Nearly every movement in American history has begun with a handful of hearty men guiding the reins of change and progress. The cremation movement in America is no different. In its early years, a strong cast of characters brought cremation from the dark of superstition into the light of knowledge. F. Julius LeMoyne (builder of the first crematory in the U.S.), Henry Steel Olcott (co-founder of the Theosophical Society), and Dr. Hugo Erichsen (Detroit medical practitioner and founder of CANA), among others, all played important roles in the formation of America’s cremation movement.
However, if men were at the head of the early movement, then women most certainly helped to determine the direction of the men’s efforts and encouraged the growing public acceptance of cremation customs. Women were at the forefront in turning the cremation movement into a reality in America because they were among the first people to be cremated in the earliest crematories in the country.
The third person cremated in a modern crematory in the United States was Jane Pitman (Bragg), wife of Benn Pitman, the stenographer during the trial of President Lincoln’s assassins. In 1885, Peggy Smith was the first person cremated at Buffalo Cremation Co. (now Forest Lawn Cemetery in New York). Barbara Schorr was the first person cremated at Detroit Crematorium in 1887 (now Woodmere-Detroit Crematorium). In 1886, Olive A. Bird was the first person cremated in Southern California Crematory (now Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery), and in 1888, Elizabeth Todd Terry was the first person cremated at Missouri Crematory (now Valhalla’s Hillcrest Abbey Crematory). Suffragist Lucy Stone was the first person cremated at Massachusetts Crematory, in 1893 (now Forest Hills Cemetery). These pioneering women were so ahead of their time that in several cases their bodies had to be stored while crematory construction was completed.
Women in the Cremation Movement
Though the final disposition choice of these women demonstrated how the notion of cremation had taken hold, the movement still required living champions. Perhaps the most famous of these was Frances Willard. A noted suffragist and feminist, Willard was well known for her progressive stance in many areas, including the cremation movement. She described her thoughts on cremation and her involvement in the movement in a statement that has become one of the most well known in the history of cremation. When asked her opinion, she stated:
I choose the luminous path of light rather than the dark slow road of the valley of the shadow of death. Holding these opinions, I have the purpose to help forward progressive movements even in my latest hours, and hence hereby decree that the earthly mantle which I shall drop ere long – shall be swiftly enfolded in flames and rendered powerless to harmfully effect the health of the living.
This quotation proved so meaningful to the cremation movement that a plaque bearing these words hangs in nearly every historic columbarium in the country.
Willard was cremated in the Chicago Crematory in Graceland Cemetery upon her death in 1898. Her stance was so notorious that, even after Willard’s own death, a satirical obituary for her cat ran in The New York Times, under the title “To Cremate a Cat.”
Followers of the cremation movement increased as the century turned. Authors of the time penned essays informing the public about the cremation option. Sheba Hargreaves was among many who produced pamphlets urging cremation and inurnment. She painted cremation as a beautiful process to be supported and embraced by all who truly cared for their dead.
Women in Memorialization
During the “Memorial Idea” period of cremation’s history, which began in the late 1920s, there was a concerted effort to ensure that cremated remains were memorialized with the same dignity and dedication as full remains. The leading men of the era, including Lawrence Moore (Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, CA), Herbert Hargrave (Chapel of the Light in Fresno, CA) and Clifford Zell (Valhalla Chapel of Memories in St. Louis, MO), were strongly supported in their activities by their female counterparts—women such as Alta Phillips (Hollywood Columbarium in Hollywood, CA) and Teresina Morgan (Chapel of Memories in Oakland, CA).
At the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, an entire cadre of women formed the backbone of the staff. They were charged with describing the Memorial Idea for the families who called upon the crematory for service. Moore felt the women could, like no one else, guide families through the daunting process of choosing a permanent memorial. With the dedication of evangelists, men taught other men the ‘gospel of cremation,’ women of cremation were the true apostles of ‘the good news’ of this ‘sanitary and aesthetic method’ and sold this idea to the families they served.
Women’s influence brought many of the most beautiful cremation memorials into existence. Well-known architect Julia Morgan redesigned and constructed one of the most stunning columbaria in the country at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland in 1928. This famed chapel would ultimately be named after cremationist Frances Willard and incorporate her famous sentiment.
Eventually, this golden age of the “Memorial Idea” began to take a new course in the 1960s. Driven by many factors, the change was primarily due to a movement toward simplicity. In 1963, Jessica Mitford wrote her satirical expose The American Way of Death. Propelled by the excitement that Mitford’s book spawned, the idea of simple direct cremation began to take hold. By the late 1970s the memorial idea started to lose its hold on cremation, and, as it did, the Cremation Association of North America did everything possible to maintain the integrity of what they viewed as the right course: the permanent memorialization of cremated remains. Women were actively involved in the association’s efforts.
Women in CANA
In 1979, the Cremation Association of North America elected not only its first female president, but also the first female president in the history of any death care association. Genevieve “Jinger” Zell, widow of CANA’s past president Clifford F. Zell, Jr., took the reins of the association during a time when cremation was experiencing a major transformation. The U.S. cremation rate reached a tipping point of 10% during her presidency. She was one of the most ardent supporters devoted to continuing CANA’s ideals of inurnment and permanent memorialization, staunchly advocating against the processing of cremated remains.
After Zell, women continued attain positions of leadership. Mary Helen Tripp was elected president in 1991, followed by Corrine Olvey in 1997, and, most recently, Sheri Stahl in 2015. Today, CANA boasts some of the most forward-thinking women in the profession: Caressa Hughes, Robbie Pape, Elisa Krcilek, and Erin Whitaker are making their mark in the history of cremation by serving as board members, officers, and advisors of the association that is on the cutting edge of all things cremation.
CANA’s executive director is Barbara Kemmis. Under her tutelage, the association has gone from being dependent on a management company to being entirely stand-alone and self-sufficient. Kemmis has been instrumental in the reformation of the industry’s original and foremost Crematory Operations Certification Program™ (COCP™).
The COCP was reviewed and revised and a whole new catalog of online professional education programs were developed by CANA’s Education Director Jennifer Head. If you read The Cremationist Magazine, what you read is the direct result of the hard work of Sara Corkery, editor of the trade journal.
From past to future, women have played, and will always continue to play, a very important role in all movements in our country. In our ever-evolving society, who better to guide cremation and CANA’s future?
This post is the first in our series on the history of cremation to get ready for the opening of The History of Cremation exhibition at the National Museum of Funeral History. Learn more about the exhibit and how you can contribute on the museum’s website.
Jason Ryan Engler is a licensed funeral director and is known as the Cremation Historian. His interest in the funeral profession came at an early age in his life and his intrigue with the practice of cremation memorialization has put him on a journey of appreciating the beauty of the torch over the spade. Not only is Jason a practicing funeral director, he is also a speaker for local, state, and national associations. He also serves as the Cremation Historian for both the National Museum of Funeral History and the Cremation Association of North America. Mr. Engler’s articles have appeared in regional and national funeral and cremation trade journals including “The Dead Beat,” “The Cremationist of North America,” and “Funeral Business Advisor.” Additionally, he is author of the book "Body to the Purifying Flame: A History of the Missouri Crematory, St. Louis, Missouri."