The history of the cremation movement in the Czech lands

Today's programme will concern a topic from which modern Western societies tend to shy away. Death is usually mentioned in the media only when violence or severe diseases are involved. But as a natural part of human existence death and burial deserve their share of attention, especially as the customs and ceremonies around them can tell a lot about different cultures. For example, did you know that as much as 75 percent of Czechs choose to be cremated after death and that this number is the highest in Europe? The tradition goes back a long way...

"Well, we can consider December 8th, 1899 as the founding date of the Association of Cremation. It was in the time of Austria-Hungary. We can consider the Prague physician and hygienist dr. Jindrich Zahor as the most important person promoting cremation in the Czech Lands. The official year of foundation is 1909."

Radka Kucirkova of the Czech Cremation Association, or Spolecnost pratel zehu, which is celebrating its 95th anniversary in 2004. At the turn of the 19th century, many famous Czech personalities from all walks of life contributed to the promotion of cremation.

"The other pioneers were Josef Scheiner who was later the chairman of Sokol, that was the organisation for physical education. Then municipal engineer Ludvik Cizek and the poet Josef Vaclav Sladek and also the director the National Theatre Jaroslav Kvapil."

The movement promoting cremation gained on popularity rapidly in the early years, thanks to its central ideas which appealed to the revived Czech nation. Radka Kucirkova.

"The main idea behind the movement was coming back to the original Slavonic burials and also an important aspect was hygiene and saving space for cremated remains."

Although cremation had many supporters in the second decade of the 20th century, the Austro-Hungarian authorities did not allow it and those who wished to be cremated after death had to arrange for it outside the empire. Nevertheless, the bureaucrats in Vienna had no objections whatsoever to a crematorium being built in Bohemia - even though it could not carry out cremations.

"It was not legal but between 1915 and 1917 the first crematorium was built in Liberec even though cremation was no allowed. People had to wait until April 1, 1919 when the law was approved by the National Parliament. After that date the first cremation was carried out on October 31, 1919 in Liberec."

Within a year of the announcement of the Czechoslovak Republic cremation became almost an everyday reality. The movement was strengthened by a new social phenomenon, as Radka Kucirkova of the Czech Cremation Association explains.

"That was because of the foundation of an independent church, the Czechoslovak Church, after 1918. This church started to build new chapels and as part of these chapels suitable places called columbaria were built, for placing urns with the cremated remains."

The aspect of hygiene and "saving the soil for the living", as the slogan went, attracted thousands and thousands of supporters of cremation in Czechoslovakia between the world wars. Many new crematoria were built and the Czech Cremation Association counted its members in hundreds of thousands.

"It's quite natural because it was quite a new thing at that time and people were interested in new things. And also, there was a big advantage from the economic point of view because the membership fee for young people was very low which was very good for them and it was also one of the reasons why people wanted to be members of the Cremation Association. And at present we have approximately 25,000 members."

In the 1930s Czechoslovakia became strongly involved in the international cremation movement. Radka Kucirkova.

"There was a big international congress organised in Prague in September 1936. That was the big initiative for founding the International Cremation Federation that was a year after founded in London. And this International Cremation Federation has got a status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations."

To this day the Czech Cremation Association is a member of the International Cremation Federation. The benefits of the membership have been mutual. The Czechs have learnt from their colleagues abroad and also came up with one important contribution of their own in the 1960s. The reason was a growing popularity of cremation and a lack of suitable burial grounds.

"The Czech Cremation Association was on the one hand promoting cremations and on the other had to solve this problem. So the Czech Cremation Association accepted the method of spreading the ashes, or the cremains at special meadows, which was taken from Great Britain. It was legalised in Czechoslovakia in 1959. In 1964 Czechoslovakia came up with a new way of cremated remains disposal and started to put the cremains into a special plot of ground dedicated for scattering ashes and these special plots were founded because of the different weather conditions in Czechoslovakia and also it was because anonymity was removed. So people could put ashes or cremains of several members of the family into one plot."

The promoters of the movement at the turn of the 19th century would surely welcome the fact that their ideal would have become a norm in this country in a hundred years' time. The number of cremations is extraordinarily high compared to the rest of the world but, according to Radka Kucirkova of the Czech Cremation Association, it is not expected to grow any more.

"We have been having 75 percent of cremations done each year which is quite a big and stable number and we do not expect any big increase because we suppose that 20-25 percent will go on with traditional burials in normal graves. It is because of family tradition or religion. It is mainly in the country, in villages, the tradition still lives there."

Another interesting fact is that since the split of Czechoslovakia, Slovakia has dropped much lower in the international statistics, with only around 12 percent opting for cremation. Radka Kucirkova explains.

"It's because of the religion, the Roman-Catholic religion which is very strong in Slovakia, so they do not have many cremations there."

Thanks to its international ties, the Czech Cremation Association can offer its services not only to the citizens of the Czech Republic but also to expatriates who wish to be united after death with their relatives in the country of their origin.

"We are offering the service of arrangement of placing the cremated remains in the Czech Republic. So if someone wants to come back to the town of his or her origin, they can contact us and we are able to arrange all the administrative arrangements and we are able to put the cremated remains in the place they want."