Cremation has been practiced for many reasons through the ages. Religious purposes, purification, and even outright destruction of the remains, are among the reasons cremation has been performed by countless religious groups, sects, cults, cultures and civilizations.
The modern cremation movement began in the early 1870s, when cremation had a modern revival. This began at the Vienna Exhibition of 1873 when Professor Brunetti revealed a furnace he had invented specifically for use in cremation. Displayed alongside were about four pounds of cremated human remains. “Vermibus erepti – Puro consumimur igni” the exhibit sign read: “Saved from the worms, consumed by the purifying flame.”
Around this time, talk of unsanitary conditions in the overcrowded cemeteries of England piqued the interest of Sir Henry Thompson, personal surgeon to Queen Victoria. After learning of Professor Brunetti’s invention, much research, and, no doubt, his experience with handling bodies after death, he wrote what would become one of the nineteenth century’s most influential pro-cremation works, “Cremation: The Treatment of the Body After Death.”
Word of this new method of disposition spread quickly throughout Europe, then crossed the Atlantic. AS early as 1874, the New York Times ran a series of articles on the subject. These were picked up by newspapers and magazines across the country, many of which ran their own articles written by experts and advocates on both sides of the “cremation versus burial” argument.
The first cremation actually performed in the United States, other than practices by the Native American Indians, was the cremation of Colonel Henry Laurens, former president of the continental congress. His death occurred in December of 1792, and his last will and testament ordered his son to see that his body was cremated because of his fear of being buried alive. The story goes that his young daughter, stricken with smallpox, was presumed dead from its effects. Her body was removed from her bed and placed next to an open window awaiting her preparation for burial. The fresh, cool air from outside revived her and she lived a full life following. After his death, he ordered that his body be “wrapped in
12 yards of tow-cloth and burned.” Soon after his death, the wish was followed. A pyre was built on his South Carolina estate and his body was reduced to ashes. Following the open-air cremation, what remains could be recovered were placed in an urn and buried in the family cemetery at Mepkin, South Carolina.
While Colonel Laurens’ cremation was the first recorded in the US, it cannot be considered the first modern cremation in America. That distinction lies with a German immigrant named Baron Joseph Henry Louis DePalm. It was a cold and rainy December day in 1876 when the cremation movement in America made a major step forward. In the small town of Washington, Pennsylvania, Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne, a local eccentric physician, had constructed a small, two-room building to house a furnace for cremation designed by a local engineer. Planned exclusively for use following his own demise, the facility was erected on his private property after the local cemetery had declined use of their grounds. The crematory, however, could not remain idle, as it was pushed into use by Henry Steel Olcott for the Cremation of one of his followers, Baron DePalm. The crematory at Washington, Pennsylvania, was used a mere 25 times before it closed. Notable persons cremated there included Mrs. Ben Pittman, wife of noted stenographic creator Benn Pitman, and Dr. LeMoyne, founder of the crematory.
In the early movement of cremation, cremationists often struggled. This was in large part due to a lack of direction and infrastructure. Cremation’s earliest supporters often aligned themselves in Societies and Associations – which were fueled by the reformation of burial practices. Upon payment of their dues to their society or association, members were not only supporting the building of a crematory in their community, they were also prepaying for their own cremation. Their membership also made them part of an important social group – meetings were often similar to those of other social and fraternal organizations – the only difference was that cremation was their theme.
Women’s suffrage supporter Frances Willard was an ardent supporter of cremation. She stated: “I choose the luminous path of light rather than the dark slow road of the valley of the shadow of death. Holding these opinions, I have the purpose to help forward progressive movements even in my latest hours, and hence hereby decree that the earthly mantle which I shall drop ere long – shall be swiftly enfolded in flames and rendered powerless to harmfully effect the health of the living.”
It was the brainchild of Dr. Hugo Erichsen, a physician in Detroit, Michigan, and founder of the cremation society there, to bring all American cremation groups together to form a society with a national scope. While his goal was burial reform, and for the first several years his focus was realized, the Cremation Association quickly developed into meetings of the businessmen who performed cremations in their communities – largely due to the fact that the reform societies which built many of the early crematories in the country were taken over by them.
The modern Cremation movement in America sprang from a sanitary necessity; but over time, as the embalming process evolved, and with the advent of medicine, the need for cremation as a means of sanitation after death dwindled. With sanitary concerns negated, the primary argument in favor of cremation was invalidated. New reasons to choose fire over earth needed to be enumerated, and with them, a new era in the history of cremation in America began… an era where cremation would be promoted for aesthetic reasons, and with the birth of this “memorial idea” was revealed the heart of the true cremationist.