Inside the Collection

Death in the Museum- part two- the crematorium

crematorium furnace
Photography by Andrew Frolows © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved.

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.

Collection, Powerhouse Museum

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.

Funeral chapel interiorFuneral chapel interiorcrematorium furnacecrematorium furnace

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?

3 responses to “Death in the Museum- part two- the crematorium

  • Having worked previously in a morgue I truely view the body as a vessel and dont care what happens to mine after i leave it. I want whatever leaves a smaller carbon footprint!

  • Brave call Erika! I very much care what happens to my body after I die! You’ve just reminded me of a story I heard during a recent ghost tour at Port Arthur in Tasmania. Our guide was telling us about the ‘body snatchers’ – a pair of men who dug up graves for bodies to sell to surgeons to practice dissection – a taboo topic in light of puritanic Christian beliefs which opposed this very thing – and a practice also quite common in other countries around this time. In the end, however, the bodies they dug up weren’t considered ‘fresh’ enough for the surgeons, so the men went on a killing spree instead. Sure, for the purpose of dissection, this is a remote thought now, but the act of body snatching itself is not. As recently as 2006, a woman called Gladys Hammond was dug up from her grave in the UK by animal activists (apparently she bred guinea pigs for scientific experiments) and used the body as a bribe to have the farm shut down. Sure, the cases for this are pretty extreme and rare, but worrying nonetheless, and is another point in reason for my personal wish against being buried. I haven’t heard about ‘cremation snatchers’ (although I’m sure there are many instances of family members missing their ‘beloved’s’ ashes), but this is still my preferred option of the two… although, I must admit, I am still looking for other options!

  • What a fascinating blog post!!!

    I think ‘prevalent’ might be a better substitute for ‘popular’ in terms of percentages of cremation per country 😉

    While the topic may be taboo in some sense, I think when you get past the squeamishness and morbidity quite a few people would prefer to actually know what will happen to their body should they choose cremation.

    The only funeral I can remember going to was of a dear friend who took his own life at a young age. He was an amazing young man and a fabulous dresser in the gothic milieu. His funeral was at Northern Suburbs Crematorium. To honour the light he brought to our lives and his impeccable dress sense we decided to attend the service dressed to the nines in our most stylish and treasured gothic attire. On the day the chapel was quite literally descended upon by hundreds of members of the gothic community decked out in our most handsome finery. So many people came that we could not all fit in the large chapel and many were left standing outside on the steps. It was a deeply moving service, and although we were almost inconsolable in our devastation, we carried a collective sense of joy and pride in our commemoration of his life through our shared costume and love for him.

    I will never forget the wrenching of my heart as Covenant played over the speakers and we left the chapel. But I will also never forget the peace I felt from giving him the send off that he truly deserved.

    Lucas RIP

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