Where there is cremation, there are urns. Urns have been prolific throughout history as symbols for death, be in practically or metaphorically. The history of the urn is as rich and varied as the people within them.
When talking about urns, its impossible not to mention cremation, let alone our good friend Dr Price, who lit the spark on cremation in the U.K. But funerary urns have been around way before that.
Simply put, an urn is a vase with a lid. It’s the contents (or suggested contents) inside of said vase which allow it to be called an urn. Specifically, urns used for ashes and in funeral proceedings are known as ‘funerary urns’ but to refer to them as urns is fine.
Urns have been used across the world and across history with the oldest being discovered in a Jiahu (link) site in China, where 32 were discovered, more were also discovered in Laoguantai, Shaanxi. There have been roughly 700 urns discovered over the Yangshao (5000-3000 BC) areas, with vast differences in size and shape, implying they were mainly used for children, but in some cases, adults too
Fast forward to The Urnfield Culture (1300BC – 750BC). The Urnfield Culture was a late Bronze Age culture in central Europe. It takes its names from the huge cemeteries of urn burials. The discovery of another Bronze Age urn burial site in Norfolk, England, lead Sir Thomas Browne to describe what he found in his writings, because of this he expanded his study to include ancient and present burial and funerary customs. It was published in 1658 as Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial (or, Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk).
For the Ancient Greeks, cremation was commonplace, as they were quick to identify the practicality of cremating the deceased as opposed to burying them. Coinciding with their love for vases, placing ashes in them only seemed like the logical step. This is what happens when you have more vases than land.
It was also the preferred method when disposing of bodies after a war.
The Roman Empire (27 BC – 395 AD) was also big on cremation but took to creating larger, more elaborate urns and stored within columbarium-like buildings.
Cremation swung back out of fashion with the early Christians. For them, it went against their culture. For the next thousands of years, burial was the new cremation. To this day, The Eastern Orthodox Churches, Orthodox Jews, and Muslims discourage cremation even in the present times.
In 1873, Professor Brunetti, of Italy. Came up with a design for working crematoria and urns, which he showcased at the Vienna Exposition. His display just happened to catch the eye of Queen Victoria’s own surgeon, Sir Henry Thompson. Who swiftly recognised the benefits of cremation and began to promote it back in the UK. Leading to the foundation of the Cremation Society of England in 1874. This led to crematoria firing up all over the UK and Europe.
In later and more continental wisdom, a kings heart or other organs were placed in various urns upon their death. For example, this happened with King Otto of Bavaria in 1916. Various organs were placed in urns and buried in various favourite places. A pioneer of the modern death wish.
Today, urns are a staple of the funeral world and often go hand in hand with cremation. Urns make for a traditional option with the option of personalisation. They can be kept, discarded or even grown into a tree.