The History of Cremation

While today there are debates about whether burial or cremation is a preferred method for disposal of a body, these death rituals have risen and fallen in popularity throughout history.

The Earliest Instance of Cremation

The archaeological record cites the Mungo Lady, the approximately 20,000 year-old remains of a partly cremated body found near Australia's Lake Mungo, as one of the world's oldest known cremations. This 1969 finding shows that cremation, as well as complex burial rituals, might have existed in early human societies.

The Spread of Cremation

Despite this finding, today's scholars generally agree that cremation most likely began in Europe and the Near East around 3000 B.C. during the Stone Age. Evidence like decorative pottery urns has been found suggesting the spread of cremation across northern Europe during the Stone Age among the Slavic people of western Russia.

From 2500 to 1000 B.C., cremation continued to spread into Spain, Portugal, and the British Isles. Cremation cemeteries first sprang up in Hungary and northern Italy, and the practice spread north as far as Ireland.

Preference Changes Throughout History

The historical record shows us that preference for burial and cremation is cyclical.

While cremation remained popular throughout the battle-ravaged empires of Greece and Rome between 1000 B.C. and 395 A.D. – mostly for health reasons as well as the need for expedient burial rites for slain warriors – the rise of Christianity under the Emperor Constantine saw a sharp decrease in the cremation.

While cremation remained common practice among Romans, early Christians considered it pagan. Traditional sepulcher entombment remained the preference of Jewish cultures. By 400 A.D., earth burial replaced cremation except in rare times of plague and war. It remained the preferred method of disposition throughout Europe for the next 1,500 years.

Modern Cremation

Cremation as we know it today only began a little over 100 years ago. The first dependable cremation chamber was developed in Italy and displayed in 1873. In 1874, Queen Victoria's surgeon, Sir Henry Thompson, and his colleagues founded The Cremation Society of England. Europe's first crematories were built in Woking, England and Gotha, Germany in 1878.

While two recorded cremations occurred in North America prior to 1800, the first crematory wasn't built until 1876 in Washington, PA. Cremation's popularity surged among a Protestant clergy that desired reformation of burial practices as well as medical professionals' health concerns regarding cemeteries.

Twenty crematories were in operation by 1900. That number grew to 52 by 1913 and over 10,000 cremations took place that year. Neptune Society was established in 1973 and currently has 45 locations across the United States with continued plans for growth.

As environmental and financial concerns dominate American culture, cremation is seeing another rise in popularity. According to the most recent data provided by the National Funeral Directors Association, the cremation rate in 2013 was 45.1%. The projected rate for 2020 is 55.8%. By 2030, 70.6% of final dispositions are expected to be cremations.


The Neptune Society is the nation's oldest and largest provider of affordable cremation services. Whether you have an immediate need or want to plan cremation services in advance, we are always available to assist you and your family.

Call 1-800-NEPTUNE (800-637-8863) today or contact us online to learn more.

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