What is a Funeral Pyre? (And can I have one?)

Let’s learn about funeral pyres. We’ll cover funeral pyre meaning, open-air cremation, and whether or not you can choose to have a pyre funeral for yourself or for family members.

What Is a Funeral Pyre?

A funeral pyre is a construction of wood (sometimes with a base of stone) on which a human body is burned.

Also known as “open air cremation” or “outdoor cremation,” the use of funeral pyres dates back to the bronze age and is still common in some traditions, including the Sikh and Hindu religions.

However, this type of funerary fire is not common (or even legal) in most of the modern Western world.

What Is Open-Air Cremation?

Open-air cremation is the process of cremation (reducing a body to ash by use of fire) set out in the open as part of a funeral rite. This is done by placing the body on a funeral pyre, then stoking the fire and burning until the corpse is reduced to ashes.

What is a funeral pyre?
Digital rendering of a funeral pyre – Copyright USUrnsOnline

Is Open-Air Cremation Legal in the USA?

No. Open-air cremation or burning human bodies on funeral pyres is not legal in most of the Western world.

However, there is an exception. In Crestone, Colorado, the non-profit organization Crestone End of Life Project operates a legal open-air cremation site. This is the only place in the United States where people can be legally cremated on a funeral pyre.

You would have to be both a member of their organization and a resident of Crestone in order to qualify for their open-air cremation ceremony.

Why Are Funeral Pyres Illegal?

Funeral pyres, which involve open-air cremation services where the body of the deceased is placed on a pyre and ignited in an outdoor setting, are illegal or heavily regulated in the United States due to a combination of cultural, environmental, and public health factors.

  • Health concerns. An open-air cremation service results in toxic particles being released through the pyre’s smoke.
  • Environmental concerns. Similarly, this method of disposition can pose hazards to the environment, including air pollution and the potential for uncontrolled burning.
  • Cultural sensitivities. Western culture has considered the burning of bodies to be a desecration.
  • Alternative disposition methods are available. Modern cremation facilities offer a controlled and regulated indoor cremation process that adheres to environmental and public health standards. These facilities are designed to efficiently and safely cremate bodies while minimizing negative impacts on the environment and the community.

In summary, the prohibition or heavy regulation of funeral pyres is typically a result of a complex interplay between environmental consciousness, public health considerations, cultural sensitivities, and the availability of alternative, more controlled disposition methods that address these concerns more effectively.

What Countries Still Use Funeral Pyres?

Other countries that practice open-air cremation include:

Will Funeral Pyres Ever Be Legal in the USA?

Possibly. Attitudes and ideas about death practices are changing rapidly in the Western world. Contemporary cremation in a crematorium has only been around since the late 1800s. Polite society frowned upon cremation for decades following its introduction.

However, in the last two decades the rate of cremation has risen tremendously. In 2016, the rate of cremation in the USA increased to 50.2, meaning that for the first time more than half of all decedents were cremated.

Now there are many other options for final disposition available and being researched. People ask about “Viking funerals” and being cremated on a funeral pyre all the time, so interest is clearly growing.

But will open air cremation ever be legal in the USA, Canada, Europe, or other areas of the Western world? Only time will tell.

For now, when making your end-of-life plan, it’s best to count on what is currently legal. We invite you to continue browsing our articles to learn more about planning a funeral service.

Read more: Here’s the complete list of everything you can do with your body after you die

What is Open Air Cremation?

4 thoughts on “What is a Funeral Pyre? (And can I have one?)”

  1. Hi Jennifer,

    Thanks for asking! As explained in the article, pretty much no, you won’t be able to be burned on a funeral pyre. The practice is not legal in most of the Western world.

  2. You can turn your body into ashes for a tattoo, you can be turned into a gemstone, or a record….but open air cremation is illegal???.

  3. Yes, that is because for those options (tattoo, gemstone, etc) the cremation has already been done in a certified crematorium. Once a body has been reduced to ashes there is a lot more flexibility with what can be done with the ashes, vs what can be done with the body of the deceased.

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