In the first contribution to Death in the Museum, Erika wrote: ‘coffins have traditionally been made to protect the body, and thus been made out of strong materials such as steel and hardwood’.
It is interesting that this practice survives because most coffins are burned, not buried. Cremation is more popular (is that the word?) than burial in Australia. Cremation was rare in Western societies until the twentieth century – Rookwood Crematorium opened in 1925, Eastern Suburbs (Botany) in 1938, and the practice was not truly mainstream until the 1960s and 1970s. The churches – the Roman Catholic Church, especially – were opposed to cremation, although this opposition is less strident today.
In 1994 the Powerhouse acquired technology and other artefacts from Eastern Suburbs Crematorium. It seemed worthwhile to document this major change in funeral ritual and practice. In addition, technological efficiency and certainty were main arguments for cremation – mourners received the tangible remains of their loved one, rather than a site for its slow decomposition.
The cremation process at Botany is now fully automated, partly to reduce atmospheric pollution and furnace fuel consumption. The artefacts acquired by the Powerhouse included a 1938 ‘charging’ machine – a wheeled trolley used to transfer coffins from the funeral chapels to the furnace (as seen in the photo above). The coffins were loaded and unloaded with manual assistance by Crematorium staff.
We also acquired a converted coffee grinder, used to ensure that the funery ashes attained a fine consistency.
With possibly an excess of curatorial zeal the acquiring curator, Eddie Butler-Bowdon, organised a photographic trip to Botany to record the crematorium works in action. Museum photographer Andrew Frolows’ images are memorable, capturing an experience quite different to that on the other side of the funeral chapel wall.
An occasional debate occurs regarding the environment consequences of cremation and burial. This usually involves comparing the energy input and pollution output of a crematorium against that of indefinitely maintaining a cemetery.
Yet at a personal level the industrial violence of cremation was the abiding impression. Perhaps this is merely a new variant of the Victorian fear – dramatised in literature and music – of being buried alive. The most important consideration, perhaps, is the experience of the mourners, not that of curators (who are paid to be nosy).
We’d like to know your experiences and thoughts of cremation. Would you like to be cremated or buried?