The Sanitary Relations of Cemeteries

Date Published: 
September, 1894
Original Author: 
Henry Leffman
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 8th Annual Convention

That cremation is an advisable method of disposing of the dead, especially in cases of contagious diseases, is largely accepted by the intellectual class of the community but the practice seems to be but little followed. It must also be remembered that so far as the liability to spread infection is concerned, the ceremonies of funerals, exposure of the corpse to the gaze of friends and relatives, are more objectionable than the mere fact of burial.  Whatever may be the individual views on such questions, earth-burial will be the practice for many years, and the attention of sanitary authorities should be directed to rendering this custom as innocuous as possible.

Much has been written on the question of the effects of grave yards on the public health, but as in other departments of sanitary science, a large proportion of the literature is merely general statement and of little value. Intra-mural cemeteries, particularly when long established, are usually considered prejudicial to public health, but it is very doubtful if a careful analysis of the mortuary statistics of large cities would show any evidence of such danger. The views as to the causation of disease, still held by many, even of those in sanitary authority, are too largely influenced by older theories, according to which "exhalations" or "influences" were supposed to be concerned. Such a tendency was well seen in the suddenly developed fear of "sewer gas." Within the past few months several competent observers have presented before the annual session of the American Association of Physicians (an organization which probably represents as high an order of medical knowledge as can be found) papers in which the disease producing power of sewer gas has been shown to be more than doubtful and certainly not proved. Of all methods, other than cremation, of disposing of the dead body, especially when dead of contagious disease, earth burial is the best and is a strictly natural method, for it is by means of the action of soil microbes that the organic mass is converted into harmless materials. The principal objection to intramural cemeteries is that they interfere with proper use of land and offend the aesthetic taste of the inhabitants. These are indeed the main reasons that lead to their abandonment. The charge that they are prejudicial to the health is often a mere pretence. Of course there must be a limit to the use of such places. Earth is a natural disinfectant, but it is not an inexhaustible one. A limit must be fixed for depth of covering but with a few feet of earth over a body there is no reason to suppose that any dangerous emanation could arise.

Intramural cemeteries are often neglected, overgrown with weeds and become the resort of stray animals. As long as the living relatives will not encourage or even allow of removal of the dead to extramural grounds, it is to be regretted that the conditions cannot be made more elegant, the location of bodies marked by simple and artistic methods and not by the hideous tombstones so commonly seen. These features are, however, of less moment in view of the tendency to establish cemeteries on the outskirts of large cities and a new question has arisen, namely to what extent are such cemeteries likely to contaminate water supply.

In Philadelphia, attention has been drawn to this matter for years.     A large area on the east bank of the Schuylkill has been long used as a burying ground and some sensational literature has been put forth in regard to fancied pollution of Schuylkill water. "Drinking our ancestors," has been one of the stock criticisms on the use of Schuylkill water. One well known local expert claimed to have found in the water traces of oil from coffin woods; another thought that tuberculosis was largely caused by swallowing the tubercle gems introduced into the stream from the Laurel Hill remains. The views are little else than sanitary “fakes”.  They are unsupported by trustworthy data and are unworthy of credence. Let us see what are the facts in regard to earth burial on the banks of streams.

In civilized countries, bodies are shrouded, placed in a substantial coffin and this enclosed in a box. Graves are deep and well drained, uniform temperature, deficient supply of air and moisture and long protection from the direct action of the soil greatly retard decomposition, so that even several years elapse before the body begins to disintegrate. It follows, therefore, that for contagion to spread from a body buried in the customary manner it is necessary that materials pass to the surface of the soil and be washed by storm waters into the neighboring stream, or pass downwards and by entering the subsoil currents pass either directly into the stream or indirectly through springs. The first of these methods is impossible the surface washings of a cemetery are far less harmful than those of a farm or town. As has been noted above, a body buried a few feet below the surface of the soil cannot give off any exhalation or germs. As regards the possibility of disease germs passing downward, we have proof that even course particles of soil will act as a complete filter. Soil is almost sterile a few yards below the surface, notwithstanding the large number of microbes present in the upper layers, and the constant downward movement of the water falling on the surface. How then can we expect the microbes present in a corpse, securely enclosed within two boxes, in addition to the shroud, to find their way within any reasonable time through many feet of earth? Even if microbes lived forever, they could not work their way through any ordinary soil, not even through considerable layers of sand, but in reality they soon perish. There is every reason to believe that a few months after the burial of the corpse the disease producing microbes are dead, that even if a body containing them were buried uncovered in the soil, it would be unlikely that it would contaminate the subsoil water.

Let us apply these principles to the cemeteries located along the banks of the Schuylkill River. The graves are located many feet above the water level, the ground is more or less steep, which causes the large proportion of water to run off, while that which enters the soil, must pass through many feet of excellent filtering material before entering the stream. By the time that a portion of any coffin has become so broken as to permit the percolating water to take up any portion of the material, specific microbes will be all dead. It may seem that the higher the level of the cemetery the greater protection to the adjacent stream, but it is probable that beyond a certain amount of soil no further protection is needed. The Philadelphians who journey along the Schuylkill may regard with some anxiety the extensive areas devoted to cemeteries, but as a matter of fact it is a cause for congratulation, if such use had not been made, these areas would have been appropriated for villages and manufacturing sites and be discharging into the river sewage, laden with every variety of dangerous material. The many thousands that constitute the silent populations of these cities of the dead do not contribute to Fairmount pool one iota of the danger that would result from a manufacturing establishment employing fifty hands or from a straggling village along its banks. It is certainly true as regards the sanitary relations of cemeteries that “dead men tell no tales”.  The distribution of disease by water arises from the contamination of that water by the excretions of human beings and domestic animals. Even manufacturing refuse, unless it contain poisonous metals, e. g. arsenic and lead, is much less dangerous than is supposed

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 8th Annual Convention
Philadelphia, PA
September 11, 12 and 13, 1894