Selected writings of A. Jackson Howe.
The insecurity of burial grounds against the encroachments of municipal growth and interurban convenience makes the subject of sepulture one of the problems of the future. Ground contamination, giving rise to pestilence, has by no means been proved, and the growth of cremation, though steady, has been slow. So often has this subject come up for discussion in medical convocations that Professor Howe was prompted to write this interesting editorial. The subject recalls that delightful essay by Sir Thomas Browne, M. D., on "Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial," one of the treasures of English prose. In it the distinguished author of "Religio Medici" quaintly refers to the priority and antiquity of ground burial in these words, written in 1658:
"Many have taken voluminous pains to determine the state of the soul upon disunion; but men have been most phantasticall in the singular contrivances of their corporall dissolution; whilst the sobrst Nations have rested in two wayes, of simple inhumation and burning."
"That carnall interment or burying was of the elder date, the old examples of Abraham and the Patriarchs are sufficient to illustrate; And were without competition, if it could be made out, that Adam was buried near Damascus, or Mount Calvary, according to some Tradition. God himself, that buried but one, was pleased to make choice of this way, collectible from Scripture-expression, and the hot contest between Satan and the Arch-Angel, about discovering the body of Moses."—Ed. Gleaner.
SEPULTURE.—American cities have grown so rapidly that within the memory of the living graveyards have been filled, overgrown, forgotten, and made into parks, or platted and sold as building lots. I have witnessed changes of this kind in several instances.
When a town site is located, and some progress made towards its growth, a burial ground is established just outside the corporation line, or beyond any contemplated building encroachment. But in the course of years the sacred and revered "God's acre" is trenched upon by the ambition and avarice of men. At first, in the growth of the town, the cemetery is merely flanked, and a high board fence protects the hallowed spot from the vulgar invasion manifested in the immediate vicinity; but at length the exigencies of the times demand a passage way for railroads or streets through the once rural cemetery. The authorities order a removal of the dead, yet only a few "remains" have living representatives to care for them. In the ever fluctuating tide of migration in a new country old sites are abandoned and new ones sought. The living move on—the dead remain and are soon forgotten. Consecrated ground is sold for silver, and hallowed monuments pass out of sight. Truly man, in the language of a rural preacher, "springs up like a sparrow-grass and dies like a hopper-grass!"
But it is not the memory of the dead and the mementos thereof that I am writing, but of the effect of festering corpses upon the living when graveyards yawn. I have observed "sacred soil" when "removals" were going on, and marked the odor emanating from the humus, as the earth, mingled with the bones, was carted away. The stench is not so pronounced as that of a decomposing carcass— of a dead horse, or of a well gone subject on a dissecting table, but a "ground smell" is present with a smothered animal scent. The earth surrounding the skeleton is black and rich in "residues"—is loaded with fertilizing stuffs. Only an organic chemist could determine the nature of the leading qualities. The effluvia arising does not seem to be specially poisonous. The workmen do not become stifled or sickened—they are more alarmed at a grinning skull than afraid of a deadly miasm. Hair occasionally clings to an unearthed cranium, and a lump of earthly matter may be discovered in the thorax if the ribs maintain an arched shield over the heart; but if the burial took place thirty years ago in common soil the cavity of the chest has been filled with crumbling clay. While watching for distorted bones in a Covington cemetery when "removal" was going on, the last burial having occurred thirty years previously, I saw no thoraces that maintained their arches— all had tumbled into shapelessness. The bones were all browned as if the clay contained iron, yet I think the coloration was that of the diluvial soil in which they were buried. The general appearance was that of the bones of the "Mound builders." If the skeletons were those of diphtheritic patients I seriously question whether a "specific microbe" of that dread disease were still alive. I am persuaded that no typhoid germ or "comma bacillus" still tenanted the moldering clay—not even the ghosts of morbid bacteria remained. By this I mean that the decomposed remains were free from living germs. There was present no putrescence, and by this I mean that too much importance is placed on the fact that waters permeating an old graveyard need necessarily contaminate a pool, a well, or a fountain. If a growing vegetable absorbs nutriment from filth, yet the vital processes keep the pulpy stalk free from contaminating principles, so may the living body of man purify brackish water taken as drink. The gastric juice of the human stomach kills most cocci at once, and cleanses food or incidental poisons. A bit of savory cheese is filled with "mites" of many varieties, yet the stomach, like the jawbone of Samson's ass, slays its multitudes.
I do not think we yet know how much contamination of water comes from burial grounds—but the topic is one which is creating a vast deal of discussion. The subject is one on which the average blatherskite bores State and National conventions. If a member knows little or nothing about therapeutics, he bores the assembly with a lot of stuff and nonsense on "State Medicine," quoting from cyclopoedias till the sad listener sleeps and snores. The American Medical Association is given to verbiage on the prolific topic. At the New Orleans meeting a committee was chosen to report the next year on the propriety of commending cremation. Dr. Kellar, of Arkansas, was made chairman of the committee, and in his report at St. Louis he said: "We believe that the horrid practice of earth-burial does more to propagate the germs of disease and death, and to spread desolation and pestilence over the human race than does all man's ingenuity and ignorance in every other custom or habit. The graveyard must be abandoned," etc, the writer running off into a paroxysm of twaddle, all calculated to make the timid more timorous than they now are.
Cremation is to be commended, yet the chimneys of such desiccatories should be built high, or the poison of the outpouring gases will contaminate the air we breathe and become more damaging than the filtered water we drink. Let it be considered that cremation is not a cure for a large proportion of human ills.
There is yet room for interments in America, and the idea of cremation is not popular. The ground is the great purifier of animal matter. After a buried body has reached a certain grade of decomposition it loses its contaminating properties—it is no longer flesh and blood, but an ever changing combination of chemicals, all hastening to ultimate elements.
Dr. Gross is quoted as saying that "it takes a human body fifty, sixty, eighty years or longer to decay." This is not complimentary to the "Nestor of American Surgery," if he ever said it. The "Early Christians," to avoid deadly persecution, hid themselves in the catacombs of Rome, where festering bodies were in abundance, yet we have no record that the hiding place was especially pestilential.
The first account of a purchased burial place is that in Genesis, where Abraham bought from the Heth people the cave of Machpelah and adjacent land for the sepulture of Sarah, his wife, who died in a strange country. The price was four hundred shekels of silver, current money. Cave burial led to catacombs, and graves in burying grounds followed as a custom of the people. Now cremation is agitated; and if the custom becomes universal the medical colleges will be shorter of "subjects" than they now are; burking and other crimes will be encouraged.
I would advise the passage of no law on the question, but let all be cremated who can afford the expense of firewood. In our day and generation incineration of the dead body is not likely to prevail.
The Hindoo method of burial is to expose bodies on pole scaffoldings that vultures may strip the bones of flesh. This is a gruesome practice, yet not costly—it saves fuel or the digging of a grave; but would not the feculence of the carrion bird be contaminative? I fear it would. I admit that it is no worse to have the dead body consumed by worms than to have it devoured by buzzards, yet the grave hides the revolting disintegration.
Inasmuch as we are accustomed to interments in burial grounds or cemeteries, and there be no serious objection to the custom, I am opposed to a change. However, I would grant to individual tastes the privilege of cremation or of a chemically desiccating process. The right to do as we please, so we do not interfere with another's rights, is American.—HOWE, Eclectic Medical Journal, 1890.
The Biographies of King, Howe, and Scudder, 1912, was written by Harvey Wickes Felter, M. D.