University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Crematio Calculi

Volume V · Spring 1950 · Number 3
"Crematio Calculi"

A University of Rochester "memorabilia file," begun many years ago by Assistant Librarian Herman Kent Phinney, '77, and continued now in the University Archives, has proved to be a never failing source of amusement and entertainment for the student with an antiquarian turn of mind. In this heterogeneous assortment of programs, announcements, menus, tickets and other miscellanea, one finds a record of student customs, many of which have long since been forgotten: songs, ceremonies, athletic contests, debates, banquets, reunions and all the events which go to make up the lighter side of undergraduate life.

A recent search through this file for material suitable for an exhibit of Rochesteriana as part of the centennial celebration, brought to light a series of programs for an annual student affair traditional in the college during the seventies and eighties. At the completion of the required course in mathematics (at first calculus, later analytical geometry), in the sophomore year, it was customary for the members of the class to band together and consign their mathematics textbooks to the flames, to a watery grave, or to hang them in effigy, with appropriate exhibitions of mock sorrow and lamentation. The actual form of each year's ceremony varied with the ingenuity of the students. Traditionally it took place in secret, usually outside the city, late at night, and was followed by a banquet with speeches and general merry-making which broke up only in time for the students to struggle back to the campus in a state of exhaustion, to attend classes the following day. The elaborate programs prepared for the occasions remain as the only mementos of a student custom which few living alumni remember.

While this type of celebration was common in the various colleges of the country during the era, at Rochester it had this distinctive feature, that it was also the climax of the bitter rivalry traditionally existing between the freshman and sophomore classes. Plans were made well in advance by the sophomores, and with the utmost secrecy, while the freshmen were constantly on the alert to discover the time and place of the ceremony and to witness its consummation.

The earliest mention of the ceremony appears in the Interpres for 1873, with a description of the "funeral" which presumably took place in 1871. By the beginning of the eighteen-nineties a change in the course of studies made calculus and analytical geometry, no longer required subjects for second-year men, and the tradition which had for a score of years been a test of sophomore ingenuity lost its purpose. It was supplanted for a few years by a "Sophomore Banquet," still held in secret, but lacking the pageantry and zest of the funeral procession, chants, dirges, and speeches.

Reports of the "cremation" ceremonies which appeared each year in the Campus and the local newspapers varied in detail and interest, and were usually more concerned with the class rivalries than the ceremony itself. Early one foggy morning in May 1875, the Class of '77 buried calculus in the waters of Lake Ontario off the shores of Port Hope, having sailed all night in the steamer "Norseman," and having escaped in a tugboat from the wily Freshmen who had followed them to Canada. Sodus Point, Canandaigua, Silver Lake, Lake Erie, Buffalo, and even Cobourg were the scenes of many of the ceremonies. One class is reputed to have sent its "math" books aloft in a balloon, another to have cast them into "the depths of that bottomless pit beneath the falls of the great Niagara." Cremation and burial were by far the most popular measures, however, and the funeral procession with the participants arrayed in outlandish costumes, engaging in "terpsichorean antics" and shrieks of sorrow, and orations in languages ranging from Chinese to modern German, were the features most cherished by the students.

The Class of 1876, breaking with tradition, held its "funeral" on the campus in May, 1874, and invited the public to witness the event. Because of the lack of secrecy, we have for this occasion a more detailed description than might otherwise have been possible, and for the entertainment of our readers, we reproduce here part of the vivid account which appeared in the morning Democrat and Chronicle for May 16, 1874:

"The Class of '76, who but recently vanquished the dreaded foe to the students' peace of mind, last night burned and buried him, and in such a manner and with such ceremonies as to attract to the campus a large crowd of spectators. It has generally been the custom for the classes to meet secretly at midnight with masks and torches, perform the last rites, chant their funeral dirges and then make the night hideous with their yells of satisfaction, but the present Sophomore class very wisely concluded to celebrate the occasion at a more seasonable hour and invite their friends to witness the ceremony. This they did and in fine style. At 6 o'clock the members of the class assembled at the arsenal, and half an hour later, masked and clad in black funeral robes, started in solemn procession for the campus, Hadley's regimental band heading the line. In the meantime a large crowd had gathered in front of the college building and by the time the procession arrived, fully 1,500 persons were on the ground. The gravel drives were also well lined with carriages and the members of the class may feel complimented by the throng of spectators they were greeted with. The preco - the leader of the procession - was arrayed in complete Roman costume, and, possessing a well-shaped, commanding figure, made a very fine appearance. He advanced up the campus, at intervals repeating in a loud voice the following: 'Ollus Quiris leto data est exsequias Calculoso ire, qui commodum est, jam tempus est; ollus exoedibus efertur.' Following him came the designator, similarly dressed, and two lictores, robed in black and bearing the fasces - the badge of authority. Hadley's band came next, playing a solemn dirge. The mourners, almost overcome by the intensity of their feelings, followed next in order, and after them black-robed figures representing Geometry, Algebra, Trigonometry, Surveying and Analytics. The lectus born by four lecticarii and followed by the orator, pontifex, vaticinator and blood relations completed the procession. The lectus was placed in front of the steps and the ceremonies begun. . .

"The oration and prophecy were well delivered, and expressed in a touching manner the grief of the class at parting with 'Old Calc.' The procession then reformed and wended its way to the funeral pile, which had been erected near the center of the campus. The crowd followed, and so anxious were they to witness the novel and interesting ceremonies that the services of Officers Lynch and Burchell were necessary to keep them back in their proper places. The corpse was placed upon the pile and the . . . ceremonies were then performed. . .

"The invocation was repeated, the dirge played, and the torch was then applied to the funeral pile. This was constructed in such a manner and saturated with such inflammable material that it burned very speedily, and occasioned but little delay. Propitiatory offerings were then made to the names of the dead, and as the class marched up and deposited suspicious-looking papers in the flames, it was whispered around the circle that they were without doubt the 'cribs' which had helped them in slaying the venerable son of 'Matthew Matics.' Libations of wine and milk were then poured upon the smouldering pile, and the ashes were gathered up and placed in a large urn. This was deposited in the ground, each member of the class casting upon it a shovelful of earth. A fine funeral chant, composed by Everett A. Brown, one of the class, was then sung to the tune of 'Lauriger,' and the ceremonies were concluded. Thus was this x-traordinary character, y-clept Calculus, burned and buried by the class of '76, and when they left the campus no sine of him remained to demonstrate the fact that he had ever attempted with his diabolical combination to cause any differentiation among the members. He made the attempt, was himself disintegrated, reduced to an imaginary quantity and left with no stone - nay not even a pebble - to mark the resting place of his ashes. His fate was urned."