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A Brief History of Cremation

Cremation has been practiced for many reasons through the ages. Religious purposes, purification, and even outright destruction of remains, are among the reasons cremation has been performed by countless religious groups, sects, cults, cultures and civilizations.

Cremation had a revival beginning at the Vienna Exhibition of 1873, when Professor Ludovico Brunetti revealed a furnace he had invented specifically for use in cremation. Displayed with the furnace 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, Thompson wrote what would become one of the 19th 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 which were picked up by newspapers and magazines across the country.

The first cremation performed in the United States, other than practices by Native Americans, 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. 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. 

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 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 to the public, and only 41 before it closed for good. Notable persons cremated there included Mrs. Ben Pittman, wife of noted stenographic inventor Benn Pitman, and Dr. LeMoyne, founder of the crematory.

Cremation’s earliest supporters aligned themselves in Societies and Associations–which were fueled by the reformation of burial practices. By paying dues to a society or association, members were not only supporting the building of a crematory in their community, they were also pre-paying 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.

A very important method for early cremationists to get their message out was by publishing propaganda. Cremation societies frequently published booklets and pamphlets featuring a rationale for choosing cremation over burial, locations of the crematories in the US, opinions of notable persons who supported the movement, and photos of retorts and urn selections.

After Detroit physician Dr. Hugo Erichsen founded a local cremation society, he had the idea to bring all cremation groups together as a national society. While his goal was burial reform, and within the first several years his focus was realized, the Cremation Association quickly developed into meetings for businessmen who performed cremations in their communities–largely due to the fact that they had taken over the reform societies which built many of our country’s early crematories.

The modern cremation movement in America arose from a sanitary necessity; but over time as the embalming process evolved and medicines were developed to combat diseases spread by dead human bodies, 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.

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 prevented many areas from having crematories. Many early crematories were built on a grand and beautiful scale, and this could have had an effect on public perception. However, one could easily, after only slight research, attribute cremation’s growth to a concept 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 their views, though the obstacles they faced were harder to overcome than their cemeterian counterparts.

The Memorial Idea included several tenets and no cremation was complete without inurnment, which always included ALL of the following:

A memorial urn of imperishable material: Because bronze is a semi- precious metal, and will only patina with age and will not degrade over time, it made the perfect medium to create permanent, imperishable memorials.

The engraving of the memorial urn: An urn is just a vessel until it is indelibly engraved. An engraved urn created a sacred memorial identity for the one inurned within.

 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 Greeks erected Tumuli in memory of their dead, 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–whether by burial or inurnment in a columbarium. Scattering cremated remains, permanent destruction of cremated remains, and home retention of cremated remains were all in direct conflict with the memorial idea.

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 surface. The face of cremation was about to change drastically.

In all aspects of life and death, the period from the 1960s to now has been characterized by remarkably fast and furious change. Cremation’s transformation to its present identity also began in the 1960s. Urged by many factors, this change was decidedly due to a movement of simplicity.

It was in 1963 that Jessica Mitford wrote her satirical expose “The American Way of Death”– lambasting the funeral and memorialization professions. Many think it was only funeral directors who were under attack by her opinion–but all aspects of the funeral and memorial professions were at risk–and none were excluded from her sarcasm.

Propelled by the excitement that her book spawned, memorial societies who advocated simple direct cremation began doing business in states and cities where cremation had become popular, and these were easy avenues for those preferring minimal services.

By the late 1970s the Memorial Idea began to lose hold on cremation

The simplification process that cremation underwent was underscored by the general public’s idea of deathcare practices. However, this movement not only affected the memorialization side of cremation—all areas of practice and procedure were affected. Cremation chambers that had previously been constructed on-site were instead manufactured to ship to different locations. The first modern cremation chambers were constructed in the basements and wings of chapels across the country by incinerator companies– but in the new cremation movement, builders of cremation chambers simplified the purchase and installation of cremation equipment.

The industrialization of the architecture of the crematory became common as well. As families distanced themselves from the process of cremation, cremation chambers were moved from chapels to garages and metal buildings.

During the transformation, the scattering of cremated remains became more and more popular. Crematories installed processors to reduce the consistency of the cremated remains in order to facilitate scattering. Did scattering encourage processing or did processing encourage scattering? The answer is unknown—however it is clear that the two went hand-in-hand during this time.

With the focus of cremation changing from disposition and memorialization to cost-conscious simplicity, the cremation urn industry changed as well. While a majority of urns sold during the Memorial Idea were constructed of fine cast bronze, as the trend turned toward simplicity, spun bronze, aluminum and wood became popular options.

What does the future hold for cremationists? That is entirely dependent on the attitude of the cremationist. Upon careful examination of our past you will quickly realize that our true potential lies ahead. May we never lose sight of the ever present necessity to encourage permanent cremation memorialization, and may we never fail to put families’ needs and desires ahead of our own.


-taken from Tempero Ignis - A Guide for the Modern Cremationist.  Article written by Jason Ryan Engler.  Jason Ryan Engler is a practicing funeral director in Arkansas. He is the official Cremation Historian for the Cremation Association of North America and is a frequent guest speaker for local and national funeral, cemetery and cremation associations. He is author of the book “Body to the Purifying Flame: A History of the Missouri Crematory” and is a frequent contributor to regional and national trade journals. His website can be found at


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