Cremation and Modern Crematory Construction

Date Published: 
September, 1928
Original Author: 
Walter B. Londelius
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 42nd Annual Convention

It seems to me the subject of cremation and modern crematory construction can best be covered by beginning with cremation as it has been practiced since its revival in modern days. We all know that the ancient Romans cremated their dead and that some of the most beautifully designed urns recovered in buried cities were for cremated ashes. In fact, the skill of the finest artists was lavished on these cinerary urns. It is said that the well known Roman and Grecian urn shaped vessels were originally designed for this purpose and that the inverted torch long known as an ancient emblem of mourning was in reality an emblem of cremation in those far-off days. However, with the Dark Ages when the history of so much of that ancient civilization was lost to sight and all the sophisticated arts perished, cremation ceased to exist. For a long time, of course, the Catholic Church ruled the civilized world and its opposition to cremation would have effectually stopped the practice even had there been equipment to handle it, but there was not and it was not until as late as 1866 that papers began to appear on the subject and discussion of method became prevalent.

It was Italy which revived this lost custom. After several years of experiment, Professor Brunetti of Padua in 1873 exhibited at an exposition in Vienna a model of his furnace, as it was then termed, and the ashes of a human body to show the public the procedure and the results of cremation. It was an open furnace operating out of doors.

In 1874 there were two cremations in Dresden, Germany, in which gas was used for fuel. This was the first crematory to employ, a closed retort with the object of carrying off gasses and vapors. In the same year the Cremation Society of Milan, Italy was organized and two retorts were constructed. Cremation became comparatively popular at once in spite of the Catholic Church opposition, so that in the first ten years of existence they cremated 463 bodies. This was regarded as remarkable evidence of public approval, since there had been the weight of adverse sentiment to overcome even in the families of those who favored it. In the same ten years Germany had 473 cremations.

Perhaps the most vigorous effort and certainly the most discouraging one made by cremation adherents anywhere is contained in the history of Cremation Society of England. It was formed in 1874 with the express purpose of disseminating information on the subject of cremation. Great difficulty was encountered in securing a site upon which to erect a crematory. A prominent Bishop condemned the project so harshly that failure confronted it for some time. In 1878, four years after its inception, the Cremation Society finally succeeded in purchasing one acre of ground at Woking and the following year erected a crematory designed by Professor Gorini, of Italy. They cremated the body of a horse to determine the success of their equipment. It worked perfectly and they announced themselves ready for business. But the end of their troubles was still far in the future.

The British Government refused to permit cremation to take place on the grounds that murder might thus be concealed. A long correspondence ensued and the Government could not be induced to reconsider. At last an appeal was made to the British Medical Association who became interested because of the unsanitary conditions of many graveyards. Doctors wrote eloquently of the appalling state of affairs but to no avail. In 1882 a wealthy man who had been awaiting the outcome of the controversy for several years applied for permission to cremate the bodies of two members of his family who had left instructions to this effect. Their bodies had been in a private mausoleum on the estate since death. Permission was refused, whereupon the man built a private crematory and used it for the two cremations. Later he died and by his request his body was also cremated there. The British Government paid no attention to this act of defiance and a year after his death another citizen defied the Government and had the body of a child cremated. Legal proceedings were begun against him which in a decision that cremation was legal providing it was done without nuisance to others, and so the Cremation Society of England at last began to use their equipment eleven years after the founding of the Society.

Even then, the Government regulations were unbelievably severe.  They required for example the signature of two physicians before cremation could take place, and if two physicians could not be obtained an autopsy was required to be performed to make sure that no poison could be found in the body. Other equally stringent rules designed to discourage cremation were also adopted.

The Cremation Society of England, feeling it must show the public its desire to cooperate with the Government in every way then began some propaganda of its own. An announcement was made that it would require a written application for cremation signed by the executor, or written instructions left by the deceased. It also insisted that a physician's certificate must accompany the application.

While this struggle was taking place in England, cremations had gained a foothold in France where the French soon evolved a set of forms designed to overcome objections on the ground that cremation might aid in concealing crime. An elaborate chart of diseases was prepared and everyone which might have contributed to the cause of death was required to be noted by at least two physicians. The English Society adopted this system which helped their cause materially. The price of cremation was at that time six sterling (about $30.00) payable in advance. It must be remembered of course, that all this was in the days before every town had its health office with its official scrutiny of death records.

In 1887 this Society became slightly more aggressive and prepared what is now called an advertising campaign in which they invited people to arrange for cremation in advance by deposit of 10 guineas (about $50.00) which they said would take care of all arrangements and spare all anxiety to relatives. The quaintly worded forms set forth a schedule of details, one of which was that the body would be sent for if the distance was not greater than twenty miles from the Crematory. This advertising angle is interesting to crematories of today, for some of them even yet, look a little askance at the idea of openly advertising such arrangements before they are necessary by reason of death. Needless to say, all the aggressive organizations now believe in such advertising in an effort to spare the bereaved relatives the distress of concluding arrangements when death has occurred in the family.

The first Crematory Chapel in England was built in 1887 from funds solicited from the public. It was mentioned in their literature that those who attended services did not see nor hear the retorts in operation. The building of this chapel was a long step forward, for previously services had been held at churches or residences or even sometimes in the open beside the heated retort.

Even after all this missionary wonk had been done and it seemed the hardest part was over, the public remained rather uninterested. The Cremation Society was then reduced to beseeching the public to adopt cremation on sanitary grounds. They wrote horrifying treatises on burial, contagion, etc. Finally the argument was put forth that if cremation was done, the purified remains could be stored in the churches where the corruptible bodies could not. This was the first modern mention of the Columbarium for in one place they wrote "In ancient crypts or in cloisters newly erected for the purpose the ashes might be deposited each in its cell in countless numbers."

The first crematory built in the United States was at Washington, Pennsylvania in 1876 by Dr. Francis Julian LeMoyne. It was heated by burning coke, preheating the retort 48 hours before the cremation. The first commercial crematory was erected at Buffalo, New York, endowed by a family of doctors, being operated by gases distilled from wood. For years thereafter the principal crematories were operated on the Schneider system, which was used in Germany. The fire was built in a retort of combustion chamber located on the side of the crematory retort. The white hot gases then passed upward under an arch and thus down over the body and casket, and up a flue. This system was used in several crematories in San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles.

In 1892 a book was published by Augustus E. Cobb, President of the U. S. Crematory Company. In this book he stated that at that time there were 17 crematories in the United States and that 2300 bodies had already been cremated. He mentioned the indirect firing system, especially one in use at Fresh Pond, L. I., which was supposed to be an unusually successful retort in which they said a man weighing 275 lbs. had been cremated and reduced to ashes weighing 5 1bs. at a cost of less than $1.00 for fuel.

The first recorded use of oil for cremation was made at a crematory in San Francisco by means of a burner firing crude oil directly upon the body. A high pressure oil and air mixture was used in this burner causing a remarkably hot fire, deafening noise and huge clouds or smoke. The cremation was completed in about 45 minutes. The next development was the substitution of oil for coke in coke burning retorts and about 1910 a direct fire gas burner was devised which fired directly upon the body and which had an auxiliary burner in another combustion chamber for consuming the smoke and dissipating the odor.

Forced by public opinion, crematory engineers are constantly trying to make cremation less offensive; to reduce the noise, control the smoke and fire indirectly upon the body. Experiments are constantly being made with every grade of tile, brick and cement, with every sort of fuel and all mechanical details of cremation. At Forest Lawn Memorial Park, ordinary fire brick has always been used in the construction of our retorts, but recently the floor's have been changed to carborundum brick, which is considerably more expensive, but so far has been most satisfactory.

The present trend of crematory furnaces is towards simplification and at the present time there are three types of retorts. There is the indirect system which has the separate combustion chamber; the semi-indirect in which the flame enters the retort through a slotted floor, and the direct, in which the floor is smooth and the retort and combustion chamber are one and the flame is applied directly on the casket.

There are several advantages of the smooth floor over the slotted type as it permits the easy removal of the ashes, presents a more pleasing appearance to the public and is much easier to keep clean.

At the present time there are two kinds of fuel used by the modern crematory, gas and oil. It is also suggested by crematory engineers that a separate stack should be provided for each retort in place of having one stack for several retorts. In this way a better draft is created, reducing the smoke and heat waves. The appearance of the workroom is another important feature. It should be kept in a tidy condition so that in allowing visitors to pass through it may be without fear of their criticism. Several of the most modern crematories have provided white tiled walls in their workrooms, which is very satisfactory, easy to keep clean and always presents a neat appearance.

Many of the older style retorts it is necessary to preheat from thirty minutes to one hour before the cremation. In the newer and more modern type it is not necessary to preheat and the flame is not started until after the body is placed in the retort. Experiments are being made with the electrical retorts but at present they have not proved satisfactory and are still in the experimental stage.

The ideal cremation is one which cremates noiselessly, smokelessly and gives the appearance to the family of absolute ease or operation with no distressing details. Following this thought to its conclusion means maintaining that the perfect cremation is followed by placing the ashes, uncrushed, in a suitable bronze urn and depositing them in an appropriate final resting place. The ashes of a human body should not be desecrated by crushing them for placement in an urn any more than an un-cremated body would be crushed to place it in a casket, and the modern crematory follows this practice—placing the ashes in the urn in the same condition as when removed from the retort.

On the Pacific coast the percentage of cremations is approximately 15% to 18% of deaths. I have no official records, but I am of the opinion that percentage is much less in the Eastern cities.

By some people cremation has long been considered an inexpensive method of disposing of the remains of one who has passed on. By this I do not mean that there is a lack of respect, but a great many feel that a body may be cremated and no further disposition made. In fact many people are under the impression that the arrangements are complete after the cremation. This is a condition which we must overcome by every means in our power, this tendency destructive to the memorial idea, which is as old as the human race. It is for us to keep before the public the thought that cremation perpetuates the memorial idea just as earth or mausoleum interment perpetuates it. The idea of creating a memorial spot in honor of the family is a noble one. It provides a place upon which to center the thoughts and memories of those who have gone before, and it allows friends to visit the spot and place a tribute of flowers whenever they desire to pay this honor.

The memorial idea is responsible for some of the world's famous structures. The pyramids of Egypt, and such buildings as the Taj Mahal and Westminster Abbey would never have existed if it were not that man had always possessed a strong desire to perpetuate the memory, deeds and identity of his beloved dead and of himself when his span of life is over.

The fact that more and more cremation is looked upon as ideal in no way weakens this instinct of the human race. It has often been said that cremation accomplished in an hour what burial takes months and even years to accomplish. This does not mean however, that so called ashes should be scattered or stored in some closet in the home.

There is the same obligation to the family to provide a fitting memorial resting place when cremation has occurred as when the body itself is to be laid to rest. After the incineration has taken place, the cremation, or urn interment, as it should be called, is only one-third complete, and a family should be urged to select an urn and niche which are representative of and in keeping with that person's station in life.

I recall a case that came to my attention not long ago in which a friend of mine lost a member of his family. He telephoned me stating that he had lost this member and the body was now at the undertaker's. He said it was his intention to cremate the body at our institution and consequently it would not be necessary for him to purchase a good casket. My answer was that a casket and final resting place were selected in accordance with one's station in life, and were indicative of love and respect for one who had passed on; and it made no difference whether the casket was interred in the ground or mausoleum or placed in a crematory retort—it was not seen by anyone thereafter and decomposition of the casket would set in, in either event. I also told him that after he had selected his casket it was his duty to perpetuate the memory of this loved one and select a representative urn and niche which would be in keeping with the surroundings this person had in life. As a result this friend selected a good casket, and after the cremation, purchased a beautiful urn and niche in our Columbarium.

Cremation should not be allowed to stand alone, as it were, without the complete rite or urn interment. A crematory should recognize this and should provide representative urns and proper niches for the permanent disposition of incinerated remains. Attention of families arranging for cremation should be drawn to these things. It need not be done in an offensive manner, but the family should be made to understand that any other idea than urn interment in an appropriate niche is unthinkable. The question that confronts us is how this can best be done. All of us can help to educate the public on the subject if we but give the matter a little thought.

In the first place, when the nearest relative, or the family of the deceased come to make arrangements for cremation, a signed order for the cremation should be required. The signing of this order should take place in a room where urns of different styles and sizes are on display in plain sight. In many cases when the family see such a display they will inquire about final disposition of the ashes. If they do not, it should be mentioned by the sales person handling the arrangements. We must constantly remember that most people are absolutely uninformed about these details, which to us are our every day business. They are usually willing to be guided by the word of those experienced in these matters if they are tactfully and sympathetically handled.

We must gain the confidence of those whom we are serving. The purchase of a suitable urn and niche should be made at the time arrangements are made for the cremation, or within two or three days after the cremation has taken place.

Within the last 60 days the Interment Association of Southern California, which is composed of all cemeteries, crematory and mausoleum companies, took a step which I anticipated and of which I spoke at the convention of the Cremation Association of America last year. In order to educate the public that urn interment includes cremation, niche and urn, and the three are inseparable, it has been decided to quote a price for cremation, which includes the cremation, niche and urn. This price has been set at a minimum of $100.00. When inquiries are received as to the price of cremation this price is given, with the explanation that it includes cremation, niche and urn. In instances of course where people insist upon cremation alone, the price is $50.00, as before, but it is not quoted except on definite request. This, it is believed, will gradually educate the public to the custom of interring the ashes as naturally as they now think of interring the body.

The urns are constructed of sufficient size to accommodate the ashes of one adult person. These niches are small and when people have made up their minds to purchase the urn and niche, they readily see the desirability of buying a better one which represents their family and is suited to their station in life. Their resistance to the interment idea has already been broken down by the preliminary discussion.

The sales people who deal with the public in this way should learn for themselves some of the preeminent facts concerning the memorial idea, its interesting history through all recorded time. If they do familiarize themselves with such facts they will have no difficulty in selling to people who say they do not care what happens to the ashes, or that they do not wish to erect a memorial to the physical remains or a loved one. We must recognize that this work demands people of a high order. The day of the uncouth shirt-sleeved man making cremation arrangements with the family is over. We must have men and women of prepossessing appearance who can handle the distressing details of these arrangements quietly and sympathetically and who can, without offense, convey to the family that the memorial idea is a sacred obligation which they have no right to disregard, that in the years to come the family memorial will be to them a shrine, reminding them always of precious memories and the sacred ties of family affection.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 42nd Annual Convention
Indianapolis, IN
September 10, 11, 12 and 13, 1928