The Sophomore Cremation Exercise may seem a little morbid these days, but from 1877 to about 1930, it was a rite of passage for Penn students. In the ceremony’s early years, sophomores would meet at night near the U.S. Mint and march towards West Philadelphia, holding a mock funeral procession. The school band played a funeral dirge, while students carried oil lanterns and coffins, which initially carried the class syllabus and plate. Once they arrived in West Philadelphia, a student made an offer to pardon the “offending parties”—which no one ever did.
The pyre was lit and the syllabus and plate were given last rites before being placed in the fire. After the cremation, students gave a requiem, along with hymns, poems and speeches about the dead. In 1880, students replaced the syllabus with the year’s worst textbooks, and eventually added the tradition of burning in effigy their most uninspiring professors.
Pictured to the top right is the program from 1883, when students burned “Arnold’s Greek Prose Composition” and the German instruction book, “Ahn’s Method, Fischer’s Edition.”
The ceremony was disbanded around 1930, after freshmen began to assault the sophomore class with rotten eggs during the evening. Naturally, this led to riotous clashes between classes.
For more on this and other notable moments in Penn’s history, visit the University Archives web site at www.archives.upenn.edu.
Originally published on September 21, 2006.
Originally published on September 21, 2006