In my academic research, and on this blog, I frequently tackle cremation practices past and present. This was the subject of my 2000 doctoral thesis and a series of book chapters, journal articles and an edited collection in 2017: Cremation and the Archaeology of Death.
This seems pretty niche and obscure to some of you doesn’t it? After all, even for mortuary archaeologists, cremation practices might be widespread in the human past and present, but they are a challenging and long-sidelined sub-field. How could this possibly have significant relevance to people today?
Well, first up, I’m sick and tired of having to justify the ‘relevance’ of my research to other scholars and the public, especially as it concedes that the study of the human story over millennia is a priori not relevant until proven otherwise. Still, let me be stark and clear on this point here, on my blog, just in case there remain any doubts.
When I submitted my doctoral thesis, in the year 2000, there were 437,609 cremations conducted by 242 crematoria across the UK and Isle of Man combined, comprising 71.51% of the deaths that year. In 2018, the provisional figures illustrate a jump to 481,712 cremations by 299 crematoria, thus 78.19% of deaths in that year. These results were published by the Cremation Society. The 2019 and 2020 results are not yet available, but I anticipate the COVID-19 pandemic will see a significant boost in the proportion of deaths leading to cremation, perhaps pushing the UK up to or over the 80% mark for the first time. Globally, cremation is practised widely from New Zealand to Argentina, from Canada to Japan.
Cremation can be a means of criminal disposal and mass clandestine destruction of evidence of genocides and war crimes, a response to crises and disasters, or it can be a heavily managed and structured technology for typical funerals, sanctioned and legislated by governments and run as utilities or services for communities across the world. Cremation can be grand and complex, leading to multiple stages of practice and grandiose architectures and monuments, or it might be humble and perfunctory, leading to ephemeral traces. Cremation can be open-air or indoors. Cremation can be soon after death, or performed as part of a second funeral long after death. The cremated dead can travel across the landscape and around the world, scattered and incorporated into human-created environments or scattered or interred into the natural landscape. In short, cremation is a varied and prominent part of the human past and present.
In this context, I’m studying the history of a mode of disposal that is globally practiced upon the bodies of millions of people each year, and is one of the most distinctive and long-lasting aspects of human societies from the Upper Palaeolithic to the present. This study takes in its material cultures, architectures, monuments and spatial dimensions, revealing both the social, economic, cosmological and ontological connections between different societies, as well as how cremation is deployed in starkly divergent fashions over time and space as well as within and between particular societies and communities.
It is also a reason why, as well as researching cremation in the early medieval past and themes cross-cutting different periods and regions in studying past cremation, I’m equally interested in taking an archaeological perspective on cremation in today’s world: its emergence as a global phenomenon of modernity since the late 19th century.
I also consider how we interpret and display cremation in museums and heritage contexts, as well as envision it through art and even how it is portrayed in the horror, science fiction and historical fiction genres from books to television and film. In short, the work of myself and other archaeologists on the material dimensions of cremation has direct relevance across disciplines and there are important dialogues to be had been specialists in different regions and periods.
Hence, cremation is central to who we were and who we are, including societies which have embraced it as a common mortuary pracice and those using it regularly alongside other disposal practices. Cremation can still be important for societies that deploy it rarely but for exceptional circumstances or individfuals. Even when shunned for a host of reasons, its avoidance can be a central tenet of mortuary traditions.
Moving forward, I will make no further apology in repeatedly bringing up discussions of past and present cremation practices and their material dimensions on this blog. This study isn’t peripheral, it is pivotal to mortuary archaeology and death studies more widely.