In May I had
the good fortune to travel to Germany for several days where I
enjoyed the fabled culture of good food, beautiful
architecture, and friendly German people. As a historian does,
I took the opportunity to visit a couple of the oldest
crematories in the country, one of which is the second-oldest
in Europe. In touring the historic Leipzig and Gotha
Crematoriums, I noticed the use of symbols in the architecture
and on the various urns in the urnenhalle and urnenhain – a
very prominent one of which is die Flamme – the flame.
The early cremationists recognized the purifying power of the flame, but they also often regarded the reduction of the body to its basic elements by the use of flame and heat as the means to which the soul was set free from the body. “Flame dissolves the perishable, freeing the immortal” is inscribed in German above the entrance of the Zurich Crematorium in Switzerland. Vermibus erepti, puro consumimur igni - “Saved from the worms, purified by the consuming flame” was a commonly published and inscribed sentiment in the early cremation movement around the world – and was first quoted by Prof. Ludovico Brunetti when he published his discourse on cremation in 1873.
After the cremation movement in the US shifted its focus from the importance of purifying the remains of the dead to the importance of the memorial, the flame motif became a bit less common. With the exception of several urns created by Gorham Bronze, the flame finial, which is where the idea was most often expressed, became much less popular by the mid-1940s. This was not as true in Germany where even many of the modern crematories there continue to use the flame as part of their logos – not only in homage to their cremationist forebears, but also in recognition of the spiritual element of the flame and its various representations. Additionally, many of the modern urns that are offered in Germany have the flame as part of their decoration.
Another common symbol that often accompanies the flame motif is the powerful image of the legendary phoenix bird rising above the flame. The ancient Greeks believed in the phoenix as a representation of the rising and setting of the sun, and thus, it represented the cycle of life and death. When the phoenix had lived its days it died in a fiery blaze and was reduced to ashes, and then rose again from the ashes to live life anew.
Many early mystic teachings compare the phoenix with the regeneration and enlightenment of man. Igne natura renovatur integra – “By fire, nature is restored in purity” – with fire representing the everlasting spirit. The teaching was that when a person lives entirely in the light or fire of the spirit, the fallible nature is purified and the person becomes a new creation – much like the phoenix. A very similar teaching comes from the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible when the Holy Spirit, represented in tongues of fire, came upon those who were gathered. From then on they were filled with the Holy Spirit and it purified them.
In the figurative sense, the flame of the everlasting spirit is the beautiful way in which we are purified while we live, whether it is through enlightenment, the Holy Spirit, or simply by the spirit of our own will. When we die, cremation is the literal purification which prepares the body for the memorial, the spirit for the life eternal, the memory for the hearts and minds of those in the old life. As the memorial is established to commemorate the old life, the new life – purified by the sacred flame, will begin…
That’s my perspective…
Urn of the Issue: Model #487 by the Voelsing Company of Giesen, Germany. Made in spun copper with a dark galvanized finish, it shows the common flame symbol which is popular in German cremation urns. Cremation urns in Germany are larger than their US counterparts - this urn measures almost 11" tall, just over 7" in diameter with a capacity of 6 liters, or almost 400 cubic inches. The reason for this is simple. In Germany, cremated remains are not returned to families; instead they are returned to the funeral director in a sealed container called an ash capsule. The ash capsule cannot be opened as German laws state that cremated remains cannot be scattered or kept in the home. Therefore, the urns are made large enough to hold the ash capsule. Additionally, most urns are made to be biodegradable over time - this is because burial spaces are leased for 20 year terms. After 20 years, if the lease is not renewed, the stone is removed or returned to the family and a new burial takes place.
Ryan Engler is a licensed funeral director and certified
celebrant. He is The Cremation Historian for the Cremation
Association of North America and the National Museum of
Funeral History and a frequent speaker and writer on the
subject of cremation in the US, urns, and their history.
He is the cremation products buyer for Service Corporation
International and lives in Houston, Texas, with his
miniature dachshund, Otto.
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