Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Revisiting an Old Issue

Four years ago, I wrote about an issue that I have long believed in but had only just began (by then) catching the attention of more Filipino professionals – cremation (when my first wife died in 2003 we had her cremated as she and I agreed on sometime in 1997 after my heart by-pass operation). I’d like to revisit my blog entry on cremation on 28 January 2010 as more and more friends are becoming  interested in cremation.  I’m unable to ask readers to simply go back to my old entry in 2010 because my account then got hacked and I have abandoned that site since – meaning, it no longer exists.   Using the same blog title, I opened a new blog account on January 5, 2011.  This is what you can visit now.

Before I print some excerpts from my blog entry in January 2010, let me provide the common definitions of two terms.  First, the word cremation means “turning bodies into ashes.”  To cremate means to burn.  Cremation used to be taboo as topic of discussion among many Filipinos, but more and more have been convinced that it is an acceptable practice.  Second, the term columbarium refers to a space where the urn containing the ashes of the cremated is stored.  The word columbarium came from the Latin word columba, meaning “dove.”  Originally, the term columbarium referred to a compartmentalized housing for doves and pigeons.

 Facade of the Columbarium at St. Therese Chapel in UPLB (top), and interiors of same (right and bottom).  Normally, a columbarium has very serene premises.

Here’s an excerpt from my blog entry in January 2010.

Cremation, by any means, isn’t a new concept.  It goes a long way back.  Historians believe it may have started in the early Stone Age, about 5,000 BC, somewhere in Europe and the Near East.  Toward the late Stone Age, cremation spread in Northern Europe as evidenced by decorative pottery urns found in Western Russia among the Slavic people.

During the Bronze Age, about 2,500 to 1,000 BC, the practice of cremation moved to the British Isles and then Spain and Portugal.  Cremation was also practiced later on in Hungary, Northern Italy, Northern Europe, and then Ireland.

Cremation was an elaborate burial custom in Greece about 1,000 BC, becoming the dominant mode in which deceased were disposed during the time of Homer, about 800 BC.  It was encouraged for health reasons, and for the expedient disposition of slain warriors.  The early Romans probably practiced cremation as well in the period around 600 BC.  During the Roman Empire, 27 BC to 395 AD, cremation was a common practice and urns became very elaborate and were stored in columbarium-like buildings.

Cremation ceased as a practice when Constantine Christianized Europe, and earth burial completely replaced it.

The modern history of cremation began a century ago.  In Great Britain, the cremation movement was fostered by Queen Victoria’s surgeon, Dr. Henry Thompson, who organized the Cremation Society of England in 1874.  The declaration of this Society said:

We, the undersigned, disapprove the present custom of burying the dead and we desire to substitute some mode which shall rapidly resolve the body into its component elements, by a process which cannot offend the living and shall render the remains perfectly innocuous.  Until some better method is devised we desire to adopt that usually known as cremation.

The main period of growth and acceptance of cremation and the construction of crematoria began in the early 1950s.  By 1967, cremations exceeded the number of burials in Britain.  In 2003, there were 244 crematoria in England and earlier by December 31,2002 there were 437,124 cremations, representing 71.9% of all deaths in that country.

In 2006, there were 700,000 cremations in the USA, which accounted for 32% of dead Americans that year.  In 2009, even during the minor recession in the USA, cremation actually boomed and accounted for 40% of the disposition of the dead in that country that year.

In the Philippines, cremation has gained acceptance to an increasing number of people, particularly during the last decade.  In the next few years, it is expected that there would be a substantial increase in the number of Filipinos who shall have accepted cremation as a practice.  After all, according to the CBCP Website, cremation is not prohibited by the Catholic Church even if it’s not a traditional church practice.

Why do I have a certain bias for cremation?  Well, I personally think it is more sanitary than earth burial.  Look at most public cemeteries in the Philippine countryside, particularly in places where people can’t afford to construct family mausoleums.  Graves are dug on spaces that serve as passages for people because even our cemeteries are over-crowded.  Also, the increase in the area needed for cemeteries has direct relationship with the increase in our population.  Since we have practically decided to let loose our population, we should probably prepare to provide enough space for cemeteries for the next tens of millions of dead.  We’re now having problems with cemeteries that have become so small given that more and more have to be buried.

How much does cremation cost?  Well, this is complicated.  The fee for the cremation service is different from the cost of the columbarium.  In fact, those responsible for these are two different businesses.  Cremation includes burning the body and putting the bone ashes in the urn.  Incidentally, the cost of the urn is included in the cremation service.  You can choose the urn you like.  The common materials in the manufacture of urns are marble, bronze, wood, metal, or ceramic.  I have yet to see an urn made of clear glass, though.

My philosophical and personal views about cremation haven’t changed.  I have, however, gained a little more insights into the matter given developments during the last few years.  For example, I’ve looked more deeply into and with more concern the disparity between those who can afford and those who can’t regarding the use of cemeteries.  It is as if the poor do not anymore have right to cemeteries, even public cemeteries.  This is easy to decipher based on mere access.  Look at the size of various family mausoleums owned by the moneyed.  These are large concrete buildings, frequently with marble floors, and by any measure are much larger (and certainly much more expensive) than the houses of the poor anywhere in the country.   And how are the poor buried?  Those who really can’t afford are buried in holes right on the pathways in-between cheap tombs in public cemeteries.  Of course, family mausoleums are frequently located in memorial gardens.  In the case of Pila, Laguna (and possibly other places), however, the family mausoleums in the public cemetery there are large and expensive-looking.

There is another advantage to cremation.  When the body is cremated immediately after its release from the hospital, for example, the urn and picture may be displayed during the wake.  When necrological services are requested to be held in places other than the place of wake, it is easier to carry and transport the urn than the coffin.  In many ways, the urn doesn’t really symbolize, as does the coffin, the permanency of one’s departure and, hence, less traumatic for loved ones.

The cost aspects?  I have no idea.  My guess is that cremation, over-all, would be more cost-efficient.  But you don't have to take my word for it.  Do your own arithmetic.

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