Popular Science Monthly/Volume 5/June 1874/Cremation and its Alternatives

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A SUBJECT upon which much earnest thought is concentred is, that method of disposing of the dead which shall be in strict accord with Nature's fixed intentions, and which shall not be delayed, by artificial means, to the obvious detriment of our plainest sanitary necessities. The only legitimate approach to a fair investigation of this subject is by the broad sanitary road. The obstacles are numerous and very serious by any other line of approach. There is a mountain of sentiment, of a very pronounced kind, on one side; a very formidable barrier of custom on the other; a rugged declivity of superstition in another direction, and a quagmire of indifference in another. To level all opposition of reason, prejudice, and superstition, is the work of the sanitarian. The chief appeal must be to that potent and first law of Nature, self-protection; and that law must be so proclaimed that, finally, a wholesome conviction shall take root in the popular mind that the sanitarian is right, and that every thing of a purely ethical and sentimental nature must yield to sounder views and practices than now prevail. This is, then, the true pathway to the right understanding of this subject.

Like all great reforms that have had their conception, their struggle for existence, and their ultimate triumph, any reform that contemplates so radical a change in the treatment of the beloved and respected dead is a work of time, and depends wholly upon an enlightened conception of the subject for its general recognition and popular development.

The placid, benign, and often spiritualized features of the recent dead, doubtless constitute a grave standing-ground of protest against the immediate reduction of the body to the dust and ashes to which the Almighty fiat has condemned it. There is something that savors of more than ignorant superstition in the commonly observed solemn hush in the presence of the body whose spirit has fled, in the super-delicate handling of the corpse by loving survivors, though with these manifestations of affection alone no sympathetic spirit would be inclined to quarrel. The scientific protest is not against the tribute of respect bestowed by sorrowing friends, let it be expressed in ever so many and ofttimes grotesque ways, while the body remains among the living, but, as it can so remain only a very brief period, the scientific protest is against all that in our modern times and civilized communities follows the social leave-taking of the dead.

No available progress can be made in moulding public taste and opinion upon this subject until scientific men are prepared to offer some economical and effectual method which shall be decorous and quick for reducing the body to the minimum of material bulk—in a word, to ashes or dust. No methods yet advanced and advocated could be of universal adaptability, for the one simple reason, if no other, that they have highly-technical features of manipulation that could not commonly be commanded. The great problem will be how to make the reduction at once a funeral ceremonial, rapid in execution, and very commendable to those who are bereaved by death. It is especially noticeable that the popular ideas have insensibly gravitated toward the burning of the dead, as the only sure and perfect method of consuming the mortal remains. It is also especially noticeable that cremation, though not without a very ancient history, has never been perfected as a process for the reduction of animal bodies to ashes. Such specimens as I have seen, after repeated experiments by this method, have not been ashes, but cinders and scraggy clinkers. Neither were they generally white, but gray and discolored. Even in ancient times, descriptions of the "assilegium," or gathering of the bones and ashes, also washing, anointing, and depositing them in urns, prove how imperfectly the combustion and calcination had been effected.

Dr. Brunetti's failure to burn the human body, after many hours of earnest effort, and a resort to breaking, by mechanical force, the bones and other hardened tissues, evidently inspired Prof. Reclam, of the Leipsic University, with a determination to solve this seemingly difficult problem. His efforts were rewarded with success. The body was perfectly consumed, by heat alone, in twenty minutes, at a cost of less than three dollars, though the apparatus, of course, was expensive. An approved apparatus would, however, serve an indefinite number of cases.

In the interests of sentiment, personal preferences, and economy, why might not scientific men suggest other ways of reducing the dead body than by means of fire? Has modern chemistry no resources? Have our electrologists no practical ideas to present? Why could there not be a lithological transformation of the dead, and a subsequent aqueous or chemical dissolution? Why may there not be a system of thorough desiccation, and subsequent pulverization?

Now, for the sake of illustrating our idea of a lithological transformation, suppose we were to submit a body to such chemical action as would convert it into one of the compounds of carbon; say, for instance, carbonate of calcium, or carbonate of magnesium, or possibly one of the hydrated compounds of carbon with calcium or magnesium. Of course, our product, if it were a carbonate of calcium, for instance, would bear some relation and resemblance to calc-spar, marble, limestone of various kinds, and chalk; also the substance of egg-shells, the shells of mollusks, and (with the addition only of a trace of phosphorus), to the bones of our body. Thus, the whole mass of structural tissues would be practically ossified. If it were a hydrocarbonate of magnesium, one product would be analogous (of course, not quite the same) to our magnesia alba of commerce. The formation of a mass of carbonate of calcium, not, however, possessing any degree of chemical purity worthy of mention, but sufficient for a specific mineralogical identification, and for the purpose of easy reduction to atoms by pulverization, deliquescence, or solution, would not be a difficult, expensive, or very tedious operation for the practical chemist. The reduction of the mass of carbonate of calcium into lime, and carbonic anhydride, would be a matter of the very easiest execution. It requires only heat to full redness in open vessels. In a current of air, or any gas, and especially of steam, the decomposition, or retrograde transition, takes place at a lower temperature. It requires no alteration of the principle in confining the process to the magnesium carbonates, or any other compound of carbon that may be mentioned. The hydrated carbonate, or ortho-carbonate, would differ from the carbonate less in principle than in the stage or point of extension of the process, and would be even more serviceable for one specific purpose, inasmuch as the product, at the ordinary temperature of the air, would crumble to a white powder, or, if quickly heated, would be converted into a pasty mass, which dries up to a powder. To effect this conversion of the body, which, at the outset of the operation, possesses the carbon element in sufficient abundance to be capable of almost any definite union under favorable circumstances, would require immersion in solutions which it would be easy to formulate and prepare, for any one under the inspiration of chemical experience and practical genius.

In a body weighing 154 pounds, not less than 110 pounds are water. Water, in any appreciable quantity, not becoming a constituent of our imagined necro-lithos, we see, at once, what an enormous reduction of bulk and actual weight the proposed process experiences. Therefore, no cognizance need be taken of the water of the body as a factor requiring special attention, its elimination being inevitable, and all the better, for it would have to be driven off by heat and evaporation, if it did not withdraw itself spontaneously. One of the peculiar features of the method is necessarily the spontaneous exclusion of the water—44 pounds of solid matter, then (in a body weighing 154 pounds), is exchanged for 44 pounds of calcareous stone of so non-compact a nature that it is peculiarly friable, peculiarly soluble, and wonderfully easy to dispose of. Carbon and water (or the elements of water), together with nitrogen, constitute about 98 per cent. of the whole weight of the human body. The nitrogen present weighs about 312 pounds in 154, and to this is largely due the usual rapid decomposition. The suggested process of calcification would drive off nitrogen, together with about ten other very common chemical elements, existing in small quantities. The elements thus expelled rearrange themselves into ammonia, nitric acid, and other