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History of Cremation

Indigenous peoples of Australia:

  • Australia's aboriginal peoples long practiced cremation, with the oldest known cremation in human history being that of Mungo Woman some 40,000 yrs ago.
  • It seems that mainland Aborigines ceased the practice perhaps 10,000 yrs ago as after the sea levels rose isolating Tasmania, the Tasmanian Aborigines have continued the practice.

Cremation in Western culture:

  • until the late 19th century, cremation was seen by British peoples as a practice of heathens and pagans and also known to be practiced by the Hindu peoples in India which was under the rule of the British Empire.
  • the push for cremation sprang out of the British funeral reform movement of the late 19th century, which was spurred by the excesses of Victorian era funerals.
  • cremation became a very emotional topic much as is euthanasia is today.
  • the medical profession were among the advocates on sanitation arguments whilst the churches opposed it on the following arguments:
    • it was a pagan practice
    • humans are made in God's image and it was sacrilegious to destroy it
    • what about the Resurrection - what would have happened if Jesus was cremated?
  • the main advocate of the cremationists in Australia was Dr John Mildred Creed.
  • in 1886, the Vatican issued a decree labeling it a pagan practice.
  • early non-indigenous cremations in Australia:
    • Mr Foo Choo, a Chinese leper was cremated in 1890 at the Quarantine Station in Portsea, Victoria, at the height of the White Australia policy for “hygiene reasons”.
    • in 1895, a Mr Singh, a Sikh, was the 1st consenting non-indigenous person to be cremated and this was done at Sandringham beach (a popular bathing beach) in Victoria without any permits.
    • later that year, a 83yr old piano teacher, Mrs Elizabeth Hennicker became the 1st European to be cremated in Australia - also at Sandrigham beach, performed by the undertaker Joseph Le Pine but the media attended and generated poor publicity as people could watch the remains burning.
    • outrage by locals later that year when a Hindu man was also cremated on the beach.
  • after years of political lobbying, crematoriums began to be built:
    • 1903 - South Australia's West Terrace - 1st cremation in Australia within a crematorium was witnessed by an unruly crowd and media
    • 1925 - Sydney's Rockwood
    • 1927 - Melbourne's Fawkner
    • 1934 - Brisbane
    • 1936 - Hobart
    • 1937 - Perth
  • early coke-fired furnaces took a day and a half to cremate a body to ashes and bone (bone then had to be placed in a grinder)
  • until the 1950's the general public opinion regarded cremation as being for loopy radicals.
  • in 1963, the rising popularity of cremations pushed the Vatican to grant Catholics permission for cremation as long as the remains are not scattered but are buried or entombed.
  • in the 1960's, cremations began to overtake burials as the preferred option for Australians.
  • by 2000, Melbourne's Springvale Crematorium was processing an average 25 cremations each day (max. 50-60) with 5 burning at any one time.

The modern cremation process:

  • each takes an average of 70min
  • each natural gas-fired primary furnace is rated at 1.5 gigajoules per hour producing 690degC furnace
  • certain items are removed from the coffin prior to placing in furnace:
    • glass - this melts and becomes stuck to furnace floor and is difficult to remove
    • flower arrangements and wreaths with wire bindings
    • exterior fittings that won't burn - name plate, metal handles, crucifixes - these are buried in the cemetery & not re-used.
  • by 10min, coffin has collapsed
  • by 30min, body fat has been burnt with the black smoke of volatile gases being burnt in a 900degC secondary furnace.
  • by 50min, most of the other parts of the body are burnt, with the heart and brain the last of the organs, leaving the skeleton.
  • over the next 20min, the skeletal remains become brittle and are reduced to ash.
  • residual bone may be ground to ash then any medical metallic parts removed
  • NB. in the past, the batteries in older pacemakers used to explode & thus was a contraindication to cremation but newer pacemakers are not a problem
  • NB. silicone implants are not a problem



  • article in The Age newspaper 2007 extracted from a book by Robert Larkins “Funeral Rights: What The Australian “Death Care” Industry Doesn't Want You To Know” Viking, 2007. Sounds like an interesting read if you want to know more about it.


history/h_cremation.txt · Last modified: 2013/01/14 20:33 by gary1

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