The History of Cremation in North America

Photo by Andrew Magill

Photo by Andrew Magill

Humans have been laying their loved ones to rest through cremation, in some form, since the early Stone Age, around 2,500 B.C., and the practice has spread around the world. The use of memorial urns goes back almost as far. However, modern cremation as we know it has only existed for a little over a century, and the cremation movement in North America grew out of that invention.

Inventing a controlled chamber

Cremation as we know it—the highly controlled process of reducing bodies to ashes using high heat and a closed space—began Italy in 1873, when Professor Brunetti invented the first cremation chamber. This began a movement to promote cremation both in Europe and the U.S., led primarily by doctors who worried that burying whole bodies could spread disease and cause other problems for public health. As part of this movement, the first crematorium in North America was built in Washington, Pennsylvania in 1876.

The Cremation Association of North America

In 1913, the Cremation Association of America was formed to promote the “modern way” and the “safe and hygenic way” of dealing with human remains. Originally, the association consisted of doctors and other concerned citizens who worried that whole-body burials could create health risks for the living. Cremation was a popular choice among the educated and wealthy through the 1920s, but once it was scientifically shown that earth burials, done properly, were safe for public health, cremation fell out of favor.

Over time, the Cremation Association of America began to focus on promoting cremation not as a health precaution, but as a choice for preparing a body for memorialization, giving families more options for remembering their loved ones in a personal way. In 1975, the association changed its name to the Cremation Association of North America (CANA), since by then it had members in both the U.S. and Canada. By that time, 150,000 cremations were being performed per year at over 425 crematories across North America.

Cremation on the rise

In the early 1980s, the rates of cremation in North America and around the world began to rise, and continues to rise for a variety of reasons, including concerns about cost, concerns about the environment and use of land, creative ideas for laying cremains to rest, and more acceptance of cremation by many religious faiths. According to CANA, in 2009 there were 2,100 crematories in the U.S., which performed over 9,000 cremations (37 percent of all deaths in the U.S. that year), and the numbers of people choosing cremation are only expected to grow.

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