Physician Sir Thomas Browne, who lived from 1605 to 1682, was one of the first advocates of cremation in modern times. He discovered a group of urns containing human remains and artifacts believed to be from Roman times, inspiring him to write a book on the subject. In his writing, Browne compared being cremated and placed in an urn to being carried in a mother’s womb saying that it makes “our last bed like our first.”
It wasn’t until nearly 100 years later that the first recorded cremation took place. Honoretta Brooks Pratt died in 1769 and was illegally cremated. Her body was burned in an open grave at St. George’s Burial Ground in London. Her tombstone offers some explanation for her choice of disposition, reading as follows:
“This worthy woman believed that the vapours arising from graves in churchyards in populous cities must prove hurtful to the inhabitants and resolving to extend to future times, as far as she was able, that charity and benevolence which distinguished her through her life, ordered that her body should be burnt in the hope that others would follow the example, a thing to hastily censure by those who did not enquire the motive.”
Nearly a century later, an organized movement began which would finally succeed in popularizing cremation for the modern day, although not without its setbacks.
At the 1873 Vienna Exposition, Professor Brunetti of Italy presented his cremating apparatus along with ashes produced using the machine. His display caught the attention of Sir Henry Thompson, Queen Victoria’s surgeon, who brought the idea back to his home and founded the Cremation Society of England shortly after in 1874. Thompson and his society supported cremation for several reasons: it was believed to be more sanitary and spread less disease, it was less costly, it spared mourners from standing outside during harsh weather, and it kept remains safe from vandalism.It was around this time that American Francis Julius LeMoyne began to hear about the conversation surrounding cremation in Europe and built the first American crematorium in Washington, Pennsylvania in 1876. In the late 19th century, only about one crematorium per year was built in the United States.