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CIVILISATION IN THE UNITED STATES. By Matthew Arnold
Ben Jonson. By Algernon Charles Swinburne
ΝΙ Ν Ε Τ Ε Ε Ν Τ Η
No. CXXXI.—JANUARY 1888.
THE PROGRESS OF CREMATION.
In January 1874, exactly fourteen years ago, I ventured to write an article, which appeared in the Contemporary Review,' entitled • Cremation : the Treatment of the Body after Death,' advocating as forcibly as I could its employment instead of the method by burial in the soil. The reason assigned for taking this step was my belief, supported by a striking array of facts, that cremation is now a necessary sanitary precaution against the propagation of disease among a population rapidly increasing, and becoming large in relation to the area it occupies.
The degree of attention which this proposal aroused was remarkable, not only here but abroad, the paper being translated into several European languages. In the course of the first six months of that year I received eight hundred letters on the subject, from persons mostly unknown to me, requiring objections to be answered, explanations to be given, supposed consequences to be provided for; some, indeed, accompanied with much bitter criticism on the 'pagan,' • anti-Christian,' if not altogether irreligious tendency of the plan. I was encouraged, however, to find that about a fourth of the number were more or less friendly to the proposal. But I confess I had been scarcely prepared to expect that people in general would be so much startled by it, as if it were a novelty hitherto unheard of. Long familiar with it in thought myself, cherishing a natural preference, on sanitary grounds, for its obviously great superiority to burial, and after thoughtful comparison on those also commonly regarded as
| Then under my editorship.-ED. Nineteenth Century. VOL. XXIII.-No. 131.
sentimental,' the opposition manifested appeared to me curiously out of proportion with the importance of the interests or sentiments I had perhaps underestimated. Even the few who approved yielded for the most part a weak assent to the confident assertion of a host of opponents, that whatever might be the fate of the theory, any realisation of it could never at all events occur in our time. a phrase invented since that date, the proposal was not to be regarded as coming within the range of a practical policy. At some future day, when the world's population had largely increased, we might possibly be driven to submit to such a process, but, thank heaven! the good old-fashioned resting-place in the churchyard or cemetery would amply suffice to meet all needful demands for several future generations still.
To some of the more formidable objections, especially those which had been urged by men of experience, weight, and position, entitled to be listened to with respect and attention, I endeavoured to reply in a subsequent article which appeared two months later in the same journal. Since that date, although maintaining an undiminished interest in the subject, I have taken no public part in any of the numerous platform discussions and published controversies which have frequently appeared both in this country and abroad. But I think the time has come to present, as far as it is possible to do so within the narrow limits of an article, a sketch of what has been accomplished here, after a patient and quiet service of twice seven years, by a few earnest friends and co-operators, in regard of the practice of cremation, and also to what extent it has been employed in other countries.
This will occupy the first portion of the paper. But it is more important still to meet one or two objections to cremation commonly urged, as well as to formulate conditions by which the practice should be regulated in future. An endeavour to do so will occupy the concluding portion.
The brief historical outline which I design to make relating to the last fourteen years will be incomplete without an allusion to what the modern reaction in favour of cremation had achieved before 1874. The proposal to adopt it in recent times originally proceeded mainly from Italy. Papers and monographs appeared commending the method as early as 1866, but practical experimenters, Gorini and Polli, published separately the results of their experiments in 1872; and among others, Professor Brunetti, of Padua, in 1873 detailed his experience, exhibiting the results of it in the form of ashes, &c., with a model of his furnace, at the Great Exhibition at Vienna of that year.
I first became practically interested in the subject on seeing his collection there; and having long been inclined to the theory, satisfied myself for the first time that if not by this apparatus, yet by some other, complete and inoffensive combustion of the body might almost certainly be effected without difficulty. Brunetti's first cremation took place in 1869, his second and third in 1870, and were effected in an open furnace out of doors.
In no other European country had any act of human cremation taken place, as far as I can learn, prior to 1874; and very little notice or information respecting it appeared in any literary form. My friend Dr. de Pietra Santa, of Paris, reported the Italian cases in a little brochure on the subject in 1873, according his hearty support to the practice. But in the autumn of 1874 there appears to have been a solitary example at Breslau ; while another occurred almost immediately afterwards at Dresden, where an English lady was cremated in a Siemens' apparatus by the agency of gas. No repetition of the process has taken place there since.
In 1874 a society was formed in London, taking for its title *The Cremation Society of England, for the express purpose of disseminating information on the subject, and adopting the best method of performing the process as soon as this could be determined, provided that the act was not contrary to law. In this society I have had the honour of holding the office of president from the commencement to the present date, endeavouring thus to serve a most able and efficient council, most of whom have been fellow-workers during the same period. I am thus well acquainted with its labours and their results, and with each step in its history.
The membership of the society was constituted by subscription to the following declaration, carefully drawn so as to insure approval of a principle, rather than adhesion to any specific practice :
We disapprove the present custom of burying the dead, and desire to substitute some mode which shall rapidly resolve the body into its component elements by a process which cannot offend the living, and shall render the remains absolutely innocuous. Until some better method is devised, we desire to adopt that usually known as cremation.
A small annual contribution was of course also necessary.
The council of the society commenced operations by submitting a case to legal authorities of high standing, and received two opinions, maintaining that cremation of a human body was not an illegal act, provided no nuisance of any kind was occasioned thereby. Thus advised, an arrangement was soon after concluded with the directors of one of the great cemeteries north of London to erect on their property a building in which cremation should be effectively performed. This site, so appropriate for its purpose, and so well placed in relation to neighbouring property, &c., would have been at once occupied, had not the then Bishop of Rochester, within whose jurisdiction the
cemetery lay, exercised his authority by absolutely prohibiting the proposed addition,
It was necessary, therefore, to find an independent site, and we naturally sought it at Woking, since railway facilities for the removal of the dead from the metropolitan district already existed in connection with the well-known cemetery there. Accordingly in the year 1878 an acre of freehold land in a secluded situation was purchased, with the view of placing thereupon a furnace and apparatus of the most approved kind for effecting the purpose.
After much consideration it was decided to adopt the apparatus designed by Professor Gorini, of Lodi, Italy; and that gentleman accepted an invitation to visit this country for the express purpose of superintending the erection of it, and the plan was successfully carried out in 1879 by Mr. Eassie, the well-known sanitary engineer.
When the apparatus was finished, it was tested by Gorini himself, who reduced to ashes the body of a horse, in presence of several members of the council, with a rapidity and completeness which more than fulfilled their expectations. This experiment foreshadowed the result which numerous actual cremations have since realised, namely, that by this process complete combustion of an adult human body is effected in about an hour, and is so perfectly accomplished that no smoke or effluvia escapes from the chimney; every portion of organic matter being reduced to a pure white, dry ash, which is absolutely free from disagreeable character of any kind. Indeed, regarded as an organic chemical product, it must be considered as attractive in appearance rather than the contrary.
But circumstances at this time, occasioned by official opposition in powerful quarters, and not of sufficient interest to be described here, occasioned much trouble and disappointment, and demanded, on the score of prudence, a patient and quiescent policy on the part of the council, delaying the use of the building for a few years.
Nevertheless there was no reason why public attention to the proposed method should not be invited by other means. My friend Sir Spencer Wells, one of the most active members of the council, brought the subject prominently before the medical profession at the annual meeting of the British Medical Association at Cambridge in August 1880, and, after a forcible statement of facts and arguments, proposed to forward an address to the Secretary of State, asking permission to use the crematory under strict regulations. This was largely signed and duly transmitted, achieving, however, no direct result. But in various quarters, and at different times during this period, advocacy by means of essays, articles in journals, lectures, &c., had arisen spontaneously, no organisation having been set on foot for the purpose; several members of the council, however, taking an active part in some of these proceedings. And I should like to add that the share which Mr. Eassie, our honorary secretary, bas