The Midwest’s First Crematorium at Forest Home Cemetery

Last weekend was the annual event known as Doors Open Milwaukee, when buildings and businesses all over the city open up for the public to explore. While access to the U.S. Bank building observation deck, the Pabst Brewery and other historic locations would make for an interesting experience, it was the inclusion of Forest Home Cemetery that caught my attention.

Is there a better way to kick off the Halloween season than exploring a crematorium built in 1896?

110,000 people have been interred at Forest Home Cemetery since the first body was put into the ground in the year 1850. Many of the city’s founders, politicians and business men can be found on its sprawling grounds, marked by intricately carved monuments, massive obelisks and grandiose mausoleums. It is the final resting place of Milwaukee‘s Beer Barons, including Pabst, Schlitz and Blatz. The Halls of History building provides a record of Milwaukee history through the lives of those influential figures buried in the cemetery.

For Slasher Betty and I, though, the real reason to visit Forest Home Cemetery during Doors Open Milwaukee was access to the first crematorium built in the Midwest.

This way to the crematorium at Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee
We followed the sign around to the back of the Landmark Chapel, where an open door lead into its macabre underbelly. Here is where families would come to see their loved ones off into the fiery chambers of the crematory.

Coffin elevator lift at Forest Home Cemetery for transporting caskets to the crematorium
The coffin elevator would bring the deceased down from the chapel to the lower level. Family members then gathered in the marble-walled crematorium to push the pine casket into the retort. The doors were closed and the family went to the waiting room.

Forest Home Cemetery crematorium retort
Many bodies passed through this facility, as it was in use from 1896 until 2000.

A guide here in the crematory explained the process of gathering the remains from the retort and bringing them to the processing machine to crunch up the larger bone fragments. The stainless steel parts left behind by knee and hip replacements, he explained, get tossed into a bucket to be recycled. Pacemakers, though, will explode in the fire.

The vault where bodies were stored during the winter
Bodies were stored here during the winter when the frozen ground prevented burial.

For more information on Forest Home Cemetery and the immense history buried in its grounds, check out the self-guided historical tour.

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