It will be remembered that, some two years ago, the public mind was horrified by an attempt that was made in one of our western cities, on the part of a husband, to burn the body of his deceased wife. After the excitement had in some degree passed away, the subject was discussed by some of our city journals in a very calm and instructive manner ; and it has since received considerable attention from some English physicians. We are not prepared to advocate the burning of the dead, or to dispense with that time-honored system of burial which has obtained in all Christian communities since the days of Abraham; but we consider it a very proper subject for discussion, and could it be proved, in a sanitary point of view, to obviate a more serious evil, we could become reconciled to what is now chiefly regarded as an inhuman relic of a barbarous people. We, however, differ in opinion from those who undertake to show that disease is propagated from the exhalations of graveyards, in cases where they are properly cared for. So far as our own country is concerned, we believe not a single fact can be adduced in support of such an assertion, unless it result from the inhuman disposal of the remains of outcasts in what are known as "Potter's Fields," and which are ofttimes hustled about in premature resurrection by the Vandalism of unprincipled money-getters. The whole evil complained of in European cities, if not purely imaginary, arises from that system of intermural burial which is now nearly dispensed with in all civilized cities. The Evening Post, of this city, notices that a book has lately been published in London, which seeks to show the advantages of the ancient method of burning the dead. The only objection its author, who is a " Member of the College of Surgeons," finds against burial is a sanitary one. He says that " it is proved beyond all doubt, that during the progress of that decomposition which a body undergoes when buried, the elements of which it is composed, before entering into other and purer states, forms certain putrid gases of so deadly a nature that their inhalation in a concentrated state has been known to cause instant death ; while in a more diluted form, they are productive of the most serious injury to health. These dreadful effluvia vary much in their virulence, according to circumstances ; and there is probably one particular stage of decomposition in which they attain their most fatal power." Church-yards.are, it is well-known, most pestiferous places. And we are assured that the gases emanating from the bodies when diluted, possesses the power of " producing various diseases, diminishing the average duration of life, lowering the tone of the general health, and thereby rendering thousands more liable to be attacked by fever, cholera, or other epidemics. It is not because they are often imperceptible to the sense of smell that they are harmless." How are these evils to be averted ? Thirty-five millions of human beings die every year —nearly four thousand every hour. By what means shall this great mass of decaying substance be so disposed as not to vitiate the air the living breathe, and the water the living drink? The remedy our author proposes is, as we have hinted, that of burning. To render the idea less revolting, he proposes a plan which seems to him without objection :— "On a gentle eminence, surrounded by pleasant grounds, stands a convenient, well-ventilated chapel, with a high spire or steeple. At the entrance, where some of the mourners might prefer to take leave of the body, are chambers for their accommodation. Within the edifice are seats for those who follow the remains to the last; there is also an organ and a gallery for choristers. In the center of the chapel, embellished with appropriate emblems and devices, is erected a shrine of r marble, somewhat like those which cover the ( ashes of the great and mighty in our old ca-^thedrals, the openings being filled with prepared glass. Within this—a sufficient space intervening^is an inner shrine, covered with bright, non-radiating metal, and within this again is a covered sarcophagus of tempered fire-clay, with one or more longitudinal slits near the top, extending its whole length. As soon as the body is deposed therein, sheets of flame at an immensely high temperature rush through the long apertures from end to end, and, acting as a combination of a modifled oxy-hj-drogen blow-pipe with the reverbera-tory furnace, utterly and completely consume and decompose the body in an incredibly abort space of time; even the large quantity of v^-ater it contains is decomposed by the extreme heat, and its elements, instead of retarding, aid combustion, as is the case in fierce conflagrations. The gaseous products of combustion are conveyed away by flues, and means being adopted to consume anything like smoke, all that is observed from the outside is occasionally a quivering transparent ether floating away from the high steeple to mingle with the atmosphere."
This article was originally published with the title "Burning of the Dead" in Scientific American 13, 41, 326 (June 1858)