(As published in The Cremationist of North America, Summer, 2013)
It would be impossible to pinpoint a single reason that the rite of Cremation gained any acceptance during its early years in America. It was not a popular option, and tradition ruled out many areas having crematories. Many of the early crematories were built on a grand and beautiful scale, and this could have had its effect on the minds of the public. However, one could easily, after only slight research, attribute cremation’s growth to an idea that gripped all areas of deathcare: the “Memorial Idea.”
The memorial idea was started in cemeteries – the establishment of a memorial identity for each person who lived and died was the most important part of the rite of passage called death. Cremationists quickly adopted the idea to include cremation, and the obstacles they faced were harder to overcome than their cemeterian counterparts.
A strong cast of characters was necessary to put the idea into practice, and the crematories of the country included some of the most ardent and unique characters that could be found, a couple of the most notable of which were Lawrence Moore (President of the California Crematorium in Oakland which later became the famous Chapel of the Chimes), and Clifford Zell (Owner of the Valhalla Chapel of Memories in St. Louis).
Clifford Zell, Sr., owner of the Valhalla Chapel of Memories in St. Louis, was the originator of the slogan of the Cremation Association of America, a variation of which is still the mantra of our association today. It was during the 1933 convention that Clifford Zell made the statement: “There is one thought I hope that I can impress most deeply on all crematory men – cremation is not the end – cremation alone is not complete, but is only an intermediate step towards the permanent preservation of the cremated remains.”
The memorial idea included several tenets: No cremation was complete without inurnment, which always included ALL of the following:
- A) A memorial urn of imperishable material
- B) The engraving of the memorial urn
- C) The permanent placement of the memorial urn
A memorial urn of imperishable material:
Cremation urns have been utilized in one form or fashion since the dawn of civilization. Greeks placed their dead in urns of various materials – the legendary urn that held the cremated remains of Patroclus and Achilles was made of gold – but most were made of terra cotta. The Romans similarly placed their dead in urns of semi-precious stone and the urns were later deposited in columbaria.
After cremation’s modern revival began, urns still were not uniform in size or composition. After Baron de Palm’s cremation, his cremated remains were placed in an antique vase with brass handles and a brass nameplate. The urn of writer and speaker Robert Ingersoll, who died in 1899 and was cremated by the US Cremation Company in New York, was made of bronze with a porphyry base – imported from France by the Tiffany Company. In the early 1900s, urns of various metals, including copper and tin, were frequently used – and in the 1920s, bronze urns became the norm.
Because bronze is a semi-precious metal, and cast bronze will only patina with age and will not degrade over time, it made the perfect medium to create permanent, imperishable memorials. Several companies, over time, created urns of various shapes and sizes – but most had a decorative look to them – for most were placed on display in glass fronted niches.
|Above: Memorial urns of imperishable bronze were necessary |
to affect the permanency of the urn memorial.
This urn was one of the most popular designs,
the example shown created by Meierjohan-Wengler
of Cincinnati, Ohio.
The Rochester Can Company, Oregon Brass Works, Meierjohan-Wengler, and Gorham Bronze were some of the major manufacturers of urns in the US, and it was not uncommon for individuals to request and have specially designed urns created.
The first logo of the Cremation Association, though unpublicized, was round with a torch in the middle and was used on the association’s badge. The urn memorial was so important to cremationists that the second and third logos were illustrations of an urn in a niche.
The Engraving of the Memorial Urn
Steve Jones of Aurora shared a quote at the beginning of an article he penned several years ago:
“Until it is personalized, an urn is just a container. After being personalized, it serves as a permanent memorial, a lasting tribute to a life that was lived.”
Though this quote was shared by Steve around 2004, it was one of the major points of the memorial idea. When a bronze urn was engraved indelibly with a person’s name and dates of birth and death, the urn became part of the memorial. Together with the other urns in a columbarium, they lent their beauty to add to the overall experience of a columbarium.
The permanent placement of the memorial urn
Just as every person who lives must die, so too should every person who dies have a permanent resting place. Just as the ancients inscribed names on the urns of their loved ones, the ancient Greeks erected Tumuli in memory of their dead, just as the Egyptians erected the pyramids, the Romans inurned in columbaria, Kings and Queens are entombed in Westminster Abbey, so the placement of the urn became the permanent memorial that cremationists required. This was the utmost concern of the cremationists who were active in the Cremation Association. The inurnment of cremated remains was not always a priority for cremationists, but became the sole purpose of the plight of the association beginning in the late 1920s.
Scattering cremated remains, permanent destruction of cremated remains, and home retention of cremated remains were all in direct conflict with the memorial idea.
Standardizing Crematory and Columbarium Practices
The conventions of the association were breeding grounds for ideas in furthering the memorial idea to those who chose cremation. Lawrence Moore, was the long-time president and operator of the Chapel of the Chimes in California and was the most adamant cremationist of his time. He was the most instrumental character in the cremation world and held the accomplishment of coining the word “inurnment.” Additionally, he invented the first electric-powered cremator, and a unique metallic disc used in every cremation to identify cremated remains. He also was the first to suggest using a cardboard temporary urn to encourage the selection of a permanent urn. His facility, the California Crematorium (now known as Chapel of the Chimes) in Oakland, California, is inarguably the most successful crematory and columbarium in the country. From 1911 to 1934, the California Crematorium had conducted 23,732 cremations, 53% of which were placed in bronze urns and inurned in the columbarium.
Throughout the meetings of the association, there were frequently discussions of standardizing the practices of the crematories across the country. Many ideas were exchanged on how this could be affected to encompass the cremation customs from the east coast to the west coast and the mix of both in the Midwest. A committee was formed and, after much research, in 1941 the Manual of Standard Crematory and Columbarium Practices, originally published by the Interment Association of Northern California, was adopted. This manual was considered the textbook of the operations of the modern crematory and columbarium, and was the bible by which cremationists promulgated the memorial idea.
Throughout the manual, sections dealt with all aspects of operating a crematory and columbarium, but the sections that discussed the handling of cremated remains and the permanent placement of memorial urns were the most doctrinal in nature.
During the memorial idea era of cremation’s history, most cremationists refused to pulverize, crush or grind cremated remains in order to reduce their consistency. Their reasoning was to further the need for a permanent urn and to aide in the prevention of scattering. It was the belief that the reduction of the remains to the finer consistency was a desecration to the remains and gave the impression of valueless ash.
The Manual of Standard Crematory and Columbarium Practices spelled it out clearly:
“Never Crush or Grind Cremated Remains:
This is very important. We have no right to crush, grind or pulverize human bone fragments. They should be placed in the temporary container or urn, just as they were removed from the cremation vault… To do otherwise encourages desecration, gives an impression of valueless ash, and will eventually destroy the memorial idea. There is usually sentiment for the cremated remains of a loved one, but it frequently disappears when desecrated. All crematories should adopt this same policy, so the practices are the same everywhere.”
This was further supported by the suggestion for reverent handling of the cremated remains:
“Cremated Remains Should be Carefully Prepared and Handled Reverently
Cremated remains are human remains and are deserving of careful and reverent handling. The attitude of the individual toward cremated remains is oft-times represented by the way he handles them, and the attitude of the crematory-columbarium is definitely expressed by the way remains are prepared and handled by its employees… How can we expect a family or interested party to recognize the fact that cremated remains are human remains and are deserving of proper memorialization if, as crematory-columbarium operators we fail to express by action as well as by word and thought that the remains are sacred?”
The admonition regarding scattering was perhaps the most doctrinal statement of the entire manual, and carried with it the most important ideal for the cremationist’s purpose:
“Never Scatter Cremated Remains.
Cremated remains are not a powdery substance, but the human bone fragments of a loved one. They will not blow away… but will remain where strewn...
A request to scatter is frequently made with the supposition that it is the kindly thing, least expensive and least trouble for those remaining. In fact it is usually the most difficult and unkindly request that could be made. Certainly the deceased would not have requested it had they realized the possible heartaches that it would cause. There is comfort in being able to place a flower, on occasion, at the last resting place. Scattering makes this impossible. [There will be] no tangible memory where a flower may be placed in memory. When cremated remains are once destroyed, regrets cannot return them…”
Our previous discussion of permanent cremation urns was also addressed:
“Place Only Urns That Are of Permanent Material in Columbarium Niches.
One of the predominant arguments used by all columbarium representatives in arranging for space in the building is ‘permanency.’ The same reason should be applied to the receptacle that holds the remains and is part of the niche memorial. It is contradictory to sell a niche and stress permanency and then allow a temporary receptacle to be placed in the ‘permanent memorial.’ If one is consistent, everything that goes into a columbarium or any memorial building has to be of a permanent nature.”
Much of this may seem like heavy cremationist doctrine, but the cremationists were quite successful in their endeavors. This time frame in cremation’s history in America caused some of the most beautiful memorials imaginable to be created, and they remain beautiful to this day. The idea also caused some very successful revenues for the cremationists.
The Memorial Idea revealed the heart of the true cremationist in every way. It took cremation from the hands of reform societies and placed it in the gentle care of business men who brought the idea to life. Unfortunately, by the 1970s, a new idea in cremation began to move in. The face of cremation was about to change drastically.