Ashes to Ashes: Iowa’s First Cremation

The Davenport Crematorium, or the Fairmount Crematorium as it is more commonly known, was the first crematorium in the state of Iowa. Located at 3902 Rockingham Road on the grounds of Fairmount Cemetery, this historic crematory still stands. According to the Davenport Crematorium entry in the National Register of Historic Places, it was the thirteenth established in the United States and it ranks as “the ninth oldest establishment of its type still in existence.”

The Northwestern Crematory Society (later changed its name to the Davenport Cremation Society) formed in 1885 to discuss the planning of the construction of and locating a proper site for a crematorium in the city. In 1889, the society commissioned F.G. Claussen, a member of the society and a local architect, to design the crematory. It is a 1 1/2 story Romanesque structure with an edifice of red brick walls resting on rubble-squared stone blocks. Some distinguishing features include stained glass, a transom window, a leaded glass door, and decorative brick corbelling along the roofline. In the National Register of Historic Places, there are details shared about the initial appearance of the crematory and its later changes.

In The Davenport Democrat and Leader on August 26, 1890, the article states that a proposition was received from the officers of the West Davenport Cemetery indicating there were grounds available to build there. The article clearly announces that it was under consideration, but “is by no means decided.”

The Crematory Society did select the West Davenport Cemetery as the future location of the crematory. Over the period when they began discussing building a crematory to the actual construction, the crematorium and the history of this practice of cremating the dead was featured in several newspaper articles. There was also a controversy about the location selected because there were burials that had to be moved. Both sides of the argument and ideas were presented, but the newspapers did promote the idea of cremation as a positive overall. The changes in how Western cultures were caring for their deceased was one consideration. Another was that the Society needed the support of the community members to build the crematory.

On October 23, 1890, The Davenport Democrat and Leader states that the brickwork of the crematory was complete and the other materials arrived and were only awaiting experts from Pennsylvania. On November 26, 1890, The Davenport Morning Star published an article entitled, “The Crematory: How the Process of Incineration is to be carried on” explaining in detail the construction and future methods of use of the crematorium.

“New Crematory.” The Davenport Democrat and Leader. October 23, 1890.

In November of 1890, the crematorium was ready for testing. The way they did this was cremating a sheep. The test and subsequent check of the equipment were successful.

On March 15, 1891, Otto Kocher became the first person to be cremated in the Davenport Crematorium. Over 200 people attended the second cremation west of the Mississippi River. According to the article “Dust to Dust” in The Daily Times, Kocher came to Davenport 18 years prior from Westphalia, Germany. Claussen spoke kind words about Otto in German. He expressly wished to be cremated. The first cremation was conducted without any incident and achieved the expected results.

The following year news was shared about the Cremation Society that six cremations occurred since March 1891 including Otto’s.

“The Cremation Society.” The Davenport Democrat and Leader. February 2, 1892.

In 1976, The Quad-City Times published an article revisiting the history of the Davenport Crematorium. The images in the article show the well-thought-out design and the attractive stained glass windows.

“An Acceptable Way of Death.” The Quad-City Times. November 21, 1976.

The image below features the cremation book receipts from the Fairmount Crematorium.


“Davenport Crematorium.” National Register of Historic Places Inventory. Accessed on March 10, 2021.

(posted by Kathryn and Cristina)

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