Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America


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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. 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. Although a number of prominent clerics would eventually support cremation, most steered clear of the controversy in the s.

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 to provide "scientific theists" with an organizational home ; and the appearance of his Religion of Humanity 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.

ISBN 13: 9780520236882

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. 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. 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.

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.

Purified By Fire A History Of Cremation In America

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 and devoted to redirecting Christianity and Judaism away from belief in the supernatural and toward ethical action.

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. 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. If, however, the laborer persisted in his ungentlemanly ways, genteel elites could justifiably scorn him for spreading the dual scourge of vulgarity and disease.

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. When the masses resisted that education to refinement, however, cremationists felt justified in judging them "stupid, ignorant, narrow-minded, contemptible.

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. 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. But there is some evidence that at least a few began to aspire to this new marker of gentility.

In , 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.

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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.

The play starred an "eccentric" and single-minded reformer by the name of Solomon Muggins, Esq. 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. 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. The only one worth underscoring here is that in 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 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. 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.


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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.

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 s--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. 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. Long before his estate was notorious for housing the first American crematory, it reportedly served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

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Although LeMoyne declined a Liberty Party nomination to run for vice president of the United States in , he did run for governor of Pennsylvania on an abolitionist ticket. In fact, he ran for governor repeatedly--in , , and again in 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.

Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America
Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America
Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America
Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America
Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America
Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America

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