As published in The Dead Beat, Early Spring, 2017
I was asked many years ago by my friend and historic crematory photographer Dan Baker about the connection of the shape of cremation urns and, more specifically, why they are traditionally in the vase shape. I admit that, while I can recognize the difference in manufacturers of urns almost instantly, and I know how many twists of the hand open a typical modern brass urn or even an antique bronze urn, and though I have seen almost every urn that was manufactured as an urn since cremation’s modern revival in 1876, I did not have the answer.
Desiring this knowledge, I began to seek avenues to learn the specific answer only to find that I am apparently the only person to have sought this information. While I have still not found any precise answer, I have formed a hypothesis based on knowledge acquired over years of research on the subject.
Firstly, ancient cinerary urns in the traditional vase shape have been discovered in many ancient Asian civilizations, some dating as far as 2000 years BCE. In ancient western culture, Greek customs indicate urns in the vase shape were used to store cremated remains, while the Romans favored highly-sculptured cinerary chests that were placed in columbaria, though they also were known to use the vase shape.
With this information, I arrived at my next realization: the influence of the classic Greek vase on today’s modern cinerary containers. Typically Greek vases were created in terra cotta or bronze, the former often found with images in red and black painted on their surfaces.
Three types of Greek vases are arguably the most common. The Krater, classified in bell, volute, and calyx shapes, is one of the most recognizable of the Grecian vases and was most often used for mixing and diluting wine. The Amphora, most commonly in shapes known as neck and belly, with large vertical handles, a narrow base, and cover, was used for storage of grain and wine. The Stamnos, probably the least-known style of Greek vase, characterized by its narrow footed base, wide mouth, horizontal handles, and cover, was used as a wine vessel. This last vase, the Stamnos, is the most akin to today’s modern cremation urn, and all three styles have been used as cinerary containers.
With all my research, even into the beginning of cremation’s modern revival in western society, it seems that the containers used to hold cremated remains were not always designed for that specific purpose, but were in fact common vessels used in everyday life. It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that the business of making urns became a business at all – and even then, the mantel of their creation was taken up by companies who created household items.
So it seems that there is no precise answer as to the original idea of form for cinerary urns. It is true, though, that the decorative vases that, even to the present day, represent the sacred vessels used to contain the mortal remains of our loved ones have always been utilized for two common reasons: functionality and inherent beauty.
The poet John Keats concurred with the beauty of the form of an ancient urn in his poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” He ends his well-known poem with the urn’s symbolism that will outlast time, writing “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
I’m inclined to share that perspective.