Jews and early Christians disliked cremation, considering it a pagan ritual. Constantine’s Christianization of Rome in 300 AD meant that cremation was almost entirely replaced by ground burial, driven by the belief that the human body was sacred. Entombment remained the accepted method of disposition for the next 1,500 years. A secondary reason some historians suggest for the disappearance of cremation around this time is the threat of wood shortages due to the building of elaborate funeral pyres.
Cremation was forbidden during this period and involvement in the practice was punishable by death. In addition to being punishable, cremation also served as punishment in Medieval Europe. Heretics were burned at the stake and in some instances even removed from their burial spaces and cremated as a form of post-mortem revenge. In one famous example, preacher John Wycliffe’s remains were exhumed and cremated 44 years after his death to punish him for heresy committed during his life.
Aside from punishing heretics, cremation was used in extreme circumstances such as battle, pestilence and famine that left an overwhelming number of bodies. Many historians believe the line “ashes, ashes we all fall down” from the famous song Ring Around the Rosie refers to cremation during the Black Plague. Others disagree, claiming Christians held fast to their beliefs and refused to cremate their dead even in extreme circumstances.
The French Revolution criticized the Catholic church and its teachings. Freemasons promoted cremation during this period in an attempt to reduce the church’s necessary role in the funeral process. These efforts only caused the Catholic church to increase their opposition of cremation up until the 20th century.