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.
Purified by Fire A History of Cremation in America
The Cremation of Baron De PalmOn 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,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]
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.
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 dete