Popular Science Monthly/Volume 4/March 1874/Disposal of the Dead

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AFTER Death! The last faint breath had been noted, and another watched for so long, but in vain. The body lies there, pale and motionless, except only that the jaw sinks slowly but perceptibly. The pallor visibly increases, becomes more leaden in hue, and the profound, tranquil sleep of Death reigns where just now were life and movement. Here, then, begins the eternal rest.

Rest! no, not for an instant. Never was there greater activity than at this moment exists in that still corpse. Activity, but of a different kind to that which was before. Already a thousand changes have commenced. Forces innumerable have attacked the dead. The rapidity of the vulture, with its keen scent for animal decay, is nothing to that of Nature's ceaseless agents now at full work before us. That marvelously complex machine, but this moment the theatre of phenomena too subtile and too recondite to be comprehended; denotable only by phraseology which stands for the unknown and incomputable vital, because more than physical, more than chemical—is now consigned to the action of physical and chemical agencies alone. And these all operating in a direction the reverse of that which they held before death. A synthesis, then, developing the animal being. The stages of that synthesis, now, retraced, with another end, still formative, in view. Stages of decomposition, of decay, with its attendant putrescence; process abhorrent to the living, who therefore desire its removal. "Bury the dead out of my sight," is the wholly natural sentiment of the survivor.

But Nature does nothing without ample meaning; nothing without an object desirable in the interest of the body politic. It may, then, be useful to inquire what must of necessity happen if, instead of burying or attempting to preserve the dead, Nature follows an unimpeded course, and the lifeless animal is left to the action of laws in such case provided.

It is necessary first to state more exactly the conditions supposed to exist. Thus, the body must be exposed to air; and must not be consumed as prey by some living animal. If it is closely covered with earth or left in water, the same result is attained as in the condition first named, although the steps of the process may be dissimilar.

The problem which Nature sets herself to work in disposing of dead animal matter is always one and the same. The order of the universe requires its performance; no other end is possible. The problem may be slowly worked, or quickly worked; the end is always one.

It may be thus stated: The animal must be resolved into—

a. Carbonic acid (CO2, water (HO), and ammonia (NH3).

b. Mineral constituents, more or less oxidized, elements of the earth's structure: lime, phosphorus, iron, sulphur, magnesia, etc.

The first group, gaseous in form, go into the atmosphere.

The second group, ponderous and solid, remain where the body lies, until dissolved and washed into the earth by rain.

Nature's object remains still unstated: the constant result of her work is before us; but wherefore are these changes? In her wonderful economy she must form and bountifully nourish her vegetable progeny; twin-brother life, to her, with that of animals. The perfect balance between plant existences and animal existences must always be maintained, while "matter" courses through the eternal circle, becoming each in turn.

To state this more intelligibly by illustration: If an animal be resolved into its ultimate constituents in a period according to the surrounding circumstances, say, of four hours, of four months, of four years, or even of four thousand years—for it is impossible to deny that there may be instances of all these periods during which the process has continued—those elements which assume the gaseous form mingle at once with the atmosphere, and are taken up from it without delay by the ever-open mouths of vegetable life. By a thousand pores in every leaf the carbonic acid which renders the atmosphere unfit for animal life is absorbed, the carbon being separated and assimilated to form the vegetable fibre, which, as wood, makes and furnishes our houses and ships, is burned for our warmth, or is stored up under pressure for coal. All this carbon has played its part, "and many parts," in its time, as animal existences from monad up to man. Our mahogany of to-day has been many negroes in its turn, and before the African existed was integral portions of many a generation of extinct species. And, when the table, which has borne so well some twenty thousand dinners, shall be broken up from pure debility and consigned to the fire, thence it will issue into the atmosphere once more as carbonic acid, again to be devoured by the nearest troop of hungry vegetables—green peas or cabbages in a London market-garden, say—to be daintily served on the table which now stands in that other table's place, and where they will speedily go to the making of "lords of the creation." And so on, again and again, as long as the world lasts.

Thus it is that an even balance is kept—demonstrable to the very last grain if we could only collect the data—between the total amounts of animal and of vegetable life existing together at any instant on our globe. There must be an unvarying relation between the decay of animal life and the food produced by that process for the elder twin, the vegetable world. Vegetables first, consumed by animals either directly or indirectly, as when they eat the flesh of animals who live on vegetables. Secondly, these animals daily casting off effete matters, and by decay after death providing the staple food for vegetation of every description. One the necessary complement of the other. The atmosphere, polluted by every animal whose breath is poison to every other animal, being every instant purified by plants, which, taking out the deadly carbonic acid and assimilating carbon, restore to the air its oxygen, first necessary of animal existence.

I suppose that these facts are known to most readers, but I require a clear statement of them here as preliminary to my next subject; and in any case it can do no harm to reproduce a brief history of this marvelous and beautiful example of intimate relation between the two kingdoms.

I return to consider man's interference with the process in question just hinted at in the quotation, "Bury the dead out of my sight."

The process of decomposition affecting an animal body is one that has a disagreeable, injurious, often fatal influence on the living man if sufficiently exposed to it. Thousands of human lives have been cut short by the poison of slowly-decaying and often diseased animal matter. Even the putrefaction of some of the most insignificant animals has sufficed to destroy the noblest. To give an illustration which comes nearly home to some of us—the graveyard pollution of air and water alone has probably found a victim in some social circle known to more than one who may chance to read this paper. And I need hardly add that in times of pestilence its continuance has been often due mainly to the poisonous influence of the buried victims.

Man, then, throughout all historic periods, has got rid of his dead kin after some fashion. He has either hidden the body in a cave and closed the opening to protect its tenant from wild beasts, for the instinct of affection follows most naturally even the sadly-changed remains of our dearest relative; or, the same instinct has led him to embalm and preserve as much as may be so preservable—a delay only of Nature's certain work—or the body is buried beneath the earth's surface, in soil, in wood, in stone, or metal—each mode another contrivance to delay, but never to prevent, the inevitable change. Or, the body is burned, and so restored at once to its original elements, in which case Nature's work is hastened, her design anticipated, that is all. And, after burning, the ashes may be wholly or in part preserved in some receptacle in obedience to the instinct of the survivor, referred to above. All forms of sepulture come more or less under one of these heads.[1]

One of the many social questions waiting to be solved, and which must be solved at no very remote period, is, Which of these various forms of treatment of the dead is the best for survivors?

This question may be regarded from two points of view, both possessing importance, not equally perhaps; but neither can be ignored.

A. From the point of view of Utility; as to what is best for the entire community.

B. From the point of view of Sentiment; the sentiment of affectionate memory for the deceased, which is cherished by the survivor.

I assume that there is no point of view to be regarded as belonging to the deceased person, and that no one believes that the dead has any interest in the matter. We who live may anxiously hope—as I should hope at least—to do no evil to survivors after death, whatever we may have done of harm to others during life. But, being deceased, I take it we can have no wishes or feelings touching this subject. What is best to be done with the dead is then mainly a question for the living, and to them it is one of extreme importance. When the globe was thinly-peopled, and when there were no large bodies of men living in close neighborhood, the subject was an inconsiderable one and could afford to wait, and might indeed be left for its solution to sentiment of any kind. But the rapid increase of population forces it into notice, and especially man's tendency to live in crowded cities. There is no necessity to prove, as the fact is too patent, that our present mode of treating the dead, namely, that by burial beneath the soil, is full of danger to the living. Hence intramural interment has been recently forbidden, first step in a series of reforms which must follow. At present we who dwell in towns are able to escape much evil by selecting a portion of ground distant—in this year of grace 1873—some five or ten miles from any very populous neighborhood, and by sending our dead to be buried there—laying by poison nevertheless, it is certain, for our children's children, who will find our remains polluting their water-sources, when that now distant plot is covered, as it will be, more or less closely by human dwellings. For it can be a question of time only when every now waste spot will be utilised for food-production or for shelter, and when some other mode of disposing of the dead than that of burial must be adopted. If, therefore, burial in the soil be certainly injurious either now or in the future, has not the time already come to discuss the possibility of replacing it by a better process? We cannot too soon cease to do evil and learn to do well. Is it not indeed a social sin of no small magnitude to sow the seeds of disease and death broadcast, caring only to be certain that they cannot do much harm to our own generation? It may be granted, to anticipate objection, that it is quite possible that the bodies now buried may have lost most, if not all, their power of doing mischief by the time that the particular soil they inhabit is turned up again to the sun's rays, although this is by no means certain; but it is beyond dispute that the margin of safety as to time grows narrower year by year, and that pollution of wells and streams which supply the living must ere long arise wherever we bury our dead in this country. Well, then, since every buried dead body enters sooner or later into the vegetable kingdom, why should we permit it, as it does in many cases, to cause an infinity of mischief during the long process?

Let us at this point glance at the economic view of the subject, for it is not so unimportant as, unconsidered, it may appear. For it is an economic subject whether we will it or not. No doubt a sentiment repugnant to any such view must arise in many minds, a sentiment altogether to be held in respect and sympathy. Be it so; the question remains strictly a question of prime necessity in the economic system of a crowded country. Nature will have it so, whether we like it or not. She destines the material elements of my body to enter the vegetable world on purpose to supply another animal organism which takes my place. She wants me, and I must go. There is no help for it. When shall I follow—with quick obedience, or unwillingly, truant-like, traitor-like, to her and her grand design? Her capital is intended to bear good interest and to yield quick return; all her ways prove it—"increase and multiply" is her first and constant law. Shall her riches be hid in earth to corrupt and bear no present fruit, or be utilized, without loss of time, value, and interest, for the benefit of starving survivors? Nature hides no talent in a napkin; we, her unprofitable servants only, thwart her ways and delay the consummation of her will.

Is a practical illustration required? Nothing is easier. London was computed, by the census of 1871, to contain 3,254,260 persons, of whom 80,430 died within the year. I have come to the conclusion, after a very carefully-made estimate, that the amount of ashes and bone-earth—such as is derived by perfect combustion—belonging to and buried with those persons, is by weight about 206,820 pounds. The pecuniary value of this highly-concentrated form of animal solids is very considerable. For this bone-earth may be regarded as equivalent to at least six or seven times its weight of dried but unburned bones, as they ordinarily exist in commerce. The amount of other solid matters resolvable by burning into the gaseous food of plants, but rendered unavailable by burial for, say fifty or a hundred years or more, is about 5,584,000 pounds, the value of which is quite incalculable, but it is certainly enormous as compared with the preceding.

This is for the population of the metropolis only; that of the United Kingdom for the same year amounted to 31,483,700 persons, or nearly ten times the population of London. Taking into consideration a somewhat lower death-rate for the imperial average, it will at all events be quite within the limit of truthful statement to multiply the above quantities by nine in order to obtain the amount of valuable economic material annually diverted in the United Kingdom, for a long term of years, from its ultimate destiny by our present method of interment.

The necessary complement of this ceaseless waste of commodity most precious to organic life, and which must be replaced, or the population could not exist, is the purchase by this country of that same material from other countries less populous than our own, and which can, therefore, at present spare it. This we do to the amount of much more than half a million pounds sterling per annum.[2]

Few persons, I believe, have any notion that these importations of foreign bones are rendered absolutely necessary by the hoarding of our own some six feet below the surface. The former we acquire at a large cost for the original purchase and for freight. The latter we place, not in the upper soil where they would be utilized, but in the lower soil, where they are not merely useless, but where they often mingle with and pollute the streams which furnish our tables. And, in order to effect this absurd, if not wicked result, we incur a lavish expenditure! I refer, of course, to the enormous sums which are wasted in effecting burial according to our present custom, a part of the question which can by no means be passed over. For the funeral rites of the 80,000 in London last year, let a mean cost of ten pounds per head be accepted as an estimate which certainly does not err on the side of excess.[3] Eight hundred thousand pounds must therefore be added as absolute loss, to the costs already incurred in the maintenance of the system. Thus we pay every way and doubly for our folly.

What, then, is it proposed to substitute for this custom of burial? The answer is easy and simple. Do that which is done in all good work of every kind—follow Nature's indication, and do the work she does, but do it better and more rapidly. For example, in the human body she sometimes throws off a diseased portion in order to save life, by slow and clumsy efforts, it is true, and productive of much suffering; the surgeon performs the same task more rapidly and better, follows her lead, and improves on it. Nature's many agents, laden with power, the over-action of which is harmful, we cannot stop, but we tame, guide, and make them our most profitable servants. So here, also, let us follow her. The naturally slow and disagreeable process of decomposition which we have made by one mode of treatment infinitely more slow and not less repulsive, we can, by another mode of treatment, greatly shorten, and accomplish without offense to the living. What in this particular matter is naturally the work of weeks or months, can be perfectly done in an hour or two.

The problem to be worked is: Given a dead body, to resolve it into carbonic acid, water, and ammonia, and the mineral elements, rapidly, safely, and not unpleasantly.

The answer may be practically supplied in a properly-constructed furnace. The gases can be driven off without offensive odor the mineral constituents will remain in a crucible. The gases will, ere night, be consumed by plants and trees. The ashes or any portion of them may be preserved in a funeral-urn, or may be scattered on the fields, which latter is their righteous destination. No scents or balsams are needed, as on Greek and Roman piles, to overcome the noxious effluvia of a corpse burned in open air. Modern science is equal to the task of thus removing the dead of a great city without instituting any form of nuisance; none such as those we tolerate everywhere from many factories, both to air and streams. Plans for the accomplishment of this have been considered; but discussion of the subject alone is aimed at here. To treat our dead after this fashion would return millions of capital without delay to the bosom of Mother Earth, who would give us back large returns at compound interest for the deposit.

Who can doubt now that the question is one of vital economy to the people of this country? This is still no reason why it should not be considered from the point of view of sentiment. And what has sentiment to urge on behalf of the present process? Let us see what the process is.

So far as I dare! for, could I paint, in its true colors, the ghastly picture of that which happens to the mortal remains of the dearest we have lost, the page would be too deeply stained for publication. I forbear, therefore, to trace the steps of the process which begins so soon and so painfully to manifest itself after that brief hour has passed, when "she lay beautiful in death." Such loveliness as that, I agree, it might be treason to destroy, could its existence be perpetuated, and did not Nature so ruthlessly and so rapidly blight her own handy-work, in furtherance of her own grand purpose. The sentiment of the survivor on behalf of preserving the beauty of form and expression, were it possible to do so, would, I confess, go far to neutralize the argument based on utility, powerful as it is. But a glimpse of the reality which we achieve by burial would annihilate, in an instant, every sentiment for continuing that process. Nay, more, it would arouse a powerful repugnance to the horrible notion that we too must some day become so vile and offensive, and, it may be, so dangerous; a repugnance surmountable only through the firm belief that after death the condition of the body is a matter of utter indifference to its dead life-tenant. Surely if we, the living, are to have sentiments, or to exercise any choice about the condition of our bodies after death, those sentiments and that choice must be in favor of a physical condition which cannot be thought of either as repulsive in itself or as injurious to others.

There is a source of very painful dread, as I have reason to know, little talked of, it is true, but keenly felt by many persons, at some time or another, the horror of which to some is inexpressible. It is the dread of premature burial; the fear lest some deep trance should be mistaken for death, and that the awakening should take place too late. Happily, such occurrences must be exceedingly rare, especially in this country, where the interval between death and burial is considerable, and the fear is almost a groundless one. Still, the conviction that such a fate is possible, which cannot be altogether denied, will always be a source of severe trial to some. With cremation, no such catastrophe could ever occur; and the completeness of a properly conducted process would render death instantaneous and painless, if by an unhappy chance any individual so circumstanced were submitted to it. But the guarantee against this danger would be doubled, since inspection of the entire body must of necessity immediately precede the act of cremation, no such inspection being possible under the present system.

In order to meet a possible objection to the substitution of cremation for burial, let me observe that the former is equally susceptible with the latter of association with religious funereal rites, if not more so. Never could the solemn and touching words, "ashes to ashes, dust to dust," be more appropriately uttered than over a body about to be consigned to the furnace; while, with a view to metaphor, the dissipation of almost the whole body in the atmosphere, in the ethereal form of gaseous matter, is far more suggestive as a type of another and a brighter life, than the consignment of the body to the abhorred prison of the tomb.

I do not propose to describe here the processes which have been employed, or any improved system which might be adopted for the purpose of insuring rapid and perfect combustion of the body, although much might be said in reference to these matters. There is no doubt that further experiments and research are wanting for the practical improvement of the process, especially if required to be conducted on a large scale. Something has been already accomplished, and with excellent results. I refer to recent examples of the process as practised by Dr. L. Brunetti, Professor of Pathological Anatomy in the University of Padua. These were exhibited at the Exposition of Vienna, where I had the opportunity of examining them with care. Prof. Brunetti exposed the residue from bodies and parts of bodies on which he had practised cremation by different methods, and the results of his latest experience may be summarized as follows: The whole process of incineration of a human adult body occupied three and a half hours. The ashes and bone-earth weighed 1.70 kilometre, about three pounds and three-quarters avoirdupois. They were of a delicate white, and were contained in a glass box about twelve inches long, by eight inches wide, and eight deep. The quantity of wood used to effect absolute and complete incineration may be estimated from its weight, about 150 pounds. He adds that "its cost was one florin and twenty kreuzers," about two shillings and four-pence English. The box was that marked No. IX. in the case, which was No. 4,149 in the catalogue: Italian.

In an adjacent case was an example of mummification, by the latest and most successful method. By a series of chemical processes it has been attempted to preserve in the corpse the appearance natural to life, as regards color and form. Admirable as the result appears to be, in preserving anatomical and pathological specimens of the body, it is, in my opinion, very far from successful when applied to the face and hand. At best, a condition is produced which resembles a badly-colored and not well-formed waxen image. And the consciousness that this imperfect achievement is the real person and not a likeness, so far from being calculated to enhance its value to the survivor, produces the very painful impression, as it were, of a debased original; while, moreover, it is impossible not to be aware that the substitution of such an image for the reality must in time replace the mental picture which exists, of the once living face lighted by emotion and intelligence, of which the preserved face is wholly destitute.

To return to the process of cremation. There are still numerous considerations in its favor which might be adduced, of which I shall mention only one; namely, the opportunity it offers of escape from the ghastly but costly ceremonial which mostly awaits our remains after death. How often have the slender shares of the widow and orphan been diminished in order to testify, and so unnecessarily, their loving memory of the deceased, by display of plumes and silken scarfs about the unconscious clay! And, again, how prolific of mischief to the living is the attendance at the burial-ground, with uncovered head, and damp-struck feet, in pitiless weather, at that chilling rite of sepulture! Not a few deaths have been clearly traceable to the act of offering that "last tribute of respect."

Perhaps no great change can be expected at present in the public opinions current, or rather in the conventional views which obtain, on the subject of burial, so ancient is the practice, and so closely associated is it with sentiments of affection and reverence for the deceased. To many persons, any kind of change in our treatment of the dead will be suggestive of sacrilegious interference, however remote, either in fact or by resemblance to it, such change may be. Millions still cherish deep emotions, connected both with the past and the future, in relation to the "Campo Santo," and the annual "Jour des Morts." And many of these might be slow to learn that, if the preservation of concrete remains, and the ability to offer the tribute of devotion at a shrine be desired, cremation equally, if not better than burial, secures those ends. On the other hand, I know how many there are, both in this country and abroad, who only require the assurance that cremation is practically attainable to declare their strong preference for it, and to substitute it for what they conceive to be the present defective and repulsive procedure. A few such might, by combination for the purpose, easily examine the subject still further by experiment, and would ultimately secure the power, if they desired, to put it in practice for themselves. And the consideration of the subject which such examples would afford, could not fail to hasten the adoption of what I am fairly entitled to call, the Natural, in place of the present Artificial Treatment of the body after death.—Contemporary Review.

  1. "Burial at sea" is a form of exposure, the body being rapidly devoured by marine animals.
  2. Value of bones imported into the United Kingdom, of which by far the larger part is employed for manure, has been in 1866, £409,590; 1869, £600,029; 1872, £753,185.—Statistical Abstract, No. 20.—Spottiswoode, 1873.
  3. Items comprised in the calculation: 1. Cost of shroud, coffin, labor of digging a grave—essential now in all burials. 2. Cost of funeral-carriages, horses, trappings, and accoutrements.
    Ornamental coffins in wood and metal.
    Vaults and monumental art—more or less employed in all funerals above the rank of pauper.

    The cost of simple modes of transit is not included in the calculation, because necessary in any case, whatever the destination of the body. The above-named items are only necessary in the case of interment in a grave; and not one would be required, for example, in the case of cremation, or burning of the body.