Date Published: 
August, 1902
Original Author: 
O.L. Stevens
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 16th Annual Convention

Everybody who nowadays undertakes to look into the facts about cremation in the United States sooner or later comes across a table of figures showing at a glance the number and place of all the cremations that have taken place here since that form of disposal of the dead first began to come into favor, twenty or twenty-five years ago. I first saw this table two years ago. It was in a monograph concerning the public health of this country, by Dr. S. H. Abbott of the Massachusetts State Board of Health, and it was being made ready to be sent to the Paris Exposition. Dr. Abbott added only a few words of explanation to the table; the lack of historical matter to explain the figures attracted the attention of the editor of the Boston Transcript, and under his direction it became my duty to compile a newspaper article which reviewed in some detail the rise and growth of cremation up to that time. It was the publication of that article, I suppose, which attracted the attention of the Cambridge member of your committee (who happened at that time to be making ready to open a new crematory in his own cemetery at Mt. Auburn) and led him recently to ask me to do a little more compiling. What he wanted me to do was that, as an outsider, I should try again to summarize the incoming of the cremation idea in a paper here today.

As soon as I started in the matter, I was interested to see how widely the table of figures I mentioned has been circulated since it was published in that monograph by Dr. Abbott. It has been copied in pamphlets after having been printed in newspapers and it has been reprinted abroad; and after having been brought up to date by recent returns from the cremation reports, it is now published as a regular feature of the annual report of the Board of Health of the city of Boston. Probably everybody in the room has seen the table in some form. Filled out with the figures which I myself obtained through the assistance of crematory superintendents within the last few weeks, it shows that whereas there was only one crematory for the entire country twenty years ago, with two or three incinerations per year, there are now twenty-six crematories and a yearly average of about 2,500 incinerations. The number of crematories has doubled within the last ten years and new ones are now being planned. To get a definite idea of the increase in popularity of cremation since the practice was introduced here, think of these totals for the entire country: In the year 1884, only 16; in 1891, 471; ten years later, in 1901, 2,646. The increase was about 100 cremations per annum from 1890 to 1893; about 150 per annum from 1893 to 1897, and from 1897 to 1901, it was about 285 per annum.

For the first fifteen years, the total annual cremations for the United States were below 500. In three years the total had climbed to the thousand mark and it took only four years to run up to 2,000 or more annually. It has stood above 2,000 for three years and this year, if the present rate continues, the total will be for the first time above 3,000. I was curious to see how the number of cremations in some of the larger cities compared with the total population and number of deaths in those cities. It was impossible to get a fair comparison because the bodies incinerated at a given crematory may come from outside the district for which the death figures are given. But here are the comparisons; they may be taken for what they are worth.

St. Louis 598,000 10,601 135
New York and Brooklyn 3,304,750 86,578 654
Chicago 1,754,025 24,406 183
Philadelphia 1,321,408 24,137 118
Boston 573,579 11,300 290

London 4,589,129 86,007 301
Glasgow 755,730 15,424 20

Paris 2,511,639 50,511 5,825

A glance at the progress in Italy is interesting. Milan had the first crematory of modern times there, and it was established in 1876. Next year a crematory was opened in Lodi and from then until 1883, these two were the only buildings of the kind in the country, while at the same time, Germany's first was opened at Gotha in 1878 and remained the only one there until 1891; England's first was at London in 1885; Sweden's at Stockholm in 1887; France's at Paris in 1889; Switzerland's in the same year at Zurich, and Denmark's not until 1893 at Copenhagen. In 1883, 1884 and 1885, Italy's list lengthened rapidly, making a gain of twelve in these three years. After that the gain was at the rate of one or two new crematories each year down to 1897, the date of the most recent available figures, when there were twenty-seven crematories in Italy alone.

A summary of the cremations in Europe and America since the establishment of modern crematories is afforded by a table recently published by the Cincinnati Cremation Company.
The figures were:

Country Crematories Cremations
United States 25 13,281
Italy 27 4,110
Germany 5 4,261
Great Britain 7 2,482
Sweden 2 721
Switzerland 2 719
France 2 2,245
Denmark 1 146
--- --------
United States, Europe 71 27,965

Now, the remarkable thing about this development of the cremation idea is that it has all come within the last thirty years. So far as the many books and pamphlets on the subject show, it was in New York City in 1873 that a small group of people began to agitate the desirability of cremation instead of earth burial as a means of disposing of the dead; and their agitation appears to have been the first to attract attention in this country. Even then, what they did appears to have been little more than to draw up a paper which all signed, making a public declaration in favor: of cremation. There was an effort to form a joint stock company to enable them to put their ideas in practice, but under the stress of the great financial panic of that year, interest in the cremation idea was lost sight of and no company was formed. Yet the effect of this New York agitation was not to be lost for what the New Yorkers failed to accomplish through a stock company, a certain Dr. Le Moyne (who, is likely to be frequently mentioned where this subject is discussed as the father of cremation in this country), accomplished by his own private enterprise three years later when in 1876, he built at Washington, Pennsylvania the first crematory in the United States. It was a crude affair, judged by present day ideals; and although it was intended primarily for the incineration of the owner's own body, he seems to have been willing to allow its use for others as a means of education, for between the years 1876 and 1883 while that crematory was the only one in the country, it was the means of twenty-five cremations. In 1884, a company that had been formed opened the crematory at Lancaster, PA, which was the first public building of its kind in the country. In this building there were three incinerations that first year, with thirteen in Dr. Le Moyne's building. In the following year, 1885, the Lancaster crematory disposed of thirty-six bodies and the doctor's practically went out of use, for in the entire seventeen years since then there have been only five incinerations at the Le Moyne crematory.

The cremation idea was spreading notably in the early eighties. The year 1885 saw crematories established in New York and Buffalo in the following year, another was opened at Pittsburg and in 1887 the opening of others (at Detroit, Cincinnati and on the Pacific slope at Los Angeles) began to afford a fair distribution of cremation facilities among the centers of population. At the same time, there were forming in various cities, cremation societies, some of them like the New England Cremation Society, with the object of educating and pledging their members to the idea of cremation and presenting the arguments in favor of that form of disposal of the dead, while other societies were formed with the object of providing the actual means of incineration, like the Massachusetts Cremation, Society here in this State. Stock companies with insurance features also began to spring up. These societies were active agencies for publishing and spreading broadcast pamphlets and newspaper matter describing the process of incineration, and urging on every occasion the sanitary cleanliness of destruction of the body by fire as against the gradual dissolution in the grave. A periodical was started to keep the news and statistics of the subject always available, and as time went on, a brief history of cremation in the United States was widely circulated, in pamphlet form, as a good argument in favor of the practice.

Some of this early literature was rather gruesome, to say the least. Take the paper mentioned above. It did not scruple to vary its treatment of the favorite subject from a manner that was becomingly serious to one that was jovial, even jocular. It had its various departments, editorials, dissertations, addresses, news and statistics, even jokes, all bearing on cremation and it may be said that the joke maker, once let loose did not have to go far afield for his material when dealing with the subject of dissolution by fire. The title of one article, "From the Diary of a Corpse," gives an idea of one way in which the journal attempted to convert its readers from the custom of earth-burial. But after the first years of the agitation, it was not necessary to resort to such startling ways of winning converts. Familiarity with the methods of cremation, especially the modernization and refinement of these methods, seem to have been sufficient to win a constantly increasing number of believers. A long paper could be written on the popular objections to cremation, and the ways in which they have been or are being gradually surmounted. Among the principal objections, there was at first the natural prejudice of people long familiar with earth burial to any change at all in what seemed almost a sacred rite. With this was involved a shrinking from the idea of subjecting the body of a loved one to any such sudden, and, as it might seem, violent, destruction as that• obtained by flame. Then there was the religious objection based on the supposition, urged at first by many eminent clergy, that the resurrection of the body could hardly be looked forward to, if instead of being buried in the earth according to time honored custom, the body were to be practically "annihilated" through the agency of fire. And finally, there was the belief that if bodies were to be destroyed by cremation, the result would be to encourage crimes of violence, on account of the fact that, in cases of cremation, the authorities would have absolutely no opportunity of obtaining any kind of evidence from a body once disposed of, as they do have in cases of earth burial. There have been long and ardent controversies over these objections, in times past, but we see and hear little of them at present. That first prejudice against destruction by fire is disappearing. No longer is the statement in a newspaper funeral notice that "the body was cremated" deemed worthy of amplification with all the details, and no longer does it excite more than a brief comment. As for the resurrection argument, the believers in cremation have met it by bringing forward, in some form or other, the reply of Canon Liddon, that "the resurrection of the body from its ashes is not a greater miracle than the resurrection of an un-burnt body as disintegrated by the grave; each must be purely miraculous." And the legal argument has been met largely on the part of crematory managers themselves by requiring very specific certification as to the identity of the body presented for cremation and the cause of death before allowing the body to be placed in the retort. At the same time, the advocates of cremation have been making the most of the argument that their method of disposing of the dead does away with danger to the public health from overcrowded cemeteries in thickly populated city districts minimizes the danger of grave desecration and contrasts the purifying influence of fire against the revolting phases of grave dissolution. Mote than all this, perhaps the simplification and refinement of the method of cremation has done much to make the idea more popular. Crematories, at first crude, and erected with comparatively little attempt to prevent them from bearing a resemblance to ordinary industrial establishments, are now coming to be so designed that their architecture and their surroundings shall give no offense to those who resort to them, and also that noise and all suggestion of the mechanical process involved shall be even more completely eliminated than would be the case if a body were being lowered into a grave and covered with earth.

Apparently there has been an improvement, too, in the actual handling of a body in the process of incineration. In some of the earlier crematories, it had been required that before entering the retort, a body should be removed from the coffin and wrapped in alum-soaked sheets. The control of the flame in the retort was also ill-adapted to its purpose. But in recent years, these difficulties have been overcome; the flame introduced into the modern retort is a pure, white flame of vaporized oil, driven with a great pressure of air, so that it plays over and about the body with an intense heat that accomplishes dissolution in the course of about one hour; and in the most modern crematories, apparently no such feature as the removal of the body from its coffin is tolerated, but (except that all metal such as ornaments and coffin handles, is removed) the coffin with the body is placed in the retort exactly as received at the crematory. The way in which Mount Auburn cemetery took up cremation shows something of the increase in popularity of that form of disposing of the dead. A crematory was provided there merely to meet a growing demand, not because the proprietors or others interested had any desire to foster cremation at the expense of other methods. Yet, in the ordinary nature of things, the cemetery had found it necessary to provide not only lots for earth burial, but vaults and tombs as well, according to the varying preferences of those who had dealings with it; and as the popularity of incineration increased, the new method had to be recognized. The old chapel, unused since the completion of the new lone, offered a building which could be conveniently made over into a crematory, and the work of remodeling began in the fall of 1899. The exterior of granite was left untouched, but all the woodwork of the interior was pulled out, and replaced entire with ornamental fireproof brick. From the spacious chapel on the main floor, which is used in connection with cremations only, to the waiting rooms in front of the furnace doors below, everything is of fireproof brick or stone even to the stair railings. Even the slates on the roof are nailed to terra-cotta, in the arched and vaulted chapel there is space sufficient for niches to accommodate urns for the ashes of almost 50,000 bodies, whereas the total number of earth burials in the cemetery in all the years of its existence has been less than 35,000. Thus the chapel will in time become a columbarium of extensive proportions and as the charge for each urn space in edifices of this sort ranges up to $150, the rentals are expected to provide a fund sufficient for the maintenance of the building.

Down a winding stairway from this columbarium, one finds oneself in the furnace room, wondering how anything could be more suited to its purpose, and at the same time, less repugnant to those compelled to follow the body of a dear one thither, than that clean, plain, brick apartment. Only the two iron doors of the furnaces are suggestive, but the guide, opening them, shows merely a clean vault of fireproof material, with no apparent opening through which fire could come. The consuming element here is an oil flame with which air under considerable pressure is mixed, filling the chamber with an intense but perfectly clean flame, which literally dissipates the body into vapor, except for a small quantity of ashes from the bones. Nothing could be cleaner. Much care has been taken at Mount Auburn to get rid of all noise which might mar the solemnity of a service at the crematorium. The building itself situated on the slope of the hill a quarter of a mile from the entrance, is removed from any ordinary sounds from the street; and the coffin once placed on the altar in the middle of the chapel has merely to be lowered to the floor below to be directly in front of the furnace. Unchanged, it is easily lifted into the retort; the iron door is closed, and then a heavy screen of fire clay, lowered into place just inside the door, shuts off sound as well as heat from the interior. The necessary engine and air compressor is placed a hundred feet away from the furnaces, at the foot of the slope, in order that no noise or jarring from the machinery shall be audible to those participating ill the service, and the engineer can pass between the engine room and the furnace room by means of an underground tunnel. The doors separating the space behind the furnaces from the rooms in front are all double for the purpose of shutting out all noise. Such arrangements show to what an extent of refinement the cremation process has been reduced. Yet the cost of incineration is said to be, as a rule, about half the cost of earth burial. Cremation prices vary. Baltimore and Pittsburg crematories charge $40 for an incineration; one of the San Francisco crematories has reduced the price to $10; but the average charge is about $25 for an adult and $15 for a child.

It seems hardly too much to expect that with these low charges for expense, and the constantly, increasing necessity for finding some way to relieve the crowding of cemeteries in the great cities, the growth in the practice of cremation will continue, and that this peculiar use of fire as a purifying agent (a use which took its origin in the first stages of human culture; was almost universal at the opening of the Christian era; but was driven out from among European nations by the early conception of the resurrection doctrine), may, in time, refined by modern methods, come once more into practically universal favor.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the16th Annual Convention
Held at Boston, MA
August 19, 20, 21 and 22, 1902