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Purified by Fire

A History of Cremation in America

Stephen Prothero (Author)

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Paperback, 280 pages
ISBN: 9780520236882
November 2002
$31.95, £21.95
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Just one hundred years ago, Americans almost universally condemned cremation. Today, nearly one-quarter of Americans choose to be cremated. The practice has gained wide acceptance as a funeral rite, in both our private and public lives, as the cremations of icons such as John Lennon and John F. Kennedy Jr. show. Purified by Fire tells the fascinating story of cremation's rise from notoriety to legitimacy and takes a provocative new look at important transformations in the American cultural landscape over the last 150 years.

Stephen Prothero synthesizes a wide array of previously untapped source material, including newspapers, consumer guides, mortician trade journals, and popular magazines such as Reader's Digest to provide this first historical study of cremation in the United States. He vividly describes many noteworthy events—from the much-criticized first American cremation in 1876 to the death and cremation of Jerry Garcia in the late twentieth century. From the Gilded Age to the Progressive Era to the baby boomers of today, this book takes us on a tour through American culture and traces our changing attitudes toward death, religion, public health, the body, and the environment.
Stephen Prothero is Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University, coeditor of Asian Religions in America: A Documentary History (1998), author of The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott (1997), and coauthor of The Encyclopedia of American Religious History (1996).
"Sets cremation in its religious, historical and psycho-social contexts as well as its economic one."—Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Readers of Purified by Fire will find themselves enthralled by their own history and left pondering the disposition of their own remains. Prothero has crafted a thoroughly admirable book, a model for writing cultural history on religiously significant topics. The scholarship is exemplary. Prothero is accurate, critical, anlaytical, and all the while, he tells a good story." —Ronald L. Grimes, author of Reading in Ritual Studies (1996) and Deeply into the Bone: Re-Inventing Rites of Passage (2000)

"In Purified by Fire Stephen Prothero deals with the history of cremation in a superbly innovative and sophisticated way. His training in American religious history and the history of religion shines through, and his ability to situate debates over cremation in the larger social and cultural ecology makes the arguments even more compelling for the reader. The scholarship here is superior."—Gary Laderman, author of The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883 (1990)

Chapter 1

The Cremation of Baron De Palm

On December 6, 1876, in the small town of Washington, Pennsylvania, the corpse of Baron Joseph Henry Louis Charles De Palm went up in flames in an event billed as the first cremation in modern America. Supporters hailed the event, the first cremation in modern America, as a harbinger of a new age of scientific progress and ritual simplicity. Opponents denounced it as Satan's errand. Reporters too were divided. Some wrote up the story as a tragedy, others as a comedy. Either way, the event was a grand triumph for the U.S. cremation movement.

Although it is difficult to fix the precise moment of origination for any movement, there are good reasons to date U.S. cremation from 1874. Assorted writings on the topic appeared earlier, but interest boomed that year. The cremation vogue that followed was a transatlantic phenomenon set off by two European events: a display at the Vienna Exposition in 1873 that incorporated both a cremating furnace and the remains of an incinerated body, and the publication of Sir Henry Thompson's "Cremation: The Treatment of the Body after Death" in the Contemporary Review in January 1874. Together those events created a plausible case for what was coming to be known as modern and scientific cremation. While the exposition display proved the technological feasibility of the practice, Thompson's article trumpeted it as a sanitary necessity.[Note 1]

Seizing on the cremation debate in the European media, American newspapers and magazines began in 1874 to cover the topic eagerly. The World, a New York daily dubbed "[T]he apostle of cremation/To an unwilling generation," supported the reform most vigorously. In January it republished Thompson's Contemporary Review essay, and every Sunday for the next three months it devoted multiple-column stories (typically on the front page) plus an editorial the question. The New York Times maintained more editorial distance, but it too covered the subject thoroughly. After publishing only one article on cremation in 1873, it published seventeen in 1874, noting in one that support for the reform was growing "suddenly and spontaneously." A Philadelphia Medical Times editorial, also from 1874, reported "a great deal of discussion" on the subject and speculated that "the ceremony of burning the dead might actually be introduced among us." A Harper's New Monthly Magazine piece from that same year described "the sudden interest in cremation" as "one of the striking events of the time." Before the year was up, the Boston Globe, the Albany Evening Times, the Louisville Commercial, the St. Louis Globe, the Sacramento Record, the Jewish Times, and even Turf, Field and Farm had lent their support to the cause. In an effort to determine whether there was any good science underlying all the puff, the State Board of Health of Massachusetts surveyed medical doctors on the cremation question. The Boston Public Library started putting together America's first bibliography on cremation. A group of cosmopolitans from New York City organized the New York Cremation Society. An enterprising gentleman from Philadelphia filed for and received a patent for a cremation urn. It was, in short, a time of near-millennial excitement for cremation partisans. As an ebullient medical student at the University of Pennsylvania put it, soon the "barbarous and injurious practice" of burial would step aside, uniting the whole world "in the one universal practice of disposing of the dead by 'cremation,' and persons will wonder and seem surprised that they ever conformed to the old system."[Note 2]

All that and more might have come to pass under more auspicious circumstances, but neither economy nor society cooperated with the prophesies of this doctor-in-training. Traditional Christianity was strong. The preacher/singer team of Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey would soon bring revivals to major American cities. The depression that had hit when the banking house of Jay Cooke and Company failed on September 18, 1873, still gripped the country. Capital was scarce, and no one who had it was foolish enough to risk it on a venture as speculative as a crematory. But newsprint was cheap and the spoken word free, and cremationists used both liberally in an effort to attract reason and money to their cause.

Burial Pollutes, Cremation Purifies

America's Gilded Age, the period of rapid social and intellectual change spanning the years from the end of the Civil War in 1865 to the 1890s, has been called an age of debate. Lincoln traded barbs with Douglas. Robert Ingersoll, America's most famous agnostic, took on clergymen of all stripes. Should women be allowed to vote? Should baseball games be played on Sundays? Was Darwin right? The Bible true? Each of these topics was vigorously debated on the rostrum and the editorial page. So, too, was whether to bury or to burn.

In the burial versus cremation debate the cremationists bore the burden of proof. They were trying to overturn the time-honored tradition of burial, so it was their job to advance arguments and rebut critics. Two cremationists who took up this challenge in 1874 were Persifor Frazer, Jr., and the Reverend Octavius B. Frothingham. Frazer read "The Merits of Cremation" before the Social Science Association of Philadelphia on April 24, and Frothingham delivered a sermon on "The Disposal of the Dead" in New York City on May 3. Together these texts illustrate how America's early cremationists utilized the idioms of both theology and sanitary science, merging the ancient queen of the sciences and one of the newest modes of scientific inquiry into one overarching argument. According to these two men, a sanitarian and a preacher, burial presented both a danger to public health and a threat to the spiritual life of the nation. Cremation, by contrast, promised not only a more hygienic but also a more spiritual America.

Frazer began his social scientific argument by noting that his aim was to determine which of the many methods for disposing of the dead would serve "to make the dead harmless to the living." Drawing on the popular theory that diseases, especially urban epidemics such as cholera, were caused by "miasma," (dangerous gaseous emissions from decaying organic matter) Frazer claimed that burial failed to safeguard the living from the toxins of the dead. Bodies buried in graves emitted "poisonous exhalations," which polluted both water and air, he argued, resulting in "injurious effects," including fever, diarrhea, and, in some cases, death. Cremation, on the other hand, was the "safest" of methods. It resulted in "no horrid exhumations and mangling of remains; no poisoning of wells; no generation of low fevers" and restored "to nature most expeditiously the little store of her materials held in trust for a few years."[Note 3]

Such was the sanitary argument. But theology too was at stake in the cremation debate. Was cremation an affront to the doctrine of the resurrection of the body? Absolutely not, insisted Frazer. God was as capable of raising a burned body as He was of raising a buried one. Or, as the Bishop of Manchester, England, had put it: "Could. . . it. . . be more impossible for God to raise up a body at the resurrection, if needs be, out of elementary particles which had been liberated by the burning, than it would be to raise up a body from dust, and from the elements of bodies which had passed into the structure of worms? The omnipotence of God is not limited, and He would raise the dead whether He had to raise our bodies out of church-yards, or whether He had to call our remains. . . out of an urn."[Note 4]

The Reverend O. B. Frothingham's "The Disposal of Our Dead," delivered at Lyric Hall in New York City, was probably the first pro-cremation sermon in the United States. Although a number of prominent clerics would eventually support cremation, most steered clear of the controversy in the 1870s. But Frothingham was not like most Christian clerics. Though earlier in his career he had endorsed conservative Unitarianism and Christian Transcendentalism, Frothingham had long since moved beyond Christianity into the camp of free religion. He served as the first president of the Free Religious Association (founded in 1867 to provide "scientific theists" with an organizational home); and the appearance of his Religion of Humanity (1872) had transformed him into the most visible American spokesperson for radical religion. Frothingham's sermon, therefore, symbolized the link--a link opponents of cremation would later exploit--between the cremation movement and unorthodox religion.

Frothingham argued, first, against earth burial and, second, for cremation. His attack on burial, like Frazer's effort, began with an attempt to undercut the sentiment of eternal sleep in the restful grave with arguments from the budding field of sanitary science. Deriding the sentiment of everlasting peace in the cemetery as an illusion, Frothingham argued that "Nature. . . seizes at once the cast-off body, and with occult chemistry and slow burning decomposes and consumes it." This decomposition, he continued, disturbs not only the peace of the dead but also the health of the living. The grave was "a laboratory where are manufactured the poisons that waste the fair places of existence, and very likely smite to the heart their own lovers."[Note 5]

Frothingham then took a strange tack for a sermon, attempting to divorce his subject from religious considerations. "There are many who feel that it is a case of religion against religion," he said, but "the practice of burning the dead can be reconciled with any creed." "The reform concerns us as men--not as believers in any particular dogma." Apparently Frothingham did not take this admonition seriously enough to heed it himself, since he devoted much of his sermon to answering religious objections to cremation. Was this "a pagan custom" practiced in the "heathen" Orient? Yes, the ancient Greeks and Romans had practiced cremation and Hindus continued to do so, Frothingham said, but those people were hardly heathens. On the contrary, they were "as intelligent, refined, and worshipful" as the most genteel Americans, and their funerary practices were "associated with feelings of the noblest kind, with veneration and tenderness, and regard to moral obligations." Frothingham added that while pagans burned, they also buried, "so that if there is any reproach in the paganism it must be shared by the custom of interment." On the resurrection question, Frothingham said that the body eventually met the same end in burial as it met in cremation. The only substantial difference between the methods was the time it took for the body to decompose. Neither nature nor God discriminated between cremation and burial. "A moment's reflection suggests," Frothingham concluded, "[that] to recover a shape from a heap of ashes can be no more difficult than to recover it from a mound of dust."[Note 6]

After dismissing the religious arguments against cremation, Frothingham turned to sanitation, economics, and aesthetics. His sanitary and economic arguments were straightforward. Cremation, he claimed, was both more hygienic and less expensive than burial. The aesthetic argument was more fully developed. The swiftness of the process of incineration was "a relief to the mind" when compared with "the slow and distressing" decay of inhumation, Frothingham said, while "the graceful urn" was more beautiful than "the shapeless mound" and "white ashes" were preferable to "the mass of corruption" lying in the grave. Frothingham was also comforted by the fact that relatives could keep the cremated remains of the deceased in their homes or gardens and even carry them with them should they be called away to other locations. Finally, cremation presented "a sweeter field of contemplation" for the mourner, since "the thoughts instead of going downward into the damp, cold ground, go upwards towards the clear blue of the skies."[Note 7]

These two orations provide an excellent overview of the early cremationist attack on burial. Cremation, these two men argued, was superior to burial on sanitary, economic, social, aesthetic, and religious grounds. In the world according to these early cremationists, it was more hygienic, more beautiful, more utilitarian, more refined, more egalitarian, more economical, more ritually auspicious, and more theologically correct to burn than to bury. Of all these types of arguments, however, the sanitary and the spiritual loomed largest. Many early cremationists believed the death rites debate should be settled on sanitary grounds alone. But even the most committed sanitarians typically found themselves merging the arguments of science and utility with those of theology and ritual.

While Frazer and Frothingham spoke from different perspectives, they arrived at one core claim: that burial polluted while cremation purified. Cremationists understood this stock thesis in two ways. From the perspective of sanitary science, it meant that burial caused epidemics while cremation prevented them. But it also meant that cremation articulated a more spiritual view of self, body, and afterlife and produced more refined death rites than the vulgar rites of burial. What is important about the foundational argument is how closely it intertwined the sanitary and the spiritual, which became in many respects two sides ofthe same coin.

Whether understood in sanitary or spiritual terms or both, the claim that cremation would purify a polluted America was also socially and politically charged. Cremationists were, by and large, genteel elites, and their cause was a genteel endeavor. The movement was most popular among white, well-educated, middle-class ladies and gentlemen from the Northeast and Midwest. Physicians and sanitarians were well represented in the ranks, as were newspapermen, lawyers, university professors, and ministers. Pro-cremation ministers typically came from liberal Protestant denominations such as Unitarianism and Episcopalianism, and from more radical religious groups such as the Free Religious Association and the Society for Ethical Culture (an organization established in 1876 and devoted to redirecting Christianity and Judaism away from belief in the supernatural and toward ethical action). Women's rights supporters--among them Julia Ward Howe, Margaret Fuller, Kate Field, Margaret Deland, Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Grace Greenwood, and Frances Willard--were also friendly to the movement.

The Gilded Age cremation movement participated in even as it contributed to a process historian Richard Bushman has referred to as "the refinement of America." During the Gilded Age genteel reformers feared that the urban and immigrant masses were plunging the country into chaos. They responded to that threat by working to cultivate taste and delicacy in those "dangerous classes" through vehicles as various as sentimental fiction, public parks, etiquette books, penmanship lessons, and liberal Protestant sermons. Motivating this refinement process--"the mission of teaching men how to behave"--was a strange combination of republican and aristocratic impulses. On the one hand, genteel elites drew sharp distinctions between the "washed" (themselves) and the "unwashed" (everyone else). On the other hand, they believed that all could aspire to gentility--that "every laborer [was] a possible gentleman." And so they took it as their sacred duty to work to "uplift" him to refinement. If, however, the laborer persisted in his ungentlemanly ways, genteel elites could justifiably scorn him for spreading the dual scourge of vulgarity and disease.[Note 8]

Like other genteel reformers, cremationists saw themselves as educators and elevators of all classes of society. Cremation would not only make America more pure, it would make purer Americans. Toward the urban and immigrant masses, who were a main target of their disinterested benevolence, cremation reformers evinced an intriguing double-mindedness. On the one hand, the cremation cause provided ways for genteel cremationists to articulate differences between themselves and other Americans. ("We cremate; they bury." "We are educated and cosmopolitan; they are uneducated and parochial.") On the other hand, cremationists took it as their duty to attempt to raise the masses up to a supposedly higher level of culture. When the masses resisted that education to refinement, however, cremationists felt justified in judging them "stupid, ignorant, narrow-minded, contemptible." ("It is a pity," Modern Crematist wrote, "that our neighbors do not know as well as we do what is best for them.")[Note 9]

The cremation cause did not simply pit the polluting grave against the purifying fire. It pitted the cultivated class against the working class. And it reflected not only a hope for a more sanitary and more spiritual America but also a desire for a more homogenous society. In The Invention of Tradition, social historian Eric Hobsbawm observed that in the late-nineteenth-century United States there arose a host of new practices masquerading as time-honored traditions. One purpose of those invented traditions was to differentiate native-born citizens from not-yet-American immigrants. "Americans had to be made," argued Hobsbawm, and one way they were made was through new rituals. Hobsbawm does not mention the cremation movement, but cremation too was an invented tradition aimed at Americanizing immigrants. The cremation movement seized on the metaphors of speed and progress appropriate to the modern age of railroads and cities and machines, but it incorporated nonetheless a desire for simpler times when the country was less ethnically pluralistic, when genteel elites were truly in charge. The effort by cremationists to "uplift" the urban and immigrant masses by inculcating in them a compulsion to burn their dead was, among other things, a strategy for constructing in the United States both the purity and the order that historians have for some time understood as a preoccupation of Gilded Age reformers.[Note 10]

Most Americans turned a deaf ear to the cremationists' call to refinement. But there is some evidence that at least a few began to aspire to this new marker of gentility. In 1874, the landmark year for cremation, one of the nation's most popular weeklies, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, put a cremation story under its masthead and accompanied it with lurid illustrations. At least one newspaper spoofed (in iambic pentameter) what it called "incineration for dead wits." And second-year students at Princeton College conducted a mock cremation of the remains of one "Brig. Gen. Joseph Bocher," which included a ballad sung to these lyrics:

Come one and all good Sophomores,
And drop a doleful tear;
For he is dead--Bocher is dead,
And lies upon this bier.
His reader is all bustified,
His grammar is all torn,
His lifeless form is muchly mourned,
By Sophomores forlorn.
In sure testimony to the practice's cachet, urban legends spread of fathers cremating sons in basement furnaces in Pennsylvania and of cremationists coming together to form clandestine societies as far south as Georgia.[Note 11]

Perhaps the strongest evidence for cremation's surging public presence was a minstrel show called Cremation: An Ethiopian Sketch, which debuted on Broadway at the Olympic Theatre on October 12, 1874. The play starred an "eccentric" and single-minded reformer by the name of Solomon Muggins, Esq., who by his own admission would "not listen to anything at present on any other subject but cremation." Unlike friends who long for the lively body of a rich lover, he pines for the dead body of a poor man. "What benefit," Muggins is asked by his sidekick, Henry, "will you ever derive from the burning of dead bodies?" Putting on a cremation, Muggins replies, will make him "one of the greatest of public benefactors" because cremation is cheaper and faster than burial. The reform, says Muggins, will also decrease the problem of premature burial, since "by my system the very moment the fire strikes the body, if there is any life in it at all, pop goes the weasel." Muggins wants to determine how long it will take to reduce a human body to ashes in his new patent furnace, so he asks Henry to procure him a body and promises his friend his daughter's hand in marriage if he is successful. Henry heads off to a local medical college to steal a body slated for dissection, but along the way he encounters a gang of thieves. Happily, none has ever heard of cremation, so he is able to convince one of the boys (for $200 cash) "to appear as a dead body for a short time." Returning with an all-too-warm body, Henry is given Muggins' blessing to "go and get married as soon as you can" but is instructed, in a logic believable only in a show of this sort, to "be sure to be back in time for the great experiment." When that time comes, Henry is nowhere to be found and the boys, who turn out to know something about cremation after all, pull a switch on Muggins, placing a dummy in the furnace and walking off $200 richer.[Note 12]

There are many morals to this story. The only one worth underscoring here is that in 1874 cremation was not only on the docket of America's genteel reformers; it was also striking a public chord and producing popular resistance.

The First Modern and Scientific Cremation

While cremationists had plenty of arguments in 1874 for the superiority of cremation to burial, they lacked a suitable crematory. This would not have been a formidable obstacle if they had been willing to follow the ancient tradition of cremation on an open-air pyre. Despite their interest in restoring to America the grandeur that was Greece and the glory that was India, however, cremationists were reformers to the core and, as such, were determined to find a better, more modern, and more scientific way.

Cremationists went to great lengths in the nineteenth century to distinguish modern cremation from its ancient manifestations. They preferred the former over the latter for at least four reasons. First, whereas ancient cremation--and cremation among nineteenth-century Native Americans and "Hindoos" was included in this category--took place publicly on a crude outdoor pyre, modern cremation took place indoors in private in a state-of-the-art furnace. Modern witnesses were spared, therefore, the gory sights, sounds, and smells of the older procedure, which had the additional defect of taking far more time. Modern witnesses were also spared the noxious by-products of the affair, since the corpse's dangerous gases and liquids were destroyed by the "purifying fire" of the furnace. Second, in ancient cremation the body was literally burned, conjuring up negative associations, at least among Christians, of hell. But in the modern procedure flames never actually touched the corpse, which was consumed (at least in theory) by heat alone. Third, in modern cremation the ashes of the deceased were not mixed, as they were in the ancient rite, with what cremationists referred to as "foreign matter." Finally, in pyre cremation the body was only partially destroyed, while in a modern crematory the body was reduced entirely to its constituent elements. Like the philosophes of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, cremationists looked to the ancients with both reverence and disdain. Surely, they were proud to be carrying on ancient traditions, but they were also determined to carry those traditions onward and upward. Their reform was part and parcel, therefore, of the nineteenth-century march toward progress. Given the aim of nineteenth-century American cremationists to marry an ancient rite with up-to-date technology, it is appropriate that the New York Times described the first modern cremation in America as "a form of burial at once ancient and modern." It was, in short, a modern revival.[Note 13]

Cremation's migration from ancient India to modern America was made possible by the efforts of a few strong-willed pioneers. The man who made it technologically feasible was Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne, a retired physician who constructed the first New World crematory on his estate in Washington, a small college town about thirty miles southwest of Pittsburgh in rural western Pennsylvania. The man who organized the rite was Colonel Henry Steel Olcott of New York City. And the man whose death made it all possible was the Baron De Palm. LeMoyne, Olcott, and De Palm were all "advanced thinkers," thoroughly modern men whose unorthodox religious beliefs and behaviors fueled the anti-cremationists' suspicion--a suspicion that would not be shaken, at least among Catholic leaders, until the 1960s--that cremation was an anti-Christian rite inextricably tied to Freemasonry, agnosticism, Theosophy, heathenism, Buddhism, and other forms of radical religion. All three were also genteel reformers, committed to uplifting the immigrant masses to an ostensibly higher level of culture and civilization (namely their own).

Dr. LeMoyne, "the doyen of incinerarians in our land," was the sort of character who inspires wildly divergent assessments. A wealthy and philanthropic physician of French Huguenot ancestry and "a life-long radical," LeMoyne was, according to one source, a person of "exceptional force, high culture, and broad humanity." According to another, however, he was simply a "fool." More objective biographers havenoted that LeMoyne was an advocate of scientific farming and educational reform and an outspoken critic of slavery. Long before his estate was notorious for housing the first American crematory, it reportedly served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Although LeMoyne declined a Liberty Party nomination to run for vice president of the United States in 1840, he did run for governor of Pennsylvania on an abolitionist ticket. (In fact, he ran for governor repeatedly--in 1841, 1844, and again in 1847.) And though he considered himself a Christian, he was reportedly thrown out of his Presbyterian church for his political views. Because of his strong belief in the moral value of education, LeMoyne gave money to a number of schools and colleges, including a normal school for freed Blacks in Memphis, Tennessee. He also paid for a new "Citizens' Library" in Washington on the theory that "it would tend to withdraw out young men and boys from questionable places of resort during their unoccupied hours." All were to be admitted to the library, LeMoyne insisted, "on equal terms without any distinction whatever, except that every person will be held to decorous and orderly conduct and personal cleanliness." LeMoyne's social and religious radicalism earned him at least a few outspoken enemies. One dismissed him as "a filthy old man in bad clothes." That slander concerned not sexual peccadilloes but hygiene, since among LeMoyne's odd convictions was reportedly the belief "that the human body was never intended by its Creator to come in contact with water."[Note 14]

Like LeMoyne, Olcott was a middle-class gentleman attracted to social reform and unorthodox religion. Also raised a Presbyterian, Olcott turned as a young man to Spiritualism, or the practice of communicating with the dead through ritual experts called mediums. He pursued careers in scientific farming, military administration, and journalism before being admitted to the New York bar in 1868. In 1875 in New York City he cofounded the Theosophical Society with Russian occultist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. For the rest of his life he would serve as that organization's president. Eventually he would move to India. On a trip to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1880 he would become the first American to convert formally to Buddhism on Asian soil. One of the grandest of America's social reformers, Olcott's plate of reforms would eventually include, in addition to cremation, both temperance and women's rights.[Note 15]

Among the early members of the Theosophical Society was Baron De Palm, an Austrian-born nobleman who, according to the New York Tribune, was fated to become "principally famous as a corpse." Upon his arrival in New York in the winter of 1875, De Palm befriended Olcott and joined the Theosophical Society. He fell ill shortly thereafter, however, and died on May 20, 1876. Although the Theosophists portrayed De Palm during his lifetime as someone of means and importance, the report that he was a "poor, friendless foreigner" was closer to the truth. His estate, once thought to be vast, turned out to be worthless. During his illness De Palm instructed Olcott (his executor) to arrange a funeral "in a fashion that would illustrate the Eastern notions of death and immortality" and then to have his body cremated. There is no record of exactly why the baron chose cremation, but he did express "a horror of burial" rooted in the fact that he had once known a woman who was buried alive. Olcott, knowing it would take some time to procure a suitable crematory, initially had the body embalmed. He then orchestrated what the New York City media billed as a "pagan funeral" on Sunday, May 28, 1876, at the Masonic Temple of none other than the Reverend O. B. Frothingham.[Note 16]

This event, which preceded the cremation-to-come by roughly half a year, filled the 2,000-seat hall to overflowing. And it was very much a Theosophical affair--a coming-out party of sorts for the newly formed society and for Olcott as "Theosophic high-priest." In keeping with the Theosophists' interests in merging East and West, religion and science, and ancient and modern, the liturgy included references to fire worship, Darwin's evolutionary theory, Egyptian mystery cults, Spiritualism, the Nile goddess Isis, the Hindu scriptures, and American Transcendentalism. It also incorporated a credo affirming, among other things, that the body is nothing more than a "temporary envelope of the soul" and that "there is no death" because "the soul of man is immortal." Incense burning in an urn just to the side of the plain coffin foreshadowed the baron's impending incineration.[Note 17]

Reviewers were not kind. A Boston-based critic described the proceedings as "another exemplification of the wickedness of the metropolis," seeing in the rite one more reason to be glad he did not live in Gotham. The Theosophical Society he dismissed as "a body of gentlemen who get rid of their spare change in importing Indian fakirs and organizing raids into the domains of necromancy and the supernatural." The Tribune took a similar tack. After professing that "there are immortal absurdities as well as immortal truths," it wondered, "Why should any one discard Christianity. . . and adopt a hodge-podge of notions, a mixture of guess-work and jugglery, of elixirs and pentagons, of charms and conjurations?" Months before the cremation for which he is now remembered, the baron was already more famous in death than in life.[Note 18]

De Palm's idiosyncratic funeral brought notoriety to Olcott and his Theosophical Society, but complicated De Palm's cremation. When the New York Cremation Society was organized in April 1874, Olcott was in its ranks. After hearing of De Palm's wishes, he promised De Palm's corpse to that society for cremation. Initially, many agreed to coordinate the event. But after plans for the funeral were made public, members got cold feet, and Olcott was left to see to his friend's cremation himself. Now in retreat, the New York Cremation Society would not reemerge until the early 1880s.

The Cradle of American Cremation

LeMoyne's hometown was not the most auspicious place to hold cremation's coming-out party. A "dry" town of 4,000 to 5,000 inhabitants nestled into the lower foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, Washington was dominated, in the words of a Times newspaperman, by "old-fashioned Presbyterians, who regard the waltz as an invention of Satan and a game of cards as sure destruction." A Tribune writer emphasized on ethnicity rather than religion, but his point was the same. Washington's citizens, he wrote, "belong, as a rule, to ancient Scotch Irish clans, who make a god of precedent and walk in the narrow but excellent path of their fathers from the cradle to their death-bed. . . they will not be likely to fling themselves out of that bed into a heterodox furnace." Though these reports were surely written to tickle the cosmopolitan prejudices of New York City readers, Washington was indeed both rural and provincial. Locals called their township "Little Washington," presumably to distinguish it from the nation's capital, but no one who had stepped foot outside of town was liable to confuse this Washington with the vast metropolis designed by Pierre L'Enfant. "Little Washington" was a sleepy place, largely lacking in the sorts of "advanced thinkers" who enlivened faddish salons in more cosmopolitan settings. Here cremation was, according to the Times, "rank heresy." "No good church member within 1000 miles of Washington would give his body to be burned any sooner than he would sell his soul to Beelzebub."[Note 19]

Dr. LeMoyne had initially attempted to construct his crematory on the grounds of the local cemetery, but local officials rebuffed him. So he turned to his own estate. Located about one mile from town, his crematory stood atop a knoll known locally as "Gallows Hill" because it had previously served as a county site for executions by hanging. As a doctor who had witnessed the decay of dissected and exhumed corpses, LeMoyneendorsed cremation for reasons of public health. But he was also attracted to cremation's simplicity and economy, and his crematory reflected his highbrow conviction that extravagant burial rites were indecorous and immoral. A slight one-story red-brick building approximately thirty feet by twenty feet, the crematory roughly resembled a country schoolhouse. Faced with zinc, topped with a corrugated iron roof, and equipped with three chimneys, it reportedly cost $1500.

Inside were two bare chambers. One was a reception room, furnished with a number of ill-matching chairs and tables, a catafalque to display a body, and a makeshift columbarium, which according to one observer looked no more sacred than an ordinary bookcase. On the other side of a central door was the furnace room, built of brick and equipped with a coke-fired clay retort. The furnace was specially designed to prevent fire from touching the corpse, which theoretically would be consumed by heat alone. More than a few were scandalized by the crematory's appearance. Reporters judged it an architectural disaster. One called it an ugly "brick parallelogram" and described the furnace as "loathesomely [sic] cheap and plain for its purpose." Another said the building looked like a "large cigar box." Even Olcott described the facility as "very plain, repulsively so. . . as unaesthetic as a bake-oven."[Note 20]

LeMoyne had built the crematory for his own use. But Olcott, after reading in the Tribune of the crematory's construction, had written LeMoyne, asking whether he might be willing to let De Palm christen his facility in order to demonstrate the legality, utility, and technological feasibility of modern cremation. Eventually the physician agreed. Olcott, drawing on his legal training and his New York City social connections, investigated applicable laws, obtained the necessary permits, and arranged for a panel of theological, economic, sanitary, and technological experts to present the cremationist case. He also gathered a slightly less committed cadre of scientists, clergymen, educators, and journalists to witness the spectacle to determine, in his words, "(a) Whether cremation was really a scientific method of sepulture; (b) Whether it was cheaper than burial; (c) Whether it offered any repugnant features; (d) How long it would take to incinerate a human body."[Note 21]

A Ghastly Sight

The corpse of Baron De Palm had been injected with arsenic as a preservative before his May funeral, but as the search for a crematory dragged on it was determined that stronger stuff would be necessary if the corpse was to keep until the cremation. Mr. August Buckhorst, an undertaker from Roosevelt Hospital (where the baron had died), was called in to embalm. "A big, burly, red-faced, heavy mostached [sic] German," Buckhorst was the sort of man who would have been considered a live wire if he had not earned his keep as an undertaker, and he took on his historic task with what might be described as glee daubed with only a thin veneer of professionalism. One newspaper report claimed the embalming was performed "in the Egyptian fashion," but Buckhorst's efforts were far more haphazard than the techniques of the mummifiers of the Nile.[Note 22]

Embalming had received a boost in the United States during the Civil War as battlefield medics on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line experimented with various techniques to preserve the war dead long enough to ship them back to their families for burial. By 1876, however, the practice was not yet routinized, so Buckhorst was free to freelance. And freelance he did. After extracting the guts out of the body, he packed the cavity and covered the skin with his own concoction of potter's clay and crystallized carbolic acid--"the best way to keep the old man," he said. He then had the embalmed corpse placed in a rosewood casket and deposited in a vault in a Lutheran cemetery in Williamsburg, New York.[Note 23]

The tincture apparently did the trick. Four months later, in late November, a proud Buckhorst led a group of reporters to the vault to inspect the body, which was now slated to be cremated during the first week of December. One journalist called it "a ghastly sight," but all agreed the embalming was a success. Despite some shrinking and discoloration, the baron's distinctive visage remained recognizable, his dapper whiskers were wonderfully preserved, and his eyes displayed "an appearance of life." Neither corpse nor coffin, moreover, emitted bad odors. At one point in the inspection Buckhorst rapped the deceased on the head, proclaiming him "as tough as sole leather." "He ain't as dry as he ought to be," he concluded, "But I guess he'll burn nicely."[Note 24]

He almost didn't. After being placed, coffin and all, into a plain wooden box for shipping, the baron's remains were transported on the evening of December 4 via a series of ferries and other conveyances to the Pennsylvania Railroad depot at Jersey City. There they were met by Colonel Olcott and a slate of Theosophists, hospital representatives, health officials, doctors, lawyers, and journalists assembled for the pilgrimage. On the sleeping car that evening Olcott played the charming host, winning over to the cremation cause at least two elderly women and one cub journalist. Olcott's arguments, one said, were persuasive enough "to convert the most stubborn lover of graveyard flowers. . . to an inveterate cremationist." The next morning, his two female converts at his side, Olcott prophesied (incorrectly, it would turn out) that the "fair sex" would soon become the cause's most passionate advocates, "for with them the preservation of their beauty was the supreme, as it was the last thought of their lives; and they could not bear to think of their own beautiful forms having to be subjected to the hideous process of slow putrefaction." When the train pulled into Pittsburgh, however, this bucolic scene veered sharply in the direction of farce.[Note 25]

Mr. Buckhorst was the first to pronounce the body missing. "How can we have a cremation without a corpse?" he exclaimed as baggage handlers, in a macabre game of hide-and-seek, frantically searched for cargo that had somehow failed to board the Washington-bound train. Just as the undertaker was beginning to suspect theft at the hands of a pro-burial zealot, the body magically reappeared. Buckhorst breathed a sign of relief, then lamented that the hunt had caused him to miss his breakfast. Around noon on December 5 the train pulled into the "Little Washington" depot, with the star of the show now securely on board.[Note 26]

There the body was transferred to "a woefully shabby hearse" while "a crowd of dirty boys and rural yokels. . . almost stared their eyes out." Some townsfolk were shocked to see the coffin arrive in one piece, since rumor had it that the baggage car had caught fire just before Pittsburgh and prematurely cremated the remains. But such rich irony was not to be. After a bumpy ride from depot to crematory, the rough wooden box was given over to James Wolfe, a local fireman charged with stoking the furnace. Soon the reception room was filled with unofficial onlookers, some cracking crude jokes. But local gapers were not the only people in attendance. Journalists were, according to one eyewitness, "thick as blackberries," and scores of scientists and medical folk further crowded the scene.[Note 27]

Olcott officiated at the opening of the coffin on the afternoon of December 5. But this impromptu viewing lasted only long enough for the assembly to arrive at a conclusion far different from the one drawn a week earlier at the cemetery. In fact, just a peek at De Palm's shriveled torso made it plain to all present that "the embalming process had not been so successful." It is probably an exaggeration to claim, as did a melodramatic World reporter, that "no spectacle more horrible was ever shown to mortal eyes." But the body, which had shrunk from 175 to as little as 92 pounds, did present "a painful and repulsive appearance." After seeing "some pretty, buxom, chubby-faced laughing girls" crowding around and staring at De Palm's "ghastly, grinning skull," a horrified Olcott commanded that the coffin be closed.[Note 28]

Later, in private and under cover of night, attendants took the corpse out of the coffin, wrapped it in a white linen shroud, slathered it with aromatic herbs and spices, and placed it onto an cradle-shaped iron frame. The purpose of this transfer was to prevent any untoward mixing of the sacred remains of the baron with the profane charcoal of his coffin. But Buckhorst might also have made a few last-minute adjustments, because on the following day reporters who viewed the body reported it rather well preserved.

Making a Rite

On December 6, 1876, Olcott and LeMoyne awoke to the sort of bleak morning that can depress even the most uplifted soul. The day was unusually cold and windy, even for a Pennsylvania winter, and dirty snow clung to the ground. It was, in short, an inauspicious beginning for a movement that would hitch its fortunes to metaphors of sun, light, warmth, and purity.

About a week earlier Olcott had received some unsolicited advice from an editorial writer at the Tribune. The masses are moved far more by habit than by argument, that writer had warned. "It may be a fact that crowded cemeteries are breeding-places of malaria and typhus. . . but in the public eye they are valleys of peace, God's acre, in which sleep the sacred dust of our beloved, awaiting a future resurrection." The dire warnings of sanitarians would do little to convert ordinary folks to cremation. What was needed was a cremation rite as solemn and sacred as the pageantry of burial. "If one or two cremations should take place. . . without charlatanry, but with impressive and solemn ceremonies, they would do much to soften the public prejudice" against cremation. "[H]uman nature will insist upon shrouding its last state with some kind of poetic pomp and meaning," so Olcott would be well-advised to "not give to [this] experiment too much of the air of an ordinary baking."[Note 29] How closely the organizers would follow this sage advice would soon become a matter of no small contention.

Though Olcott and LeMoyne might have wished for better weather, they could not have dreamed of a better turnout. Thanks to Olcott's public relations efforts (which had begun with convincing Dr. LeMoyne that the event should be open to the public) the cremation was well attended. Journalists arrived from as far away as England, France, and Germany, and the health boards of Massachusetts, Pittsburgh, and Brooklyn sent official observers.[Note 30] Along with mourners and officiants, this group brought the official guest list to about forty eyewitnesses assembled inside the crematory. But the publicity surrounding the event also attracted a less genteel audience, many of them local residents staunchly opposed to incineration. They lent to the occasion the raucous air of a prizefight or an execution.

Inside the reception room friends and relatives meditated on the life of the deceased while reporters jotted down notes. The uninvited conducted themselves with less propriety, forming a "noisy, pushing crowd" outside. "They were," according the Times, "coarse in their ideas and conduct, and many a brutal joke concerning the dead man went through the crowd, to the disgust of the more respectable visitors." A few journalists assigned to the story took the event no more seriously than did the crowds, poking fun at, among other things, the vulgar utilitarian arguments of a few radical cremationists and their need for funerary speed. "Why cremate when there is still so much waste land in which to bury?" a reporter for the New York Daily Graphic asked facetiously. "[Long Island] soil needs burials, especially of that practical race of people who, wishing to be of utility to mankind after their demise, are willing through decomposition and consequent enrichment of the soil to promote the growth of cauliflower and potatoes." The author even went so far as to suggest dynamiting the dead as "a more speedy method of getting rid of human remains." Another reporter stepped farther over the line, surreptitiously lifting the sheet covering the baron to sneak a peek at his private parts.[Note 31]

Unfortunately, no one did much to discourage either the bawdiness of the reporters or the raucousness of the crowds, according to a clearly disappointed Times newsman who objected that there were "no religious services, no addresses, no music, no climax, such as would have thrown great solemnity over the occasion. There was not one iota of ceremony. Everything was as businesslike as possible." Neither Olcott nor LeMoyne would have been surprised by this assessment, since both promoted the event as an utterly secular exercise. In fact, LeMoyne had written to Olcott that he "never intended or expected that our programme should include any kind of religious service, but should be a strictly scientific and sanitary experiment." But the occasion was lacking in neither ritualization nor spiritual significance.[Note 32]

After Mr. Wolfe, the fireman who had started feeding the furnace with coke at two o'clock in the morning, declared the machinery ready, the guests took one last look at the body. Someone pulled the sheet down a bit, exposing a face with a horribly pained countenance. After this final, grotesque viewing, Olcott, LeMoyne, and two other men appointed to usher the body into the furnace took off their hats, as if to signal that whatever reverence might be mustered should be expended forthwith. Members of the impromptu congregation dutifully removed their bowlers. Then the body was lifted and "solemnly borne" across the threshold of the two-room crematory into the furnace room, and cremation's rite of passage to America was underway. Olcott, in his capacity as high priest, soaked the white sheet covering the corpse with water saturated in alum in an effort to prevent both the body's immediate blazing and any further public display of the baron's nakedness. In a nod to the Asian origins of cremation and the Theosophist's love of Mother India, someone placed a simple clay urn--"the present of a friend in the East"--atop the furnace. Olcott then sprinkled the body with spices, including cassia, cinnamon, cloves, frankincense, and myrrh. According to one confused reporter, the Theosophist was "following the Egyptian ceremonials, with a touch of the Indian, Greek and Roman customs." But he was also bequeathing to the occasion a vaguely Christian air--playing the Wise Man bringing spices from the East. Finally, Olcott placed on the corpse a collection of roses, smilax, primroses, and palms, as well as evergreens as a symbol, he announced, of the immortality of the soul. Recalling perhaps the Christian tradition of burying lay people with their heads to the west so they could look to the east for the Second Coming, Olcott and LeMoyne debated whether it was more auspicious to place the body into the furnace head-first or feet-first. The fireman and the crematory's builder then joined the procession, forming a coterie of six pallbearers, as in a traditional burial. At approximately 8:30 A.M. they slid the baron's body into the retort head-first.[Note 33]

Spiritual Phenomena

There was a momentary sizzle and a bit of smoke. But soon the door was cemented shut and the furnace made airtight. The evergreens and the hair around the head caught on fire, and "the flames formed," according to the Times reporter, "a crown of glory for the dead man." At first witnesses were repelled by the smell of burning flesh, but soon the sweeter aromas of flowers and spices banished foul odors from the room. Witnesses who peered through a peephole in the side of the furnace noted that the flowers were almost miraculously reduced to ash without losing their "individual forms." About an hour into the proceedings a rose-colored mist enveloped the body. Later the mist turned to gold. Meanwhile, the corpse became red-hot and then transparent and luminous. All these effects lent to the retort "the appearance of a radient [sic] solar disk of a very warm. . . color." After some time yet another intimation of immortality pressed itself on the witnesses: "the palm boughs. . . stood up as naturally as though they were living portions of a tree." Then the left hand of the baron rose up and three of his fingers pointed skyward. The scientists present later attributed this incident to involuntary muscular contractions, but others saw in it something of a spiritual phenomenon. The main event concluded officially at 11:12 A.M., when Dr. Folsom, secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Health, formally pronounced the incineration complete. All that remained of the body had fallen lifelessly to the bottom of the retort, but the ashes of a few sprigs of evergreen remained, seemingly suspended in air above the iron cradle. Cremationists interpreted this too as a propitious sign.[Note 34]

In the afternoon interested parties gathered at the town hall to listen to pro-cremation speeches, including an address by the Reverend George P. Hays, president of Washington and Jefferson College, on cremation in light of the Bible. The next day, after the furnace had cooled, Colonel Olcott collected the ashes. From the first firing of the furnace to this denouement the De Palm cremation had exhausted nearly two full days. After sprinkling the ashes with perfume, Olcott reportedly placed them in a Hindu-style urn for transport to New York. One critic, disgusted over how the cremation had mutated into a carnival, suggested it would be most appropriate to toss the cremated remains into the surf off Coney Island. Instead they were deposited into the safekeeping of Theosophical Society headquarters in New York City. A few years later, before he departed for a new life in India, Olcott scattered the ashes "over the waters of New York Harbour with an appropriate, yet simple, ceremony."[Note 35] But Olcott may not have strewed all of the baron's cremated remains. Some bone fragments were reportedly saved in a makeshift reliquary: a bottle in Dr. LeMoyne's office. Other bits of the baron were reportedly given away to gawkers as souvenirs.

Those who were not lucky enough to acquire such relics were not left without any means to remember the baron. Not long after the furnace's fire had cooled, Mr. Wolfe the fireman fanned the flames of public opposition when he wrote, directed, and produced a play that cost him his job moonlighting at the crematory. A satirical look at the De Palm cremation, Wolfe's production climaxed with "the shoving in and blazing up of the body." Its local success testifies to the fact that the residents of Washington and its environs were repulsed yet titillated by cremation. The new death rite of Gallows Hill, though as entertaining as a good old-fashioned hanging, was apparently of less redeeming social value. According to one estimate published shortly after the cremation, nine-tenths of the citizens of Washington were opposed to the reform. That was surely an understatement. Before LeMoyne's crematory would be shut down, forty-two people would be cremated there, but LeMoyne himself would be the only resident of "Little Washington" to make use of the facilities.[Note 36]

Part Folly, Part Farce

The De Palm cremation was big news across the country. Virtually every major paper reported on it, and many editorialized. The event might have received even more attention, but on the same day a fire at New York City's Brooklyn Theater killed over 200 people and, as Olcott later wrote in his diary, "the greater cremation weakened public interest in the lesser." Still, assessments of the "lesser" event made their way into print. Most reviews came in somewhere between mildly critical and utterly hostile, which is to say that journalists interpreted the cremation in the same light as the townspeople of "Little Washington." Even the World judged cremation "objectionable." "Ridiculous," wrote the Daily Graphic. Part "folly," part "farce," concluded the Herald.[Note 37]

Assessing the event as theater, ritual, and science, reviewers came to negative conclusions on the first two grounds. As theater, the December cremation fared about as well as De Palm's May funeral, which the Tribune had panned as a "dire disappointment." The cremation was "weird" and "strange"--that is to say, either too thinly packed with meaning or too avant-garde to be understood. And the main character in the drama was "revolting" and "repulsive." As ritual, the cremation was, in anthropological parlance, undercooked--far too quotidian to count as a proper funerary rite. Too much ribaldry and not enough emotion, the ritual critics concluded. It was, one wrote, a "desecration." "For all the ceremony that was observed," complained another, "one might have supposed that the company had been assembled to have a good time over roast pig." A different source compared the cremation to coarser fare, skewering the roasting as akin to "the barbeque of an ox." A few reviewers were perceptive enough to place the blame on the crowds and other journalists rather than with Olcott and his charges. After all, it was not Olcott who had sneaked a peek at the baron's private parts or made jokes about his anatomy. In fact, in many reports Olcott comes off as a tragic figure, a would-be minister in the midst of a three-ring circus, dutifully yet futilely attempting to bring some measure of dignity to a sordid and comic affair. The Times, for example, noted that the officiants "displayed all proper respect for the dead." And the writer who likened the event to a pig roast specifically absolved Olcott and his minions from charges of ritual impropriety.[Note 38]

From the perspective of science, most reviewers admitted that at least as an experiment in "scientific roasting," the cremation was a success--"the first careful and inodorous baking of a human being in an oven." The body had been successfully reduced to ashes, and in decent time and at minimal expense. But one editor dissented even on that score, claiming that because of the embalming and shrinkage of the corpse it was not a fair test. "Not one scientific purpose was served," he complained, except to prove "that a mummy could be burned." And that, he said, "was known before."[Note 39]

Echoing these sentiments were the decrees of a number of clerics and other scions of society, who did little to hide their revulsion over burning the dead. William Bacon Stevens, an Episcopalian bishop, called cremation "the freak of a disordered brain," and added that he had "little fear that a Bible-loving people will ever become advocates of cremation." Mayor William Stokley of Philadelphia denounced the practice as "a relic of a less civilized age, a custom of pagan nations." The Catholic Archbishop James Wood, also of Philadelphia, after being told they were going to burn De Palm's body, bandied back, "And his soul will be burning in the other world." Cremation, he said, was "a natural outgrowth of the spirit of rebellion against the government of Christ."[Note 40]

Even some converts expressed reservations. A handful of sanitarians who favored cremation on hygienic grounds had to admit after December 6, 1876, that they too now shrank in horror from the method. Others, following the World, worried that De Palm's rites had forever tainted cremation with a laundry list of negative associations. The practice, they said, was now fated to be linked to radical social theories, irreverent humor, heathen religions, vulgar utilitarian ethics, shabby architecture, social misfits, strange theories of the body, ghastly corpses, bad weather, and sexual innuendo. It would be decades before cremation would be judged on its merits.

Long before the baron was committed to the furnace, a newsman who described cremation as "thoroughly respectable" had warned advocates against proceeding with their plans. "It would be a pity to see the whole business turned into a ghastly joke by carting across the mountains the remains of a man dead and embalmed months ago over whom a grotesque parody on a burial service was long since performed," he had written. "If cremation is advocated on the ground of the public health, this performance is far more likely to prejudice than promote it; if on the ground of good taste, the cremationists ought to raise a subscription to get this scheme abandoned."[Note 41]

After the cremation, many concluded that the rite had indeed degenerated into farce. In fact, if there was a media consensus it was this: that the De Palm cremation, while a scientific success, was a ritual failure. Writer after writer predicted that the events of the day would only hasten cremation's demise. One said it was hard to imagine "anything more devoid of sentiment and essentially business-like than the conduct of this affair" and concluded that cremation had a rocky road ahead of it in the pious United States. Opposition was chiefly sentimental, he noted, but in such matters sentiment was king. "The mausoleum, the cemetery, made a charming spot by both nature and art, the quiet village churchyard where the grass grows rank, all interspersed with daisies, have grown into the traditions, the literature and the affections of our Anglo-Saxon race," he argued. "There will linger in the hearts of most a reverential preference for the spot upon which the sun shines and the rains fall, over which the flowers of spring blossom, and the birds of air sing their summer songs." Another prognosticator asserted that cremation would not prosper until it pressed beyond scientific experiment to religious practice, until it addressed hearts as well as minds. "Grief, reverence, delicacy, religion" were, in his view, all missing from the De Palm incineration. "No matter how many arguments are brought in favor of a funeral in which these are wanting, humanity will not be convinced of its fitness," he wrote. "Until something of the pious care that watches over human dust is bestowed upon human ashes, cremation will not be popular.. . . The philosophers must learn a little reverence if they would advance their theories."[Note 42]

Reading the Rite

There are many things to say about this pioneering cremation. The first and most obvious is that its organizers were social reformers. Their movement was an effort to improve society by substituting for the pollution of burial the purity of cremation. More precisely, early cremationists were just the sort of enlightened ladies and gentlemen whom historians have seen as central to the tradition of genteel reform. Colonel Olcott was a lawyer and Dr. LeMoyne a physician. De Palm was a foreign-born baron and, if we are to believe Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, also a high-ranking Mason--"Grand Cross Commander of the Sovereign Order of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem, Knight of St. John at Malta, Prince of the Roman Empire, late Chamberlain to His Majesty the King of Bavaria." Soon the movement would attract an even more impressive list of genteel elites: capitalist William Waldorf Astor, temperance advocate Kate Field, Harvard president Charles William Eliot, newspaper editor Charles A. Dana, educator Elisabeth P. Peabody, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, abolitionist Cassius Clay, Senator Charles Sumner, Buddhist sympathizer Moncure Conway, ethical culture leader Felix Adler, Unitarian minister Jenkin Lloyd Jones, Episcopalian bishop Phillips Brooks, and Transcendentalist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, to name only a few.[Note 43]

Cremation was to these reformers a method for cultivating individuals and improving society. Not simply a way to make a better nation, it was a way to make better citizens--by uplifting the vulgar to refinement. Individuals who resisted cremation were, by this logic, resisting both the betterment of society and the cultivation of their own virtues. America's pioneering cremationists, like other genteel reformers, were egalitarians insofar as they believed that even the most lowly American was capable of beingraised up to a higher level of culture and civilization. But each was also determined to rank Americans on a continuum from unwashed to washed and thus to preserve the time-honored distinction between uncultivated and cultivated souls: the lowly who needed to be lifted up and those, like themselves, who would do the heavy lifting. Such was the logic of this under-studied aspect of the "refinement of America."[Note 44]

Early cremation reformers may have stood near the center of genteel society, but they were largely religious outsiders, frequently aligning themselves with alternatives to both mainline Protestantism and traditional Catholicism. Later, cremation's popularizers would heed the advice of editorial writers and begin to distance their cause from religious dissent, but at least in its infancy cremation was closely tied to unorthodox spirituality, including Spiritualism, Theosophy, and Asian religions. Many leading cremationists were eccentric in religion as well as temperament. LeMoyne was, according to his friends, nearly as radical religiously as he was politically. Olcott was a Spiritualist turned Theosophist well on his way to becoming a Buddhist. De Palm was, in Olcott's words, "a Voltairean with a gloss of Spiritualism," and, if we are to believe the Tribune, a Rosicrucian and dabbler in "occult sciences" to boot.[Note 45] The "pagan funeral" that Olcott had conducted in May 1876 was as replete with references to Egyptian religious traditions as it was lacking in references to Christianity. And the De Palm cremation in December 1876 was attended, as the Times lamented, by nothing that resembled traditional Christian funerary rites.

Witnesses to De Palm's cremation clearly associated the practice with the "heathen," but exactly which "heathen" isn't clear. Both defenders and detractors wrote repeatedly about cremation as an Asian import, and reinforcing that view were a variety of articles about cremation in Japan and India published in the popular press. Most reports echoed Olcott in describing the receptacle used for the baron's ashes as a "Hindoo cremation urn. . . decorated with Hindoo characters and devices," but one Times reporter indicated that the urn was designed "after the manner practiced by the ancient Greeks and Romans." This confusion is telling, since America's early cremationists linked cremation with what they saw as the great civilizations of Greece, Rome, and India, and Americans in general were not yet aware of the differences among the traditions they lumped together as "heathenism."[Note 46]

Though organizers linked the De Palm cremation with the antique glories of Greco-Roman civilization and the ancient grandeur of India, cremation was a peculiar revival. Early cremationists may have been reviving an ancient rite, but they were modernists to the core. As such, they were determined to improve on ancient precedents, to adapt them to modern, scientific contingencies, and thus to evolve out of a crude, ancient ritual a new and improved practice that was as scientific as it was modern. By drawing a sharp distinction between ancient and modern cremation, American cremationists were able to be true to both their colonial and their anticolonial impulses. Their cosmopolitanism led them to laud India as a cradle of cremation (and to flatter themselves for exhibiting religious and cultural tolerance). But their ethnocentrism led them to view ancient cremation (even as it was practiced at the time in India or among Native Americans) as badly in need of modern improvements. This distinction between ancient and modern cremation was not lost on the folks at Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, who published illustrations accompanying a front-page story on cremation that contrasted "The Ancient Grecian Method" of cremation with the high-tech modern Western one (and noted the superiority of the latter along the way). The same distinction was underscored repeatedly by Olcott, who despite his attraction to the religions of India took pride in the fact that the baron's cremation represented a vast improvement over traditional Hindu practices. Because the body was disposed of in a closed furnace instead of an open pyre, Olcott wrote, "there could be none of that horror of roasting human flesh and bursting entrails which makes one shudder at an open-air pyre-burning.. . . There was none of that unpleasant odour that sometimes sickens one who drives past an Indian burning-ghat."[Note 47]

In part because of the association of cremation with modernity, genteel reform, and unorthodox and Asian religions, the efforts of America's nineteenth-century cremationists did little in the years immediately following the De Palm cremation to sway ungenteel Americans, who like the citizens of Washington continued to overwhelmingly prefer burial, largely on religious grounds. When they were not either ridiculing or ignoring the rite, these traditionalists argued that cremation was a heathen, pagan, and therefore anti-Christian practice: it overturned nearly 2,000 years of the Christian custom of burial, it demonstrated a lack of respect for the sanctity of the body (which was the temple of the Holy Ghost), and it flew in the face of the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body.

This verdict notwithstanding, early cremationists were as a group neither areligious nor inattentive to ritual. Neither De Palm's May funeral nor his December cremation were overtly Christian. But neither was secular either. Each was a creole rite that creatively combined Christian and non-Christian, Eastern and Western elements. Virtually every step in each process, moreover, was endowed with spiritual and ritual significance. The baron's Masonic Temple funeral was, no doubt, post-Christian, but it aimed to "illustrate the Eastern notions of death and immortality" via hymns, creeds, prayers, and a myriad of religious symbols.[Note 48] No cremationist involved in the events surrounding the cremation of Baron De Palm believed that his corpse was simply profane material to be dispensed with this way or that. All, in fact, were convinced that there was a right and a wrong way to perform the new cremation rites they were in the process of inventing. De Palm's death rites, in short, demonstrated dechristianization without secularization. What they rejected was not religion per se but traditional Christianity.[Note 49]

Ritual studies expert Catherine Bell has contended that to act ritually is to act in ways that distinguish what you are doing from more ordinary activities. Rituals do not need to be formal or repetitive. In fact, they can be informal and improvised. But they need to distinguish themselves from more mundane practices. Jonathan Z. Smith has made much the same point: "Ritual is, above all, an assertion of difference." From this perspective, Olcott and his charges were clearly acting ritually. The same Times reporter who lamented that "there were no religious services. . . not one iota of ceremony" at the De Palm cremation also reported that Olcott and his fellow cremationists evinced "all proper respect for the dead," that the corpse was "lovingly showered" with flowers and evergreens "as an emblem of immortality," that the flames of the burning evergreen formed "a crown of glory for the dead man," and that some witnesses saw the gradual uplifting of the left hand and the pointing upward of three of its fingers as a miraculous message of sorts. The reporter (who compared the rite with "the fiery ordeal through which Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego passed" in the Hebrew Bible) also noted that officiants preoccupied themselves with all sorts of fine details that together served to distinguish the rite they were constructing from more commonplace activities. They emptied the corpse of fluids in order to prevent an unseemly explosion, wrapped it in a pure white shroud, draped it in an alum-soaked sheet in an effort to prevent any display of nakedness, and dressed it with incense. After some debate, they purposefully placed the body into the furnace head-first. They took pains to take the baron out of his coffin prior to the cremation in order to avoid mixing his ashes with foreign remains (and thus confusing sacred relics with profane fuel). They acted, in short, like priests conducting a solemn ritual. Yes, they were promoting a sanitary technology, but they were also performing a purification rite. It would not have been the least bit out of character if at the end of this rite Olcott and his coofficiants had prayed, as one newsman did: "peace to his ashes."[Note 50]

Cremation after De Palm

The De Palm cremation spread the good news of cremation, but likely set the cremation movement back rather than propelling it forward. Still, in the years that followed that landmark event a slow but steady stream of the dead lined up to follow him into the fire. On July 31, 1877, Dr. Charles F. Winslow, formerly of Boston, Massachusetts, became the second person to be cremated in modern America when his corpse was reduced to ashes in a furnace in Salt Lake City, Utah.[Note 51] A few months later, in November 1877, Julius Kircher, a German-American Lutheran, caused a stir in New York City when, after arguing with his Jewish wife about whether their dead eight-day-old son should be interred in a Lutheran or a Jewish cemetery, he cremated the infant in a furnace in his paint factory.[Note 52] On February 15, 1878, Mrs. Benjamin Pitman of Cincinnati became the first woman to be cremated in modern America and the second person to make use of the facilities at Dr. LeMoyne's crematory.[Note 53] On October 16, 1879, Dr. LeMoyne himself was cremated.[Note 54] Each of these death rites followed to a remarkable extent the precedent of the Baron De Palm.

Like De Palm, Dr. Winslow was a well-traveled and European-educated religious eccentric who was cremated amid religious conservatives (in Winslow's case, Mormons). But Winslow was no secularist. He believed that "what of him was immaterial. . . returned unto the God who gave it." Like LeMoyne, he was a physician who was attracted to cremation because of unpleasant encounters with exhumed human remains. And his cremation, too, stirred controversy; nearly 1,000 people were said to have witnessed his fiery end. Like De Palm, he was embalmed and wrapped in a white linen sheet. Flowers and evergreens adorned his body. And he was carried lovingly and solemnly by pallbearers to the furnace door. Although "no prayer was uttered, no sermon preached, no funeral anthem sung," organizers went to great lengths to assure the purity of his ashes. After iron chips from the apparatus flaked off into the doctor's remains, they were removed one by one before the remains were inurned, shipped to Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and buried alongside his wife's grave--the first cremated remains known to have been interred in Massachusetts. Predictably, editors at the Salt Lake City Daily Tribune responded to Winslow's rite by denouncing cremation as a "cold science" and waxing nostalgic about the heartwarming practice of cemetery visitation.[Note 55]

Mrs. Benjamin Pitman was a professional woman renowned in the field of shorthand. A well-educated but "somewhat eccentric" ex-Swedenborgian who belonged to "the school of advanced thinkers," she was "a woman of more than ordinary refinement" who adhered not to secularism but to the "creed of the beautiful." Constitutionally optimistic, Mrs. Pitman ran a cheerful home where "there was never a thought of gloom." Although only an occasional churchgoer, she "felt confident," according to her husband, "of a life beyond the grave" and, as a result, believed that death should be greeted with gaiety, not sorrow. Her husband apparently agreed not only with Mrs. Pitman's belief in the soul's immortality but also with her scorn for funerary extravagances. In a clear breach of Victorian mourning codes, he refused to allow the customary black crape of death to mark his home's door. Like the De Palm incineration reporters, most newsmen covering Mrs. Pitman's cremation complained thatthe ritual was scandalously underdone. Under the headline "An Unceremonious Rite," a Times reporter said the task was performed "heartlessly"--"there were no religious exercises whatever." "Not a prayer was uttered; not a sigh was heard," the reporter lamented, "not a tear-drop moistened the winding-sheet of the woman who for thirty years had been the beloved wife of Mr. Ben Pitman." These conclusions were not entirely unsubstantiated; Mrs. Pitman's will had directed her survivors that there were to be "no religious observations of any kind." However, the reporter's own writing contains ample evidence of the violation of those directions. Mrs. Pitman's body had been displayed at her Cincinnati home in a beautiful cherry and mahogany casket--an elegant example, custom-carved with the monogram "P" at the foot and a large cross at the head. On the cross sat a wreath of fresh flowers, and the catafalque supporting the coffin was dressed in light blue silk. At an informal service at her home, an address was read and a poem recited. For the trip to the LeMoyne crematory the coffin was draped with black cloth. The corpse was displayed in the crematory's reception room, where observers noted that the pure white satin interior of the coffin perfectly matched the purity of her white satin dress. At the crematory Mrs. Pitman was eulogized, and an original poem was read in lieu of a prayer. The body was taken out of the coffin, wrapped in a white, alum-soaked shroud, covered with flowers, and placed on the catafalque. Attendants then committed the corpse, head-first once again, to the furnace. Later, Mr. Pitman was said to be considering strewing the ashes around the base of Mrs. Pitman's favorite rose bush, "that the blooming and fragrant rose may bring brightly before [her husband's] mind the memory of his loved and faithful wife." In this way, Pitman had added, this believer in the "creed of the beautiful" might be born again as a rose.[Note 56]

Dr. LeMoyne's cremation was more high church. Although painted in the press as a secularist, LeMoyne remained a Christian his whole life. He endowed two chairs at Washington and Jefferson College, an evangelical Protestant school. He said the cremation treatise he drafted just before his death was written "from a Christian stand-point." It included references to "the great Creator" and called Jesus "Savior" and the Bible "the revealed will of God." At a private funeral service at his home, attended by two Protestant ministers, scripture passages were read and a prayer offered. And at the crematory a benediction was recited. Like Mrs. Pitman, LeMoyne reportedly instructed his family to scatter his ashes in a rose bed, "so that the queen of flowers might seek sustenance in his cinerary remains and scent the air with her message of beauty and fragrance." Once again, reporters took offense. Echoing the Tribune's complaint that the De Palm cremation had degenerated into "a charlatan advertisement of a heathen society," the Philadelphia Inquirer concluded that "the great difficulty [with] this reform. . . has been the impracticable character of those persons who have been foremost in urging its adoption.. . . Then the theory of cremation had the misfortune of being taken up by a body of mystics who rejoiced in the learned title of Theosophists, and in whom every vestige of common sense was obliterated.. . . They were the very last class of men and women who should have been picked out to introduce a reform of any kind among a sober and intelligent people, and more especially a reform which, to most minds, seems barbarous and inhuman.[Note 57]

Newspapermen at the Tribune and the Inquirer mistook these pioneers as irreligious and unceremonious because they wrongly equated mainline Protestantism with religion, and traditional rituals with ritualizing itself. Anthropologist Mary Douglas has argued that societies in which social order is emphasized and pressure on the individual to conform to social norms is high tend to be ritualistic. Their rituals, moreover, tend toward the formal. One classic example of this type of society, which Douglas terms "high grid, high group," was Victorian America. In the United States in the 1870s, non-Christians were often denounced as heathens, and rebels against fixed and formal rites were seen not as advocates of new rituals but as opponents of ritualization itself. It should not be surprising, therefore, that eyewitnesses judged early American cremations as unceremonious and sacrilegious. But rather than taking them at their word, we should interpret their judgments as evidence of a historic shift in American ritualization. The Gilded Age is now widely recognized by historians of American religion as an era that, by bringing Buddhism and Hinduism to the United States, nudged the country away from its Protestant past toward a new era of religious pluralism. But it was also an age in which the country began to step, however haltingly, away from ritual formalism and extravagance toward a new era of ritual improvisation and simplicity. At the time, critics dismissed the idiosyncratic rituals invented by the cremationists as unceremonious and areligious. More neutral observers will discern, however, that they were neither. Surely the cremations of De Palm, Pitman, Winslow, and LeMoyne strayed from the standard ritual formula of Gilded Age Americans. While the unwritten rules of ritual propriety dictated a reverence for tradition, those rites celebrated innovation. But however improvised and personalized, they were rites nonetheless. The careful observer will see in them neither an end of religion nor an end of ritual, but a desire for new wine and new wineskins. In the events of December 6, 1876, and beyond we see evidence for a new diversity in American religion. We also glimpse the beginnings of a revolution in American ritual life that would come to fruition in the creative cremation rites of the 1960s through 1990s.[Note 58]

Chapter 1 Notes

[Note 1] Sir Henry Thompson, "Cremation: Treatment of the Body after Death," Contemporary Review 23.2 (January 1874) 319-28. See also P. H. Holland's critical response, "Burial or Cremation?" Contemporary Review 23.3 (February 1874) 477-84; and Thompson's rejoinder, "Cremation: A Reply to Critics and an Exposition of the Process," Contemporary Review 23.4 (March 1874) 553-71.

[Note 2] New York World, quoted in "The Carpers' Club," Daily Graphic (May 2, 1874) 474; "Cremation: Proposed Incorporation of the New Society," Times (April 25, 1874) 2; "Cremation," Philadelphia Medical Times (April 25, 1874) 473; "Editor's Easy Chair," Harper's New Monthly Magazine 49.290 (July 1874) 283; Jacob Wyce Horher, "Cremation," (M. D. thesis, University of Pennsylvania, 1875) 18, 21. The patent is number 7,599 (July 28, 1874). The World spoke kindly of cremation in editorials on March 1, 8, 15, 22, and 29, 1874. The results of the doctors' poll appear in J. F. A. Adams, Cremation and Burial: An Examination of their Relative Advantages (Boston: Wright & Potter, 1875). The bibliography is "Cremation as a Mode of Interment, and Related Subjects," Boston Public Library Bulletins 2.30 (July 1874) 268. These are by no means the only texts from 1874. See, e.g., George Bayles, "Disposal of the Dead," Sanitarian 2.3 (June 1874) 97-105; Fannie Roper Feudge, "Burning and Burying in the East," Lippincott's Magazine 13.33 (May 1874) 593-603; and George Bayles, "Cremation and Its Alternatives," Popular Science Monthly (June 1874) 225-28.

[Note 3] Persifor Frazer, Jr., The Merits of Cremation (Philadelphia: n.p., 1874) 7, 8, 12. This paper was originally published in the Penn Monthly in June of 1874.

[Note 4] Frazer, The Merits of Cremation, 13. Frazier was quoting from "Opinion of an English Bishop," Evening Bulletin (April 13, 1874). [Note 5] O. B. Frothingham, The Disposal of Our Dead (New York: D. G. Francis, 1874) 11, 13.

[Note 6] Frothingham, The Disposal of Our Dead, 13, 27-28, 18, 20.

[Note 7] Frothingham, The Disposal of Our Dead, 22-24.

[Note 8] Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (New York: Knopf, 1992); John Tomisch, A Genteel Endeavor: American Culture and Politics in the Gilded Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971) 24; Frederick Law Olmstead, quoted in Bushman, The Refinement of America, 422. See also Stow Persons, The Decline of American Gentility (New York: Columbia University Press, 1973); John F. Kasson, Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America (New York: Hill and Wang, 1990); and Thomas Bender, New York Intellect: A History of Intellectual Life in New York City, from 1750 to the Beginnings of Our Own Time (New York: Knopf, 1987). The term "dangerous classes" comes from Charles Loring Brace, The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years' Work among Them (New York: Wynkoop & Hallenbeck, 1872).

[Note 9] "Call a Spade a Spade," Urn 4.3 (March 25, 1895) 2; MC 2.12 (December 1887) 177. Also appearing in a cremationist periodical was this Matthew Arnold dictum, which some have cited as the definitive statement of American gentility: "Culture is to know the best that has been thought and said in the world" (Urn 3.12 [December 25, 1895] 11).

[Note 10] Eric Hobsbawm, "Mass-Producing Traditions: Europe, 1870-1914," in The Invention of Tradition, ed. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983) 279.

[Note 11] "Cremation: The Ancient Grecian Method of Burning the Dead," Leslie's (April 25, 1874) 1, 101, 103. The Philadelphia Sunday Press published a mythical tale of a physician who cremated his deceased son in a furnace in the cellar of his home. Though intended for publication on April Fool's Day, it appeared later in the month. See "Cremation in Philadelphia," Times (April 20, 1874) 1; and "The Philadelphia Cremation Story a Hoax," Times (April 22, 1874) 1. The Princeton festivities are documented in an undated pamphlet, "Creative Ceremonials Conducted by the Sophomore Class of Princeton College, over the Remains of the Late Brig. Gen. Joseph Bocher." The doggerel appears in "The Carpers' Club," Daily Graphic (May 2, 1874) 474. A Georgia newspaper published an apocryphal account of a pro-cremation meeting in Augusta, Georgia. See "Cremation: The Stupid Philadelphia Hoax Imitated in Georgia," Times (April 28, 1874) 8. Another Augusta-based spoof is discussed in "The Funeral Pile," Boston Herald (November 28, 1876) 4; and "A Distinguished Cremationist," Atlanta Daily Constitution (December 8, 1876) 4. Both articles refer to an open-air pyre cremation, supposedly conducted by either "The Oriental Order of Humanity" or "The Oriental Order of Humilitate."

[Note 12] Cremation: An Ethiopian Sketch (New York: Robert M. De Witt, 1875).

[Note 13] "De Palm's Incineration," Times (December 7, 1876) 6. Other newspaper sources include but are in no way exhausted by: "A Fool Cremated," Atlanta Daily Constitution (December 6, 1876) 4; "Ashes to Ashes," Boston Daily Advertiser (December 9, 1876) 2; "Baron De Palm in Ashes," Boston Daily Globe (December 7, 1876) 8; "A Subject for Cremation," Boston Herald (November 27, 1876) 1; "Cremation," Boston Herald (December 6, 1876) 4; "Cremation," Boston Herald (December 7, 1876) 1; "The Cremation of Baron Palm," Boston Medical and Surgical Journal 95.24 (December 14, 1876) 710-712; "Cremation vs. Interment," Boston Pilot (December 28, 1876) 4; "The Subject for Cremation," Boston Post (November 30, 1876) 2; "Cremation," Boston Post (December 7, 1876) 2; "Cremation of the Remains of the Late Baron De Palm," Leslie's (December 23, 1876) 259; "Successful Cremation," New Orleans Times Picayune (December 7, 1876) 8; "Particulars of the De Palm Cremation," New Orleans Times Picayune (December 8, 1876) 8; "Baron Von Palm's Body," Herald (November 29, 1876) 5; "A Theosophical Roast," Herald (December 5, 1876) 5; "A Cremation Pilgrimage," Herald (December 6, 1876) 7; "The Cremation Folly," Herald (December 7, 1876) 6; "Baron De Palm's Cremation," Times (December 6, 1876) 10; untitled editorial, Tribune (November 20, 1876) 4; "Burning and Burial," Tribune (November 28, 1876) 4; "Cremation and Burial," Tribune (December 7, 1876) 4; "The Baron's Last Journey," World (December 5, 1876) 2; "Burning a Baron," World (December 6, 1876) 1; "Baron De Palm Cremated," World (December 7, 1876) 2; untitled editorial, World (December 7, 1876) 4; "Cremation," Inquirer (December 6, 1876) 8; "Some Talk on Cremation," Inquirer (December 6, 1876) 8; "Cremation," Inquirer (December 7, 1876) 1-2; "More Cremation Conversation," Inquirer (December 7, 1876) 2; "Cremation of Baron De Palm," Inquirer (December 7, 1876) 4; "De Palm's Body Reduced to Ashes," Philadelphia Press (December 7, 1876) 8; untitled editorial, Philadelphia Press (December 7, 1876) 4; "Cremation," San Francisco Chronicle (December 7, 1876) 1. The Daily Graphic also covered the event exhaustively, devoting to it a series of articles and editorials as well as a front page cartoon (November 28, December 4, 6, 7, 9, 13, and 15, 1876).

[Note 14] John Storer Cobb, A Quartercentury of Cremation in North America (Boston: Knight and Millet, 1901) 100; untitled editorial, Tribune (June 16, 1876) 4; "A Fool Cremated," Atlanta Daily Constitution (December 6, 1876) 4; Boyd Crumrine, History of Washington County, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: L. H. Everts, 1882) 540; "Dr. LeMoyne's Furnace," Times (February 19, 1878) 2; "Baron De Palm Cremated," World (December 7, 1876) 2. For LeMoyne on cremation, see F. Julius LeMoyne, M.D., Cremation: An Argument to Prove That Cremation Is Preferable to Inhumation of Dead Bodies (Pittsburgh: E. W. Lightner, 1878). Additional biographical information can be found in Crumrine, History of Washington County, Pennsylvania, 449, 456, 540, 541, 543-48.

[Note 15] On Olcott, see Stephen Prothero, The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996).

[Note 16] "Burning and Burial," Tribune (November 28, 1876) 4; "Cremation," Boston Herald (December 6, 1876) 4; Henry S. Olcott, Old Diary Leaves: The History of the Theosophical Society (Adyar, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 1974) 1:150. I discuss this funeral at some length in Prothero, The White Buddhist, esp. 54-57. For more contemporary accounts, see Olcott's Old Diary Leaves, 1:147-84; untitled editorial, New York Independent (June 1, 1876) 15; "A Theosophical Funeral," Times (May 29, 1876) 1; "A Rosicrucian in New-York," Tribune (May 26, 1876) 4; "'Theosophical' Obsequies," Tribune (May 29, 1876) 4; "Baron de Palm's Funeral," Tribune (May 29, 1876) 5; "A Theosophist's Obsequies," San Francisco Chronicle (May 29, 1876) 3; "The Theosophical Ceremonial over a Coffined Corpse," San Francisco Chronicle (June 6, 1876) 1. Apparently De Palm's funeral inspired imitators. See "Another Fancy Funeral," Tribune (March 6, 1878) 4.

[Note 17] "Burning and Burial," Tribune (November 28, 1876) 4; "A Theosophical Funeral," Times (May 29, 1876) 1.

[Note 18] "Two Lively Corpses," Boston Herald (December 1, 1876) 2; "A Rosicrucian in New-York," Tribune (May 26, 1876) 4.

[Note 19] "Dr. LeMoyne's Furnace," Times (February 19, 1878) 2; untitled editorial, Tribune (June 16, 1876) 4.

[Note 20] "Baron De Palm Cremated," World (December 7, 1876) 2; "A Cremation Pilgrimage," Herald (December 6, 1876) 7; Olcott, Old Diary Leaves, 1.174.

[Note 21] Olcott, Old Diary Leaves, 1.170.

[Note 22] "A Cremation Pilgrimage," Herald (December 6, 1876) 7; "Two Lively Corpses," Boston Herald (December 1, 1876) 2.

[Note 23] "The Subject for Cremation," Boston Post (November 30, 1876) 2. Robert W. Habenstein and William M. Lamers, The History of American Funeral Directing, 3d rev. ed., ed. Howard C. Raether (Milwaukee: National Funeral Directors Association, 1995) contains a helpful history of embalming in nineteenth-century America (197-231).

[Note 24] "The Subject for Cremation," Boston Post (November 30, 1876) 2; "The Baron's Last Journey," World (December 5, 1876) 2.

[Note 25] "A Cremation Pilgrimage," Herald (December 6, 1876) 7.

[Note 26] "A Cremation Pilgrimage," Herald (December 6, 1876) 7.

[Note 27] "A Cremation Pilgrimage," Herald (December 6, 1876) 7; "Burning a Baron," World (December 6, 1876) 1.

[Note 28] "Baron De Palm's Cremation," Times (December 6, 1876) 10; "Baron De Palm Cremated," World (December 7, 1876) 2; "A Cremation Pilgrimage," Herald (December 6, 1876) 7. The Philadelphia Inquirer writer apparently had a stronger stomach. He witnessed a corpse "in a good state of preservation" and was not horrified in the least ("Cremation," Inquirer [December 6, 1876] 8).

[Note 29] "Burning and Burial," Tribune (November 28, 1876) 4.

[Note 30] See A. Otterson, "Cremation of the Dead," in Report of the Board of Health of the City of Brooklyn, 1875-1876 (Brooklyn: Brooklyn Board of Health, 1877) 131-32; and W. J. Asdale, J. P. McCord, and J. D. Thomas, "Cremation," Annual Report of the Board of Health of the City of Pittsburgh for the Year 1876 (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh Board of Health, 1877) 113-23.

[Note 31] "De Palm's Incineration," Times (December 7, 1876) 6; "The Baron's Cremation," Daily Graphic (December 6, 1876) 2; "Baron De Palm Cremated," World (December 7, 1876) 2.

[Note 32] "De Palm's Incineration," Times (December 7, 1876) 6; the other quotation appears in Olcott, Old Diary Leaves, 1.170.

[Note 33]Asdale, McCord, and Thomas, "Cremation," 117; "The Latest Cremation," Inquirer (February 15, 1878) 1.

[Note 34] "De Palm's Incineration," Times (December 7, 1876) 6; "Cremation of the Remains of the Late Baron De Palm," Leslie's (December 23, 1876) 259.

[Note 35] Olcott, Old Diary Leaves, 1.183. The Coney Island suggestion appears in "The End of Cremation," Times (October 17, 1879) 4.

[Note 36] "An Unceremonious Rite," Times (February 16, 1878) 5.

[Note 37] Olcott, Old Diary Leaves, 1.178; "Baron De Palm Cremated," World (December 7, 1876) 2; untitled editorial, Daily Graphic (December 7, 1876) 2; "The Cremation Folly," Herald (December 7, 1876) 6.

[Note 38] "Theosophical Obsequies," Tribune (May 29, 1876) 4; "The Cremation Folly," Herald (December 7, 1876) 6; "Baron De Palm Cremated," World (December 7, 1876); untitled editorial, World (December 7, 1876) 4; "De Palm's Incineration," Times (December 7, 1876) 6. Olcott would later note that the American papers, "which had made fun of the [Theosophical Society] for having too much religious ceremony at the Baron's funeral, now abused us for having none at all at his cremation" (Old Diary Leaves, 1.170).

[Note 39] "Baron De Palm Cremated," World (December 7, 1876) 2; "Burning a Baron," World (December 6, 1876) 1; "The Cremation Folly," Herald (December 7, 1876) 6.

[Note 40] Stevens and Stokley are quoted in "More Cremation Conversation," Inquirer (December 7, 1876) 2; Wood's remarks are from "Some Talk on Cremation," Inquirer (December 6, 1876) 8.

[Note 41] Untitled editorial, Tribune (November 20, 1876) 4.

[Note 42] "Ashes to Ashes," Boston Daily Advertiser (December 9, 1876) 2; untitled editorial, World (December 7, 1876) 4.

[Note 43] "Cremation of the Remains of the Late Baron De Palm," Leslie's (December 23, 1876) 268.

[Note 44] "Cremation of the Remains of the Late Baron De Palm," Leslie's (December 23, 1876) 268.

[Note 45] Olcott, Old Diary Leaves, 1.149; "A Rosicrucian in New-York," Tribune (May 26, 1876) 4.

[Note 46] "Baron De Palm's Remains," Times (December 5, 1876) 8; "Baron De Palm's Request," Times (December 4, 1876) 8. On cremation in Japan, see: "Walled-In Peoples," Tribune (August 3, 1881) 4; "Cremation in Japan," Tribune (May 26, 1884); "Cremation in Japan," Popular Science Monthly 40:48 (March 1892) 715-16; "Cremation in Japan," MC 1.1 (January 1886) 12. Cremation in Siam (now Thailand) was the subject of an untitled editorial in the Tribune on June 16, 1888 (4). Cremation in China is discussed in "Cremation," JAMA 2.3 (January 19, 1884) 69; and Herbert A. Giles, "A Cremation in China," Eclectic Magazine 29.5 (May 1879) 547-53. Hugo Erichsen's classic early treatment, The Cremation of the Dead (Detroit: D. O. Haynes, 1887) traces cremation back to India (7) and contains illustrations of "Cremation in Calcutta" (14) and "Cremation in Siam" (19). More on cremation in India can be found in: "Cremation in India," MC 1.4 (April 1886) 60-61; "Cremation in India," MC 2.5 (May 1887) 76-77; "Cremation in India," Urn (February 25, 1892) 9. See also Fannie Roper Feudge, "Burning and Burying in the East," Lippincott's Magazine 13.33 (May 1874) 593-603.

[Note 47] "Cremation: The Ancient Grecian Method of Burning the Dead," Leslie's (April 25, 1874) 1; Olcott, Old Diary Leaves, 1.176.

[Note 48] Olcott, Old Diary Leaves, 1.150.

[Note 49] On dechristianization, which I see as a more readily definable and useful construct than secularization, see Michel Vovelle, PiéÈ baroque et dé en Provence au XVIIIe siè (Paris: Plon, 1973).

[Note 50] Jonathan Z. Smith, To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987) 109, quoted in Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) 102; "De Palm's Incineration," Times (December 7, 1876) 6. See also Catherine Bell, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

[Note 51] "Cremation of a Boston Physician," Times (July 18, 1877) 2; "The Cremation of Dr. Winslow," Times (August 5, 1877) 5; "The Salt Lake Cremation," Times (August 9, 1877) 3. See also: "Cremation," Deseret Evening News (August 1, 1877) 3; Ch. Smart, "Cremation Practically Considered," Medical Record 13 (February 9, 1878) 126-29; "Cremation of Dr. Charles F. Winslow," Popular Science Monthly (October 1877) 765-67; and a series of articles and editorials in the Salt Lake City Daily Tribune (July 31, August 1, August 2, 1877).

[Note 52] "Cremation of a Baby," Times (November 20, 1877) 8; "The Kircher Cremation Case," Times (November 21, 1877) 8; "No Objection to Cremating," Times (December 5, 1877) 8.

[Note 53] "Yesterday's Cremation," Boston Globe (February 16, 1878) 1; untitled editorial, Boston Globe (February 18, 1878) 4; untitled editorial, Boston Post (February 18, 1878) 1; "The Cremation Theory Again," Chicago Tribune (February 17, 1878) 4; "Cremation," Tribune (February 16, 1878) 2; "More of Cremation," Tribune (February 25, 1878) 4; "An Ohio Lady to Be Cremated," Times (February 13, 1878) 1; "The Cremation of Mrs. Pitman," Times (February 14, 1878) 5; "An Unceremonious Rite," Times (February 16, 1878) 5; "Dr. LeMoyne's Furnace," Times (February 19, 1878) 2; "The Latest Cremation," Inquirer (February 15, 1878) 1; "Mrs. Pitman Incinerated," Inquirer (February 16, 1878) 3; untitled editorial, Inquirer (February 16, 1878) 4; "Mrs. Jane Pitman's Will," Philadelphia Press (February 13, 1878) 1; "The State," Philadelphia Press (February 16, 1878) 8; untitled editorial, Philadelphia Press (February 16, 1878) 4.

[Note 54] "Le Moyne Cremated," Chicago Tribune (October 17, 1879) 1; "A Cremation at Washington, Penn.," Tribune (October 17, 1879) 1; "A Dead Reformer," Tribune (October 17, 1879) 4; "Cremation of Le Moyne," Inquirer (October 17, 1879) 4; untitled editorial, Inquirer (October 18, 1879) 4; "The Late Dr. Le Moyne's Cremation Furnace," Philadelphia Press (October 16, 1879) 5; "Le Moyne's Body," Philadelphia Press (October 17, 1879) 1; "Reduced to Ashes," Philadelphia Record (October 17, 1879) 1.

[Note 55] "Cremation," Salt Lake City Daily Tribune (August 1, 1877) 1; "The Salt Lake Cremation," Times (August 9, 1877) 3; "Cremation," Salt Lake City Daily Tribune (August 1, 1877) 2.

[Note 56] "An Ohio Lady to Be Cremated," Times (February 13, 1878) 1; "An Unceremonious Rite," Times (February 16, 1878) 5; untitled editorial, Boston Post (February 18, 1878) 1.

[Note 57] LeMoyne, Cremation: An Argument, 5, 13, 18; Hugo Erichsen, Roses and Ashes and Other Writings (Detroit: American Printing Company, 1917) 5; "A Dead Reformer," Tribune (October 17, 1879) 4; untitled editorial, Inquirer (October 18, 1879) 4. The poetic language is Erichsen's, not LeMoyne's.

[Note 58] On the history of religious pluralism in the United States, see Catherine L. Albanese, America: Religions and Religion (3d ed.; Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1999); Diana L Eck, On Common Ground: World Religions in America (CD-ROM; New York: Columbia University Press, 1997); Thomas A. Tweed, Retelling U.S. Religious History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Thomas A. Tweed and Stephen Prothero, Asian Religions in America: A Documentary History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

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