Cremation the burning of human corpses, was probably the general practice of the ancient world, with certain important exceptions. In Egypt dead bodies were embalmed; in Judmea they were buried in sepulchres; and in China they were buried in the earth. In Greece only suicides, unteethed children, and persons struck by lightning were denied the right to be burned; while at Rome, from the close of the republic to the end of the 4th century A.D., burning on the pyre or rogus was the general rule. Even the Jews used cremation in the vale of Tophet when a plague came; and the modern Jews of Berlin and the Spanish and Portuguese Jews at Mile-End cemetery have been among the first to welcome the lately revived process. Cremation is still practiced over a great part of Asia and America, but not always in the same form. Thus, the ashes may be stored in urns, or buried in the earth, or thrown to the wind, or smeared with gum on the heads of the mourners. In one case the three processes of embalming, burning, and burying are performed; and in another, if a member of the tribe die at a great distance from home, some of his money and clothes are nevertheless burned by the family. It is claimed by some that the practice of cremation in modern Europe was at first stopped, and has since been prevented in a great measure, by the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body; partly, also, by the notion that the Christian's body was redeemed and purified. The very general practice of burying bodies in the precincts of a church in order that the dead might have the benefit of the prayers of persons resorting thither, and the religious ceremony which precedes both European burials and Asiatic cremations, have given the subject a religious aspect. The question is also a sanitary one, and has attracted very considerable attention lately.
For the last ten years many distinguished physicians and chemists in Italy have warmly advocated the general adoption of cremation, and, in 1874, a congress called to consider the matter at Milan resolved to petition the Chamber of Deputies for a clause in the new sanitary code, permitting cremation under the supervision of the syndics of the commune. In Switzerland there are two associations in support of the cause. In 1797 cremation began to be discussed by the French Assembly, under the Directory, and the events of the Franco-Prussian war have again brought the subject under notice. The military experiments at Sedan, Chalons, and Metz, of burying large numbers of bodies with quicklime, or, pitch and straw, were not successful, but very dangerous. The municipality of Vienna has formally made cremation permissive. There is a propagandist society, called the Urne, and the main difficulty for the poor seems to be the cost of carrying the bodies five miles. To overcome this a pneumatic tube has been proposed. Dresden, Leipsic, and Berlin are the centres of the German movement. In England Sir Henry Thompson first brought the question prominently before the public, and in 1874 started the cremation society of London.. Its object is to introduce, through the agency of cemetery companies, and parochial and municipal authorities and burial-boards, some rapid process of disposing of the dead, "which cannot offend the living and shall render the remains absolutely innocuous." His problem was this: " Given a dead body, to resolve it into carbonic acid, water, and ammonia, rapidly, safely, and not unpleasantly." Relying on the facts connected with recent burial legislation, he pointed out that in the neighborhood of cemeteries there is a constantly increasing risk of contaminated air and water. The problem he solved by the Siemens process of cremation. The British authorities also have had to interfere in the management of the Hindfi cremations, so as to reduce the cost and perfect the sanitary arrangements of the process.
Among the practical methods of cremation which have recently been attempted are those of Dr. Polli, at the Miian gas-works, and Prof. Brunetti of Padua. The former obtained complete calcination of dogs in two hours, by the use of coal-gas mixed with atmospheric air, applied to a cylindrical retort of refracting clay, so as to consume the gaseous products of combustion. The ashes remaining were five per cent. by weight of the material before cremation. The latter used an oblong furnace of refracting brick, with side doors to regulate the draught, and above a cast-iron dome, with movable shutters. The body was placed on a metallic plate suspended on iron wire. The noxious gases, which were generated in the first part of the process, passed through a flue into a second furnace, and were entirely consumed. The process required four hours. In the ordinary Siemens regenerative furnace only the hot blast is used, the body supplying hydrogen and carbon; or a stream of heated hydrocarbon mixed with heated air is sent from a gasometer supplied with coal, or other fuel, the brick or iron cased chamber being thus heated to a high degree before cremation begins (Encycl. Brit. 9th ed. s.v.). The subject has also been agitated in America, two societies having been organized here for cremation of corpses, and occasional instances have occurred; but the ovens and other apparatus have been as yet but moderately patronized. The operation, as carried on at one of the best-constructed furnaces, is thus described by an eye witness:
"Cremation is erroneously supposed to be a burning of the body. It is not. No flame whatever touches the flesh or bones from the beginning to the end of the process. It is properly and strictly incineration, or reduction of the human frame to ashes; an absorption of all the gaseous elements carried on inside a fire-clay retort, three feet in diameter and seven in length. As the door of the retort is opened the inrushing air cools it from white to red heat, and the whole interior is filled with a beautiful rosy light. The body, decently clad as for burial, is laid in a crib, which is covered with a clean white sheet soaked in alum. The crib is then put into the retort. The sheet retains its original position and conceals the form until nothing but the bones are left and these gently crumble into dust. The relatives then receive a few pounds of clean, pure ashes in an urn, which can be placed in any cemetery, public or private, in a vault or church niche, or disposed of as personal choice may dictate." This process is certainly a great improvement upon the rude and tedious operation of the ancient Romans and the modern Hindfis, consisting of a roasting of the corpse upon an immense pile of wood, filling the air with smoke and the. noxious fumes of burning flesh. It is also claimed by its advocates to be much more economical than ordinary burial. Could the prejudice naturally entertained against it, especially by Christians, as a heathenish and barbaric custom, be overcome, there is no telling how popular the practice might yet become. See Eassie, Cremation of the Dead (Lond. 1875), a valuable work; Vegmann Ercolani, Cremation the most Rational Method ofDisposing ofthe Dead (Zurich, 1874, 4th ed.); Reclam, De le Cremation des Cadavres; Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia, or Urn-burial (1658); Walker, On Graveyards (Lond. 1839); Pietra Santa, La Cremation des Morts en France et al'Etranger; Brunetti, La Cremazione dei Cadaveri (Padua, 1873). SEE BURIAL.