Scholars today quite generally agree that cremation probably began in any real sense during the early Stone Age — around 3000 B.C. — and most likely in southern Europe and the Near East. During the late Stone Age cremation began to spread across northern Europe, as evidenced by particularly informative finds of decorative pottery urns in western Russia among the Slavic peoples.
With the advent of the Bronze Age — 2500 to 1000 B.C. — cremation moved into the British Isles and into what is now Spain and Portugal. Cemeteries for cremation developed in Hungary and northern Italy, spreading to northern Europe, and even Ireland.
In the Mycenaean Age — around 1000 B.C. — cremation became an integral part of the elaborate Grecian burial custom. In fact, it became the dominant mode of disposition by the time of Homer in 800 B.C. and was actually encouraged for reasons of health and for the expedient burial of slain warriors.
Following this Grecian trend, the early Romans probably embraced cremation some time around 600 B.C., and it apparently became so prevalent that an official decree had to be issued in the mid 5th Century against the cremation of bodies within the city.
By the time of the Roman Empire — 27 B.C. to 395 A.D. — cremation was widely practiced. During this period, cremated remains were generally stored in elaborate urns, and often placed within columbarium-like buildings.
Though prevalent among the Romans, cremation was rare with the early Christians, who considered it pagan, and in the Jewish culture, where traditional sepulcher entombment was preferred.
By 400 A.D., however, as a result of Constantine’s Christianization of the Empire and the Christian belief in the physical resurrection of the body, earth burial had completely replaced cremation except for rare instances of plague or war. For the next 1,500 years, earth burial remained the accepted mode of disposition throughout Europe.
The modern cremation process is relatively recent development, and has been used for only a little over a century. When Professor Brunetti of Italy perfected a cremation chamber, and displayed it at the 1873 Vienna Exposition, the modern cremation movement began. In the British Isles, the movement was fostered by Queen Victoria’s surgeon, Sir Henry Thompson. Concerned with hazardous health conditions, Sir Henry and his colleagues founded the Cremation Society of England in 1874. The first crematories in Europe were built in 1878 in Woking, England and Gotha, Germany.
In North America, the modern cremation movement began in 1876 when Dr. Julius LeMoyne built the first crematory in Pennsylvania.
For most of its history, the Roman Catholic Church has opposed the practice of cremation. In fact, until the 1960’s, the Church banned the practice of modern cremation; even today, the Church officially prefers traditional earth burials. Despite this preference, cremation is now permitted, so long as the practice is not intended to express a refusal to believe in the resurrection of the body. Until 1997, Church regulations stipulated that cremation was to take place after the Mass of Christian Burial ritual.
The Church does specify requirements for the disposition of ashes, so long as the ashes are treated reverently, and buried or entombed in an appropriate container. The Church does not permit the scattering of ashes or keeping them at home. Even today, some of the more traditional members of the Roman Catholic Church have objected to the practice of allowing cremation.
Some branches of Christianity still oppose cremation. The Eastern Orthodox Church forbids cremation. Exceptions are made for circumstances where it may not be avoided (e.g., when civil authority demands it). Cremation may also be allowed if the Eastern Orthodox Church allows for an exception, which can only be granted for good cause. When a cremation is willfully chosen without good cause, the deceased is not permitted a funeral in the church, and may also be permanently excluded from liturgical prayers for the departed. In Orthodoxy, cremation is a rejection of the dogma of the general resurrection, and as such is viewed harshly.