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Ancient Cremation vs Modern Cremation: Part I

The practice of transforming a corpse into inorganic elements with the help of fire is a Western world technique is often traced back to the ancient Greeks , around 1,000 BC. Later on, the Romans took notice and embraced the ritual, where the term we use today originates from the Latin cremare, which means ‘to burn up.’ In this article, you will learn how the methods of cremation have changed over the centuries.

The practice of cremation is not a Greek idea, as anthropologists have found evidence that points back to early tribes that lived in northern Europe. Early cremations, including the ones done in Greece, did not hold any religious significance. They allowed inhabitants to deal with their dead in a practical manner. This especially came in handy during times of battle, as cremation allowed dead heroes to return to their home weeks or months after their death when they were slain on foreign soil. This act permitted families and the community to hold a national funeral with their remains in attendance. The battlefield served as a site for the incineration of corpses. The ashes were gathered up and either placed in individual urns for the troops to transport or delivering back home in one sitting by the fastest messenger. Since there was no other way to preserve a body, cremation was the only choice for the ancient people to save the dead.

Ground burials were held for the majority of Greek and Roman citizens, but cremation quickly became linked to an end filled with virtue, patriotism, and valor. Members of the military believed that cremation was an acceptable and desired means of burial. There were also many different levels of cremation pertaining to heroes. The most revered heroes were honored with grand blazes. The Iliad mentions many elaborate cremations, which includes Hector, Patroclus, and the leader of the Trojan War, the infamous Achilles.

It didn’t take long for the Romans to learn that cremation could prove rather profitable. However, not everyone was in agreement with the practice of conducting a cremation without any religious reason or ceremonial cause. Virgil called the practice ‘tasteless’ in the Aeneid. He did approve of using selected twigs, dried leaves, and dead cypresses to create a fire for cremation that allows mourners to encircle the pyre and let their prayerful cries be heard.

Even in the afterlife, status symbols were alive and well. The kind of cremation you received was comparable to your position in life , from small flames to blazing infernos.   

The ancient Romans started to sell expensive urns to families who had just lost a loved one so they could hold the ashes of the dead. Some people started renting space in a columbarium for the storage of urns. Another moneymaking scheme of the past was to sell vases decorated with jewels and other embellishments to catch the tears of mourners, which were entombed alongside the dead.