The History of Cremation in America

A set of wind chimes in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, home to one of the oldest crematoriums in the United States.

As the popularity of cremations continues to rise, you might wonder where it all began. The rate of cremations in the United States is just over 50 percent, but it took quite a while to reach that mark. To help understand how that rate will continue to rise, we should look at a quick history of cremation in America.

The general agreement among scholars is that cremation probably began in the early Stone Age around 3000 BC. Thousands of years later, cremations were widely practiced in the Roman Empire, with remains stored in urns, often within columbarium-like buildings. Then in 1873, the modern cremation that we know began in Italy, and it spread more on both sides of the Atlantic.

Here in North America, there were only two recorded instances of cremation before 1800, but the start of American cremation was in 1876 when the first crematorium was built in Washington, Pennsylvania. Eight years later, and over 200 miles away, the second crematorium was built in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Soon after, crematoriums opened  up in Buffalo, New York, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Detroit and Los Angeles. Nearly 25 years after they built the first crematorium, America already had 20 more in operation. In 1913, the Cremation Association of America was founded to promote a safe and hygienic way of dealing with human remains, with 52 crematoriums in North America performing nearly 10,000 cremations a year.

It took the US nearly 100 years to reach the cremation rate of 5 percent, which happened in 1972. Once it passed that threshold, the growth rate was more steady and predictable. That rate hit 20 percent in 1994, then 40 percent in 2010, and then 50 percent in 2017. 

The National Funeral Directors Association projects that the cremation rate in the US will hit 56.4 percent by the end of 2020, and rise to 63.5 percent five years after that. That rate will continue to increase as popularity, knowledge and interest increases, hitting a projected rate of just under 80 percent by 2040.

The choice between cremation and burial is personal, and that decision can depend on many factors. To help you make that choice, and to help you through difficult times, Simply Cremation and Funeral Care is there to guide you. Our mission is to offer excellence in our service while providing the compassion, sincerity & understanding needed by families we serve.