[From Yn Lioar Manninagh Vol 1 p107/110]



(Read February 3, 1887.)

The subject of Cremation may, I think, be fitly discussed by an Antiquarian Society, it being a method of sepulture of extreme antiquity and doubtless the object of such societies as ours is not merely to investigate and preserve the records of the past history of our race, as mere curiosities, but, as far as may be, to utilise that knowledge and adapt it to our present wants. There are several arts in which the ancients are unexcelled by the moderns, although the latter are aided by the knowledge of many sciences. No doubt also the customs and usages of the civilised races of this day are widely different from those of their remote ancestors ; their sentiments and emotions are doubtless the same, but their mode of expression has been greatly changed through the course of ages.

We know from Holy Writ that cremation was practised by the Jews, as an occasional procedure, notably in the case of Saul and his sons, also in times of pestilence, as recorded in the book of Amos ; the allusions, however, to certain rights which were celebrated in the Vale of Tophet do not, as I understand them, indicate cremation. Among the ancient Romans it was the recognised and customary method of sepulture, and their law expressly limited the cases in which it was forbidden to suicides, persons killed by lightning, and very young children. All lovers of Virgil are familiar with the tragic end of Dido, the amorous Carthaginian Queen, who erected her own funeral pyre.

It was also the custom among the Greeks. At the end of the 24th book of the Iliad, Homer describes the cremation of Hector. The following is Pope’s translation of the passage :—

These toils continue nine succeeding days,
And high in air a sylvan structure raise.
But when the tenth fair morn began to shine
Forth to the pile was born the man divine -
And placed aloft. When all with straining eyes
Behold the flames and rolling smoke arise.
Soon as Aurora, daughter of the dawn,
With rosy lustre streaked the dewy lawn,
Again the mournful crowd surround the pyre,
And quench with wine the yet remaining fire.
The snowy bones his friends and brothers place
(With tears collected) in a golden vase;
The golden vase in purple palls they rolled
Of softest texture and inwrought with gold.
Last o’er the urn the sacred earth they spread,
And raise the tomb memorial of the dead.

In the 23rd book of the Iliad, the funeral pile of Patroclus is described with more minuteiless, and one is struck by the idea of honour to the departed hero which pervades the whole description of his cremation.

In some parts of the world cremation has not only been practised in olden times, but has lived down to the present day ; it is still the mode of sepulture practised by many of the Indian tribes of America, and by the Hindoos, and it is worthy of note that the British authorities in India have in several parts erected cinerators for the use of the natives. In Siam the body is embalmed, and lays in state in a temple for a period varying according to the deceased’s rank, before cremation is carried out.

In Europe the practice appears to have become obsolete during the 5th and 6th centuries of the Christian era, probably from religious motives, owing to the views taken of the doctrine of the resurrection.

In the north of Europe the graves referred to the Bronze age contain only jars of ashes, so that at one time or other it must have been a universal custom. I am indebted to our President for the following information about cremation in the Isle of Man. On opening a tumulus on a spur of Snaefell, Mr Savage found an urn containing calcined bones ; the floor of the tumulus was formed of a rude kind of stone pavement, and it contained a quantity of charcoal, recognised as charred gorse, and a number of stone implements, identifying it with the Stone age.

In the Bronze age, evidence of the practice is found in the cinerary urn recently discovered at Port-e-Chee, which has been presented to the collection at the Government Office by Sir William Drinkwater and Mr. Quilliam; also, in an urn presented by Mr. Moore. The former of these contained a bronze implement identifying it with the Bronze age. One of the leading motives which induced the ancients to burn their dead was, no doubt, as Mr. Savage suggests, to ensure that the remains of their relatives should be safe from the insult of foes in ages when there was constant warfare, and the habits of the people were nomadic, and their tenure of the land insecure. Cremation offers also the advantages that in changing their residence they could take the ashes of their friends with them. Further, after a stricken field, doubtless, the reason was the same sanitary one which the advocates of cremation urge today. It should also not be forgotten that it became a way of showing honour to the departed heroes, and that among some of the peoples of India the reasons are of a religious and philosophic character.

Chemistry tells us that the changes undergone by animal tissues (after death) consist of their slow oxidation under the influence of the oxygen of the air. This is really a process of slow combustion, by which the very complex substances of which animal bodies are composed, are reduced to the following simple products :—Water, ammonia, carbonic acid, and mineral salts or ash Well, it is during this long process of decomposition, and from the numerous intermediate products that are formed that the danger arises, of pollution of air and water, which is fraught with peril to the living. Wells are sunk near churchyards, and spring water becomes infected with the germs of disease. Cemeteries are often made really beautiful spots; and around them it is the practice to cluster pretty villas. It has often been noted how frequent headache, ulcerated sore throat, and numerous other maladies are in the neighbourhood of large cemeteries. The problem before us, therefore, is as follows :—What is a rapid and innocuous way of resolving the body into its original elements, avoiding those intermediate stages of danger, and at the same time destroying the germs of disease ; this process to be conducted in such a way as to do no violence to that kindly feeling which we all entertain towards onr departed friends and relations.

Well, the advocates of cremation maintain that it is exactly such a process ; that by its adoption the germs of disease are at once destroyed, the risk of injurious effects from the pollution of air and water are completely obviated, and that it admits of being celebrated and accompanied by religious observances and rites, be the ritual, simple, or elaborate, only a few slight changes in the usual liturgy being necessary, and that it is a process which is in no way at variance with the kindly feelings we all have towards our departed friends and relations.

The following is a brief sketch of the apparatus and the present mode of carrying out cremation

The crematorium is a building whose architecture in some manner symbolises the processes and is surrounded by grounds suitably beautified. It contains a reception hall, in which the cortege would be met by the officiating clergyman. After a short service the remains would be lowered into the charge of two attendants, while the mourners would adjourn to the chapel, where a suitable service would be held during the cremation.

Different kinds of apparatus have been devised and used for the reduction of the remains to ashes. The best suited, however, for complete and rapid reduction is the regenerative apparatus of Siemens. The fuel used is entirely gaseous and consists of coal gas and air, which are ignited, the flame first passing through the regenerator, which consists of numerous layers of fire bricks, with suitable intervals between them, then to the cremation chamber, into which the remains are introduced. This chamber has a floor consisting of fire bricks, between which the flame passes and thence into a flue leading to the chimney. In the best arrangements, however, the heated air leaving the cremation chamber is passed through a second regenerator, where it is deprived of its heat. After this the gases have been found to be inodorous owing to the complete combustion which has taken place when such a large amount as a quarter of a ton of animal matter was consumed. The process takes about one hour. The ashes remaining weigh five or six pounds, and may afterwards be placed in an urn and deposited in the columbarium or buried. The cost is about £6 at present.

There are now several crematories in Europe ; the first was built at Milan, in 1875, and in it over 500 cremations have taken place. A second was erected at Gotha, in 1878, which has also been frequently used, and there is one at Dresden. The third European crematorium was built at Woking by the English Cremation Society. In America there is at Washington, the Lemoyne crematorium, and there is another in Pennsylvania. In every country in Europe, also in America, cremation societies exist and have done much to popularise fire burial. I ought to mention that the thirteenth cremation at Woking took place last December. There has been much delay in England owing to the practice not being expressly sanctioned by any statute.[not done until 1902 with Cremation Act]

If we survey the difficulties in the way of the adption of cremation, we must rank in the first place our sentiments linked with our customs and prejudices. Habit has a powerful hold, and in the mode of the disposal of the dead men are very conservative ; there is at such times a strong tide of feeling which seeks expression in the strict observance of the customs of the country, a sensitiveness lest every respect should not be paid, and the old Latin proverb " de mortuis nil nisi bonum," fitly epitomises the frame of mind in which friends regard their departed relative. I would, however, be slow to think that either sorrow or sympathy in bereavement is more genuine at the present day than, say, in the case of the ancient Greeks, when cremation was the mode of sepulture ; even in the present day substantial reforms have been effected, and the expensive paraphernalia which was considered to be the necessary outward and visible sign of real grief and which often further straitened the circumstances of the survivors who could ill afford it, has been curtailed.

Taking next the religious objections, there cannot be a doubt that the early spread of Christianity caused cremation to disappear among the Anglo Saxons. As cremation was practised among pagan nations, it appeared to the early Christians to be opposed to some of their most cherished beliefs. I think, however, that, with increased knowledge and broader and more enlightened views, cremation will recommend itself and even now it ranks among its advocates several distinguished clergymen. In this connection I ought to mention the observation of the late Lord Shaftesbury with reference to the idea that cremation was incompatible with the doctrine of the resurrection ; he remarked, " In that case what would become of the blessed martyrs ?"

In my way of thinking, however, a more serious difficulty still is that which arises from the fact that cremation obliterates all traces of poisons or of violence, and that if once it was performed it would be impossible to obtain the valuable evidence which is in the present state of things available in cases of foul play. If for sanitary reasons cremation becomes a wide spread custom, it will be necessary for us to take one more lesson from our German cousins. The Fatherland is divided into districts, for each of which a specially skilled medical man is appointed, whose sole work is to pay particular attention to the causes of death, especially any cases which are sudden or obscure or in any way suspicious. He makes the necessary examination, and unless his certificate is obtained no interment can be made. Some such improvement in our present arrangements would seem to me to be necessary before cremation could be widely used.

In conclusion, there can be little doubt that after battles, and especially in beleagured cities, cremation is preferable to the hasty, superficial interments generally performed, and that in case of plague or pestilence it would be valuable as a hygienic measure. Many, however, will prefer the present system of burial, like the old Scotchman who, after listening to a strenuous supporter of cremation, marked, " Ye seem in a great hurry aboot it, ma freen ; but dootless it’ll be managed withoot ony trouble to your freens and executors, all in the Lord’s gude time and pleasure ! " Doubtless, also, to many of its ardent advocates, " the cleansing fires " which anticipate the sad changes when

" Decay’s effacing fingers
Sweep the lines where beauty lingers."

these cleansing fires, I say, rob that relentless King of many of his terrors, and the peaceful " storied urn " idealises that " rest after toil, port after stormy seas," in a manner more satisfying than any other.


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