Wednesday, February 13, 2013

CANA Centennial Feature: Dr. Hugo Erichsen and the Founding of the Cremation Association of North America


(As published in The Cremationist of North America, Winter, 2013)

Dr. Hugo Erichsen was born in Detroit, Michigan, on June 22, 1860, the son of Claus Detlef and Elise (Ruslaub) Erichsen. Educated at the German-American Seminary in Detroit and the Realschule in Kiel, Germany, Erichsen graduated from Detroit Medical College on March 6, 1882. He was also a graduate of the Medical Department at the University of Vermont and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, Kingston, Ontario, Canada. On June 1, 1886, he married Emma Amelia Eggeman in Detroit.

Dr. Erichsen practiced medicine in Detroit and was the city physician from 1888 to 1890. Prior to that, he was professor of diseases of the brain and nervous system in Quincy, Illinois, from 1883 to 1885. In the literary realm, he was assistant editor for Detroit Clinic in 1883, and subsequently associate editor for Western Medical Reporter. He contributed to medical journals and standard popular magazines and authored a number of books, including Medical Rhymes (1884), The Cremation of the Dead (1887), and Methods of Authors (1894).

Erichsen was converted to being a cremationist at the age of nineteen when he happened to get ahold of a newspaper that recounted the story of the Cremation of Dr. LeMoyne, founder of the first modern Crematory in America in 1877. From that point on, cremation became Erichsen’s life’s work. When his mother died in 1885, her remains were transported from Detroit to Lancaster, Pennsylvania to be cremated. After witnessing the method in person, Erichsen decided he would pursue the construction of a crematory in Detroit. He ran several ads in the local paper to promote a meeting of persons interested in cremation. Formation of the Michigan Cremation Association was the result, and in 1887 the Detroit Crematorium was constructed. The modern cremation movement in Michigan was begun with the state’s first cremation on December 10 of that year. Erichsen was active in it from its inception, through the construction and operation of the Detroit Crematorium, until its dissolution in 1929. Being an ardent “Crematist”—as he called himself—he wrote one of the most influential and complete works on the subject in 1887: The Cremation of the Dead; Considered from an Aesthetic, Sanitary, Religious, Historical, Medico-legal and Economic Standpoint. From that time forward, he sought every opportunity to be involved in discussions about cremation and was a frequent contributor of articles to many magazines and periodicals on the subject. Additionally, he delivered the lecture “Earth Burial versus Cremation” at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, which was later published as a booklet.

In early 1913, Erichsen’s crowning moment as a crematist came when sent out an invitation to all crematories in operation in the U.S. and Canada, asking them to join him in Detroit to discuss the formation of a nationwide association of cremationists. Encouraged by national societies in Germany, France, England, The Netherlands, and Italy (Erichsen was an honorary member of each), he envisioned a group that would bring cremationists together to share ideas for the promotion of cremation over burial. Speaking to the 1933 attendees of the Cremation Association convention, Erichsen recalled, “I issued the call with fear and trembling… The first thing that happened was a telegram from W. Ormiston Roy of Montreal, saying that he was coming. And this was followed by another by Charles E. Reynolds, of Los Angeles, saying that he would be present also. You can readily imagine how these wires, coming from afar, pepped me up for the scheme.”

Erichsen was successful in bringing fourteen representatives together from ten of the fifty or so crematories in operation. They unanimously elected him as their first president, a position he held until 1916. His address at the first meeting demonstrated Erichsen’s vision: “Every crematist must be a missionary for the cause, and embrace every opportunity to spread its gospel: the good news of a more sanitary and more aesthetic method of disposing of our beloved dead.”

Attendees of the First Meeting of the
Cremation Association of America

held at the Detroit Crematorium, Detroit, Mich.
August 27-28, 1913

Erichsen formed the association from a reformist standpoint, but in actuality the group became a trade association with cremation as its theme. Most importantly, the association provided a collective voice for those who operated crematories in the U.S. and Canada. The annual meetings were gatherings where operators and owners could discuss subjects varying from the recommended size of cremation urns to sales of columbarium niches, to techniques for operating cremation vaults. Across the deathcare profession, the association quickly became the trusted source for cremation policy, procedure, and information.
Attending a majority of the meetings from 1913 until his death in 1944, Erichsen was often called upon to share his thoughts on different subjects. He was a frequent lecturer, though it was clear that his presentations were more intellectual than practical in nature. Even so, the meetings of the association propelled the cremation movement as it moved from the hands of reform societies to the pockets of enterprising businessmen. Ideas melded together and ideals became methods of sales and methods of sales became the ideal. One hundred years later, we thrive as the Cremation Association of North America. Through it all, the Via Lucis—or Way of Light— that Dr. Erichsen so proudly promulgated continues to ring true, even in the business aspect of the cremation movement.

Erichsen spent the last fifteen years of his life enjoying the fruits of his many years of promoting the torch over the spade, not only in Detroit but across the U.S. and around the globe. A lifelong cremationist in heart and soul, Hugo Erichsen fulfilled his advocacy of cremation upon his death on October 10, 1944. His remains were cremated in the Woodmere-Detroit Crematorium and inurned in the Chapel Columbarium there. Although Erichsen has been dead for more than 75 years, his legacy will forever live on, both in our association and in the modern cremation movement in North America. Now a tradition in most parts of the United States, the cremation rate is expected to surpass 44% by 2015. It could easily be assumed that Dr. Erichsen is whirling joyfully in his urn.

May our Association continue into the next 100 years as the reliable source of information for those who entrust their dead into our care.