As a society, we cremate and bury people. It’s what we’ve been taught for generations now that when someone dies, they are either cremated or buried. However if you think about it there is no real reasoning behind this practice other than modern tradition and cultural norms; history shows that the two concepts are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
The earliest recorded cremation in Greek history is from 1,000 B.C., in Athens, where there is archaeological evidence of people burning the remains of their dead and burying the ashes alongside agricultural implements as an offering to one or more gods. It’s important to note at this point that cremation was only reserved for those who had died a “noble death”, such as one on the battlefield. The rest were left to rot where they died or thrown into dung heaps.
Burial has been used since around 3,000 B.C., with bodies simply being covered by stones and markers served as landmarks for family members so they could find the gravesites. Early written records of burial in Europe and the Mediterranean date back by 500 B.C., with Homer first describing cremation, not long after, as “hideous” and suggesting that people who had perished outside their homeland be given a proper burial on foreign soil.
There are also recorded cases of Viking women who upon death were buried with items for use in the afterlife: keys to show they would have servants waiting for them, combs to arrange their hair and weapons so they could fight if they met trouble while crossing over into the afterlife. In South America Incans held elaborate funerals where relatives would pay off any debts owed by burning animals or goods at sea. It was seen as a way of taking care of your family and neighbors while simultaneously ensuring you were taken care of in the afterlife.
Cremation was also a common practice in ancient China, where official and wealthy citizens would be burned on a large pyre along with their finest treasures. It wasn’t until later that they started to place urns containing ashes into tombs.
These are only a very short selection of some different cultures around the world who believed in some form or another in burial or cremation but aside from these examples there is no scientific reason as to why we have chosen one over the other. In fact if you look at each one it’s fairly easy to make an argument for either choice.
Early Native Americans used fire pits or burial to dispose of their dead, and while there wasn’t a set method for how they dealt with the corpses it was more of a communal process that involved family members. This was seen as something sacred and often used as a form of catharsis, where they could reflect on what life was about by saying goodbye to someone who had died.
The Chinese believed in burning items like money or gold because it didn’t matter what you did with your currency, but rather that you made correct financial choices in life which would help you get ahead once you passed into the next world. There are also some well known spiritual beliefs such as the ancient Egyptians thought that if an individual were mummified they would live forever due to their body being preserved as if they were still alive, and thus the mummification process was a way of living forever.
Cremation is seen by many to be more environmentally conscious, but this is only really the case in modern times. Cremation requires a large amount of fossil fuels which isn’t great for the environment, while burial doesn’t require us to use any resources at all since we are simply burying objects that already exist. The up-front cost of building structures like cemeteries would seem prohibitively expensive for poorer communities so it’s not clear how popular cremation would have been had there been no other options.