Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America. (Why Cremation? as Values Change, So Do Funeral Practices)

Article excerpt

ON DECEMBER 6, 1876, in the tiny village of Washington, Pennsylvania, an Austrian-born immigrant named Baron Joseph Henry Louis Charles De Palm became the recipient of what is described as the first cremation in modern America. It was not a pretty sight.

For one thing, De Palm had already been dead for more than six months. He died in May in New York City, but finding a proper site for a cremation in 19th-century America was not a simple matter. Finally De Palm's friends located a crematory that Francis J. Lemoyne, an eccentric physician and radical politician, had constructed for his own use on his Pennsylvania estate. To preserve the body over this lengthy delay, De Palm had been primitively embalmed, first with an injection of arsenic and later with a sterner treatment of potter's clay and crystallized carbolic acid, with definitely mixed results. When the coffin was opened on December 5 for the viewing of the now badly shrunken and discolored corpse, some marveled that De Palm was recognizable at all. A queasy newspaper reporter gasped, "No spectacle more horrible was ever shown to mortal eyes."

De Palm's cremation generated a three-ring media circus. Just before his death, De Palm had joined the newly formed Theosophical Society, a group of freethinkers and genteel social reformers, and, true to the Theosophical vision of that day, he left behind instructions to conduct his funeral "in a fashion that would illustrate the Eastern notions of death and immortality" and then to cremate his body. This was precisely the public relations opportunity the Theosophists needed to attract attention to their cause, and they set about making public ceremonies of both the funeral and the cremation.

The widely publicized funeral, held in New York's Masonic Temple, attracted over 2,000 people, many of them gawkers. Guided by the Theosophists' zeal to blend East and West, the officiants presided over a home-brewed liturgy of Hindu scriptures, passages from Charles Darwin's writings, scraps of spiritualism and transcendentalism, references to fire worship, and invocations of the Nile goddess Isis ("a hodge-podge of notions, a mixture of guess-work and jugglery, of elixirs and pentagons, of charms and conjurations," harrumphed the New York Tribune).

A raucous gaggle of journalists, some from as far away as Europe, crowded into little Washington for the cremation. They were joined by a horde of curious, mostly hostile local folk, who jostled outside the crematory cracking crude jokes and lending a carnival air to the proceedings. The actual event was relatively uneventful: a brief sizzle and a puff of smoke as the baron's body slid into the furnace, and then golden and rosy hues as it burned. However, most of the reviews were not kind. "Folly," "farce," "weird," "objectionable," "repulsive," "revolting," "a desecration" were but a few of the press judgments. "For all the ceremony that was observed," commented one reporter, "one might have supposed that the company had been assembled to have a good time over roast pig."

How things have changed between that time and the recent spreading of the ashes of rock idol Jerry Garcia on the waters of the Ganges River. From its inauspicious and controversial beginnings, the practice of cremation in America has grown into, for the most part, a perfectly acceptable, barely controversial, religiously sanctioned method of disposing of human bodies. Indeed, cremation is often heralded as an environmentally sensitive act of good stewardship and an enlightened alternative to burial. After stagnating at less than 5 percent for nearly a century, the cremation rate is now about 25 percent nationwide (over 50 percent in some western states) and rising steadily, and more than 40 percent of Americans say they are "likely to choose cremation" for themselves.

Stephen Prothero's well-researched and engagingly written history of cremation in the U.S. tells the fascinating story of this cultural transformation. …