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Body Burning

Brooklyn Eagle, November 21, 1885

The Fresh Pond Crematory ca. 1900

A Visit to the Fresh Pond Crematory

Not Ready to Begin Operations ‒ A Westerly Wind that Caused Trouble ‒ What the Superintendant Says.

Misled by the false reports that there was to be a cremation yesterday, an Eagle reporter took a train from Long Island City yesterday morning, and after a ride of four and one half miles arrived at the struggling hamlet of Fresh Pond, near where the crematory is situated.

The crematory stands upon a hill two hundred yards east of the Fresh Pond station. At present it is a kind of composite building of marble and brick, but the marble portion which faces the west is to be torn down soon. It looks pretty, but it was put up by some business relative of Buddensick as the wind was in the habit of blowing portions of it down whenever it got in the least bit angry the marble building was not entirely satisfactory. The rear part of the building was of red brick. It is square and squat, being only one story high and having a flat roof. It has nothing ornamental about it, but it is very solid, the foundation walls being of stone and the floor of Portland cement. The floor beams are iron and the spaces between them are bricked in arch form. Supporting these floor beams are long transverse iron beams with broad flanges at top and bottom. These traverse the whole length of the building, entering the foundation walls at each end and being supported in their turn by solid brick piers capped with white marble. This immense strength of floor and foundation is necessary because of the weight of the two great iron furnaces, which take up half the room in the small building. There is nothing peculiar about the furnaces. Their duplicates may be seen in every engine room. All that can well be seen of them, in fact, is their doors, which form two big iron circles in the immense cube of fire brick which surrounds everything pertaining to the actual works of cremation.

In the rear of this cube there is a room about twenty feet square, with a fine hard wood floor. The big iron doors of the two retorts, which the furnaces heat, open on this room. They are only about two feet in diameter but they can be called big because they are so very thick and solid. Near the door is an iron frame about four feet high, six feet long and two feet wide. It stands upon small wheels and upon it rests the iron skeleton of a coffin made of rods. In this skeleton coffin, which is only 6 inches deep, a body to be cremated will be laid, wrapped in a cotton shroud saturated with alum water to prevent it from being burned before the retort door is closed. The iron stand with the other coffin will then be wheeled to the retort door, and the stand being of convenient height the work of putting the coffin and its burden in the retort is of easy accomplishment. When the doors close the body is subjected to a heat which varies from 2,500 to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The quickest time in which the process of cremation has been accomplished in the country is five hours, but enthusiastic cremationists believe that the time is coming very soon when the process will be thoroughly accomplished in one hour.

An experiment has already been made with a sheep at the Fresh Pond Crematory, but was not satisfactory. A strong northwest wind prevailed at that time, and when the retort door was opened a little way to admit air, in order that the ashes might be oxidized and so turned white, some of the ashes were blown out upon the floor by reason of the draught down the chimney. This would not have happened, so it is said, if any other than a west wind had prevailed, but as west winds have a habit of prevailing sometimes, whether they are wanted or not, a big iron bonnet has been put on the chimney as a kind of protection.

When the Eagle reporter entered the retort room yesterday morning he found four men there. Three had their coats off and were fitting one of the retort doors in place, while the fourth, who had his coat on, superintended them and lent a hand first on one side and then on the other with nervous energy. He was tall and slim and had impatient black eyes, long gray side whiskers, joined together by a mustache, and long gray hair. The work had made him impatient and he seemed inclined to "sit down" on the Eagle reporter when the latter addressed him by asking:

"Is there to be a cremation here today?"

"Not that I'm aware of."

"The New York papers stated yesterday that a certain wealthy German gentleman was to be cremated here this morning."

"Oh, the papers, humph! I suppose you believe all you see in the papers."

"Then there will be no cremation here today?"

"Can't very well be a cremation until we are ready, can there?"

"What have you to do?"

"Put that door on."

"How long will that take?"

"How can I tell?"

"Will it take more than a day?"

"I don't know."

"Will it take two weeks?"

"I don't know. The foundry kept us waiting for a month and something else may happen to delay us."

"But if all goes well you will be ready by tomorrow?"

"No, we will not. We will have to try an experiment with another sheep, first, to see that all is in order."

"Your first experiment was a failure, was it not?"

"We only had one experiment."

"Well, was not that a failure?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"That's all in the papers of a week ago, Wednesday. You'll have to look it up."

"Some of the trainmen of the Long Island Railroad say that this place is going to smell like Barrien Island; is that true?"

"I suppose it is if they say so. They know, don't they? Let it smell. Do they want us to keep a barrel of cologne here?"

"Will there be any unpleasant smell from it?"

"How is there going to be any unpleasant odor from it any more than from a hay barn? The crematory at Lancaster, Pa., has been working for some time, and there's no unpleasant odor from that."

"How many people have you burned there?"

"I don't know. You'll have to wrote them and find out."

"Did they write to tell you there was no unpleasant odor from their crematory?"

"No; they did not."

"How do you know, then?"

"I know that by finding out another way."

Having now reduced the reporter to a proper condition of meekness the superintendant showed a totally different side of his character, and proved himself to be a very intelligent gentleman, full of just the information the reporter wanted. In answer to his companion's numerous questions he said:

"The ashes of the shroud in which the body is wrapped would not be enough to half cover a three-cent piece, if any at all remained. The total weight of the ashes of a full grown man would only be six or seven pounds. They are black until whitened by the admission of oxygen through the door being opened. Sometimes they turn pure white, other times they become a light gray. This big room in which we are standing can be used to conduct services in if so desired. We would much prefer to have all the services over before the body arrives, but if people want to conduct services here, they will be allowed to do it. The first person to be cremated will be that German gentleman of whom you spoke. A German glee club has promised to come from Williamsburgh to make proceedings interesting, and Carl Schurz will speak if he is able to be present. The ashes will be furnished to relatives of the person cremated in a tin receptacle which they can ship anywhere with convenience. We will keep a stock of urns here as soon as this is working. The urns, I think, will be of metal, for pottery is too heavy and brittle. I find that the feeling in favor of cremation is growing fast. Out of the three or four thousand people who have been here since this building was erected only two or three have expressed horror at the idea of burning your relatives. The Germans are the most favorable. They are philosophers by nature, and they are always ready to take a commonsense view of anything, leaving prejudice and superstition out of the question. Sometimes I see fifty reporters a day and I find that they are favorable to cremation, every one of them. No, I bear no ill will and do not wish to cremated any of them. Why should I? I feel that information given to them is so much more public enlightenment, otherwise a few might get into the furnace on the sly, for they are here a hundred times a day asking questions.

The people living in the neighborhood are almost all Germans and, therefore, favorable to cremation. You see, cremation is not a matter of choice here any longer, it is a matter of necessity. Within a radius of three miles around this spot there are from 75,000 to 100,000 people buried here every year. The Lutheran Cemetery buries 8,000 a year, only a mile or two away, while one mile away is Mount Olivet Cemetery, and in another direction, Calvary Cemetery is one and one half miles away from here. It buries 20,000 a year. Maple Grove is two miles off, and there are many more. The poisonous fumes from these cemeteries causes much sickness, and the cemetery plague here has become so great that the Town of Newtown has shut down on granting permits. It refused two of them the other day ‒ couldn't stand it any longer. Within a circle of three miles about here there are 1,000 acres of cemetery land and more than half of this is under cultivation. By the land "under cultivation" I mean covered by graves. Oh, cremation is what we must all come to, and it has a great many advantages when you look at it in the right light. You can't wake up after burial and find yourself choking to death with six feet of earth over you and your coffin nailed down, and medical students can't snatch your bones and monkey with them in their dissecting rooms. You can have your cemeteries all the same, and set these urns in them and plant flowers about the urns; that will be all right and nobody will be hurt. This thing has to come. The older our visitors are the more favorable they seem. We've had so many old ladies here who seemed pleased with what they saw and expressed a desire to be cremated, and we've had one man of ninety-four years, who came all the way from New York. He was satisfied, he said, and preferred the crematory to the grave."