the building and operation of Crematories. After this, however, in about the mid-1920’s, Cremationists began promoting the aesthetics of Cremation over burial: the brightness of the flame versus the darkness of the grave; the purity of fire versus the pollution of dirt; the view of “self” in spiritual terms versus the vanity of “self” in material terms; refinement versus vulgarity; science versus superstition; innovation versus tradition. Many of these ideas were clearly echoes of the sanitary debate but with a certain aesthetic charm.
Have you noticed the same sentiment among those choosing Cremation at your funeral home? A fellow funeral director told me recently that he sees people in his area choosing Cremation based on economic necessity – but I would hazard the guess that perceived economy is the lesser reason in most areas with high rates of Cremation. Simplicity, environmental concerns, and just sheer preference are other important reasons people are choosing Cremation for themselves or their loved ones. It is also important to point out that many who choose Cremation aren’t doing so as a disposal – and the early partisans of the Cremation movement never intended Cremation to be disposal.
Personally, I have seen as many, if not more, beautiful expressions and meaningful tributes associated with Cremation services than with burial services. The freedom from being tied to the body tends to put the emphasis on the memory – the spiritual or ethereal part of death, rather than the material aspect. Above all, however, I have witnessed that the rites associated are no less meaningful and appropriate than the traditional funeral service followed by burial.
As we are two years into the second decade of the twenty-first century, and a good portion of the world is “virtual” and “electronic” – perhaps it is only part of the progression of life that thoughts are centered less on things seen and more on things unseen with deathcare practices as well. Beauty and light were two words frequently used by historic Cremationists to describe not just the practice of Cremation, but also their methods of memorializing those who chose Cremation. Perhaps if we continue to exude this same beauty and light to the families we serve, they can see those same qualities in the life of those they love, and thus perceive value in creating a beautiful memorial to those who have gone before.
At least, that’s my perspective…