Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Urns & Outs: America's First Cremation


(As published in the Dead Beat magazine, Dec. 2015)


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, Penn., Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne, a local eccentric physician, had built small, simple two-room building with a receiving room, a furnace room which contained a crematory, designed by a local engineer. Planned exclusively for use at his own demise, the facility was constructed 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, co-founder of the Theosophical Society of America, for the cremation of one of his followers, Bavarian immigrant Baron Joseph DePalm.
December 5, 1876, in Washington, Penn., the body of the Baron de Palm arrived at the train station there to be the first to be cremated in a modern cremation chamber. Among the party that met the train included Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne, whose crematory was to be used, and Col. Henry Steel Olcott, founder of the Theosophical Society and executor of the Baron’s estate. The cremation was a newsworthy event that was covered in almost every major newspaper in the country. On their way to the crematory, they were met by doctors of the boards of health from Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, Wheeling, W.Va., and Boston – along with about 30 reporters from various news outlets.
The following morning, about 8 a.m., the furnace was declared ready after having been preheated for 6 hours. The body had been wrapped in a sheet saturated with alum to keep the body from igniting until the door was sealed. Various spices and evergreens were sprinkled over the body by Olcott and at 8:27 a.m., the iron cradle containing the body was placed in the retort.
By 10:45 the cremation had been pronounced completed, but the engineer in charge suggested that the fires burn a few hours longer to make sure the cremation was thoroughly complete.
That afternoon, public meetings and speeches were held in the town square. Various individuals spoke about cremation.
When the cremated remains were finally removed from the cremation chamber, they were sprinkled with perfume and were placed in an inscribed antique vase with brass handles which was delivered to the offices of the Theosophical society.
This first cremation in a modern cremation chamber took more than 36 hours to complete. Coke was used as fuel and 50 bushels were consumed. The total process cost $7.04.
The LeMoyne Crematory held the distinction of being the only Crematory in the country from its inception until 1884 when the Lancaster Crematory was completed in Lancaster, Penn. At that time, after twenty-five Cremations had been performed in the facility – one of which was that of Dr. LeMoyne himself, the crematory was closed to the public with the exception of residents of Washington County. In 1901, with the cremation movement in full-swing, the trustees of the crematory closed its doors for good after 42 cremations. It was later deeded to the Washington County Historical Society, in whose care it remains to this day.
In early November, 2015, I had the opportunity to travel to Washington, Penn., for research regarding the upcoming Cremation exhibit at the National Museum of Funeral History. I spent a day at the crematory, and although it is quite a small building, the feeling of the facility is teeming with history. The original wooden bier that held the body of Baron De Palm is still intact and display in the service room. The iron crib upon which the body rested, though in the basement of the Historical Society, is also intact, and a newer one (circa 1879) is on display in the crematory. The retort, still fully present, though later updated with gas piping for fuel, is all original.
I spent another day in the Archives of the Washington County Historical Society and had the privilege to peruse their early cremation collection – including a letter from Benn Pitman, stenographer, alerting Dr. LeMoyne to the fact that his wife was approaching the end of her life and would be sent to Washington for cremation per her request and with the Doctor’s permission of using the crematory. In 1878, she became the second person cremated in the LeMoyne Crematory and the first woman cremated in America. I also had the opportunity to view a detailed description of Mrs. Pitman’s cremation taken by Frank LeMoyne looking through the portal in the door of the cremation chamber, and to look through the notebook of John Dye, engineer who built the crematory, which showed a detailed listing of the cremations performed in the historic facility.
After more than 130 years, it is interesting to note that while cremation began with these meager beginnings, the Cremation Association of North America released the latest statistics at our convention this summer. In just three short years, cremation will be the preferred method of disposition by Americans and will take place in almost 3000 crematories across the country.
Cremation is no longer a trend, it is a tradition!