The Brief History of Cremations in Australia

Just as with many other traditions and rituals, the practice of cremation has its own story as part of Australia’s rich past.
The Brief History of Cremations in Australia

Cremation is just one of the types of post-mortem processes in the evolution of how Australians farewell their nearest and dearest. These days, cremations may or may not include the bells and whistles of a funeral service, a viewing or attendees at the cremation.

With or without the accompanying ceremony, the practice of cremation is still deeply rooted in Australia’s ancestry. In this guide, we’ll look back on how this changed with waves of settlement and world events, but ultimately became commonplace again.

Indigenous Australia

Evidence dating back at least forty thousand years(!) shows that the Indigenous inhabitants of Australia were cremating their dead, as well as using burial methods. Just as the Indigenous languages and ways of life varied across the vast continent, so too did the mortuary practices of each mob.

In many Indigenous communities where cremation would take place, the ashes of the deceased would also be placed in a tree or other natural landmark. This was symbolic of the return of the person’s spirit to the land, honouring their connection to the natural world.

Expeditions by Europeans in the 1800s observed ashes or calcined bones which were carefully preserved and carried about by some Indigenous people. Some accounts also describe ashes and relics being kept in little pouches, made from animal skins, and hung around the neck of close relatives. Sounds like some of our unique things to do with a loved one’s ashes must’ve been historically-inspired!

Cremation in Australia during the 18th and 19th Century

Things changed with the arrival of the Europeans, as British settlers brought with them funerals based around the Christian religion. A body would be placed in a coffin and buried in a cemetery, in alignment with the rulings of Christianity which used to prohibit the practice of cremation.

During this time, in the 1700s and 1800s, huge importance was also placed on memory and memorialisation. This gave obituaries and gravesites a strong significance, and often the commemoration of the deceased’s life revolved around keeping tangible mementos of them, such as locks of hair, photographs and jewellery. This period also saw the emergence of the concept of “beauty in death”. There was an emphasis on having cemetery grounds be a relaxing place to visit – such as those of Rookwood Cemetery in NSW – placing flowers at the funeral and engraving elaborate headstones.

The late 1800s saw the rise of other large cities around the globe, as well as the realisation of health hazards associated with crowded cemeteries. Cremation became ruled as a legal procedure by the British court in 1884 and in the early 1900s; one of the first crematoriums – the Woodman Point Crematorium – was built in Western Australia. It was required to cremate people who had died from infectious diseases, such as the plague and smallpox. South Australia also legalised cremations and built a crematorium – West Terrace Cemetery – in 1903.

The impact of the World Wars on cremation in Australia

Shortly after Woodman Point, the first crematorium in New South Wales was established at the Rookwood Cemetery. Other crematoriums also began popping up, largely in response to the huge impact that WWI had on the perception and rites around funerals. There were so many Australians dying overseas, making it difficult for relatives to view a loved one’s body or visit a grave. The previously perceived beauty of death had been stripped away, and people had begun questioning burials.

Death seemed to become further removed from the social consciousness following WWII, with more people dying in hospitals or at home. Less people interacted with the deceased, instead opting for funeral homes to do the undertaking and manage proceedings discreetly. Grief wasn’t given much airtime and mourners were focused more on simply honouring the deceased quietly. 

Cremation in the Modern Era of Australia

A change in the 1960s saw a greater openness around death, and more discussions around end-of-life. However, funerals remained organised by funeral directors and were relatively conservative and simple.

The 1990s marked a much more historic shift, with cremation surpassing burial as the preferred method of sending on the deceased. It has become cheaper, secular, simple and supported by most faiths. On top of that, it is efficient, space saving and more affordable. The popularity of cremation remains today, accounting for 70% of all methods.

Wrap up

In most recent times, themes of death and funerals were again at the forefront of the collective psyche during the most recent pandemic. There was a stronger reliance on technology to bring people together from across the globe, and direct cremation became an attractive option in order to prioritise the health of mourners while also allowing space to grieve.

Willed further harnesses the power of technology to provide online cremation services, simplifying the process of organising the essential service you require, at a very affordable price. Our ‘online’ sensibilities means we’re also always available for a chat. Contact us anytime to discuss the most fitting way to write the final chapters of your loved one’s history.

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