The History of Cremation

MPG Post Articles :: The History of Cremation
June 15, 2021
History Innovation & Technology

When the first crematorium opened in Ontario at the Toronto Necropolis in 1933, cremation was used in only 0.55% of Canadian funerals. Today that number is 70% in the GTA. And by 2031, we predict it will rise to 80%. In less than a century, the funeral traditions of our city have transformed.

Few elements of our world have shaped human history quite like fire. As much tied to life as it is to light, it warms, protects and nourishes us. For as long as we’ve gathered our families around the campfire, flame has also helped us say farewell to those we love.

The earliest evidence of cremation, “The Mungo Lady,” was found at Lake Mungo in the Willandra Lakes Region of Australia in 1968. Scientists have estimated that her ritually burned remains date back more than 40,000 years. In classical antiquity, the Greeks and Romans both favoured cremation to help deliver their dead to the gods with reverence. Funeral pyres in the ancient world, often comprised of cedar, would frequently include other sacred offerings such as wine or herbs.

As Christianity spread across Europe, the popularity of cremation receded in the western world. Many Christian sects believed that it would interfere with the resurrection of the body and its reunification with the soul, and so prohibited the practice.

Elsewhere, the tradition has endured for millennia. In Hinduism, cremation has always been the preferred funerary rite for most adults, with burial often reserved for children or ascetics who have renounced all things earthly. The Buddha’s own cremation is detailed in the holy text The Mahaparinibbana-Sutta, and it remains the ritual of choice for many Buddhist funerals today.

The 19th century saw an evolution in the western world’s opinion of the act. Professors at the 1869 Medical International Conference in Florence resolved that it would be critical to “public health and civilization.” At the time, there was not a single crematorium in Europe. But when a “cremation furnace” was revealed at the 1873 Vienna Exposition, the idea began to spread. It wasn’t until 1885 that the first cremation took place in Britain ⁠— and only three were conducted there.

But as the 20th century dawned, cities blossomed in size and population, making sanitation a greater priority and space a scarcer commodity. Societies became far more mobile as people flocked to those cities and families spread across greater distances than ever before. Cremation allowed remains to be easily transported back to hometowns or even shared between families.

Since Donald B. Hopkins became the first person cremated in a Mount Pleasant Group cemetery on November 21st, 1933, demand for cremation options in the GTA has only increased. In the two decades between 1996 and 2016, Toronto’s South Asian population, which overall tends to prefer cremation, grew by more than 225%. Today, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist communities continue to represent three of Toronto’s fastest-growing demographics. As Catholic and Protestant faiths have become more open to the practice, their parishioners request cremation with far greater frequency.

Just as new expectations inspire new services, they also guide our investments in innovation. In recent years, we’ve focused on ways to reduce the carbon footprint of our funeral services. This has led us to introduce technologies that eliminate nearly 100% of the greenhouse gases and particulate matter generated by cremation. At the same time, upgrades to our facilities have dramatically reduced the amount of fossil fuels required to operate crematoria systems.

As we look to our future, we know that cremation services will remain a core part of what we offer our community. But experience tells us that why and how we choose to cremate our loved ones’ remains may change with every generation, and the living history of this ancient tradition will continue.