April 18, 1900: Mount Auburn’s first cremation performed

December 6, 2011

The trustees of Mount Auburn first started to consider establishing a crematorium in 1885 but awaited “the further development of public sentiment.” In 1897 the Cemetery applied to the state legislature for an act authorizing Mount Auburn Cemetery to establish a crematory.

Architect Willard T. Sears was enlisted to design a plan to renovate the interior of the old chapel (now Bigelow Chapel) to accommodate a crematory, and “only the outer granite structure which it was deemed desirable to retain on account of its associations was preserved.

In 1899, the interior of the old chapel was renovated to accommodate the first crematory in a cemetery in Massachusetts. (The first cremation in Massachusetts – that of the well-known suffragist and social reformer, Lucy Blackwell Stone – took place in December of 1893 at a facility operated by the Massachusetts Cremation Society.) A basement was constructed and the floor was raised. Additionally, an elevator in front of the alter area was installed for lowering caskets to the retorts below.

On April 18, 1900, Mount Auburn’s first cremation was performed. During that year, Mount Auburn performed 50 cremations. President Israel M. Spelman, reported in the 1900 Annual Report, “That cremation is growing in favor seems clearly evident. It is undoubtedly not only the most speedy method of resolving the body into its elements, one hour doing the work of years, but also the safest in a sanitary point of view.”

Cremations have continued to grow in popularity and in 2010 Mount Auburn performed 1,293 cremations. The national average cremation rate is 34%, and the Cremation Association of North America predicts that by 2015 it could be as high as 50%.

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