Ahead of the Curve: American Cremation Early Adopters
In recent years, the majority of Americans chose cremation over burial. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the projected cremation rate rose to 56 percent nationwide in 2020, up more than 8 percent from 2015. It’s around 80 percent in Nevada, Washington and Oregon.
As cremation becomes more mainstream it’s interesting to note that the early adopters of what was then considered a “radical, tradition-bucking practice” in America were also involved in activism in social justice issues of the time like abolition and a woman’s right to vote. These trailblazers began the change of an industry more than 100 years ago.
Francis Julius LeMoyne, a doctor, philanthropist and active abolitionist, was the first to build a crematory in 1876 in Washington, Pennsylvania after a trip to Vienna. His home was a busy stop on the Underground Railroad. LeMoyne also founded a library, a women’s school and later a school for freed slaves.
In Boston in 1893, Lucy Stone, a suffragist, temperance activist, and avid bicyclist, was the first to be cremated in Boston’s Forest Hills Crematory. Stone was also an abolitionist, like LeMoyne, and “dedicated her life to fighting inequality on all fronts.” She famously wrote her own marriage vows and refused to take her husband’s name.
Francis Willard, an American educator, temperance reformer and women’s suffragist, was another early advocate of cremation. She fought for prison reform and women’s rights, among other advocacy. Willard’s cremation in Chicago prompted a satirical obituary about her cat in the New York Times.
Jane Bragg Pitman is credited with being the first woman cremated in the United States. She was an English-born reporter who was active in the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States, primarily involved in wood carving with her husband, Benjamin Pitman, who was also cremated.
Matilda Joslyn Gage was a suffragist, Native American rights activist, free thinker and abolitionist. The “Matilda Effect” was named for her, which describes the tendency to deny women credit for scientific invention.
Gage was cremated in 1898 after dying at home. A memorial stone at Fayetteville Cemetery bears her slogan “There is a word sweeter than Mother, Home or Heaven. That word is Liberty.”
It took more than a century for cremation to become the dominant choice of Americans. But these free-thinking early adopters of cremation paved the way for an industry that has now become the norm for many.