With the opening of The History of Cremation Exhibit at the National Museum of Funeral History (and the holidays making us a bit introspective and nostalgic), we’ve had a renewed sense of interest in the history of the cremation movement—and therefore the history of the Cremation Association. And we thought we’d take the time to celebrate some of the establishments that had representatives at the first convention in Detroit in 1913 remain part of CANA today. (While not all have maintained continuous membership for all of the association’s 105-year existence, their memberships are current now, at a time when cremation education and information are in high demand.)
In early 1913, Dr. Hugo Erichsen sent invitations to every crematory in existence, and even to some strong advocates who were not affiliated with crematories. An advertisement in Modern Cemetery Magazine “proposed to establish a national organization and discuss various questions of practical import relating to the best methods of advertising, management of crematoria, etc.” which became CANA.
Erichsen’s invitation brought fourteen representatives from ten of the fifty-or-so crematories in operation at the time. Along the way, several established crematories added their names to the roster of the association and they too have given their continued support for cremation. We share seven stories of these earliest delegates, and current CANA members, below.
The Buffalo Cremation Company
Buffalo, New York
The Buffalo Cremation Company completed its “Crematory Temple” just after its first cremation took place on December 27, 1885. The engineer for the crematory came to the U.S. from Italy to oversee the construction. The temple was unlike any structure built in the U.S. at the time. In fact, it would be a couple more years before a complete cremation facility was completed at the Missouri Crematory at St. Louis.
The delegate for the Buffalo Cremation Company was George Metcalfe. Endeared to many and known as “Uncle George,” Metcalfe was in attendance at all but one Cremation Association convention from its inception to his death in 1934. At present, the crematory is still in operation as the Forest Lawn Buffalo Cremation Company under Joseph Dispenza and his capable staff.
The US Cremation Company
Middle Village, New York
The US Cremation Company completed their more utilitarian structure housing only the cremation apparatus, and conducted their first cremation on December 4, 1885. Their membership in the association came after the first meeting, their delegate, William Berendsohn, serving as our third president from 1918-1920. The crematory is now operated as the Fresh Pond Crematory and is managed by memorialization advocate Joseph Di Troia, a second-generation operator.
The Cincinnati Cremation Company
After the US Cremation Company and the Buffalo Cremation Company, the Cincinnati Cremation Company operates the third-oldest operating crematory in our country. The cremation furnace was completed and their first cremation took place June 22, 1887. Their chapel was added in 1888. Additionally, they sent a delegate to the first meeting of the Cremation Association, A.T. Roever, and, in 1915, he was elected Secretary – a post he held for almost a decade. Later, R. Herbert Heil operated the Cincinnati Cremation Company, and served as president of the Cremation Association from 1947-1949. Today, the Catchen family own and operate the crematory and columbarium as the Hillside Chapel of the Cincinnati Cremation Company.
In Canada, the first crematory in operation was the Crematorium, Limited, operated on the grounds of the Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal, Quebec. Construction on the crematory here was begun in 1900, and it completed its first cremation in 1901. Their delegate to the first Cremation Association meeting was W. Ormiston Roy, who was the first to confirm his attendance after Dr. Erichsen’s invitation to the 1913 meeting in Detroit. He served as our president from 1920-1922. Mount Royal Cemetery has now assumed control of Crematorium, Inc.’s operations, and it is still a sought-after and popular cremation services provider.
Flanner & Buchanan
In 1904, the leading Indianapolis undertaking firm Flanner & Buchanan decided their establishment was incomplete without the appropriate facilities for serving families who desired cremation. The nearest crematories were more than 100 miles away, and at least one of the active members of their ownership, Charles Buchanan, was a cremationist. At the time, their firm was one of just a handful of funeral directors that owned a crematory. They became active in the Cremation Association, Charles Buchanan being present at the first meeting, then serving as president from 1922-1925.
Additionally, Frank Bates Flanner, while not an officer of the Cremation Association, made many presentations at conventions and wrote many informational pamphlets for better relations between funeral directors and crematories, which had been an antagonistic relationship even in those early days. While the original building and even the second building have long been razed, Flanner Buchanan is still thriving as a leading funeral services provider in Indianapolis and surrounding areas.
Fresno’s Chapel of the Light, established in 1914 as the Fresno Crematory, was begun by a reform society of cremationists in their city. After struggling with their ability to successfully operate a crematory, the trustees of the crematory approached Lawrence Moore, operator of the California Crematorium in Oakland, to take over their operations. He purchased a majority of the stock and became the owner in 1919.
On what was to be a brief assignment, Moore sent one of his employees, Herbert Hargrave, to operate the facility. He ended up staying in Fresno and quickly became involved in the Cremation Association. In 1925, he was elected Secretary and maintained that position until his retirement in 1979, with the exception of a two-year term as president from 1935-1937. He operated the Chapel of the Light from his initial assignment there until his death in 1981.
Herbert Hargrave’s son, Keith, worked with his father at the Chapel of the Light, serving his Cremation Association presidency from 1985-1986. He became involved in the crematory’s operations in 1955, assuming management responsibilities at his father’s retirement. He served as General Manager throughout acquisitions and the selling of the firm and was a mainstay in the company until his death in 2014.
St. Louis, Missouri
The second crematory constructed in St. Louis was completed in 1919 by the St. Louis Mausoleum and Crematory Company, a division of the National Securities Company in St. Louis, and on the grounds of the Valhalla Cemetery on St. Charles Rock Road. Their involvement in the Cremation Association was begun by Robert J. Guthrie, who served as treasurer of the Association from 1925-1932 when he was elected president. Just two years later his death ushered in a new branch of his family. Having no children of his own, Guthrie left the operations of the Valhalla Chapel to his niece’s husband, Mr. Clifford F. Zell, Sr.
The Zell family have been some of the most influential cremationists in American history. Their facility in St. Louis was a blending of the east and west coast ideas of cremation and inurnment. In addition to Mr. Guthrie, their family produced three past-presidents of the Cremation Association, Cliff Zell, Sr., Cliff Zell, Jr., and the first-ever female president of any funeral service or cemetery organization, Genevieve “Jinger” Zell, wife of Cliff Zell, Jr. Valhalla is still under the operation of the Zell family.
It would take pages upon pages to list the crematories in the country and their respective individuals that have been active in our Association since our beginning in 1913. Suffice it to say that all have served in countless capacities—from leading the association as officers and board members to faithfully paying dues each year—and each have contributed in their own ways to the growth and success of our association and of the cremation movement in North America. Past, present, and future, our association’s membership continues to be the guiding force of cremation in America.
This post is excerpted from an article of the same name originally published in The Cremationist Volume 52, Issue 1. Since then, we’ve celebrated our 100th Convention, our 105th Anniversary, and the opening of the first History of Cremation Exhibit at the National Museum of Funeral History. It’s been a busy two years and we’re grateful for the continued leadership and support of our members both old and new. Thank you for all you do for the association, the profession, and your communities – it just wouldn’t be the same without you.
Happy Holidays from CANA.
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Jason Ryan Engler is a licensed funeral director and is known as the Cremation Historian. His interest in the funeral profession came at an early age in his life and his intrigue with the practice of cremation memorialization has put him on a journey of appreciating the beauty of the torch over the spade. Not only is Jason a practicing funeral director, he is also a speaker for local, state, and national associations. He also serves as the Cremation Historian for both the National Museum of Funeral History and the Cremation Association of North America. Mr. Engler’s articles have appeared in regional and national funeral and cremation trade journals including “The Dead Beat,” “The Cremationist of North America,” and “Funeral Business Advisor.” Additionally, he is author of the book "Body to the Purifying Flame: A History of the Missouri Crematory, St. Louis, Missouri."