being purified by fire

pbf_coverThe trivia roundup is taking a slight detour this week into a towering inferno: a synopsis of Steven Prothero’s Purified by Fire, a book about, well, cremation. I was going to start by saying that cremation is pretty weird when you think about it, but then anything we do with dead bodies is pretty weird when you think about it.

Cremation has a long history, dating back 20,000 years or more, though we don’t know for sure where it started, when it started, or why they did it. At various times, cremation—usually on a pyre—was a funerary rite of the ancient Greeks and Romans (but often reserved for the upper classes), and was practiced heavily in India (and is associated with Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism). In contrast, the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrew cultures all avoided cremation. The major shift, at least as it concerns cremation in America, occurred with early Christians, who—possibly owing to concerns about the resurrection of the body—supplanted cremation with burial. By 789, Charlemagne had declared cremation a capital offense (which is sort of funny when you think about it) and put force of law behind a centuries-long association of cremation with heathens and pagans.

The practice only began to trickle back into (white) European cultures in late 1700s France, but mostly as hypothetical talk. In the first half of the 19th century, at least a few cremations had taken place, notable among them that of the poet Percy Blythe Shelley, who was burned on a pyre erected by his friend Lord Byron (in the larger scheme, meaningless, but I like this detail). By 1856 there was even a magazine, La Cremation, which was followed by US variants not long thereafter: The Columbarian, The Urn, The Crematist, and Broasted, but only actually the first three.

• • •

The signal event in the history of US cremation was the burning of Baron Joseph Henry Louis Charles De Palm on 6 December 1876. The Baron De Palm, who I’ve nicknamed “The Middle Name,” was at the time of his death a recent US immigrant and member of the Theosophical Society, a sort of omni-believing group with no organized central belief system but instead a mix of tenets pulled from assorted (mostly “Eastern”) religions. Considering Christianity’s anti-cremation stance, a freethinking group like this was a logical place to serve as ground zero for US cremation.

De Palm’s ceremony took place in the US’s first crematory, built by Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne on his family’s property. A descendant of Huguenots, LeMoyne had been thrown out of his (christian) church for his political beliefs, ran for governor of Pennsylvania as an abolitionist, donated huge sums to public education, used his farm as a “stop” on the underground railroad, and also believed that humans shouldn’t bathe. The cremation itself was organized by Theosophical Society founder Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, the first known American to convert to Buddhism.

De Palm had died in MAY, but concerns about where, when, and how he would be cremated dragged on for so long that he lay embalmed for nearly six months. Not well-embalmed, either: a reporter who saw the not-so-fresh corpse before the ceremony said that “no spectacle more horrible was ever shown to mortal eyes.” Cremation of the non-burned-on-a-pyre variety being essentially a hypothetical at the time, Olcott and LeMoyne viewed De Palm’s burning as a scientific experiment. However, sensitive to concerns about cremation as a pagan practice, they gussied-up the act by cobbling together an extemporaneous rite from a variety of cultures and beliefs (some made up): the body was sprinkled with spices, covered in a sheet, then adorned with flowers, palms, and evergreens. The assembled motley collection of media were allowed to watch the process through a peephole in the furnace, and it turns out that the flowers were a good thing because they covered the initial smell of burning flesh. After a few hours, de Palm had been reduced to ashes.

de Palm's remains
de Palm’s remains

De Palm’s cremation can therefore be described as a “scientific success” but a “ritual failure” in that they proved cremation was possible, and though they had an alternative to burial, they did not have an alternative to burial rites. The enterprise was lampooned and lambasted by the assembled media as, variously, “objectionable,” “folly,” and “farce.” But cremation wasn’t dead.

• • •

The real question was this: why cremation? What motivated the need for an alternative to burial? Prothero identifies a few sets of opposing forces and ideologies at work. The “sanitarian” argument held that burials polluted, and so, at least in terms of rhetoric, the cremation/burial debate pitted cleanliness against pollution. It’s only a hop and skip from the purity argument to one that pits science and innovation (the new new thing) against hidebound superstition and tradition (boring old burials). A broader cultural view might see a distinction drawn between Puritan ethics (purity of mind, body, and action) that were being slowly marginalized by the new American desire for practicality, an almost-unifying principle of frontiersmen and pioneers, capitalists, and the workings of a newly-industrialized economy.

lots of considerations
lots of considerations

On balance, though, the “sanitarian” argument—espousing the hygiene and sanitation benefits of cremation—was the one that really carried the day. That argument was a product of its time: miasma theory held that sickness was propagated by noxious smells, from which an immediate and obvious line can be drawn from point a) odoriferous effluvia of decay to b) ill health.

Late-19th century cremationists drew that line, including the awesomely-named Persifor Frazer Jr. and the transcendently-named Reverend Octavius B. Frothingham. They argued that whereas burial pollutes, cremation purifies. The buried dead, they claimed, released “poisonous exhalations,” a belief so entrenched that urban legends persisted of grave diggers dropping dead in their tracks or funeral goers being sickened en masse. Frothingham delightfully called burial and embalming “a laboratory where are manufactured the poisons that waste the fair places of existence and very likely smite to the heart their own lovers.” Even when germ theory replaced miasma theory, the “sanitarian” movement held sway, calling cremation “the only never-failing germicide.” Even the AMA was arguing by the 1880s that large cities should mandate cremation for sanitary reasons.

• • •

Yet by 1900 America was in a sort of cremation holding pattern. Cremation was no longer believed by many to be immoral and pagan, but it was still extremely rare. Most discussion by this time focused on the mechanics and practice of cremation, such as the design of furnaces and memorial sites, what do with ashes, and so on. The concerns weren’t simply aesthetic, theoretical, or practical: on the west coast, ashes were put in urns then placed in viewing niches, and there more than 10% of deaths ended in cremation. In contrast, on the east coast cremated ashes were scattered or buried, and there cremation rates languished around 1%. It’s not clear which of these was cause and which was effect, but there was a relationship between the acceptance of cremation and how it was actually practiced in a given place.

The turn of the century can be seen as the point where cremation began to be sold as a service more than an idea. Crematoria began partnering with cemeteries and furnaces moved to basements, allowing for more elegant chapels to sit atop them (and therefore be more suitable for memorial services; less elegant implementations of the time include a patent application for a portable cremation wagon). Crematoria also faced problems with the burning itself: coal and oil-fired furnaces required tall smokestacks and belched ghastly black smoke (they also were frequently not hot enough to incinerate, so on occasion would also spew out charred bits of clothing that fluttered to the ground like morbid, morbid confetti). That problem was overcome by using indirect heat and burning caskets as well as bodies—thus making good on a decades old promise to consume bodies with heat, rather than flame.

Despite these advancements in the art and science of immolation, the cremation rate was just 3% by 1940. Why had it not become more popular, even as it had apparently become more acceptable? Decades earlier, cremationists had courted support from the (forward-thinking) womens’ rights movement—identifying them as a group that would be inclined to subvert traditional thinking—but even now the vast majority of cremations were performed on men. One reason was that the arguments espoused for cremation were—whether intentionally or not—targeted to skeptical, overeducated white men; the kind of men apt to be in the Theosophical Society. Cremation was the antiseptic practice, both in the sense of being antimicrobial and because it was emotionless; burial was the sentimental, which is to say feminine, practice. Cremation was also largely avoided by people of color and the poverty-stricken. In one sense this might be surprising because a selling point of the act was its inexpensiveness. But those groups tended to be more religious, and moreover the “purity” arguments so often put forth in the 1800s had lapsed into concerns about “racial purity,” in which educated whites decried the burial of immigrants (who by dint of their “otherness” were seen as dirty disease vectors; this too was part of the AMA’s reasoning for suggesting mandatory cremation in large cities, which had larger immigrant populations). In short, the pro-cremation movement had, by virtue of their “messaging,” spurned women, the poor, and people of color; little wonder it had difficulty gaining traction now.

• • •

By 1963, the cremation rate was the same, but that year is the starting line of a cremation boom. Pope Paul VI declared cremation an acceptable practice for Catholics and Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death was released. The book exposed the venal machinations of funeral directors and undertakers, who preyed on grief to sell expensive luxuries (“just because we’re bereaved doesn’t makes us saps!”).  Interestingly, Mitford’s was not a new critique: funeral reform, highlighted by the rallying cry “it costs more to die than to live!” had been a big deal in the 1880s; Massachusetts even outlawed “extraordinary expense at funerals” in 1721 (!!!); and my personal favorite is a 1960s priest who claimed that “the Cross had no innerspring mattress.”



Practically, the bestselling book didn’t amount to much. It took nearly ten years for the FTC to even begin investigating the untoward practices, a further six years to release a report, and another six years to enact rules. Their initial report suggested that—to boil it down to the essential—funeral directors should not be allowed to act as soulless grief-leveragers (for example, they shouldn’t embalm without permission, they should provide itemized lists of costs, and must not make false claims about the benefits of, say, innerspring mattresses). The disparaged funeral directors acted as any good American citizens would, by lobbying the shit out of Congress to keep those recommendations from becoming law. In their zealousness they appealed to time-tested tropes of god against atheism, creatively called cremationists “burial beatniks,” and even managed, somehow, to turn the whole thing into a red-baiting operation. In any case, it was successful, at least insofar as the rules were buried (heh) for years before being enacted, in watered-down form, in 1984.

During this time the “new wave” of cremation landed, billing it as a straightforward, cost-effective, and generally ritual-free method of body disposal. Mostly this was in the form of no-frills operations that did cremations and cremations only (more precisely, they weren’t run by funeral directors, who still eschewed the practice). The most engaging of these was the Neptune Society, started in 1977 by chiropractor Charles Denning. Denning was the Barnum and/or Bailey of cremation whose proselytizing and homogenized/McDonaldized approach to the practice earned him the nickname Colonel Sanders—later modified, amazingly, to Colonel Cinders. He offered cut-rate cremations and, for just a few dollars more, he’d scatter the ashes from his yacht!

By the turn of the century the cremation rate had nearly octupled to 25% in the US and currently stands at 33% (it’s above 70% in the UK and 99% in Japan, which is interesting because I want to know who those 1% are). Part of that rise, of course, was backlash about the increasing cost of funerals and callousness of funeral directors; Prothero makes a suggestion that links it in part to the importance of environmentalism in the 1970s. The other part, no doubt, was that funeral directors gave up the fight and embraced cremation, and by embraced I mean “monetized.” Industry magazines are now filled with ads for books that read like investment guides, like Four Ways to Make Your Cremation Service Sizzle (because when it comes to cremation, “you don’t sell the steak…” …but seriously, sizzle—that can’t have been unintentional. One of the recommendations, by the by, is “set up a booth at a county fair”). Urns are big business, ranging from the strange (3D busts of the deceased) to the odd (dolphin shaped urns for people who like dolphins, I guess) to the simply horrifying (Huggable Memories, a teddy-bear shaped urn for the ashes of children which I only wish I were making up). Cremation costs have steadily risen, and the industry makes almost as much now from a cremation as they do from a burial.

• • •

In closing, some miscellaneous cremation notes:

• Cremated ashes (“cremains”) aren’t actually ashes: leftover bone fragments are pulverized by a Cremulator (actual name), a giant industrial blender. In some cultures, the ashes aren’t ground and families keep the bone fragments instead.

• Pro-burial arguments in the 1800s partially rested on concerns about what would happen to cremated bodies at the second coming of christ. In short, how can I be resurrected if I’m just a pile of ashes? Cremationists questioned how it was that an omnipotent god bringing back to life all those who believe in him would be stymied by a pile of ashes.

• Being buried alive was such a terrifying reality of life (death?) in the 1800s that some viewed cremation as better than burial for the simple fact one couldn’t, strictly speaking, be buried alive. If you’re wondering, no, it is in no way clear why they felt being burned alive was a preferable alternative.

• Burnin up…roastin’…


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