Sanitary Methods of Burial

Date Published: 
September, 1892
Original Author: 
George H. Scott
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 6th Annual Convention

As a preface to the subject of Sanitary Methods of Burial, it will be well, perhaps, to notice some of the methods (ancient and modern) of disposing of the dead, other than burial.

First, there are the crypts and catacombs of Egypt; the consigning of dead bodies to the river Ganges, in India, and the depositing of bodies within the walls of tower-shaped receptacles, built for that purpose, by the infatuated coolie of the same country; the strapping to the boughs and limbs of trees, after due process of bandaging, in the seclusion of some dense forest, by the Indian; in our own country the ever prominent over ground vault, and lastly, cremation or incineration.

The methods of burial in this our country are; the underground vault, the brick grave, slate grave, stone grave, concrete grave and the ordinary or what is called the common grave.

In almost every case before being deposited in any of these receptacles, the coffin containing the body is placed in a box, made occasionally of polished oak, or other hard wood; but invariably such outer box, known as a coffin box, is of plain unpolished deal board, and only in the case of burial of a pauper or patient of some hospital, or the inmate of some poorhouse, is the outer box dispensed with.

"Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." This mandate applies to matter as well as man, and sets forth the fundamental principles of a natural law, worthy of our consideration, namely the law of circularity and mineral assimilation. We see it in the return of the seasons, and the rise and fall of the leaf. The earth brings forth grass and herbs, grain and fruit, for the use of man and beast, and after having served the higher purpose of sustaining animal life generally, and that of man in particular, they return in their various forms, by manifold sources, back to the earth from whence they came, stimulating and enriching the latter toward future and further productions. And so man is born, lives and dies, and being of the earth, earthy, when dead, his body must be given back to the earth of which it is a part. The formation of the earth being the handiwork of the Great Architect, is designed as nature's depository and deodorizer, and contains all the chemicals necessary for the decomposition and absorption of dead bodies and other substances offensive to the living, rendering them innocuous by complete decomposition and assimilation, thus fulfilling the law of circularity by dust returning to dust, and in doing so, preparing the way for future natural, necessary processes of a like kind. And when we consign, the dead bodies of our fellow men to other than an ordinary or common grave burial we rob "Mother Earth" of her rights, set at naught this Divine mandate, and violate this natural law.

That the violation of this law has been the rule in past ages, and that little heed is paid to it in the present age, is true; but let us glance at the condition of one or two of these countries, and their people, that have set at naught this mandate, and so openly and persistently violated this law by the unsanitary disposal of their dead.

The scourge of desolation has hung over Egypt for centuries. The preservation of their dead was a failure, for in every museum in the land you see Egyptian mummified human bodies being exhibited as hideous relics of a barbaric age, the trade and commerce of the country long since gone, its rivers polluted, its cities and palaces reduced to ashes, its magnificent tombs covered by desert sand, and the people themselves wanderers over the face of the earth.

The coolie, with his method of consigning his dead to the waters of the Ganges, to be washed to and fro by the waves until finally driven ashore and buried in the sand by the soldiers of the forts, or depositing in those horrible pit-like towers, to be seized and devoured by vultures and other birds of prey, is in himself so totally ignorant of sanitary or any other laws, so weak and infatuated, as to be almost incapable of civilization, so much so that a mere handful of British soldiers dictates to and holds in subjection over 200,000,000 of his race.

The Indian, with his method of lashing the bodies of the dead to the boughs and limbs of trees, to ultimately become food for the beasts of the forest, is, year after year, by the rapid strides of civilization, being driven back into narrower and narrower limits, and bids fair ere long, he and his race, to become extinct.

Another objectionable method of disposing of the dead is placing them in over ground vaults, a method extensively practiced in our own cemeteries, and objectionable, because unsanitary, more especially so, in cases of the small cheap, shoddy and nondescript vaults, of which class, unfortunately, there are the greatest number, and they may be seen in almost every cemetery in the country, conspicuous in ugliness, the outcome of one person vying with another.

A lot owner concludes that he will build a vault. Instead of consulting an architect (he cannot afford that) he sends for a stone-man; the first measurement taken by the latter is that of his customer's pocket book; finding that, he suggests something which he knows his customer cannot pay for, and which the latter consequently refuses. When the stone-man, in the pretended greatness of his heart, describes to him what he calls a very nice vault indeed, and at a suitable sum, hastily prepares some scrawl of a plan with a flashily worded specification in one sentence, stating that all interior receptacles for the dead will, when used, be hermetically sealed, and in the next, that there will be air spaces to allow of the escape of any smell that may arise from decomposition of the bodies, under these terms the building proceeds, and when completed; proves violent in design, flimsy in construction, inferior in material, and frequently anything but creditable in workmanship, setting forth the bad taste of the owner, the avarice of the stone-man, and creating a nuisance in the cemetery in which it stands.

The name of vault with regard to such buildings is a misnomer; they have more the appearance of tool houses, or isolated buildings for the housing and protection of sick animals. Many of them have no interior arrangements, the coffins containing the bodies being placed on wooden biers, on the open floor, while some are provided with shelves on to which the dead are packed in a similar way to dry goods in a store, seen in all gloominess of appearance through an iron grated doorway, by every passing eye, and from which during the process of decomposition a noisome stench is emitted. Of all methods of disposing of the dead this is the most unnatural and unsanitary, and it is such objectionable methods as these that call forth the revival of cremation and the advisability of advocating it as a necessity.

But, aside from the sanitary aspect of the case, do we not, by our morbid desire to preserve our dead for all time, court a scourge such as has been experienced by other nations? Do we not provoke divine displeasure? Be that as it may, it would be well if cemetery associations generally would combine to prevent the erection of such places, and so suppress this worst of all, and most unsanitary method of disposing of the dead.


Cremation, an ancient method of disposing of the dead, and of late years revived, was once practiced by these countries of which we have spoken, and to what extent they have thriven under that, and their various other systems, we have already stated. However cremation may be patronized in the future in its present revival as yet the public does not approve of it. In the minds of the majority of people there arises a sort of paralyzing horror at submitting the remains of their dear departed relatives to its sizzling process.

In an article recently published in one of our newspapers a gentleman advocating cremation expressed himself as unable to see why we should rather consign the remains of those we love to the tender mercies of worms than to the tender mercies of heat.

In reply we would say that the idea that a dead body, when consigned to the grave, is immediately attacked by worms is a mistaken idea. We have seen thousands of graves dug, and hundreds of bodies removed from one grave to another, and that in all stages of decomposition, but we never yet saw worms in contiguity to such bodies. The earth worm enjoys a more alluvial soil; his happy hunting ground is nearer the surface than the bottom of a five-foot grave. Besides, dead and decomposed bodies are not his food.


The practice of burying in underground vaults, brick, slate, stone and concrete graves is objectionable, inasmuch as these methods impede the progress of decomposition, and all methods of burial that would hinder rapid and complete decay and the assimilation of the body by the earth are more or less unsanitary.

The use of metallic caskets too, of whatever description of metal, is objectionable. They not only prevent the natural decay of the body, but they preserve, as in a bottle, the germs of cholera, small-pox, and other infectious diseases, some day, it may be, if disturbed by removal, or by additional adjacent burials, to break forth in all their virulence, making and claiming fresh victims as they go.

What method of burial then is the most sanitary?

We reply: The ordinary or common grave burial. First, because it is more in keeping with the Divine mandate-"Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return"; and secondly, because it offers fewer obstructions to the earth's, natural work of mineral assimilation.

In order to assist "Mother Earth" in her natural sanitary efforts we should remove all obstacles tending to impede her in the progress of her work, and to this end, the superfluous outer box, known as a coffin box, should be abandoned, and the coffin itself made of common pine or other soft wood, in order that the body, which is the offensive part, may the sooner come in contact with the earth and be converted thereto.

In Japan a coffin of wicker work is very extensively used, in addition to which lime is frequently put into the grave. Of the sanitary effect of such a method there can be no doubt, and although it might be contended as being , carried a little too far, yet certain it is, that the closer a body is placed to the earth, the more hastily will the latter perform its natural work of assimilation.

If such a method of burial as suggested were universally adopted and adhered to, it would not only insure the sanitary condition of our cemeteries, but would be much more economical, for were these unsanitary and extravagant methods of interment abolished, some 6,000 acres less land would suffice for the burial of the dead throughout the United States during the next fifty years. Besides, if such a method of burial were adhered to, the same ground after due lapse of time could be buried in, again and again, by each successive descend ant of its owner of today.


It is frequently contended that the decomposition of bodies, especially where buried in large numbers, tends to the pollution of the waters of adjacent springs, brooks and rivulets.

We might give many proofs in confutation of such an argument, but will only particularize one. Within the grounds of a certain cemetery in the state of Illinois there is situated a well from which clear, cool and sparkling water is daily pumped, and which to our own individual knowledge has, by proper analysis, been proved to be perfectly pure, notwithstanding that the well is situated in a ravine, surrounded by high rising ground, on which within a radius of 200 feet there are buried over 600 bodies, while more are being regularly buried in the same locality. The water in the well retains its general purity, is extensively used for domestic purposes, and is highly prized as first class pure water, all of which proves the natural chemical power of the earth to purge and absorb all putrid bodies submitted to its process, without itself becoming corrupt.

In conclusion, we repeat that all methods of burial or disposal of the dead other than the ordinary or common grave burials, are violations of the Divine mandate and natural law, and are the revived customs of a barbaric age. When we consider man, the creature of the Creator, the noblest work of God, originally fashioned in His own image, and think of taking his body as soon as deprived of breath, and burning it up as we would the rubbish and garbage of our farms and cities, it is nothing more or  less than an insult to the Deity, to common decency and natural law, a revival of barbarism, degrading in character and highly deleterious to all moral and religious principles, an unjustifiable interference with the natural order of things, and of the designs of Him who "doeth all things well", an act disgraceful to civilization; and however shielded by man's weak and pompous show, the practice will most assuredly, as of old, draw upon us Divine displeasure, and subject us, as in the case of the ancients whom we imitate, to Divine wrath.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 6th Annual Convention
Baltimore, MD
September 27, 28 and 29, 1892