The Burning Question

Date Published: 
September, 1905
Original Author: 
Thomas White
Riverside Cemetery, Fairhaven, Massachusetts
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 19th Annual Convention

What is the burning question? Many years ago a certain long suffering pedagogue managed to instill into the minds of his pupils that a burning question might be one of a number of important questions, but the burning question is the question which above all others demands our close attention.

What is, then, the burning question? With one class of people the burning question is how to live; with another class of people the burning question is how to die; but with the cemetery superintendent the burning question is the proper disposition of the dead, having always in view, in addition to other conditions which have been discussed from time to time, the safety of the remains and the sanitary conditions, both as regards the present and the future.

Science has been for many years successfully combating disease. The dreadful scourges which periodically visited our forefathers have ceased to recur, or are practically under control. This is doubtless due more to sanitary measures than to medicines. The evils of unsanitary conditions have been overcome and scientists are looking for new fields to conquer.

Regarding post-mortem matters, there is a decided sentiment of reform working slowly but effectually in. the community. The time has arrived when the ability of the time-honored method of earth burial to meet the requirements may be questioned and the idea of quick dissolution of the body by fire as the only practical way of solving a difficult problem is fast finding favor.

There has been enough said and written at different times upon this subject to excuse me from giving you a sketch of the history of cremation from its inception to the present time. Of what import is it to us what were the sentiments or the customs of the ancients only inasmuch as such sentiments or the customs may be of service to us in forming our own opinion or on guiding public opinion? Consumption of the body by fire seems to have early found a place in the religious rites of man. When a man sacrifices to the deity, his sense of the fitness of things would not allow him to leave the sacrifice to putrify upon the ground, neither would it allow him to submit it to the process of corruption by burying it in the ground. The consumption of the sacrifice by fire, the ascending of the smoke into the mysterious from whence came the thunder, the lightning, the wind and rain, would appeal to him as being an appropriate manner of disposing of his tribute to the giver of all good.

It may be that the sacrificial altar gave birth to the funeral pile. The slow and horrid process of corruption was obviated; the body could not be subjected to defilement nor indignity, by friend, by foe, nor by future generations. "The duty was performed by loving hands and the end was counted an honorable one."

The advent of Christianity gave the death-blow to cremation throughout that part of the world known as Christendom. It was the belief of the early Christians that the second coming of the Lord would be in the immediate future; during some of their lives. As taught by St. Paul, "We shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed." Therefore they buried their dead in the hope that they might live to see the resurrection of the body. Cremation need cause no anxiety upon this score, for to quote the words of a learned preacher: "It will be just as easy for the Almighty to recreate the body from a pile of ashes as it will from a pile of dust: Either case will require a miracle."

The preservation of the bodies of the departed, from corruption or from possible defilement, seems to have been an ever-present source of anxiety with the human family. It was this horror of the ill-treatment of the dead that caused Joseph to instruct the children of Israel to carry away his bones when they should leave Egypt. This, which caused the valiant sons of Israel to brave a desperate foe and recover the bodies of Saul and Jonathan and burn them with fire. This, which caused the Egyptians to embalm and entomb their dead.

In preparing our dead for burial we are today doubtless actuated by the same motive. While we do not turn the body inside out, stuff it with spices and sweet-smelling herbs, bind it with unlimited length of starched linen and pile mountains of rock over it, yet we array our dead, with extreme care, in their best clothes, encase them in coffins or caskets of pine, cedar or copper and cover them with broadcloth to the tune of from fifteen to one thousand dollars, lay them away in the earth, in vaults under the ground, or in mausoleums above the ground and to what end ? The tombs held as sacred and built at enormous cost of treasure and human life by the Egyptians are being rifled by a people who at the time of their erection were clothed in the skins of animals, if clothed at all; and their precious contents are placed in glass cases to be gazed upon by a curious public. After all our expense and care we layaway our dead with the sure and certain knowledge that in a few months, and for years after that time we would not care to look upon them nor even to contemplate their condition.

Why is it that we cling so tenaciously to earth burial with its present arid future horrors? Which is most shocking to a sensitive mind, seeing the casket gently lowered beneath the floor of the chapel or wheeled away into an adjoining room to undergo the quick process of disintegration by fire, or seeing it lowered into the earth, sometimes dry and sometimes wet, to meet the same end by the slow and repulsive process of corruption? In spite of all our care, our embalments, our coffins or our vaults, the end is the same; and the quicker it is accomplished the better it is for all concerned.

When we have overcome the prejudice of two thousand years the benefits of cremation are obvious. When we have seen the flower covered casket lowered from our sight and have been assured by the presence of one or two friends that cremation is an accomplished fact, we have performed for our dead the last office. No dreams of desecrated graves will disturb our sleep, no cutting up of cemeteries by railroad extensions or by the requirements of city growth will cause us anxiety. As we often hear the expression, "We have seen the last of them," we have prevented for every one of those scenes we occasionally witness, the undignified removal of the remains, more often prompted by caprice than by necessity, by future generations. Often when presiding over this work the words of an epitaph said to be inscribed upon a tombstone in Stratford-on-Avon came to my mind:

“Good friend, for Jesus' sake forebear
 To dig the dust enclosed here;
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones."

And yet I well remember that a number of years ago but for the strenuous opposition of a number of influential people, some antiquarian society or other would have unearthed the remains of the poet because they wanted to see if the old fellow's skull was a true copy of some models they had.

According to the opinion of some superintendents with whom I have corresponded, one important feature of cremation will be a reform in the way of economy; as one superintendent says, he thinks that the cost of the incineration might well be taken off the cost of the casket. Not the least important will be the economy in the use of land, not only in regard to the expense incurred by the necessary purchase of a larger lot, but as regards the area of land required and occupied for cemetery purposes. The population of this country is increasing by leaps and bounds; but the area of ground available for cemetery purposes increases not at all. Once occupied for burial purposes it is locked up forever from future use. Those of you who preside over cemeteries with an unlimited area of available land should remember that at one time the same conditions prevailed in those cities where at the present time one grave is allotted for the use of a whole family and in some cases for the promiscuous burial of a number of people. I will leave you to draw your own pictures of what the conditions must be in the cemeteries of Southern Europe and the Azores, where people are buried without coffins and the ground is reused after a period of from one to ten years. In many Old Country cemeteries graves are opened to the depth of fifteen feet, more or less, the grave is reopened as often as required, twelve inches of earth being left between the bodies as the grave is filled. In one particular cemetery they find ooze at that depth and bury the first body in it.

But we need not go so far from home to meet with circumstances sufficiently revolting. What must be the state of the earth in the potter's field in some of our own cemeteries, where bodies are buried five or six feet deep and nearly if not quite touching one another? Seventy-five thousand bodies lie in one potter's field. What a healthy neighborhood this must be for a city of nearly four million inhabitants. In and around New York there are 84 cemeteries. Newtown, in the Borough of Queens, NY, has a cemetery area of 1,800 acres which contains two million bodies. Calvary Cemetery, New York, a cemetery of 214 acres in extent contains 600,000 bodies, 2,800 to the acre. The population of New York has increased 260 percent during the past forty years and it would not be difficult to find several cities whose population has doubled and trebled during that time. When we consider that the greater part of the present population along with a considerable portion of the increase we may reasonably expect during the next fifty years, must be provided with sepulcher within that time, it is reasonable to conclude that the time for a decided change is not far distant, as time is measured. And I think it safe to prophesy that when scientific men have vanquished the germ-carrying mosquito they will probably turn their attention to cremation.

Some years ago there was a general effort made to introduce and encourage cremation; but it seems to have been spasmodic only. In the opinion of cemetery superintendents and promoters of cremation, the idea seems to have taken a new lease of life and is surely gaining in strength; especially among the medical fraternity.

From the time of the erection of the first crematory in the United States in 1876, there have been over 24,000 incinerations and in the leading countries of Europe, during that same time, there have been 18,000. Of 25 crematories in the United States of which we have reports, 19 report a steady increase in the number of incinerations; 2 just hold their own; and 4 appear to be progressing backwards. The total yearly number of incinerations in the United States has gradually increased from 813 in 1894 to 3,020 in 1904.

The fees for incineration are generally twenty-five and thirty dollars, and this charge, I am informed, pays. The Massachusetts Cremation Society reports a profit of nearly four percent on its capital stock.

It is the opinion of some managers of crematories that as cremation gains favor municipal authorities will take up the matter, that cremation will shortly become more general and that these prices will be reduced.

The cost of crematories varies according to taste and resources. Generally the retorts have been built in connection with a chapel or other building already in existence and cost so far as I have been able to learn from $1,250 to $3,600. The crematory buildings of Massachusetts Crematory Company, which we were privileged to inspect three years ago, cost in the neighborhood of $30,000 and the two retorts $5,000.

The office of incineration is performed as it should be, in a private manner. The last rites concern the family and the immediate friends only. The unseemly conduct of curious crowds sometimes witnessed at funerals is avoided. The family and friends accompany the body to the chapel and one or two are permitted to see the casket placed in the retort. The casket after being divested of its metallic handles is raised or lowered to the level of the floor of the retort, a heavy soapstone door is raised and the casket is pushed into a chamber made of fire clay, the door dosed and the flames turned on. There are neither flames, smoke nor odor to cause sensation; anything at all gruesome about the process exists only in the imagination.

To the progressive superintendent I would say: do not be afraid that the adoption of cremation will lessen the value of your profession or immediately upset the present order of things and mar the beauty of your creations; cremation will not come into exclusive force in a day, any more than did the lawn plan and the banishment of fences and curbing. Do not think that you will live to see the family lot erased from your plans, or the monuments disappear from the landscape. The work of the rider of the pale horse will not be retarded and the spades of the sexton will not be allowed to grow rusty as "One by one he gathers them in." The columbarium will doubtless cause a change in the size of lots sold and in the construction of monuments, but many generations will have passed after cremation has become general and compulsory before people will have abandoned the idea of a family lot in which to bury their ashes.

I do not read this paper with a view to make converts, but rather with a view to submitting for your consideration the necessity of the situation. The duties of Superintendents and Trustees are obvious. Take time by the forelock. Give this matter your serious consideration; read up on the matter so that when this reform reaches you, you may be prepared to meet the requirements and not have to stand by and see stock companies organize and cheat you out of your birthright.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 19th Annual Convention
Held at Washington, DC
September 19, 20, 21 and 22, 1905