The Role of Urns in Various Funeral and Memorial Traditions

White urn on left, bronze urn with cross in middle, blue urn with doves on the right

Funerary urns have been used in many different cultures, religions and countries throughout history. They come in different materials, sizes and designs and play a significant role in various funeral and memorial traditions for many cultures. In this article we will explore the importance of urns in those different traditions and cultures.

A brief history

One of the earliest uses of urns as a funerary item dates back to 7000 BC, where 32 burial urns were found in an early Jiahu site in China. More than 700 burial urns were found over the Yangshao inhabited areas (from 5000 to 3000 BC), consisting of over 50 different shapes and varieties. In this period they were thought to mainly be used for children but some were found being used for adults as well. The Urnfield culture (1300 to 750 BC) was a late bronze age culture of central Europe and is aptly named for its large cemeteries of urn burials. Cremation was a common practice in ancient Greece and the ashes were usually placed in painted Greek vases. Funerary urns were also very common in ancient Rome, India and many pre Columbian cultures. 

Cremation urns nowadays come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colours and designs with varying quality, style and costs. New designs have also been made such as biodegradable urns. Biodegradable urns are an eco-friendly option and are designed to be decomposable in a safe manner. They sometimes also include a seed intended to sprout into a tree at the site of the burial. Another recent development includes the placement of ashes in jewellery, known as cremation jewellery. These are normally necklaces with a discreet container designed to hold a small amount of ash so that the person wearing them can carry a part of the ashes with them throughout their day. 

Cremation in different religions

The Hindu religion in India considers fire a sacred gateway to the spiritual world. Cremation therefore became an ancient and widespread practice in India as it is a way of connecting the deceased with the afterlife through fire. After death, Hindus believe that the physical body serves no purpose and so it need not be preserved. Cremation serves as the quickest way to release their soul and help with reincarnation. The ashes were then originally dispersed into the Ganges river, though in modern times it is now generally handled by funeral directors.

Buddhism does not require its followers to adhere to any particular practice when it comes to end of life customs. Many Buddhists prefer cremation over burial so they can follow the ways of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) who was cremated himself. While burials are still found in those following the Buddhist faith, cremation remains as the most common option.

Catholicism traditionally did not support cremation, however through recent years it has undergone a shift and now considers the practice acceptable. The Catholic church still prefers that the cremated remains are buried in an ordained place such as at a church, mausoleum or cemetery.

Cremation in different countries 

Cremation rates vary from country to country, depending on various different factors such as religious views, economic costs and cultural reasons. Countries with a majority Buddhist or Hindu religion, high funeral costs or low land space lead to high cremation rates. There are also some outlier countries that have quite a high cremation rate as well. In Asian countries, China has a cremation rate of 45.6% whereas Japan has one of 99.97% as of 2019. In Scandinavian countries it varies from 36% to 76%, however in the large cities the rate is between 70% and 90%. However, Russia has a cremation rate of only 10% due to its large landmass and Eastern Orthodox religion.

Closer to home, Australians have a cremation rate of 69% as of 2018. Many Australians have looked to cremation as a viable and preferable option to burial due to the comparatively lower costs associated and the eco-friendly benefits. With Aussies having such a laid back culture and little to no stigma associated with cremation, it's no wonder we have a higher cremation rate compared to burials.

We hope you have found this brief look through on various religious and cultural outlooks on cremation as well as its practice and use through history informative. As Australia's largest urn store, Eternal Urns has an extensive range of the best quality urns available, so check out our range today.