Committed to Flame: A Brief History of Cremation in the United States

Antique urns, Neptune Society Columbarium

Cremation is an ancient way of honoring the dead. Aborigines in Australia cremated their loved ones 20,000 years ago. Bronze Age Scandinavians, Iron Age Palestinians, as well as the Babylonians and Greeks practiced cremation.

The Romans burned their dead on pyres outside of their cities. The ashes were then gathered into urns and enshrined in family tombs that lined the roads in and out of all Roman cities. The most famous of these tombs lined the Appian Way. Perfectly preserved Roman tombs were discovered — with urns of ashes still in place — in Pompeii and under the Basilica of St. Sebastian, among other archaeological sites. The rediscovery of Pompeii in the 1700s led to a widespread fashion in Western cemeteries of decorating headstones – and later, sculptural monuments – with stone urns swathed in stone shrouds. Clearly, these monuments harken back to historical cremations. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though.

With the spread of Roman-era Christianity and its belief in the bodily resurrection of the dead on Judgment Day, cremation fell out of fashion in Europe. Bodies might be buried in mass graves and the bones later exhumed to be gathered in ossuaries that surrounded the graveyards (the last remaining medieval ossuary still stands in Rouen, sans bones), but only witches like Joan of Arc were burned: in effect, denying their ability to respond when the Trump of Doom sounds. Joan’s ashes were collected up and tossed into the Seine, so that no relic might remain to inspire those who believed in her.

For centuries, then, bodies piled up in Europe. By the end of the 18th century, the accumulation of dead people became a real problem in cities from London and Paris to Boston, Manhattan, and Philadelphia. City fathers solved the overcrowding by approving garden or rural cemeteries far from their cities’ hearts. Older graveyards, often filled with pioneers, were exhumed and their residents reburied farther from town.

In addition, the newly powerful medical establishment convinced people that the dead were dangerous, capable of spreading diseases like cholera, which killed tens of millions of people in the overcrowded cities of the Industrial Age. Doctors proposed a medical solution for these dangers: safe and sanitary disposal of the dead by cremation.

The first crematory in the US

In Washington, Pennsylvania, an 80-year-old doctor erected the first cremation furnace in America. F. Julius LeMoyne proclaimed that buried corpses were contaminating drinking water and poisoning the living. His nondescript red brick building, which dates to 1876, is still open for tours the second Saturday of the summer months. LeMoyne was the third person cremated there. His ashes were buried in front of the crematory.

One major impediment to the spread of cremation: the Catholic Church officially banned it in 1886. Cremation was seen as intentional denial of the resurrection of the body. Catholics faced excommunication if they practiced it. The ban remained in effect until 1963, when Vatican II lifted it. Xavier Cronin, in Grave Exodus: Tending to Our Dead in the 21st Century, theorizes that the ban was lifted because the Church wanted to stop dissuading Asians from becoming converts. (For instance, nearly 100% of the Japanese currently opt for cremation.)

Postcard of the Earl Crematory

Despite the Catholic ban on cremation, cemeteries without religious ties opened crematories across the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The practice really took off in America after the family of Gardner Earl presented Oakwood Cemetery in Troy, New York with enough money to build a crematory in 1889. The reception room of the Earl Crematory was decorated in black Siena marble with accents of pink marble from Africa. The building was so lovely that it quickly became a tourist attraction. Colorized “souvenir post cards” of its Richardsonian Romanesque exterior were available to send across the country, effectively advertising it beyond its local community. In The Last Great Necessity, David Charles Sloane wrote, “The crematory was an ornate structure with an elaborate stone interior to remind visitors of the difference between the beauty of cremation and the drabness of earth burial.”

Cemeteries that offered cremation discovered that families often still wanted a permanent shrine, a place where they could go to “visit” their loved ones. This led to the creation of buildings for permanent enshrinement of cremation urns. These buildings were called columbaria, from columba, the Latin word for dove. As the Romans kept tame doves in bird condominiums with dozens of separate cubbyholes, so cemeteries would house cremation urns in shallow niches carved from floor to ceiling into walls in specifically designed buildings.

This was the Victorian Era, with its cult of mourning, so columbaria became the showpieces of their cemeteries. One example is the lovely old Odd Fellows Columbarium in San Francisco, California. British architect Bernard J. S. Cahill, also responsible for old San Francisco City Hall, intended the columbarium to complement the crematorium he’d designed in 1895. His new building opened its doors in 1898 to house the remains of people who’d been cremated nearby.

The Neptune Society’s San Francisco Columbarium

The neoclassical columbarium stands as the sole remnant of the surrounding Odd Fellows Cemetery, which was demolished by the city in 1929. Cahill’s beautiful columbarium barely escaped demolition itself. Luckily, under the auspices of the Homestead Act, it was declared a memorial in 1934, which protected it from civic legislation. Even so, because San Francisco had banned new burials within city limits, the building had no way with which to generate income. It changed hands several times, growing ever more dilapidated, until the Neptune Society purchased it in 1980. It’s now fully restored to its former glory.

Its ground floor houses mostly historic inurnments from the early 1900s. The niches display rotund brass urns, large enough for the ashes of family members to be commingled. All of the urns are sealed behind heavy glass panes, etched or gilded with the family’s name. Some of the historic nooks still wear their original upholstery, ivory satin swagged and pleated around the walls of the niches. Some niches cleverly bypassed the eventual decay of their drapery by replicating fabric’s folds in wood paneling.

The top floor and additional wings hold more modern niches. These are simpler in design, but throughout the columbarium survivors are encouraged to add mementoes to personalize the spaces. These range from photos to small toys to vacation souvenirs to more intimate remembrances like eyeglasses, false teeth, or even a glass eye.

Survivors have also gotten creative with the containers that serve as urns. There are plenty of traditional vases or brass books, but one also finds cookie jars, tobacco humidors, cocktail shakers, even piggy banks.

More staid, if no less beautiful, is the Chapel of the Chimes, which stands across the bay in Oakland. The California Crematorium Association purchased an old trolley station on Piedmont Avenue in 1902 and turned it into a chapel for funeral services. Using the talents of architects Cunningham and Politeo, the Association built the first crematory on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay in 1909, then converted the trolley station into a columbarium. The train schedule is still visible on the wall.

In the 1920s, prominent Bay Area architect Julia Morgan (the first woman to graduate from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris) was hired to design a magnificent Moorish Gothic addition to the Chapel of the Chimes. It includes gardens, alcoves, cloisters, fountains, and chapels. Morgan used stained glass, mosaics, European statuary, tile floors, and California faience to decorate the walls. One of her additions is an antique balustrade now in the cloister. She had intended the piece for Hearst Castle, but William Randolph Hearst rejected it, so it ended up here.

In the intervening years, the Chapel of the Chimes has expanded several times, adding not only more niches for urns but also larger mausoleum spaces for full body interment.

Cypress Lawn’s Lakeside Columbarium, with the domed crematory behind

Bernard J. S. Cahill, the Neptune Society Columbarium’s designer, moved south down the San Francisco Peninsula to design the Lakeside Columbarium in Colma’s Cypress Lawn Memorial Park. Diocletian’s Palace in what’s now Croatia served as the inspiration for the Romanesque columbarium, completed in 1927. The Lakeside Columbarium was meant to be the largest columbarium in the world, offering 10,000 niches. The Great Depression prevented the cemetery from completing Cahill’s design, but as Douglas Keister points on in Going Out in Style: The Architecture of Eternity, the cremation rate in California hovers around 50%. All those people will want to end up somewhere. Cypress Lawn continues to add options for people wanting a place to honor their ancestors’ ashes.

As Americans have become more mobile, leaving their hometowns for school, work, or better weather, it makes sense that they are increasingly unwilling to commit to a piece of ground for eternity. As Sloane points out, “Cremation is legally considered the final disposition of the body in most states, meaning that cremated remains do not necessarily have to be buried or entombed.” People are allowed to scatter ashes somewhere that the deceased loved or to keep them on the mantelpiece at home.

Across America, cremation is becoming more common and therefore more familiar. The national average of cremation now is a hair over 30%. While cremation is rare in Mississippi (only 1 in 10), in Nevada almost 7 of 10 people opt to be cremated. Cemeteries across the country are developing scattering gardens and building columbaria. Sometimes these are simply walls, open to the elements, with niches for urns. Other times they build lovely new columbaria to house cremains. Even the Catholic Church has gotten into the business. The new Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels in downtown Los Angeles has niches for urns in its crypt. By keeping up with changes in people’s final wishes, cemeteries can survive into the 21st century and beyond.

About Loren Rhoads

I am the author of the essay collection Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, co-author of the novel As Above, So Below, and editor of The Haunted Mansion Project: Year Two. In addition to blogging at CemeteryTravel.com, I blog about my morbid life at lorenrhoads.com.
This entry was posted in Cemetery essay and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Committed to Flame: A Brief History of Cremation in the United States

  1. coastalcrone says:

    Lots of good information – thanks!

  2. Pingback: Cemetery of the Week #112: Golders Green Crematorium | Cemetery Travel: Adventures in Graveyards Around the World

What would you like to add?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s