On the outskirts of Washington, PA, on a small area of land, off South Main Street, you can find an unremarkable brick building that was the first crematorium in the county. The first cremation took place on December, 6th, 1876 and after completing just 42 cremations, it closed in 1901.
Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne was a man that thought ahead of his time. His townsfolk were getting sick and dying, and Dr. Lemoyne felt that their dead had everything to do with this problem. Cremation was already being done in Europe so Dr. LeMoyne took the idea of a crematorium to the town trustees but they immediately said no. Undeterred, Dr. Lemoyne used his own money and built his crematory on a piece of land that is known as Gallows Hill. Using only sketchy information, himself and Washington resident, John Dye, came up with the designs and plans, and built the 20 x 30 simple, brick building. It has a reception room, for a service and space to prepare the body, and a furnace room. Since the flames were never to touch the body, the furnace had to reach a temperature of 2300 degrees Fahrenheit for the cremation to take place. The bodies were wrapped in spices, herbs, pine branches, and flowers to cover the scent of burning and put on the iron crib. The crematory was ready to go.
There was outcry over the crematory being “un-Christian” and “a sudden, ruthless obliteration of the dead”. Dr. LeMoyne held many public meetings to try to calm people’s fears and explain the reasoning behind cremation and the process. Not everyone thought the idea was terrible- one man passed away and had his body put on ice for 6 months to wait until the crematorium was constructed so he could use the facility.
A nobleman from Austria, named Baron de Palm, was the first to volunteer to use the crematorium. At the end of his life, he was bankrupt and quite ill. Dr. LeMoyne had wanted to encourage people to use the crematorium by making it free of charge so this worked out nicely for both parties. Baron’s body made it to Pittsburgh on December 5, 1876 and the furnace was ready to go on the 6th. There were reporters and quite a crowd, waiting to see this unusual event occur. It did and Washington, PA was in the national news.
Cremation did not catch on immediately, despite its economical virtue and the way it helped to sustain the health of the living. Dr. LeMoyne tried hard to convince others that there was good in cremation and that it was not evil or barbaric; he wrote several essays on the subject, many relating back to religion and why it is more Christian to use cremation than to bury the dead.
Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne died on October 14, 1879, and was cremated in his crematorium. In 2015, 48.6% of the dead in the USA were cremated. The crematorium that was built in Washington PA over 140 years ago is still there on Gallows Hill and open to visitors. Cremation is still considered a safe and economical alternative to burial of our dead, thanks to Dr. LeMoyne.