As part of Dying Matters Awareness Week, on Thursday 11th May Dr Amy Gray Jones and myself delivered an evening talk at a unique venue: Denbighshire Memorial Park and Crematorium. This was part of a week of activities organised by St Kentigern’s Hospice. Our talk title was the same as my recent book, just published with OUP: Cremation and the Archaeology of Death.
The book explores new ideas and approaches to the archaeology of cremation, so our talk presented some of the ways that archaeological evidence can reveal how cremation was used across many past societies as a multi-staged disposal method, often used alongside other technologies for transforming and commemorating the dead.
We introduced how ‘cremation’ was varied in the past, but has a very long history prior to the 19th century- far earlier indeed than the advent of farming and complex civilizations. Cremation was a multi-staged process, involving the preparation and transformation of the body deploying fire in different fashions and intensities. Often the open-air burning of the body would take place soon after death, but it might occur after some duration and earlier treatments of the cadaver.
The aim was to promote awareness of how current norms and approaches to cremation are very different from those in the past. Yet equally, we wanted to show that there are more connections between past practices and those we follow today than might be realised. For instance, both past and present cremation practices can be associated more than fragmentation and dispersal of the corporality of the dead, but the careful curation and translation of ‘cremains’. Moreover, both past and present, a range of material cultures, architectures, monuments and landscape settings.
Dr Gray Jones introduced the character of Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) societies and outlined her research on the earliest use of cremation in Britain and elsewhere in Scandinavia and Continental Europe. She showed how cremation was deployed in various ways alongside complex multi-staged funerary practices. Amy has a chapter in the new book.
Subsequently, I pointed out how central cremation is to our understanding of the origins, use and reuse of many of our later prehistoric sites and monuments. I used the examples of Stonehenge and Sutton Hoo, as well as my work with Project Eliseg which revealed evidence for Bronze Age cremation burials.
I then explored the challenges of displaying and visualising cremation in museums and heritage contexts. I used examples where I thought cremation is displayed in intelligent and interesting ways. This relates to a chapter I have recently published in another book: Archaeologists and the Dead.
The next part of the talk outlined how open-air cremation ceremonies might contrast with how we dispose of our own dead by fire, but they are a prominent and diverse aspect of our popular culture. This includes other parts of the world where cremation is still practised open air, including places like India and Bali which are fully integrated into Western heritage tourism. I also pointed out how prominent cremation is European medieval literature, including Beowulf and the famous account of Ibn Fadlan witnessing a Rus funeral on the Volga. Archaeology, history and legend combine in popular television portrays, from historical dramas like Vikings, fantasy cremations in Game of Thrones, horror cremations in The Walking Dead and Sci-Fi cremations as in Star Wars.
In the final part of the talk, I outlined how archaeologists can provide perspectives and approaches to the ‘archaeology of us’ – the use of cremation in contemporary landscapes. I suggested how we can explore crematoria themselves from new perspectives. In addition, we can provide a different focus on the study of how gardens of remembrance, cemeteries and churchyards incorporate and memorialise the cremated dead. Finally, we can investigate a wide range of other landscape locations where the cremated dead are memorialised and ashes are scattered.
The talk therefore served both as a public event to mark Dying Matters Awareness Week and as a UK book launch for the new OUP volume. Thanks to Amy, it proved an effective double-act. It proves therefore not only apposite on multiple levels, but effective, to use a crematorium chapel as the venue for this public talk.