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Burning Questions

It’s an interesting question, but it’s not often asked: “When did cremation begin?” The earliest burials we know of go back tens of thousands of years. The ancient bones are found intact inside caves or beneath the earth in a deliberately dug grave.

That kind of burial is the obvious and natural one: a corpse is the last earthly reminder of someone who was loved during life, so it must be treated with respect, but it’s also something that turns ugly and dangerous sooner or later. We are instinctively revolted by the smell and appearance of rotting flesh, because the bacteria breeding there can cause sickness and even death.

So it was obvious and natural for ancient human beings to place the corpse of a loved one somewhere it could rot safely: inside a cave or under the ground. The dead person’s soul had departed and their abandoned flesh would now return to the earth that had nourished it during life. It was a cycle that ancient human beings could see all around them among animals, and the gods or spirits surely intended that human beings should be part of the cycle too.

Cremation changed all that. The idea of burning a corpse isn’t obvious or natural. It breaks the cycle of nature, preventing dead flesh from decaying slowly and silently. Instead, it reduces a dead body to ashes quickly and spectacularly, with leaping flames and crackling wood. Where did the idea of doing that come from? Even today the adherents of some religions, like Islam and Judaism, find cremation disturbing and even horrific, because their holy texts and traditions teach that cremation is wrong. We can understand that point of view even if we don’t agree with it. Adherents of Hinduism, for example, think that cremation is the proper way to treat a dead body.

And the roots of Hinduism go back very deep into the past. The religion may preserve traditions and practices from the days from which the first evidence of cremation has survived. Urns containing the ashes of dead people have been found in graves dating back to about 3000 BC, at the beginning of what is called the Stone Age. That seems a long time ago, but modern humans had been around for nearly 200,000 years by then. They had been using fire all that time and burying their dead with special rituals for much of it, but they hadn’t combined the two.

In other words, cremation is an advanced concept, something that must have arisen from complex and sophisticated religious ideas. Humans must have begun to think about fire in a new way. Perhaps they thought that burning a dead body was a way of allowing the soul of the departed person to fly into heaven and live inside the sun. Perhaps they decided that the gods didn’t intend humans to rot as animals, creating bad smells and leaving an ugly mess of bones, hair and fingernails. Cremation is clean and quick and the ashes it leaves behind aren’t ugly or any kind of reminder of a human body. It’s a decisive way of saying: Humans are different!

That’s why cremation probably begun among the most important members of an ancient society, before spreading down the social scale. It requires organization and effort: there is wood to collect and build into a pyre. There has to be supervision of the fire once it starts, so that it doesn’t go out and so that it burns in the right way. Cremation is more complicated than simple burial. So perhaps it begun first for kings before spreading to commoners. These are questions that are still to be answered and they make cremation a fascinating process.