The funeral industry has a challenge on its hands: consumers are choosing cremation, but they know little about it. They don’t know the process, the possibilities for memorialization, and they don’t understand cremation’s history. Worse, because America’s cremation story has largely been untold, misconceptions about the industry fill the gaps.
Cremation in the United States is the new tradition. In 2016, cremation reached a major milestone when it eclipsed casketed burial as the most popular form of disposition—and it shows no signs of slowing. In 1960, only 3.6% of Americans chose cremation. In 2016, 50.1% did. But even as cremation has soared in popularity, a significant lack of understanding about the process and possibilities of cremation exists. That’s why the History of Cremation Exhibit is so important.
On September 16, the National Museum of Funeral History (NMFH) celebrates the opening of The History of Cremation Exhibit, a joint project developed with CANA to tell the full-circle story of cremation in America: from chronicling its birth in Pennsylvania to demonstrating a step-by-step modern cremation process and illuminating the seemingly endless possibilities for memorialization. Visitors will walk away with a new respect and appreciation for this widely misunderstood industry.
What does Cremation have to do with Funeral History?
The National Museum of Funeral History was founded in 1992 to realize Robert L. Waltrip’s 25-year dream of establishing an institution to educate the public and preserve the heritage of death care. The Museum provides a place to collect and preserve the history of the industry, including how it began and how it has evolved over time. Permanent exhibits feature vintage hearses, international funerary practices, and tributes to notable figures, but no exhibit had touched on the fastest growing method of disposition in the Western world – cremation.
Like its history in America, the global story of cremation is marked by wide-swinging societal shifts. From its ancient use in Roman and Greek culture to purify and honor souls through fire, to its Christian condemnation as a pagan ritual, cremation’s road has been long and conflicted. And people were curious about this story – museum visitors left comments about cremation’s glaring absence from the museum when it’s so present in society.
How did cremation make such a giant leap forward in American society?: The First US Cremation (an exhibit sneak-peek!)
In 1876, the LeMoyne Crematory in Pennsylvania became the first crematory in the United States. That same year, a man named Baron De Palm was the first person cremated there. The inaugural cremation was an event. Local Board of Health members and physicians were invited. Crowds gathered outside the crematory hoping to get a glimpse of the mystical method of disposition by fire.
A handful of honored guests received a small, clear apothecary jar filled with a portion of De Palm’s cremated remains. Those jars signify the birth of cremation in America, and one of them will be on display at the unveiling. Visitors will experience the transition from 1876 to today, from a replica of the LeMoyne Crematory to a modern cremation chamber.
The exhibit is a first-of-its kind undertaking, not merely displaying interesting artifacts, but telling a visual story of cremation in America through historical urns, pamphlets, replicas of original equipment and other artifacts, while educating on the technology and memorialization possibilities of modern cremation. Like the witnesses to Baron de Palm’s cremation, the exhibition will allow people to go behind the scenes—seeing cremation containers, the process, how we recycle, and how we memorialize.
More than getting America’s cremation story in one place, The History of Cremation Exhibit delivers well-deserved clarity to an industry shrouded in mystery. The exhibit will demystify cremation for the public, particularly that cremation memorialization means more than an urn on a mantle. The exhibit will showcase cremation history, but also help the public understand memorialization options and open their eyes to things they never knew about cremation.
While cremation continues to rise in the United States—more than half of Americans are choosing it—too often, people stop at “just cremate me.” Moving beyond direct disposal, the exhibit will showcase meaningful ways to memoralize whether adhering to tradition or creating a personalized experience. This exhibit provides an understanding of the complete cremation process, including the role of the funeral director and cemeterian when exploring options for cremation and permanent placement of their cremated remains.
By the Industry, For the Industry
The idea for an exhibit began long ago when Jason Engler, a funeral director who has been involved in funeral service for most of his life, began collecting facts and artifacts at 12 years old. When he joined CANA as its official historian, he began exploring ways to communicate the fascinating beginning of the American Cremation Movement to a wider audience. This exhibit features much of Engler’s own extensive collection as well as other CANA members’ donated time, resources, and artifacts. Together, they tell the story of cremation and the possibilities for memorialization.
But it’s not simply about educating the public. The exhibit will demystify cremation for funeral service professionals as well. Even seasoned funeral directors and cemeterians struggle with presenting all the options and effectively educating consumers on cremation. Some in the industry may even personally dislike cremation, but they are not alone. Twenty-first century funeral service professionals are the latest in a long line of professionals who struggled with and succeeded in meeting the needs of cremation families.
For a long time, cremation was taboo and certain religions and people within the funeral industry didn’t accept it. But the cremation rate shows that opinions have changed and this exhibit takes a large step toward acknowledging cremation’s history in our profession—and we should take a great deal of pride in it. Understanding the historical context of cremation allows you to learn from the past and embrace the future.
What to Expect at the History of Cremation Exhibit
A driving force behind The History of Cremation Exhibit is Jason Engler, CANA’s official historian. Engler donated approximately 90 percent of his personal collection of historical cremation items to the exhibit, including:
- 140 books, pamphlets, and brochures about historic cremation facilities
- 120 urns, some dating back to the late-1890s
60 postcards depicting various crematories
20 urn catalogues printed from the 1890s to the 1990s
20 original articles, documents, certificates, and images about different aspects of cremation
Outside of Engler’s collection, the exhibit will feature some extraordinary items from the LeMoyne Crematory, which opened in 1876 as America’s first crematory:
A notebook listing all who were cremated at LeMoyne Crematory, which was kept by the designer, builder, and operator of the crematory
A book written by Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne, LeMoyne Crematory’s founder
A copy of the exclusive invitation for the cremation of Baron De Palm, the first modern cremation in the United States
The casket plate from De Palm’s casket
An apothecary jar containing a portion of De Palm’s remains
The exhibit will also showcase the casket lid of the first woman cremated in America—Jane Pitman, who died in 1878. Visitors will also see a letter written by her husband, Benjamin Pitman, requesting her cremation.
Throughout the exhibit, visitors will see how cremation has evolved over time—the changes in societal views, equipment, and memorialization options.
How to Donate to the History of Cremation Exhibit
Financial or artifact contributions are what make the History of Cremation Exhibit possible. Please consider donating to the History of Cremation Exhibit today.
Read on to learn more about the history of cremation starting with the role of women in the Cremation Movement and how the Memorial Idea has changed since the first cremation. This post was excerpted from The Cremationist, Vol 54, Issue 2: “Preview of the History of Cremation Exhibit” by Kelly Rehan.
Jason will present on the history of cremation and our association at CANA’s 100th Annual Cremation Innovation Convention tomorrow! Do you know what cremation innovation will look like in 100 years? Share it with us for our time capsule to be opened in 2118!