09 December 2008

First [Intentional] Cremation in America -- Dec. 9, 1792

Henry Laurens, distinguished South Carolinian, became one of the first, if not the first person in America, to request cremation of his remains within his will.

According to D. D. Wallace in Life of Henry Laurens, 1915, Laurens feared being buried alive. He had once almost buried his infant daughter, Martha, believed to be dead of smallpox. However, when her body was placed near a window while the grave was being dug, her attending physician noticed that the cool air had revived her. Dr. Moultrie managed to save her.

Laurens certainly did not want to take any chances with his own physical remains.

"I Solemnly enjoin it on my son as an indispensible Duty .... he cause my Body to be Wraped in twelve Yards of Tow Cloth, and Burnt until it be entirely and totally consumed: And then collecting my Bones, deposit them where ever he shall think proper." Abstracts of Wills of Charleston District, South Carolina, vol. IV, pp. 282.
Henry (the Younger) Laurens did as his father requested. On December 9, 1792, the body of his father was cremated on a high hill across from the family's home at Mepkin Plantation where the ashes were placed next to the buried remains of Laurens's eldest son, Colonel John Laurens. His son, died in combat on 27 August, 1782 in an engagement with the British at Chehaw Neck. Both father and son were renowned Patriots.

Parson Weems, that inventor of many misrepresentations of American history, whose body was buried for a short while in the St. Helena's Episcopal Churchyard, said that Henry Laurens said "My flesh is too good for worms. I give it to the flames." It was yet another fabrication of Weems's fertile mind.

Read More about It

According to Robert G. Albion, "The best biography is D. D. Wallace, Life of Henry Laurens (1915), a very detailed, intimate account, thoroughly documented" portrait of the man. We have a copy of this book in the BDC. "Henry Laurens." Dictionary of American Biography Base Set. American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC SC B LAURENS

John Laurens and the American Revolution by Gregory D. Massey examines the dashing military career of Henry's eldest son. SC 973.3 MAS

To learn more about Parson Weems, we suggest The Book-Peddling Parson: An account of the Life and Works of Mason Locke Weems, Patriot, Pitchman, Author, and Purveyor of Morality to the Citizenry of the Early United States of America, by Lewis Geary. The title says it all. SC B WEEMS

Image from the Biography Resource Center subscription database by the Gale Group. --gmc

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