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urn(A decorated cremation urn from the 6th century [1])


A recent BBC report concluded that almost half of England’s cemeteries could run out of burial space within 20 years, and that a quarter would be full within 5-10 years [2]. The decision to cremate, then, is a pressing one, and it is no surprise that the majority of people choose to do it. Such pressures would not have been felt by the Anglo-Saxon migrants of the 5th and 6th centuries, though, as they arrived at a largely unsettled land, at least by modern standards. If they had access to such open space and dramatic topography, then, why did so many choose to cremate their dead; a funerary rite that requires substantially more resources and organisation of labour? Anyone can dig a hole and stuff a dead person in it, but the acquisition of substantial amounts of timber, and the technical expertise required to construct a pyre that would burn hot enough to combust a whole person, is a far more difficult endeavour. So why bother?

Whilst cremation was an important burial rite at the beginning of Roman Britain, c. AD 43-200, it was quite rare by the 3rd and 4th centuries. Indeed, this later period was characterised by unfurnished inhumations that were generally oriented east-west (so that a person would face east on the day of judgement). The societal shift of the 5th century changed everything, though, and the Anglo-Saxon settlers introduced new methods of dealing with the dead. These customs can be divided into furnished inhumation and cremation, although cremation appears to be the earlier rite.

The introduction of a Germanic style of cremation to post-Roman Britain is interesting, then, as it is clearly a culturally Germanic custom – the large cremation cemeteries of contemporary Northern Germany and Southern Scandinavia clearly attest this. Taken with the aforementioned fact that cremation is a lot of work, we can begin to make thought-provoking observations about the social context of post-Roman Britain.

One argument speculates that the Anglo-Saxon settlers might have continued practising cremation to reinforce a collective sense of identity. This stems from a claim that cremation is something of a ‘status equaliser’ – both king and peasant are, at the end of the day, reduced to similar piles of ashes. But I find this unconvincing, because there is plenty of observable variation in the archaeological data. Fine jewellery is found in some urns, whilst others are occasionally accompanied with weapons and others even appear to have had wooden structures positioned over the grave. Furthermore, the burning of the body on the pyre would have been a dramatic occasion where there would be plenty of scope to stand out – just look at the funeral of Beowulf.

structure(A possible reconstruction of the wooden structure found above some of the cremation graves at Apple Down, Sussex [3])

Another approach is to look at later documentary sources and suggest a spiritual function for cremation. In the first book of Snorri Sturluson’s Ynglinga Saga, traditionally dated to c. AD 1225, we are told that:

Odin established the same law in his land that had been in force in Asaland. Thus he established by law that all dead men should be burned, and their belongings laid with them upon the pile, and the ashes be cast into the sea or buried in the earth. Thus, said he, everyone will come to Valhalla with the riches he had with him upon the pile; and he would also enjoy whatever he himself had buried in the earth.

It seems pretty obvious that the Anglo-Saxons cremated their dead to ensure that they went to the afterlife, right? Unfortunately, things are never that simple, as Snorri was writing some 800 years later, and was interpreting pre-Christian mythology through a Christian lens. We can’t take him as fact, and some would argue we can’t even take him as an indication of belief.

So can we answer the original question? In short – no. We don’t know why people chose to cremate their dead, but we can reasonably conclude that the social systems, cultural customs and spiritual beliefs of the time clearly had an important influence. They did not cremate for practical reasons, so it has to be something more, something deeper. Personally, I’m inclined towards a spiritual interpretation. Without further evidence, though, it will have to remain a hunch for now.


[1] A 6th century cinerary vessel of Myres’ ‘Buckelurne’ type, courtesy of the British Museum’s Free Image Service.

[2]  BBC News Online. 27th September 2013. Burial space in England ‘could run out in 20 years’ [accessed online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-24283426].

[3] ©Alec Down and Martin Welch, 1990. Chichester Excavations VII: Apple Down and the Mardens. Chichester: Chichester District Council, plate 53.

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