A CASKET 300 FEET LONG
The Distressing Truth Revealed Why It Is Not Possible to Properly Bring Back Our Soldier Dead from the Torn Battlefields and how the Undertakers Are Pressing the Scheme for Business Reasons
By Rene Bache.
Any American mother whose soldier boy lost his life in France, or any wife whose husband died in the war “over there,” has a right to demand that the body be brought back and given to her for burial in this country. The Government promised as much, and the War Department will do its best to make the promise good.
But there are difficulties which by most people are not understood at all.
The principal agent of destruction used in the great conflict was high explosives, in shells, in bombs, and in other instruments for killing. It is estimated that 3 percent of the 77,000 American dead were literally blown to pieces. How in such cases could the fragments be collected and identified?
In numerous instances where our fighting men were killed by high explosive shells their fate was shared by French comrades-in-arms. Burying parties picked up such remains as they could find and interred them, marking part of the ground as the grave of an American soldier and another part as the grave of a French soldier. There were many cases where bodies of horses or other animals killed at the same time were buried with the bodies of men.
There are 18,000 Americans who died in hospitals, of wounds or disease, outside the war zone. Eleven thousand of these are to be brought back immediately; the rest will remain, by the expressed wish of their families, where they are.
With those who lost their lives in the war-zone the situation is entirely different. Already they have been buried twice, the first interment being usually by the regimental chaplain, without a coffin—just a covering of the body with earth, to get it out of sight and for sanitation’s sake.
This was always practicable when our troops were advancing. When they retreated, the American dead were often of necessity left unburied. The Germans interred them higgledy-piggledy in trenches dug for the purpose. Indeed, in many instances the Yaks were obliged to bury their own dead in this wretched fashion.
When the fighting lines were long stationary, bodies sometimes lay unburied for weeks before it was possible to reach them without undue risk.
Many small temporary cemeteries were established, in which thousands of uncoffined bodies were laid to rest. The sites chosen were usually on low ground, because in such places the burial parties were relatively safe from shell-fire. But there came four months of continuous rain, and the cemeteries were flooded. One there was which for a long time was under four feet of water, which washed some of the corpses out of the shallow graves, so that they floated to the surface.
This is distressing, but it is the truth. Everything was done that could be done in the circumstances. A concrete dam was built around this particular cemetery, and attempts were made to get the water out with gasoline pumps.
But the water seeped in beneath the concrete as fast as it could be pumped out; and finally, as a last resort, men equipped with long rubber boots and gas masks were sent in to grub literally for the bodies. It was a dreadful task, but they got them.
The possibilities of mistake in returning to American families the bodies of dead soldier boys are many and dreadful to contemplate. Recently 200 were brought back from Russia, and out of that small number no fewer than twelve were sent to the wrong homes.
After the Spanish war and subsequent fighting in the Philippines, the bodies of many dead American soldiers were brought back to the United States. Several of the coffins were found to contain the corpses of Chinese coolies.
Frequently it happened in France that American soldiers and German soldiers perished together and were buried together. Nothing is more certain than that efforts to fetch our dead boys from the war zone will result In the incidental importation of German remains. One can easily see how many an American mother or widow might thus weep over German bones, or even put flowers on the grave of the very man who slew the mourned son or husband.
For it must be remembered that the bodies shipped to this country from the war zone will be impossible of identification after their arrival.
They will be saturated with disinfectants, and inclosed in metal-lined caskets, hermetically sealed. It will be clearly explained in every instance that they are on no account to be opened.
There are now in the war zone, in France, 52.200 American fighting men, interred in proper cemeteries. Much clamor has arisen for the return of their bodies to the Union States. But the French Ambassador, M. Jusserand, says that it is “an artificially stimulated movement.” Cardinal Gibbons says: “The experiment of exhuming the bodies would be a useless one, to say nothing of the distress and pain caused to relatives.”
The American Legion, at its recent convention in Minneapolis, passed a resolution to the effect that “the bodies of American dead be not returned from France, except in cases where parents or next of kin so desire.”
The “movement” to which Mr. Jusserand refers, however, is to press for the immediate return, at Government expense, of all the American dead now in Europe. It is being very strongly pushed in Congress.
If it be “artificially stimulated,” who is giving it stimulation? The answer is that the real force behind the movement is the self-styled “Purple Cross,” which is another word for the Undertakers’ Trust. They see big money in it for them.
If proof of this be demanded, it is furnished by an editorial printed in The Casket
(September 1, 1919), which is the official organ of the Funeral Directors’ Association. It reads:
“Suppose, Mr. Funeral Director, that some one were to come into your office and tell you that he had a scheme for increasing the number of funerals this year by more than fifty thousand.
“What would you do?
“Most likely you would rush out wildly into the street and shout.
“But. Mr. Funeral Director, with your neatly appointed office and your not-entirely-paid-for motor equipment, this offer is being made to you in all seriousness,
“In alien soil there lie more than 50,000 American men who died in battle or of disease during their tour of duty abroad.
“For nearly every American soldier returned some funeral director will be called upon to perform the necessary duties of reception and burial.
“Extra business, gentlemen, legitimate, patriotic; kindly, sympathetic, remunerative extra business. No additional number of widows and orphans. Only the final laying away of America’s sons in the bosom of their dear motherland.”
With which whole-souled exordium “The Casket” urges all undertakers to get busy and bring the requisite pressure on Congress to put through the scheme so promising of big profits for them,
The undertakers are pushing propaganda designed to cause uneasiness among people whose boys died in the war and to persuade them to write to their Congressmen and bring other influence to bear.
Listen to the testimony of one bereaved mother, Mrs. Mabel Fonda Gareissen, of No. 619 West One Hundred and Fourteenth street, New York City. She writes:
“I am a Gold Star mother and vitally interested in what is to be done with the bodies of our soldiers who lie in France. Therefore I decided to discover for myself the truth of persistent rumors that the Purple Cross (American Undertakers’ Association) is back of the movement to bring to America the bodies of our heroes.
“I asked Miss Jane O’Ryan, sister of General O’Ryan, to go with me to Mr. Blank, a leading undertaker. We saw there a tall, pale-faced man, with horn-rimmed glasses, who spoke with authority as one of the proprietors or managers.
“‘Yes,’ he said, ‘the dead in France are to be returned. Every pressure is being brought to bear. We have powerful representatives at Washington–not only our own, but Congressmen. We have been after the Congressmen for a long time.’
“‘Are you sending embalmers over?’
“‘No, the dead are in no condition for embalming. We shall use strong disinfectants, place the bodies in hermetically sealed caskets, and they will not be reopened.’
“‘Shall you ship all the caskets from America?’
“‘Yes, we shall use our own caskets, made in America.’
‘”After our dead arrive, can we be certain they are our own?’
“He hesitated and cleared his throat. ‘Well,’ he said, with very evident doubt, ‘we are going to be as careful as possible.”
“As we left he gave each of us a beautiful pink rose. We dropped them on the sidewalk when out of sight.
“Is it possible that the undertakers of this country would profiteer and use to that end the bodies of our American boys, one of whom is my own son?”
An answer to Mrs. Gareissen’s question is furnished by the editorial above quoted from “The Casket.” “Extra business, gentlemen–remunerative extra business.”
Big money in the scheme from beginning to end if it goes through. Fifty thousand caskets to start with! If all the American dead were put in one casket it would require a coffin 300 feet long, about sixty feet high and would cover a block and a half of Fifth avenue and stretch from sidewalk to sidewalk.
There is no article of merchandise on which the profit is larger than on coffins.
Each coffin must be inclosed in a box. It is an ordinary wooden box, costing perhaps $2.50, but the price the undertaker usually asks for it is $50. Then the funerals on arrival at destination, with carriages, incidentals and “service.” Did you over see an undertaker’s bill, and note the way in which it was “built up” out of a variety of items? Only a plumber’s bill can compare with it in this respect.
And then there are the tombstones, to wind up. The tombstone maker usually stand in with the “funeral directors,” and tombstones, like everything else, have gone up in price. The cost of them has doubled and trebled recently. When a monument is in question, you cannot buy the smallest and simplest pattern for less than $500.
H. S. Eckels, Director General of the Purple Cross (No. 1922 Arch street. Philadelphia) offers the following estimate for bringing a soldier’s body from France—a private job:
Average cost of disinterment and transportation to New York $605.00
The above total itemized as follows:
Zinc-lined oak coffin and outside box (cheapest) $115.00
Labor, legal fees, etc $120.00
Own transportation and expense of journey $112.00
Transport from French port to New York $100.00
Transport of body in France $48.00
Personal supervision and service $50.00
It will be noted that this fetches the body only as far as New York. One may safely surmise that “extras” would double the bill. And, of course, the undertaker would not be making such an expedition for the bringing back of one body. There would be many, and for each one the charges for “personal services” and “own transportation, ” etc., would be duplicated.
Never was there such a chance for ghoulish graft.
Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt’s father and mother asked the War Department to permit his body to remain in France. They felt that the American soldiers who fell there should lie in the soil they died defending.
A great many parents and widows have been led by the Roosevelts’ example to relinquish their desire that the bodies of their soldier sons and husbands be brought back. Already letters to this effect have been received by the War Department from 19,000 families. In two recent weeks 500 such letters came from families who wished to reverse a previous request that their dead be returned.
Congressmen have made excited speeches to the effect that the French were anxious to prevent the removal of our dead, in order that money-spending Americans might come over in flocks. But, as a matter of fact, the French, in relation to all this sad business, have conducted themselves in the most sympathetic way imaginable. Their women, peasant and cultured alike, have tended with loving care the graves of the khaki-clad American dead. They are doing it to-day, esteeming it an honor and a privilege. They plant flowers on the graves, one or more being assigned to each volunteer for the purpose.
It was the voice of France that spoke when Clemenceau said “We look upon the Americans who died in France as sons of France!”
At the close of hostilities, with the ready cooperation of the French, convenient sites for burying grounds were chosen as centers into which the American dead were gathered from the temporary war cemeteries. There they now rest, awaiting the decision as to their final disposition.
Meanwhile there has been organized in this country an American Field of Honor Association, which, when sentiment on the subject has crystallized, expects to send to France a commission for the purpose of choosing a site for a great central soldiers’ cemetery. It is thought that France will give the site. There will be erected a magnificent memorial—possibly a duplicate of the Washington Monument. Also there is in contemplation a memorial hall, to be there located, with a room for each State of the Union, on the walls of which will be placed bronze tablets bearing the names of the gallant dead.
According to present plans, the cemetery is to be made as much unlike a typical burying ground as possible. There will be no dismal rows of tombstones, but groupings of graves about rocks and under trees. And always will be maintained there a guard of honor, composed of honor men of the army, who, with fine quarters and extra pay, will service for one year, being thus rewarded for distinguished and meritorious services.
The great memorial cemetery will enjoy the special and extraordinary right of intra-territoriality. In other words, though in France, it will be a part of the United States—as much so as the Island of Manhattan. And above its sacred precincts will forever float the sheltering folds of the Stars and Stripes.
France has pledged herself to care for the American dead. In the belief of the Field of Honor Association, it is a mistaken scheme to attempt to disinter the bodies in the war zones, to haul them hundreds of miles to a seaport, to load them on ships, to bring them to this country and to forward them by railroad and truck to all parts of the United States.
It would take years to complete the job. During that time homes that have endured the first pangs of sorrow and have become in a measure reconciled would be plunged into renewed grief.
“Extra business, gentlemen! This is a matter of dollars.” So says their official organ, “The Casket.”
The Oregon Daily Journal [Portland OR] 15 February 1920: p. 61
Funeral Men In Denial.
Elmwood, Ill. –To the Editor:
The article written by Rene Bache which appeared in The Register Feb. 8, in which the statement is made that the undertakers are urging for the return of the dead American soldier boys from France, because it will help business, does a gross injustice to the legitimate members of our profession.
We desire to correct the article in two instances. First, The Casket, quoted in the article, which is edited by William Mill Butler of New York City, is not the official organ of the National Funeral Directors’ association.
Second, the National Funeral Directors’ association is not in any way connected with the American Purple Cross association, neither does it approve of the aims and objects of said Purple Cross association, as evidenced by the fact that at our last annual convention in Atlantic City, N.J. Sept. 10, 11 and 12, the National Funeral Directors’ association emphatically refused to affiliate in any way or to approve of the methods of the American Purple Cross association, whose request for such action was at that time presented to our association.
We believe the publication of this communication will in a measure explain to the people that the legitimate undertakers, of which the National Funeral Directors’ Association of the United States is composed, are not in any way connected with the American Purple Cross association.
H.M. Kilpatrick, Secretary.
The Des Moines [IA] Register 17 February 1920: p. 8
REMOVAL OF SOLDIERS DEAD FROM FRANCE
Mr. THOMAS. Mr. President, I have no doubt that every Senator has received a communication from Mabel Fonda Gareissen, of New York City, bearing date the 1st of January, relating to the desire, very naturally entertained by relatives of those sacrificed during the recent war and whose bodies are reposing in French soil, to have them transported to America for permanent interment. That is a sentiment with which every man must deeply sympathize and in his official action as well as his personal conduct accede to as far as possible. If, consistently with the policy of the French Government and its ultimate consent, the bodies of those whose relatives desire their transportation across the ocean can be brought back, it should be done. But the situation seems to have developed a commercial enterprise known to the world as The Purple Cross, said by this lady to include the American Undertakers’ Association, whose purpose, seemingly, is to commercialize the grief and affliction of parents and widows and children of those who have offered up their lives for their country across the sea.
I do not, Mr. President, indorse this recital or affirm that it is true, but it is in line with a number of circumstances that have developed since the close of the war, indicating that The Purple Cross is an organization designed to profit from this Sentiment and secure appropriate legislation to enable them to effectuate their purpose. However that may be, the public is entitled to know what the views of this lady upon the subject may be, particularly as she assumes to give an interview that occurred between a representative of The Purple Cross and a lady speaking in behalf of what is called a “gold-star mother.” If The Purple Cross is not the sort of organization that is here disclosed, then it is as much concerned in having the truth known as the country can be. If, on the other hand, it is true, then certainly it should be known and the facts considered in any legislation that we may undertake regarding this very important subject. I ask unanimous consent, therefore, for the insertion of this letter in the RECORD.
Mr. LODGE. Mr. President
Mr. THOMAS. I yield.
Mr. LODGE. If the Senator from Colorado will permit me, I merely wish to say that I have received a letter similar to that just presented by him. I believe it to be written in good faith, and I think the subject ought to be referred to some appropriate committee to inquire into it. If there is any truth in the statement, it is a scandal.
Mr. THOMAS. I think the Senator’s suggestion is a very pertinent one, and instead of merely asking that the letter be inserted in the RECORD–
Mr. LODGE. I think the letter had better be inserted in the RECORD.
Mr. THOMAS. I will supplement that request, and I ask that the letter be also referred to the Committee on Military Affairs, with a request that the committee investigate the subject and make report to the Senate.
Mr. LODGE. That is the committee to which it should be referred.
Mr. WARREN. Perhaps the Senator from Colorado will remember that legislation in reference to this matter has been heretofore considered, and that even at the commencement of the war, before there was any use for such a service, mothers of soldiers came before the Military Committee in regard to the matter. It seemed then, with the slight information which we had upon the subject—and we were not impressed that it was then necessary to go further—that there was a sort of trust that proposed to take over the entire situation.
Mr. THOMAS. The Purple Cross?
Mr. WARREN. Yes; The Purple Cross.
Mr. THOMAS. Yes; I think its adjective description might well be amended. There being no objection, the letter was referred to the Committee on Military Affairs and ordered to be printed in the RECORD, as follows:
JANUARY 1, 1920–8 P. M.
MY DEAR SENATOR: I am a gold-star mother and vitally interested in what is to be done with the bodies of our soldiers who lie in France. Therefore I decided to discover for myself the truth of the persistent rumors that “The Purple Cross” (American Undertakers’ Association) is back of the movement to bring to America the bodies of our heroes. After some thought, I asked Miss Jane O’Ryan, sister of Gen. O’Ryan, if she would go with me to Campbell’s, 1970 Broadway, New York City—the leading undertaker of America. She consented, and at about 5.1.5 p. m., January 1, we entered, Miss O’Ryan preceding me.
A man Came forward to meet us. The following is the gist of the conversation that ensued :
“Miss O’RYAN. My friend is a gold-star mother, and I hope you can tell us something definite concerning the return from France of our dead soldiers. “
MAN (politely, but with hesitation). I don’t know. I can’t say, but I’ll see. Won’t you be seated : ”
Very soon a tall, pale-faced, youngish man with a kindly expression entered. He wore horn-rimmed glasses and a well-made cutaway suit. He spoke with authority, as one of the proprietors or managers.
Miss O’Ryan repeated the statement she made upon entering.
After observing us closely, the man said :
“MAN. Yes; the dead in France are to be returned. We are now working in England.
“Mrs. GAREISSEN. Are all the bodies to be brought over from England? “MAN. Yes; and from Italy; from all the countries but France.
“Mrs. GAREISSEN. But when will you begin in France?
“MAN. It’s a little hard to say, for the French Government has not yet given permission.
“Mrs. GAREISSEN. But the papers have announced that France had given permission.
“MAN. It’s a mistake. We have definite news from Washington. France is, as you know, in a terrible condition since the war. Think of the ruined cities, and labor is hard to get. We were even willing to supply the labor, but without result. If we asked to have our dead returned now, England and the other countries would also.
“Mrs. GAREISSEN. But when do you think you can get France’s permission?
“MAN. Her own people have to be thought of first, naturally, and the transportation is very difficult. You can see France’s viewpoint. Everything can’t be done at once. But I think we can begin by Spring.
“Mrs. GAREISSEN. Spring is a long time. Are you doing everything in your power to hasten this?
“MAN. Every pressure is being brought to bear.
“Mrs. GAREISSEN. What, for instance?
“MAN. We have powerful representatives at Washington.
“Mrs. GAREIssEN. Do you mean your own representatives?
“MAN. Yes; and not only our own but Congressmen.
“Mrs. GAREISSEN. That is interesting. Have you been trying to persuade Congressmen for any length of time?
“MAN. Indeed we have. We have been after them from the very beginning. Every pressure has been brought to bear.
“Mrs. GAREISSEN. Are you sending embalmers over?
“MAN. No; the dead are in no condition for embalming. We will use strong disinfectants, place the bodies in hermetically sealed caskets, and they will not be reopened.
“Mrs. GAREISSEN. Where will you get these caskets?
“MAN. We will take them to France from America.
“Mrs. GAREISSEN. You mean you will ship all these caskets from America : “MAN. Yes; we will use our own caskets, made in America.
“Mrs. GAREISSEN. How much is it going to cost to do all this?
“MAN. It isn’t going to cost you people anything. The Government is going to pay us.”
A repetition of the question as to what the cost would be brought no response.
“Mrs. GAREISSEN. After our dead arrive, can we be certain they are our own?”
The man hesitated and cleared his throat, “Well,” he said (with very evident doubt as to the result), “we are going to be as careful as possible.
“Mrs. GAREISSEN. You are very honest.
“MAN. I mean to be honest.”
As we left he gave us each a beautiful pink rose and bade me stop in from time to time and he would keep me posted. We dropped the roses on the sidewalk when out of sight.
I send you this as a gold-star mother who protests against such activities as are described above.
Is it possible that the undertakers of this country would profiteer and use to that end the bodies of our American boys, one of whom is my own son?
I appeal to you for an answer.
Respect fully, MABEL FONDA GAREISSEN
Congressional Record – Senate 13 January 1920: pp. 1471-2