The ashes casket has been around for thousands of years. Pottery urns used for human ashes have been discovered in China dating back as far as 7,000 BC.
Many historians believe that cremations were taking place back in the Stone Age. It was a sensible way to dispose of a decaying body. As mankind evolved urns were used to store the ashes of the deceased as a way of showing respect.
The ashes casket through the ages
Archaeologists have discovered several huge burial sites in China. In some, the pottery burial urns appear to have been used predominately for children. Even the ‘newer’ sites date back to around 3,000 BC.
Fast forward a couple of thousand years to the Romans who were big advocates of cremation. During this period the ashes casket (or urn) became more elaborate. High standing citizens such as senior members of the senate or military might have their ashes placed in a casket or vase. This vessel could then be placed in a columbarium – a room or building with niches to accommodate them.
The UK’S first crematorium
However, cremation as we know it today has a far shorter history. The way in which cremations take place in the UK is largely down to the Italian Professor, Ludovico Brunetti who invented the first commercial (and reliable) cremation chamber in the 1870s.
In England, Queen Victoria’s surgeon – Sir Henry Thompson – helped to found the Cremation Society of Great Britain. Not only did Sir Henry take on the role as its first President, he also did much to remove the restrictions on cremation. Sir Henry believed that cremation was a necessary sanitary precaution. (He was also an advocate of using human ashes as a form of fertilizer!)
Thanks to the endeavours of people such as Sir Henry, the UK’s first crematorium was built in Woking. An acre of land was purchased next to the existing cemetery which had the advantage of being in a secluded spot. Woking also had a station with regular trains to London – ideal for transporting the deceased. In March 1879 a horse was successfully cremated. After much legal dispute, cremation was finally pronounced to be legal in 1884.
Modern day cremations & caskets
Times have certainly changed since the days of Sir Henry Thompson. Although frowned upon by certain cultures and religions, the number of cremations that take place in many parts of the world has increased markedly over the decades.
In the UK, the number of cremations held each year now well exceeds that of burials. And it’s a similar story in America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Japan. Indeed, the lack of space and prohibitive burial costs have led to a cremation rate of nearly 100% in Japan. As the world’s population continues to grow and the subsequent lack of space becomes an ever-increasing issue, it seems hard to imagine that cremation numbers will fall anytime soon.
Year Number of crematoria* Cremation rate
1960 148 36%
1970 206 57%
1980 220 67%
1990 225 71%
2000 242 74%
2010 260 76%
*Crematoria in England, Wales, Isle of Man & Channel Islands. Source: The Cremation Society
Biodegradable caskets for ashes
Today, the ashes casket is available in all shapes and sizes and can be made from a wide variety of materials. As a long-standing willow growing company, it will probably come as no surprise to learn that Musgrove Willows specialise in handmade willow ashes caskets.
Alongside our extensive range of oval, rectangular and square ashes caskets, our talented weavers can also make caskets in more unusual shapes. A popular recent addition to our range is the heart-shaped ashes casket. This is usually woven in natural white willow or a natural dye can be used to colour the willow one of 16 different colours. Double ashes caskets can also be made. Customers can personalise the casket further by opting for a coloured liner.
As personalised coffins gain in popularity, so does the demand for an ashes casket that reflects the favourite colour or pastime of the deceased. I wonder what Sir Henry Thompson would make of it all..?