Crematories and Cremation

Date Published: 
September, 1929
Original Author: 
Lawrence Moore
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 43rd Annual Convention

The men present today represent two of the oldest practices known to mankind—burial and cremation. Those of you who are especially interested in the history of your craft can find many remarkable examples of both methods. I need not recount them to you. The pyramids, Taj Mahal, cave burial—all these have their own connotation.

Cremation has been traced to the early Aryans, from whom all white men have descended. And, probably, most of you know that the word "Aryan" means "the race that moves onward and upward."

The speaker has looked up the history of cremation and found evidence from the earliest periods. Ancient India cremated. Many early Indian tribes, the earliest Scandinavians, Huns, Greeks, Anglo-Saxons, Franks, Lombards and Israelites. Saul, the first king of Israel, together with his three sons was cremated after the battle with the Philistines at Mount Gilboa, 990 BC: "All the valiant men arose, and went all night, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Bethshan, and came to Jabesh and burnt them there." And the beloved Buddha was cremated, his ashes divided into 7 parts and 7 sacred temples erected in as many different widely separated locations.

The first cremation of the white race in the United States, of which we find record, is that of Colonel William Henry Laurens, member of George Washington's staff, who was cremated in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1792, in accordance with his wishes. Two weeks later, another member of George Washington's staff died, and was likewise cremated upon a burial pyre in a beautiful garden.

So far as we can discover, the first crematory was built by Dr. Julius Lemoyne in Washington, Pennsylvania, in 1876. The first person cremated in this crematorium was Baron LePalm, in the same year. (Dr. Lemoyne had built this crematorium for the cremation of his own body—he was so strongly averse to burial.) The popular disapproval of this innovation was so active that police reserves were called out in New York City to allow the departure of the body. The furnace was the old fashioned coke, preheated type, 24 hours to heat, 2 hours to cremate and another 24 hours to cool. A tablet in memory of this beginning of the modern cremation movement has been placed on this little brick crematory by the Cremation Association of America by Dr. Hugo Erichsen, its founder.

The public crematorium movement was really started by the sons of Dr. Corey of Buffalo, New York. Dr. Corey, somewhere about the early eighties, died in Europe and was cremated in an Italian crematorium. His sons, upon return to Buffalo, decided to organize the Buffalo Crematorium for public use. They brought the Italian workmen and materials from Europe and installed a wood alcohol, gas producing and burning retort, which was used intermittently with gas supply to date. Of the various systems of cremation more later.
Perhaps, you will be interested in a few brief statistics of the cremation movement in this and other countries. In Scandinavia, there were 2,757 cremations in 1927 and in 1928 there were 3,207. Germany, much better organized had 48,369 cremations in 1928 and a total of 437,591 cremations since 1892. Czech Slovakia has swung into the cremation movement since the war and with the modest beginning of 83 cremations in 1918 they have recorded 4,090 in 1928. It is very interesting to note that the number of cremations by religion are kept over there, 50% of the cremations were Roman Catholic and 8% Protestant. Mussolini has disapproved of cremation in Italy, although there are 2 score crematories, you know that anything of which Mussolini disapproves dies of anemia.

Now in the United States, as you will see by the report, of the statistical committee of the Cremation Association, the growth of cremation has been constant. The four-year period, ending in 1928, shows 101,467. Partial report.

Now, as to methods used. The earliest crematoriums all followed one general method. With coal or coke or wood, they heated a chamber to incandescence, then introduced the body, either in casket or on a slab, and reduced it to its mineral elements by radiant heat. The principle exterior evidences of this system were a very high stack, lots of smoke, delivery of tons or cords of fuel. The interior evidences were the sound of shoveling, the roar of burning and blowers and the white-heated furnace. One had to be a 100% cremationist in those days to face all of these horrors.

With the discovery of crude oil for industrial purposes, some one proposed the possibility of cremation by oil fire. With tremendous heat available at short notice, this permitted the cremation of bodies which were placed in an unheated furnace. The earliest furnaces for this purpose were, I think, those originated by the superintendent of Cypress Lawn Cemetery, San Francisco—Mr. Davidson. He got up a tremendous pressure of either steam or air and fired oil flame directly upon the body. Yes, it would cremate the body, but with most unpleasant circumstances. This system was carried to the Hawaiian Islands, to Sacramento, Seattle and other places. And, speaking from the standpoint of one who is devoted to the cause of cremation, I am compelled to say that it had nothing to recommend it, except economy. The same high stack was required and there was more smoke, more noise and worse yet, pieces of cloth from the casket and clothing floated lightly out of the smoke stack and spread over the landscape.

I am not sure who started the gas cremation, but I think this was Frank Gibson, who used artificial gas, firing on the body directly and carrying the fumes and smoke to a separate chamber to be further consumed. The gas had the virtue of making less noise and less smoke, but the fuel cost, even with the most modern apparatus, runs from $2.50 to $8 per case. The roar is still there.

Electrical cremation was tried by surrounding the casket chamber inside with resistance metal. Mechanical difficulties developed and this was abandoned 15 years ago, only to be tried again in southern California, and again abandoned by one new plant, because of its cost, the duration of the process, the smoke and odor from incomplete combustion.

I have studied this whole situation many years and have decided that the ideal system would be somewhat as follows:—there should be no stack or at best, a very low one, there should be no noise, the furnace should not be preheated, the casket and body should be placed in the furnace without dismantling of any sort. There should be no smoke and no firing directly on the body. All this has been accomplished as you will see in California—at Fresno, San Bernardino, Oakland, Long Beach.

So much for methods. Any paragraph of this could be expended into an hour's discussion. In the early days of cremation, the sanitary appeal was made. The protection for water supplies, the evidence of decomposition either in the ground or in mausoleums. These emphases have been almost wholly abandoned. The cremationists are following the modern trend and the accent is now on the aesthetic element. If you will study the records of the different crematoriums, you will find that it is those which are beautiful, which minister to a sense of peace, which are making the greatest gains.

And right here, let me speak about your own craft as cemetery men, a little while,—so far as I have investigated the matter, there has been no propaganda in favor of earth burial. Cemeteries have not made advance to meet the competition of the modern crematorium and mausoleum. The average cemetery office is a dull place with musty records and old fashioned procedure, whereas the average mausoleum or crematorium has become the place of light, cheer and beauty.

I want you cemetery men to realize that the real competition is not between the cemetery, crematorium and mausoleum—the real competition is for the consumer's dollar, between the mortuary craft and the other crafts. Americans, particularly, have surplus money to spend for luxuries, so called and the real problem of the 3 phases of our mortuary craft is to so elevate in the minds of the public the appreciation of the memorials, that they will establish beautiful places of memory. The time has gone by, when the cemetery men should depreciate the value of what the crematory man has to offer and the converse. To put it in the language of the theatre—the people really decide on the following typical formula: "Shall we have a burial lot, a new Buick, or a baby?" What form of happiness shall we invest in?

To survive in the modern competition where the genius of the artist, and the artisan and engineer, the architect, the real estate salesman is manifested in a million tempting ways, the mortuary craft must do likewise, for after all, the most prosperous craft will be that which makes the most compelling appeal. Ugliness is on the way out, drudgery is obsolete and a new era of beauty in all things has come.

Let any man here go home to his work and ask himself this question, looking it fairly in the face:—"Is my place early Victorian, or earlier than that? Do people come to me only when they have to, or do they love to come, because of what I have to offer in ministry?" Just as the old grocery with its spilled sugar and salt, its dripping kerosene can its barrel of vinegar, has gone out, just so the musty cemetery vault, the dull and dank chapel, the ancient office and the ancient attitude are a thing of the past.

Contrary to the general opinion, the gross and net returns for each cremation case are greater than for every burial. This result is only attained, however; by having everything modern in crematorium, columbarium and urn displays. You will also be interested in knowing that in some eastern cemeteries, notably Mt. Auburn in Boston, organized in 1839, there are more cremations than burials.

I know that every man here wants to be a master in his work and maybe, in these few moments left me, I can give some suggestions of what we can do. First of all, it is proper to say that a first class cemetery or crematorium man has an opportunity to express his finest quality of mind and heart. He must be more things to more people than he perhaps realizes. In forestry, horticulture, civil engineering, architecture, accounting, human contacting and in those fine, high spiritual qualities of leadership which lift his craft above the crowd, the cemetery man has a life time task. Cemeteries, mausoleums, columbarium should be full of the meanings of joy, of "beginning again"; of symbols of faith, of transforming by renewing of mind. Tall or thin, dark or light, Jewish, Christian, foreign or native, you yourself can stand above the crowd by developing your attribute of service to a higher degree; join American aristocracy of service.

But I think that if one would search for a single phrase in which one could concentrate all qualities and all capacities needed, it would be that—that the mortuary craft should be regarded as a ministry, in its highest and most noble sense. This, then, means that whether you operate a nonprofit or commercial institution, the ministry of beauty shall enter in every possible appeal—in the sound of music, of falling water and of songs of birds; in beauty of form, whether of landscaping or architecture, arrangement of road or path, in shape of urn; in spire and tower, in light. In the ministry of finance, wherein devoted men would endow and perpetuate these abodes of memory and in the ministry of love through service of personal understanding and sympathy.

May I, in closing, outline to you the ideal crematorium and columbarium? In outward appearance—of charming dignity, and preferably, church-like buildings (with no stack nor exterior evidence of cremation, either of sound or odor visible) in which one would love to enter, the chapel bright with the cheer of not only its form, but also its color, the song of birds, the music of beautiful organs. A Memorial columbarium should have no dark corners in it. Indoor gardens will lift it from the common place; the niches themselves should be very substantial, the urns well selected as to form and inscription, the walls adorned with messages of cheer from the Scriptures and poets; sunshine should enter, fountains add their note, and where possible, gardens should open to the outdoors. Our own California Crematorium, in Oakland, has huge glass and steel rolling skylights, which roll back allowing the sun and fresh air to enter.

But all this is just material. In addition, there should be a staff of conscientious, high-minded employees, who are devoted to the establishment and maintenance of a beautiful memorial.

Of course, behind all this, there shall be records accurately kept, funds administered with integrity, and a devotion to the things of the spirit.

And now, curiously, I shall place my text last, and it is this—taken from Cicero:—Memory is the treasurer and guardian of all things." For of our dead it has been said"

They have but put off their shoes,
Softly to walk by day within our thoughts,
To tread, at night,
Our dreamed paths of sleep.

They are not dead who live in hearts they leave behind,
In those whom they have blest they live again,
And shall have eternal life. And grow each day more beautiful as time declares their good,
Forgets the rest and proves their immortality.

Therefore I have fulfilled my appointment to speak of cremation and crematories by saying that cremation and niche interment now called inurnment, is one of three ways to memorialize the dead and foster in lives and hearts of men and women, memories which are the treasures and guardian of all things.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 43rd Annual Convention
Los Angeles, CA
September 3, 4, 5 and 6, 1929