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

By Long, Thomas G. | The Christian Century, January 30, 2002 | Go to article overview

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


Long, Thomas G., The Christian Century


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.