A Short History of Cremation in the U.S.

Aug 25, 2015 | 0 comments

Jason Ryan Engler

Jason Ryan Engler

Jason Ryan Engler is a funeral director, cremationist and the historian for the Cremation Association of North America (CANA). At CANA’s recent convention, Engler presented an overview of cremation history and memorialization.

While cremation was popular among the ancient Greeks, Romans and Vikings, and took root in England during the 1800s, let’s focus on what Engler had to say about cremation in the United States.

The first open air cremation in the U.S. took place in 1792. Henry Laurens was afraid of being buried alive, and insisted on cremation.

The first “modern” retort was displayed in the 1870s in Europe. Professor Ludovico Brunetti introduced his retort at the Vienna Medical Exhibition in 1873. The theme of purification was used to sell cremation, with the slogan, “Saved from the worms, purified by the consuming flames.”

America’s first modern crematory was built by Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne for his own use on land he owned in Washington, Pennsylvania. However, the crematory was first put into use by the Theosophical Society of New York for the cremation of one of their members, Baron Joseph De Palm on December 6, 1876. The cremation took 36 hours to complete: six hours to pre-heat the crematory, six hours to cremate, and 24 hours to cool the cremated remains. The remains were placed in a beautiful urn and sprinkled with perfume.

Chalice Urn and Stained GlassBetween 1876 to 1901, 25 new crematories were built around the United States. By the time Dr. Hugo Erichsen founded the Cremation Association of America in 1913, there were 52 crematories in North America and over 10,000 cremations took place during that year.

However, the embalming process was becoming popular at the same time. There was no compelling reason for people to choose cremation over burial. A minority of the population, mostly wealthy and educated people, chose cremation early in the 20th century.

A new era of cremation memorialization came into fashion in the 1920s and 1930s. The emphasis was on aesthetics: light over darkness, building beautiful spaces for people to be remembered indoors and provide a memorial place for cremated remains. The movement started in cemeteries with the idea of giving cremated remains and the memory of those cremated people a permanent memorial place.

The ancient Greeks and Romans utilized amphorae, large urns that held the remains of two people. The Greeks buried their urns in tumuli, mounds of earth and stone, while the Romans inurned in columbaria, buildings constructed partly or completely underground for the storage of urns.

Monumental Bronze UrnAmerican urns in the 20th century were initially made of various metals – brass, bronze, copper, and tin. In the 1920s, bronze became the norm for urns, as a durable metal that does not degrade over time.

Many bronze urns were made in a Grecian style, with squared handles. Other popular shapes were the footed chalice, a vase shape, a book shaped urn (you could park several together to make a library columbarium), and box shaped.

Some of these urns weighed 17 pounds. “They were solid, they were not going anywhere,” said Engler. And there were monumental urns that were up to three feet tall. They weighed so much, the floor underneath them had to be reinforced.

Different styles of urns were popular in different parts of the country. Round urns were preferred in the Northeast, while those on the West Coast preferred rectangular and book styles. In the Midwest, a combination of books, boxes and vase shapes were popular.

Memorial urns were thought-out works of art. Blueprints were drawn for memorial urn designs. Each urn was handmade and engraved. Until an urn was personalized, it was just a container. But once that name was inscribed, that urn became a lasting tribute to the life that was lived.

ColumbariumPermanent placement of the memorial urn is the last step in the Memorial Idea. As Egyptians created pyramids for their pharaohs and famous people were laid to rest in abbeys and cathedrals, the cremated remains of the departed needed a monumental resting place.

In the 1800s, stately columbaria buildings were constructed across the country. They included Fresh Pond Crematory, Long Island, NY, 1896; St. Louis, MO, 1895; San Francisco, CA, 1898, and later, the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, CA, 1909.

By the 1980s, urns of aluminum and other lower-priced urns provided options for families who didn’t want to pay for a bronze urn. Cremation consumers changed in the 1980s and 1990s. Bronze prices went through the roof. Imported cloisonné urns, smaller keepsake sizes and scattering grew in popularity.

Out of more than a million people cremated each year in the United States (1.4 million as of 2014), over 300,000 are scattered, their mortal remains disappearing forever.

“Consumers need to be educated about the range of options,” said Engler. “Inurnment, the placement of cremated remains in a permanent memorial urn, is so important to say, ‘I mattered.’ All human remains demand our utmost care and respect. We are the ones to convey to our families the importance of permanent remembrance.”

Jason Ryan Engler is a funeral director and cremation historian in Northwest Arkansas. He is author of the book, Body to the Purifying Flame: A History of the Missouri Crematory Association, Saint Louis, Missouri and he is the Senior Cremation Advisor to the National Museum of Funeral History. His website is www.CremationHistorian.com and you can connect with him on Facebook.

A Good Goodbye