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Purified by FireA History of Cremation in America$

Stephen Prothero

Print publication date: 2001

Print ISBN-13: 9780520208162

Published to California Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520208162.001.0001

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Resurrection and the Resurrectionists

Resurrection and the Resurrectionists

(p.67) 3 Resurrection and the Resurrectionists
Purified by Fire

Stephen Prothero

University of California Press

Abstract and Keywords

Cremationists undermined the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead not so much by refuting it as by threatening to render it obsolete. The real resurrection occurred at the moment of death, not at the end of time. The cremationists made to demythologize the metaphor of death as sleep and the grave as a site of rest and reawakening. Concerns about premature burial likely led to cremation's diffusion. The most popular of all the religiously based arguments against cremation is the bodily resurrection. Cremationists took up three discernible positions on the doctrine of the bodily resurrection. They clearly tried to demythologize traditional Christian responses to death. The cremation movement participated in the development of a new, modern American self, liberated not only from the constraints of the irksome body but also from the constraints of traditions and customs—free to seek new experiences in both life and death.

Keywords:   bodily resurrection, resurrectionists, cremationists, death, life, grave, burial, cremation

LATE IN THE SUMMER OF 1887, AS sun and steam conspired to make Boston unbearable in an era still awaiting air conditioning, human bones began to materialize on Boylston Street across from the Boston Public Library. The culprit was progress. Laborers digging a trench for Edison Electric Light Company had run into brick burial vaults. Soon pickaxes and shovels were prematurely resurrecting skeletons and ribald schoolboys were fiddling with bones hanging on the fence at Boston Commons. One skull was reportedly purchased by a Harvard medical student for fifty cents. Others disappeared without a story. A few years later on the same street, a subway demanded another sacrifice. Once again, human remains were pitched in the air by gangs of workers “with no more respect … than for so much stick and stone.” “This settles it for me,” declared an eyewitness. “No laborers shall toss my skull about like a football years hence.” Cremation, he decided, was the way to go. Or at least that's how The Urn told the story.1

Such tales were regular features in the nineteenth-century cremationist literature. In fact, they were nearly as frequent as stories of grave diggers choked to death by the miasmic exhalations of the decaying dead. Scan the pro-cremation literature even haphazardly and you will find stories about buried bodies snatched for ransom, children stillborn in the tombs of prematurely buried mothers, worms chomping on corpses, snakes slithering into coffins, hungry dogs digging up human remains, burial vaults caving in, and floods washing coffins downstream. (p.68) Other postmortem misadventures read like outlines for Edgar Allen Poe short stories: the body of a white woman is disinterred in Vossburg, Mississippi, by three black men intent on procuring “‘conjure’ bones'” to be used for dice; enterprising students from a medical school in Kansas City are arrested for masterminding a lucrative grave robbing ring supplying cadavers to professors; Brooklyn schoolchildren raid an abandoned burial ground at recess, using unearthed bones as playground swords; an exhumed coffin in Dayton, Ohio, yields a girl who tore out most of her hair and bit off parts of her fingers as she struggled to free herself from premature interment; the spring waters of the upper Delaware River flood through an old graveyard, leaving skeletons “dangling from trees”; and salacious young men satisfy their animal instincts “by outraging the fresh corpses of young and pretty women.” Even the doggerel of cremationists hammered home the Gothic horrors:

  • I laid my loved form in the grave—
  • The grave so deep, and damp and dark;
  • My cheeks were wet with bitter tears
  • That he should be Death's chosen mark.
  • I fondly thought the grave would be
  • To him a quiet, peaceful place,
  • Where he might rest his weary limbs,
  • Free, at last, from Life's toilsome race.
  • Mistaken thought—why veil the truth,
  • When knowledge, free from doubt, confirms
  • The fact that in a few short months,
  • His flesh will be “chawed up” by worms?2

Some tried to bring to this barrage of poetry and prose a semblance of quantitative analysis. Body snatchings were an “almost daily occurrence,” attested one source, while another calculated that “not one entombed body in a hundred remains undisturbed.” An advertisement for “burglar proof grave vaults, made of steel” testified that no fewer than 40,000 dead bodies procured by midnight ghouls were “mutilated every year on dissecting tables in medical colleges in the United States.”3

Grave profanations were not, as The Urn admitted, “the strongest argument in favor of the [cremation] cause,” but they were an excellent backup, at least for practical folks more worried about the postmortem hazards facing their own flesh and bones than about refinement or public health. Like the stories of Pisto the grave digger, these lurid narratives were morality tales, and the moral was clear: Don't allow yourself to be buried unless you want your skull to be kicked around like a football (p.69) or your heart dissected over the sputtering wisecracks of a medical student. No grave was safe from the outrages of the resurrectionists (as body snatchers were called in the Gilded Age), to say nothing of the dangers of heavy rains and other natural and cultural disasters. There was only one way to avoid “the embarrassing prospect of a premature burial, the cheerful chances of being boiled by the janitor of some medical college and our skeletons wired together and hung in a museum, and the opportunity if we escape the first two of being tipped out of our graves by a flood, earthquake, or act of the common council.” That way was cremation.4

It is difficult to classify these appeals. They are, to be sure, horror stories. (The Urn offered its reports under the headline, “Our Chamber of Horrors.”) As such, they both frightened and titillated. But they were also sermons of a sort, intended to change religious beliefs and behaviors. None of these stories constituted a theological argument per se. But all aimed to subvert the rites of burial by undermining assumptions, beliefs, attitudes, metaphors, and practices about death, the afterlife, the self, and the body that had been held dear for centuries in the Christian West. So while partisans of burial preferred to think of the cemetery as a “sleeping chamber,” the grave as a bed, and death as a temporary rest before the great apocalyptic reawakening, the cremationists struggled to link burial instead with body snatchers and dissection tables. What would wake the buried dead? Not the trumpet but the pickax—not the resurrection but the resurrectionist.

Demythologizing the Grave

Students of New Testament scholarship will recognize these efforts as a sort of demythologization. In the nineteenth century pioneering New Testament critics worked to peel back layer upon layer of biblical myth and legend to uncover the historical Jesus underneath. Their method was to subject the Christian scripture to critical analysis. Anything that smacked of myth-making—the Virgin Birth, references to Jesus as “Son of God,” or the miracle of the loaves and fishes—was thrown out as unreliable fiction. What remained was the “real” Jesus. The faithful, of course, were outraged.

What the cremationists were doing was equally outrageous. They too were trying to replace fiction with fact, myth with history, religious hope with scientific certainty. But rather than taking aim at Jesus, they set their sights on the traditional metaphors and narratives of burial. (p.70) Their goal was to unmask Americans' love affair with the cemetery as “false sentimentality.” Consider the popular metaphor of death as sleep. Consider also the narrative that burial is followed first by rest in the coffin, later by bodily resurrection, and finally by the reconstitution of the person as a body-soul unity in heaven or hell. The obvious tension between this popular view—that the corpses of the Christian dead are lying in their graves awaiting Judgment Day—and the equally popular view that the faithful go to heaven immediately at death has never been fully worked out in Christian theology. But the metaphor of death as sleep and the narratives about the transition from life to death to burial to sleep to resurrection to judgment to eternal reward or punishment remained popular, inculcated in hymns, liturgies, Bible classes, and tombstones in the Judeo-Christian West.5

Aware of the power of this metaphor and these narratives, cremationists tried to demythologize both. The grave was not a pleasant place of sleep, they insisted, but a horrid site of ceaseless and gruesome activity. Time spent six feet under was anything but restful. There, change, not stasis, was the rule. Dr. Samuel D. Gross, one of America's most celebrated surgeons, knew in excruciating detail how decay afflicts the corpse. If ordinary Americans could only see exhumed and dissected bodies as medical doctors do, he said, they would recoil at the thought of burial. Or, as another doctor put it:

  • If they would know what the physicians ken
  • And see but once the process of decay,
  • No longer would they “plant” their dead in mud,
  • But would adopt the new and better way.6
Underground change was inevitable, the demythologizers insisted; the body was going to decay. “Shall we deceive ourselves with the idea that rest, eternal rest, for the body here begins?” asked one doctor. “No, not for one instant; never was there greater activity in the tissues of that still corpse than at [the moment of death].” Decomposition, not rest, is the rule of the grave. According to Felix Adler, whose spiritual journey led him from Reform Judaism into a radical alternative known as Ethical Culture, poets who say that the grave promotes rest and sleep are “throwing a false glamour over the hideous reality.” “‘He rests well,’” the critics concluded, “is a hideous mockery.”7

In an effort to assist readers in imagining for themselves the postmortem horrors of the buried corpse, The Urn published gruesome photographs of exhumed bodies in varying states of decay. “Compare with (p.71) these,” it preached, “the pearly Ashes of the cinerary urn!” The literary equivalent of those images was a short piece called “Posthumous Revelations: From the Diary of a Corpse.” Here a fictional diary writer, poor and in a coma, is taken for dead. Although he had told his wife he wanted to be cremated, a domineering aunt intervenes and he is buried—alive. After rattling around in his coffin while being ferried from ceremony to ceremony, he is deposited into an overcrowded metropolitan cemetery, “the second from the top in a tier of six.” Later he hears resurrectionists stealing the corpse from the coffin above him. Worms attack next, boring through his coffin and then his body, mercifully killing him. After years and worms have reduced him to a skeleton, laborers dig him up to make room for a railroad. “Should I ever be reincarnated for another earth life,” his tale concludes, “my arrangements for cremation will be ironclad.”8

Like the testimonials of doctors about the body's postmortem transformations, “Posthumous Revelations” reminded Americans what ancient and medieval Christians had known but many modern Christians, in their determination to defy death, had forgotten: the corpse is a site of decay. Historian Carolyn Walker Bynum has referred to decay as “the fundamental religious and cultural problem.” The traditional Christian resolution to that problem was the bodily resurrection. According to the faithful, this miracle would transform the grave from a site of decay into a site of fertility; out of that hallowed ground would spring a new body fit for heaven. Nineteenth-century cremationists offered a new resolution to the problem. Now postmortem decay would be overcome scientifically, not supernaturally. Through the miracle of modern technology cremation would resolve change into stasis, corruptibility into incorruptibility. Cremationists undermined the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, therefore, not so much by refuting it as by threatening to render it obsolete. It is the soul that is immortal, their rite seemed to say, not the body. The real resurrection occurred at the moment of death, not at the end of time. And what emerged out of the corpse's decay was not a new body but a disembodied spirit.9

Premature Burial

Of all the efforts the cremationists made to demythologize the metaphor of death as sleep and the grave as a site of rest and reawakening, their hammering away at the possibility of premature burial may have been the most horrifying to most Americans. That premature burial was a (p.72) major fear of many Gilded Age Americans is undeniable. Even in the late twentieth century it was not plain to doctors precisely when death occurred; at the end of the nineteenth century things were far murkier. Newspapers regularly featured stories of individuals, given up for dead, waking up from trances just before being lowered underground. And witnesses to exhumations testified repeatedly about finding corpses that had turned on their sides, gouged out their eyes, and even fractured their bones in what one medical encyclopedia termed “desperate struggles for escape.” Many Americans quivered at the prospect that they might be buried prematurely. There is “a widespread fear on this subject,” one citizen testified in 1880. “It is not talked about much, as it is a subject attended with too many horrors for common conversation; but once introduce it, and you will find every one has his or her fears.” In an effort to capitalize on those fears entrepreneurs patented a number of devices designed to permit prematurely buried persons to signal to the living that there was still life in them. There were designs with bells, designs with breathing tubes, designs with alarms—all intended to avert what Poe characterized as “beyond question the most terrific of all extremes which have ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality.” A “Grave-Signal” patented in 1882 for the aptly named inventor Albert Fearnaught raised a rescue flag as soon as the prematurely buried jiggled a hand (which was connected to the flag by a string).10

Premature burial could be avoided by cremation, argued advocates of the practice. Why being burned alive would be preferable to premature burial was not always made plain, but some cremationists attempted to delineate the benefit. Theosophist Franz Hartmann contended in Premature Burial (1896) that being buried alive was far more psychologically gruesome than being prematurely cremated. “At the crematory: not even a breath, no movement, not a conscious thought,” he wrote, “in the grave: the return to consciousness, the terrible effort to escape, the fearful agony of a second death.” Others also described cremation's advantage as psychological. Both the prematurely buried and the prematurely incinerated person would meet horrific ends, but those who awoke six feet under would suffer untold psychological torment for days or weeks, not seconds. Again, cremation was promoted as a quicker alternative.11

Concerns about premature burial likely contributed to cremation's diffusion. But the effect of the premature burial argument should not be measured simply by the number of converts it garnered (Henry Laurens and Baron De Palm among them). More than other Gothic tales of (p.73) burial's horrors, stories of premature burial destabilized popular perceptions of the grave as a place of stasis and rest. Like the cremation movement as a whole, they nudged American popular theology toward new views of body and soul, death and immortality.

A Detestable Abuse

While cremationists busied themselves with spreading tales of premature burial and grave desecrations, burial partisans spoke of religion and the resurrection. Cremationists, in turn, attempted to deflect spiritual concerns entirely. Well aware that any debate about the religious merits of cremation, at least in Gilded Age America, would end in a victory for burial, cremationists insisted ad nauseam that “the whole question of the disposition of the dead … is a sanitary and not a religious one,” “there is no relation between cremation and religion,” “the question belongs to science rather than to theology.”12

Listen only to these assertions and you might come away with the impression that the Gilded Age contest between cremation and burial was an utterly secular battle. America's pioneering cremationists insisted repeatedly that their reform was rooted exclusively in reason, science, utility, and common sense, and on this score they proudly distinguished themselves from their supposedly sentimental and superstitious foes. Still, it is difficult to find pro-cremation works that do not address theological and ritualistic concerns. More often than not, efforts to distance the cremation question from spiritual considerations served as prolegomena to extended discussions of theology and ritual. Many preachers used their rhetorical skills to promote cremation, and cremationists frequently published the names of preachers they had enlisted in their crusade (Episcopalians Phillips Brooks, George Hodges, and Henry Potter; Methodist Howard Henderson; and Unitarians Moncure Conway, Edward Everett Hale, and Jenkin Lloyd Jones, to name just a few). But even the medical experts championing cremation typically had something to say about God and the afterlife. Perhaps against their better judgment, cremationists as a group were religiously preoccupied.

One source of this preoccupation may have been the tendency of burial partisans to cast their arguments in religious terms. While cremationists tried to distance themselves from religious matters, anticremationists appealed to theological, ritualistic, liturgical, and hymnological concerns. To the traditionalists, cremation originated among (p.74) “heathens” and “pagans” and was therefore anti-Christian: it flew in the face of the Christian tradition of burial, it violated scripture, it refused to recognize the sanctity of the body as “the temple of the Holy Ghost,” and it shamelessly ridiculed the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. If the case for cremation was framed largely in sanitary terms, theology was the queen of the burying sciences.

At or near the top of this list of religious concerns was the worry that just as ancient cremation was promoted by “heathen” and “pagan” peoples, the modern cremation movement was led by freethinkers and other radicals who were intent not on reforming ritual but killing religion. This view was articulated most famously by a series of high-ranking Roman Catholic clerics, including Pope Leo XIII, who branded cremation “a detestable abuse.” These Roman Catholic thinkers were convinced, as the editors of the American Catholic Quarterly Review wrote, that “the great army of cremationists in Europe is made up of Atheists and infidels, professed enemies of God and His revelation [who] re-echo the spirit, if not the words, of the Pagan crowds who burnt the martyrs.” In 1886 the Vatican denounced the practice as unchristian and forbade Catholics from joining cremation societies or committing their bodies to be burned. This ruling was endorsed a year later by Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore. James P. Murphy contended in 1901 in “The Cremation Movement is Anti-Catholic” that “the attempt to introduce cremation in our time is primarily and above all things a blow aimed at the Catholic Church by the Freemasons” and other anti-clerical activists. Some critics went further, linking the cremation movement not merely with Freemasons and heathens but with Satan himself. “The Almighty,” a letter to the editor stated, “did not command that his loved ones should be destroyed in the devil's furnace.”13

There was some truth to this slander. It was not the case, as one pro-cremation Freemason proudly claimed, that “the advocates of cremation are generally freethinking foreigners—unbelievers in any kind of religion.” But the more measured observation that “cremation has many warm friends among freemasons” was no doubt true. Freemasonry, which arose in America during the Enlightenment and drank deeply of the eighteenth-century philosophes' emphasis on reason (as opposed to revelation), heavily influenced cremation's radical wing. Both Olcott and De Palm were Freemasons. So was Dr. Hugo Erichsen, an influential early cremationist who would go on to form the Cremation Association of America in 1913. The cremation ranks also included (p.75) a disproportionate number of so-called advanced thinkers—Unitarians, Theosophists, and even a few atheists (such as Orson S. Murray, whom the New York Times described after his 1885 incineration as an infidel who “believed that death ends all”). Moreover, the rhetoric of free thought colored much cremationist writing. Modern Crematist referred to God as “the Great Architect.” The agnostic Robert Ingersoll was quoted liberally in the pro-cremation press, which also printed approvingly the aphorisms of the French materialist dʼHolbach and the English deist Thomas Paine. Three-quarters of a century before the secular theology boom of the 1960s The Urn published an anonymous tract called “The Death of God.”14

Free thought no doubt influenced at least a few radical cremationists. One in that camp responded with Paine-like sarcasm to the filing of a bill outlawing cremation in New York State: “What a free country this is fast becoming! … One set of fanatics tells us what we shall drink; another set forbids the use of tobacco; a third set wants God put in the Constitution when the place to put Him is in our hearts and daily lives; a fourth asks Congress to shut up the World's Fair on Sunday; a fifth would prohibit Sunday newspapers and traveling on the ‘Lord's Day’; and now looms up a spokesman of a sixth set whose aim is to make cremation illegal in a state where population is densest and most rapidly increasing, and where, in consequence, earth burial is most pernicious.” Another freethinking cremationist complained that “conservatism” was forever at war with science and progress. “It persecuted Copernicus, discredited Newton, terrorized Galileo and ridiculed Darwin. It burnt Bruno and Vanini. It poisoned Socrates. It crucified Christ … [and] today is the most potent obstacle” in the way of cremation. As these passages indicate, freethinking cremationists made little effort to hide their disdain for the Catholic Church and, by extension, America's Catholic immigrants. Some cremationists were openly nativistic, grounding their appeals in critiques of the empty rituals of priests and the superstitions of their blind followers. Augustus Cobb, president of the U.S. Cremation Company, exemplified this anti-clerical and antiritualistic position. His Earth-Burial and Cremation (1892), one of the most important early cremationist texts, blasted the Catholic Church as a doer of evil and purveyor of fanaticism, prejudice, superstition, and intolerance. According to Cobb's sacred history, burial was destined to give way to cremation just as surely as the “intellectual anaesthesia” of medieval Catholicism was fated to yield to the scientific knowledge of the Enlightenment.15

(p.76) These anti-Catholic works may have won some church haters to the cause, but they also deepened the suspicions of Catholic leaders that cremationists were at the beck and call of infidels. And they did little to win over Catholic immigrants, who were cast as scapegoats rather than potential recruits. Ironically, Cobb-style anticlericalism also alienated at least one Grand Master of Freemasonry, who rebuffed a request to place the cremated remains of a fraternity brother in his lodge. “A lodge room … is not a graveyard,” he wrote in a letter penned, he noted, on Good Friday. “Burning the body to ashes is considered with us a disgrace, a penalty…. The practice is a relic of heathenism. Freemasonry is divine.”16

The Poetry of the Grave

Religious thinkers—Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish—also rejected cremation on the basis that it would overrun long-standing Jewish and Christian traditions of burial and cemetery visitation. If cremation were to be generally adopted, one Catholic priest claimed, “the poetry of the grave, with its unbroken rest, and all its touching associations, would speedily vanish.” Another Christian argued for burial on ritual grounds. “Cemeteries exert a good influence,” he wrote. “The care of graves, the erection of monuments, the decoration of cemeteries with shrubs and flowers, are all humanizing and refining.” The widespread adoption of cremation would hasten the end of a host of socially beneficial behaviors associated with cemetery visitation. “To visit the graves of our ancestors, near and remote; to perform those kindly offices which keep alive family feeling; to unite the scattered members of households at the grave,” he wrote, “these … are social bonds. They are also moral ties, exerting upon youth an effect not easily overestimated.”17

Some ritually minded traditionalists turned the tables on the cremationists' strategy of demythologization, contending that ashes tucked away in urns were no more secure than interred human remains. One female critic, noting that arsenic was sometimes mistaken for baking powder, wondered what was to prevent ashes kept at home from being mixed with buckwheat flour. “Further,” she asked, “what is to hinder unscrupulous men from robbing a columbarium for the reward that would be offered for the ashes of a millionaire? … How can we know but rude hands would steal the urns, and scatter their contents to the wind?” Another skeptic worried about urns being knocked off mantels and swept into cinder boxes. At least one urban legend also worked to (p.77) destabilize the argument that cremation purified. According to this story, “ashes of a wealthy and highly esteemed white man were mixed with those of a negro” at a New Orleans crematory. Clearly the cremationists were not alone in constructing their arguments on the foundation of the racist prejudices of white elites.18

Ritual criticisms of cremation came from all quarters. A rabbi, vowing that posterity would never judge the Jews “so vile, or so accursed,” promised that “we will not change our resolve to stand by anti-cremationism.” Catholics led the opposition, however, and their shrillest voice was Monseigneur Gaume's. His The Christian Cemetery in the Nineteenth Century: or, The Last War-Cry of the Communists, originally produced in France, was translated into English and published in New York in 1874. The book's working premise was that state entities hell-bent on mandating cremation might seize control of the cemetery from the Church. Gaume portrays the battle between burial and cremation in apocalyptic terms—right against wrong, good against evil, Christianity against infidelity, civilization against barbarism, Jesus against the devil, church against state. Cremationists are “modern pagans” who view the dead body as “but a soulless mass of rubbish” and the cemetery as “a rubbish-heap.” In Gaume's screed the devil himself speaks for the cremationists. “Man must be burnt; for in thus annihilating him as much as possible,” his devil says, “I will wipe out all knowledge of, and belief in, the dogma of the resurrection.” The aim of the Satan's handmaids is nothing less than “the utter extermination of Christianity.”19

Some Protestants also denounced cremation on theological grounds. In fact, it was an Episcopalian bishop, the Reverend Arthur Cleveland Coxe, who earned the title of America's “most violent opposer of cremation.” In “Vulcan, or Mother Earth?” Coxe dismissed cremation as a “craze” as fleeting as the newfangled sports of roller-skating and bicycling. Cremationists, he wrote, were as mentally unbalanced as women's suffrage advocates. Turning the tables on the cremationists' genteel pretensions, Coxe branded cremation an affront to refinement. “To a people whose wives and daughters enjoyed a Roman holiday, enlivened by the butcheries and martyrdoms of the Coliseum, it was not uncongenial,” he argued. But Christianity came as “a softener of manners,” replacing this violent and vulgar practice with a more tender rite. According to Coxe, the cremation movement was promoting nothing less than “chaos and communism” by refusing to attend to the spirit of the deceased. “Mere Materialism is master of the situation in America.”20

(p.78) Congregationalist Henry Ward Beecher, the liberal pastor of Brooklyn's Plymouth Church and one of the nation's most celebrated preachers, lent his reputation to the religious critique of cremation. His 1884 sermon against the practice was all the more worrying to cremationists because Beecher was no conservative. Widely respected as a champion of women's rights, antislavery, and other social reforms, he was just the sort of cleric cremationists hoped to win to their cause. Although Beecher admitted that “there may be sanitary reasons for preferring cremation,” he was convinced they were outweighed by the spiritual benefits of burial. He reminded his congregation of the poetic and liturgical conventions surrounding the grave. He tarred cremation as a “pagan custom.” And he insisted that “reverence for the body afforded a lasting resistance” to burning the corpse.21

More nativistic Protestants, critical of Catholic traditions of reverence for relics of the saints, contended that cremation would promote idolatry: “Should we adopt cremation, how long would we have peaceful and happy families? Would there not soon be wrangling and discontent as to who was to have grandfather's or grandmother's ashes? ʼTwould be but a little while ere each and every family—yes, each and every person—would have their own particular god.” Another opponent wrote, “There is less danger of idolatry where the dead are placed out of sight and the green grass creeps over the mounds, than when they are kept ever convenient for bowed adoration.”22

The Resurrection of the Body

Both Protestants and Catholics also condemned cremation on scriptural grounds. Some tried to find commandments to bury both in Jesus' words (Matthew 8:22: “let the dead bury their dead”) and in the Hebrew Bible (“thou shalt surely bury him” [Deuteronomy 21:23]). But most admitted there was no definitive “Thus saith the Lord” on the burial versus cremation question. Nonetheless, there were scriptural grounds for opposing cremation.

Traditionalists argued that the Old Testament regarded burial as normative. The Hebrew patriarchs bury their dead, and God praises them for it. The last commandment of Jacob to his sons is that he should be buried in Canaan. Only in exceptional cases (war, plague, or the death of a criminal) is cremation performed. In the book of Amos, moreover, God condemns Moab to death because he cremated the king of Edom (Amos 2:1–3). In the New Testament, Paul describes the body as a (p.79) “temple of the Holy Ghost” (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16). Those who prepare Jesus' body for burial are praised (Matthew 26:12 and John 19:38–42). Finally, Christian traditionalists noted that Jesus was buried instead of burned. If burial was good enough for Jesus, they reasoned, it should be good enough for you.

Of all the religiously based arguments against cremation, the most popular concerned the bodily resurrection. This objection was framed best by the Reverend Wordsworth, bishop of Lincoln, England. Recalling Julian the Apostate, who pointed to the pious practice of burial as a key factor in the spread of Christendom, Wordsworth argued from the pulpit of Westminster Abbey in 1874 that one of the “first fruits” of cremation “would be to undermine the faith of mankind in the doctrine of the resurrection of the body.” On the other side of the Atlantic, Episcopalian Bishop William Bacon Stevens said cremation amounted to a covert effort by unbelievers “to discredit and undermine the doctrine of the resurrection, and throw us back on that old Saduceeism which says ‘there is no resurrection,’ and which, if it prevails, would break down the whole system of the Christian religion.” But how exactly would cremation undermine resurrection piety? Few traditionalists actually believed what one source attributed to them, namely, “that a body returned to ashes … cannot be raised at the call of Judgment Day.” It would, after all, be blasphemy to state that an omnipotent God could not resurrect a cremated corpse. And most traditionalists freely admitted that scripture did not command burial.23

Resurrection-based objections to cremation were rooted instead in subtler concerns. Cremation was wrong, critics argued, because cremationists were motivated by “blasphemous intent.” Like the persecutors of the early church, cremationists promoted their cause in order “to show that they could conquer God and destroy the resurrection of the bodies, saying, now let us see if they will rise.” Opponents were no doubt also concerned that cremation would render less convincing the popular beliefs, behaviors, attitudes, and metaphors that created and sustained the credibility of the resurrection of the body—belief in the self as an amalgamation of body and soul, fear of hellfire, prayers for the dead, cemetery visitation, and the metaphors of death as sleep and body as temple. The widespread practice of cremation, they thought, might supplant the Jewish and Christian belief in the resurrection of the body with the Greek (and gnostic) belief in the immortality of the soul.24

According to the American Catholic Quarterly Review, Christianity had affirmed for centuries “that the body is an essential part of the (p.80) man.” Unfortunately, “unphilosophic Protestantism” had wrongly convinced itself that the human being was predominantly, perhaps entirely, made of soul. Forgetting that the body was the means through which God conveyed grace to the soul, Protestants radically de-ritualized Christianity, rejecting five of the seven sacraments. (Baptism and the Lord's Supper survived.) As part of a broader effort “to establish a purely spiritual system of religion for beings who have a mixed nature, a physical body as well as an immaterial soul connected with it,” Protestants ignored the body and shunned the corpse. Gradually, they began to think of the afterlife in terms of the immortality of the soul rather than the resurrection of the body. But both scripture and natural law protested against this spiritualization of self and afterlife. “The whole man, not merely a part of him, is destined for eternity,” this journal insisted, since “man is not complete without his body, either in this life or in the next.” It was no coincidence that the modern revival of cremation was “due to pantheists, materialists and other unbelievers in the resurrection of the flesh.”25

Although the American Catholic Quarterly Review was not as obsessed as France's Mgr. Gaume with the encroachment of legislative fiat on funerary rites and the cemetery, it was concerned “that the day will come when cremation will be forced upon unwilling peoples by law.” Above all else, American Catholic leaders feared that in the United States, as in the France of Gaume's imagining, civil authorities would insist on desecrating consecrated burial grounds by interring or scattering cremated remains in them. What was at stake, therefore, was not only theology but authority. Who controls the bodies of the dead? The answer, at least from the Catholic camp, was unequivocal: “The Church claims the corpse.” “It has once been a holy tabernacle of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. She orders the civil power away from the bier and the graveyard. The funeral and requiem mass are hers. Her jurisdiction over them is supreme.” Burial of the dead was not merely a sacred obligation. It was a God-given right.26

Liberals and Radicals

Cremationists responded to Christian criticisms in two ways. One group, the radicals, dismissed their opponents' spiritual concerns as superstitious and unreasonable, while a second group, the liberals, eagerly joined the theological debate, trading Bible verse for Bible verse. Of these two groups, the liberal cremationists predominated. Although the (p.81) cremation movement attracted religious radicals, most cremationists appear to have been committed Christians, and the bulk of the rest adhered to alternative religious traditions such as Swedenborgianism, Spiritualism, Buddhism, and/or Theosophy, rather than to no religion at all. The accusation that the cremation movement was run by infidels was false. The debate between cremation and burial was largely an intra-Christian affair. And it was by no means a secular one.27

Radical and liberal cremationists dealt very differently with the claim that their movement was dominated by Freemasons and freethinkers. Radicals responded to this charge with a mixture of bravado and anticlericalism. Hugo Erichsen (who would later liberalize his stance) freely acknowledged early in his cremationist career that he was a Mason, and he brashly termed Pope Leo XIII's claim that cremation and Freemasonry were in cahoots “a great compliment.” Liberals took a different tack. Instead of criticizing Catholicism or Christianity, they contended that cremation was, in the words of the Right Reverend William Lawrence, Episcopal bishop of Massachusetts, fully “in harmony with Christian principles.” The cremation movement, they added, was not the result of “the versatile brain of the crank, neither the progeny of free-thought ideas, or Spiritualism, or of infidelity.”28

Liberal and radical cremationists also responded differently to charges that cremation was a heathen rite. Both camps contended that virtually everything that antedated Christianity originated in heathenism. If modern Americans were to reject cremation because of its heathen roots, they would “have to quit eating with knives and forks, stop wearing boots and pantaloons, and do away with surcoats and rings.” Even the coffin and burial itself, they said, originated among heathens. John Storer Cobb, president of the New England Cremation Society and a leading Theosophist, argued that to refuse cremation on these grounds was as foolish as for heathens to shun the phonograph because it is Christian. What man in his right mind would practice polygamy just because Herbert Spencer professed monogamy?29

So far liberals and radicals agreed. But while liberals felt superior to the heathens, radicals praised them as equals (or superiors). According to the radicals, the “Indian mind” was “deeply tinged with religious and philosophic thought”; Rome and Greece were “the most cultured nations of antiquity.” From this perspective, cremation's associations with India, Greece, and Rome were accounted as a credit rather than a debit. Or, as one radical succinctly put it, “The heathen were wiser than we.”30

(p.82) Liberal cremationists further distinguished themselves from radicals by referring in their arguments at least as much to the Bible as to reason. Some tried to argue that the Bible prescribed cremation by contending that the early Christians cremated their dead or that Jesus disparaged burial, but a more common strategy was to say that scripture mandated no method of disposition of the dead. Regarding the Old Testament, liberal cremationists said that while the Israelites buried in most cases, they practiced cremation in at least a few. Moreover, cremation in the Hebrew Bible was reserved for kings and dignitaries and was practiced as a mark of respect. For example, Saul, the king of Israel, was cremated (1 Samuel 31:12). Cremation also supposedly received at least indirect support in the New Testament—for example, when Paul wrote “and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity: it profiteth me nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3). Regarding the claim that cremation represented a desecration of the “temple of the Holy Ghost,” liberal cremationists posed a rhetorical question. Which method is more of a desecration: giving the body up to the purifying fire or consigning it to pollution underground? Finally, liberals noted that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not buried but sepulchred. And Jesus was entombed. Moreover, had Jesus not declared, God “is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22:32; Mark 12:27; and Luke 20:38)?

Far more than radicals, liberals were genuinely concerned about the potential demise of liturgical, poetic, and Biblical references to death as sleep and the cemetery as a place of rest. They suggested, however, that cremation would quickly gather its own tender associations, both scriptural and natural. Moses communing with God in the pillar of fire, Elijah's chariot of fire, the tongues of flame of the Pentecost, the germinating warmth of the sun—all were potential resources for these new associations. According to the liberals, soon the words of Tennyson:

  • And from his ashes may be made
  • The violet of his native land
and the lyrical lines of Pope:
  • And heaven that every virtue bears in mind,
  • Eʼen to the ashes of the just is kind
would be known and beloved by cremationists across America. And new rituals would no doubt arise, making sense once again of ancient liturgical formulations such as “Peace to his ashes” and “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Resurrection and the Resurrectionists

PLATE 1. “Tolkotin Cremation,” in J. W. Powell's First Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, 1879–80 (1881). Long before the first modern American cremation in 1876 many Native American groups practiced cremation. This lithograph depicts an open-air cremation among the Tolkotins of Oregon.

Resurrection and the Resurrectionists

PLATE 2. Henry Laurens by John Singleton Copley, oil on canvas painted in 1782. Laurens (1724–1792), a one-time president of the Continental Congress, was cremated in the open air on his South Carolina estate long before the U.S. cremation debate began. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Resurrection and the Resurrectionists

PLATE 3. Sir Henry Thompson, surgeon to Queen Victoria and England's foremost advocate of cremation, as depicted in 1874 in the British weekly Vanity Fair. Thompson's groundbreaking essay, “Cremation: The Treatment of the Body after Death” (1874), was a core text in the American cremation movement.

Resurrection and the Resurrectionists

PLATE 4. “Cremation—the Ancient Grecian Method of Burning the Dead,” Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (1874). Early cremationists distinguished sharply between “primitive” cremation in India, Rome, and Greece and “scientific” cremation in modern America. In indoor crematory rites, one advocate noted, there was “none of that horror of roasting human flesh and bursting entrails which makes one shudder at an open-air pyre-burning.”

Resurrection and the Resurrectionists

PLATE 5. The birthplace of modern American cremation. This lithograph depicts the country's first crematory and its owner, Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne. The landscape at the top is a view of Washington, Pennsylvania, from “Cremation Hill.” Critics derided both the reception room on the left and the furnace room on the right as “loathsomely cheap and plain.” Even supporters admitted the facility was “as unaesthetic as a bakeoven.” Courtesy of Washington County Historical Society, Washington, Pennsylvania.

Resurrection and the ResurrectionistsResurrection and the Resurrectionists

PLATES 6A AND 6B. America's first modern cremation took place on December 6, 1876, at the private crematory of Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne in Washington, Pennsylvania. These woodcuts, both from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (1876), depict the man whose corpse was cremated, Baron Joseph Henry Louis Charles De Palm, and the day's events at the crematory.

Resurrection and the Resurrectionists

PLATE 7. Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907), who organized the first cremation in modern America, typified some early cremationists in his interest in Asian religions. A cofounder, with Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, of the Theosophical Society, he moved to India in the winter of 1878–79 and formally converted to Buddhism in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1880. In this Harper's Weekly woodcut from March 5, 1887, he is standing in the center of the back row, surrounded by a variety of Indian religionists.

Resurrection and the Resurrectionists

PLATE 8. Dr. Samuel D. Gross, one of the country's most distinguished surgeons, gave cremation a boost when he had his corpse cremated in 1884. “A man who spends much of his time in the dissecting-room, and looks at the horrible features of the putrefying bodies as they lie before him upon the tables,” wrote Gross, “is not likely to hesitate between burial and cremation.” Courtesy of Countway Medical Library, Harvard Library, Boston, Massachusetts.

Resurrection and the Resurrectionists

PLATE 9. “A ‘Bogus’ Cremation for the Benefit of the ‘Life-Long Democrats’” by Joseph Keppler, Puck, November 18, 1885. By the 1880s cremation was a familiar enough topic for parody. Here Puck magazine tells its readers that the Democrats are a bit premature in celebrating the death of the Mugwumps, the public moralists of the Gilded Age.

Resurrection and the Resurrectionists

PLATE 10. Gilded Age cremationists published three pro-cremation periodicals: Modern Crematist, The Columbarium, and The Urn. This August 25, 1892, cover of The Urn features an image of the U.S. Cremation Company's elegant columbarium and crematory at Fresh Pond, New York.

Resurrection and the ResurrectionistsResurrection and the Resurrectionists

PLATES 11A AND 11B. Postcards of Earl Chapel and Crematory in Oakwood Cemetery, Troy, New York. Built by William S. Earl in memory of his son, this was the most extravagant crematory in the United States at its opening in 1890. In addition to five Tiffany stained glass windows, it boasted an elaborate mosaic floor, an onyx altar, carved bronze doors, and a marvelous view of the Hudson River.

Resurrection and the Resurrectionists

PLATE 12. The San Francisco Columbarium. Thanks in large measure to its grand neoclassical columbarium, built in 1898, the Odd Fellows' crematory (established in 1895) became the busiest crematory in the country in the first decade of the twentieth century. The city banned cremations in 1910, but the San Francisco Columbarium, as the facility is now called, lived on. Courtesy Neptune Society of Northern California.

Resurrection and the Resurrectionists

PLATE 13. Bigelow Chapel, Mount Auburn Cemetery. Rather than resisting cremation, cemetery managers embraced it, giving rise in the early twentieth century to the American model of the cemetery-based crematory. Mount Auburn, the country's foremost rural cemetery, helped legitimize cremation when it built a crematory in 1900. This photograph shows Mount Auburn's Bigelow Chapel as it appeared in 1970, shortly after the new crematory entrance on the left was built. Courtesy of Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Resurrection and the Resurrectionists

PLATE 14. “Do You Understand about Creamenation” by the Reverend Howard Finster. Here Finster, an outsider artist whose illustrations have been used on the cover of Time magazine and on an album cover for the rock band R.E.M., explains his support for cremation: “GOD WOULD NOT LET JESUS SEE CORUPTION GOD WOULD NOT LET JESUS ROT IN HIS GRAVE AND ‘STINK’ AS CARION GOD RAISED HIM FROM THE GRAVE AND LIKE JESUS DIDNT SEE ANY CORUPTION I WANTO BE LIKE JESUS FREE FROM CORUPTION. TAKE MY BODY WHEN I DIE. CREAMANATE IT INTO CLEAN ASHES.”

Resurrection and the Resurrectionists

PLATES 15A AND 15B. In the 1990s advertisements for cremation products and services stressed individual choice. Here an ad for the Batesville Casket Company reads, “Opting for cremation shouldn't limit anyone's options.” Ad copy for the Aurora Casket Company says, “Cremation. It's all a matter of preference.”

Resurrection and the Resurrectionists

PLATE 16. Funeral directors began to make peace with cremation as the millennium drew to a close. In July 1995 The Director, the official organ of the National Funeral Directors Association, put the topic on its cover.

Resurrection and the Resurrectionists

PLATE 17. Manufacturers capitalized on a trend toward the personalization of cremation rites by making urns in all shapes and sizes. This golf bag urn, available through Kelco Supply Company, was designed to appeal to golfing enthusiasts.

(p.83) Immortality of the Soul

Liberal and radical cremationists were also divided on the resurrection of the body. Most radicals rejected any notion of the afterlife, and some ridiculed the doctrine of the bodily resurrection. Recalling ancient objections to what has been called the particle theory of the bodily resurrection (in which God at the end of time gathers and then reassembles the parts that had once constituted a body), one skeptic urged readers to think of Union soldiers arising from unmarked graves in the South and finding a new battle on their hands. “There will be a merry row on resurrection day,” he mused, “particularly if old animosities should be revived, over the ownership of those bones in which two or more persons have held a life interest.” Another satirist quoted a pro-resurrection poem to demonstrate to the readers of the World the “aesthetic monstrosities” of materialistic views of the resurrection:

  • Through the echoing sky
  • Fragments of bodies in confusion fly
  • The heads move on to meet
  • The distant necks, the distant legs the feet.31

Liberals crafted two very different responses to the resurrection question. The first went like this: Assuming that the doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh is true, the fate of that flesh is substantially equivalent in burial and in cremation. “In cremation and ordinary burial the ultimate result is the same,” an advocate said. “In one it is rapid, in the other slow, combustion.” At the end of times God will be confronted with substantially the same material in both the grave and the urn. And He will not be frustrated in His efforts to transform the remains of both the buried and the cremated into new “spiritual bodies” fit for eternal life. A Mormon cremationist put the matter concisely: “The same power that can call forth from the tomb a body that has decayed and gone to dust can quicken the dried ashes and draw from the elements the gases that have been dispersed by the flames of the crematory…. Belief in the resurrection implies belief in God, and with him all things are possible.”32

This pro-cremation, pro-resurrection faith is best illustrated in a piece called “The Resurrection of a Cremationist: Revelation XXI, 27.” Here a Christian author imagines what it will be like for his ashes to answer Gabriel's trumpet blast. As the earth's convulsions spill the author's remains out of a columbarium urn and a wild storm agitates the atmosphere, “a million human bones are drawn up into the vortex of the cyclone and madly whirled through space, together with the human (p.84) ashes, onward, upward.” Then, “as the Scriptures predict,” both ashes and bones are miraculously transformed into “bodies, airy and luminous, not of the heavy earthly type” and ushered toward the “New Jerusalem.” At heaven's gate, a man with an urn is told heaven is not open to those who have chosen cremation. But saints whose bodies were burned at the stake protest, asking: “Shall we also be deprived of our rightful and promised inheritance?” After conferring with St. Peter, St. Paul proclaims, “Whosoever has the resurrection body, that spiritual body of which I preached, be it from bones or ashes, unto him the ritual is no law. You may enter the gates and take this man with the urn along.” The point? Describing cremation as a stumbling block to the resurrection was a sacrilege tantamount to challenging the omnipotence of God. Or, as Lord Shaftesbury of England put it in one of the most frequently quoted passages in U.S. cremationist literature, “If burning the body interfered with the resurrection, what would become of the blessed martyrs?”33

A larger (and more successful) contingent of liberal cremationists conceded that cremation was “at variance” with the old theology of “the literal resurrection of the actual particles buried.” But this contingent did not give up entirely on resurrection belief. Citing Paul's claim that the dead will be raised not in their “physical” but in their “spiritual” bodies and his insistence “that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 15:50), they offered a more spiritual interpretation of the resurrection. In the process they revisited ancient debates about, among other things, the relationship between spirit and matter, the nature of the body, and the possibility of the perseverance of personal identity into the afterlife. Though in many respects these views echoed the early theology of Augustine, who affirmed the immortality of the soul but denied the resurrection of the material body, they also provided good reasons for outraged Catholic critics to brand cremationists as heretics—revivers not only of pagan death rites but of the early Christian heresy of docetism (a view that posited a stark dualism between spirit and matter and argued that Jesus merely seemed to incarnate in human form).34

In his first letter to the Corinthians (just after his description of the dead body as seed sown for a future harvest) Paul wrote of the resurrection of the dead: “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body…. I tell you this, brethren: flesh and flood cannot inherit (p.85) the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the perishable” (1 Corinthians 15:42–44, 50). These words, even if divinely inspired, hardly settle the matter. Tantalizingly enigmatic, they have inspired over the centuries a wide range of interpretations. What, after all, is a “spiritual body”? Is it, as those influenced by the Jewish tradition have asserted, a glorified soul-body amalgamation, a restored psychosomatic person? Or is it, as those influenced by the Greeks have claimed, a spiritual person—soul-only?

Most cremationists insisted on the latter reading. One liberal argued that “nobody now believes in the resurrection from the grave of the very matter, the gross flesh and bones of the body…. There is a spiritual body as well as a natural body. It is that spiritual body which shapes and molds the atoms of the natural body, and thus preserves our personal identity in this life. That spiritual body will come up out of the grave. We will know it is our body. Those who knew us on the earth will recognize us. And yet we will be free from all the grossness of matter.” By so thoroughly spiritualizing the resurrection, cremationists inclined perilously in the direction of a modified docetism. While ancient docetists had been branded heretics for their conviction that Jesus only seemed to have a body, these cremationists implied that the bodies of ordinary humans, too, were more apparent than real. Or, to be more precise, just as ancient docetists saw Jesus' corporeality as inessential to his true self, these modern docetists saw the body as inessential to the real human being. The material body, one wrote, “is mine, not ME.” Another added, “the spirit is the man.” In this way cremationists turned the tables on Bishop Coxe, who had argued that the cremation movement provided yet more evidence for the fact that materialism was ruining America. “To fasten our affections on the bodies of our dear ones is ‘carnal-mindedness,’” they insisted. “To fix them on the spiritual immortal self is alone Christian, and alone rational.”35

Religious Materialism

Literary critic Harold Bloom contended in the early 1990s that the late-twentieth-century United States was “post-Christian” but thoroughly religious. American religion was Hellenistic religion, Bloom said. Americans did not know it, but they were taking their religious cues from an idiosyncratic palate of Greek sources, including Orphism and gnosticism. While other interpreters saw American religion as a tug-of-war between Christianity and the Enlightenment, Bloom saw the combatants as (p.86) the Christians and the Greeks. And the Greeks, he said, were winning. Gradually Americans were ceasing to see themselves in traditional Jewish and Christian terms—as a messy mix of body and soul. Some secular humanists, admittedly, were seeing themselves as matter-only. But many more were constructing a Greek conception of the self—as immortal soul. If Bloom was correct, then the liberal cremationists were in the vanguard of this new American spirituality.36

Cremationists spoke out repeatedly against “making too much of the body.” Consider, for example, the views of the Reverend George Hodges, an Episcopalian minister, dean of the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a quintessential liberal cremationist. “The body which is put in the grave will never come out again,” Hodges stated in an 1895 address to the New England Cremation Society. “The body is laid away in the earth and that is the end of it.” So far Hodges sounded like the freethinking Ingersoll. What saved him from charges of agnosticism, however, was his certainty that the dead would rise spiritually. “When the soul leaves the body it leaves it forever,” he explained. There was not to be any heavenly reunion of body and soul. For Hodges, Paul's “spiritual body” meant, in effect, the immortal soul. Why, Hodges asked, would any good Christian prefer burial over cremation? Burial focuses attention on the inessential body. “But personality is not in the body, it is in the soul,” he said. In order to “get rid of this subtle materialistic temptation” to focus unduly on the body, we should cremate the dead. Cremation “agrees with the right idea of the resurrection of the body and it symbolizes the supremacy of the soul,” Hodges concluded. “Cremation used to be called Pagan; but what can be more Christian?”37

On this point liberal cremationists again brought to the bar the words of an English cleric, this time the bishop of Manchester, who had concluded that “no intelligent faith can suppose that any Christian doctrine is affected by the manner in which or the time in which this mortal body of ours crumbles into dust…. Christians should in mind dissociate the resurrection from all physical conditions.” U.S. cremation advocates offered variations on this line of reasoning. Felix Adler wrote that “immortality for us cannot mean physical immortality.” “If those whom we call the dead still live,” he explained, “they do not live in the grave.” To believe otherwise was to lapse into what one termed “religious materialism.”38

Augustus Cobb pushed to the extremes the liberal critique of resurrection literalism. “It seems strange that in an enlightened age the (p.87) cast-off emblem of mortality should be associated with a future spiritual state,” he wrote, “for the blending of the material with the spiritual, by merging into a heavenly body the physical attributes of an earthly one, betray a gross conception of immortality and is worthy only of a savage race.” This passage illustrates once again the preoccupation of Gilded Age cremationists with purity and pollution—a preoccupation that can only be understood as both spiritual and sanitary, both religious and ritualistic. What was “gross” about the traditional Jewish and Christian conception of the afterlife was that it mixed categories (body and soul) that should not be mixed. Whether they were talking about polluted chips from the iron cradle mixing with the pure ashes of the dead, “unwashed” immigrants mingling with the “washed” middle class, Union corpses cohabiting with Confederate corpses, the corrupt body entangling itself with the incorruptible soul, or the dead cavorting with the living, Gilded Age cremationists were deeply concerned about purity and pollution. “Purity is the best good,” claimed one ardent cremationist, “and Fire is the purest of mundane things.”39

Theosophists and Spiritualists

This spiritual perspective on the resurrection and the self was also held by some cremationists who were quite radical religiously. Theosophist Henry Olcott, for example, testified that he was “too firm a believer in the immortality of the soul, to view with patience the inconsistency of those who behave over the dead bodies of their friends as if the immortal part were being laid away in the ground.” Other Theosophists as well as a number of Spiritualists pressed beyond Olcott by reviving the ancient Greek and Hindu conviction—a conviction Roman Catholic thinkers were quick to label superstitious—that cremation was in some sense spiritually efficacious. By burning away the corrupt body, they believed, cremation purified and released the soul. And by quickly freeing the soul from earthly restraints, cremation sped the true self on to its otherworldly journeys, or perhaps to a this-worldly reincarnation. For all of these thinkers cremation was a key rite of passage from this world to the next: “a last baptism by incandescent heat, a purification by fire, whereby the corrupt takes on incorruption.” Like baptism, in which Christians took off sin and put on righteousness, cremation substituted the material cloak of the body for the spiritual garments of immortality.40

Some of the most intriguing arguments on this point came not from Theosophists or Spiritualists but from disembodied spirits of the dead (p.88) conjured up at seances. One spirit quoted in Banner of Light, a Spiritualist publication from Boston, contended that cremation sped up the postmortem process of freeing the essential self, the spirit, from the inessential and polluting body: “Whatever tends to separate the particles and atoms of the physical, and to hasten the disintegration of the organic structure, such as the process of cremation will do, only assists in the work of more speedily releasing the spirit from its irksome contact with senseless clay.” By this logic embalming was spiritually dangerous, since according to Alcyone, a Spiritualist journal from Springfield, Massachusetts, “all processes which arrest the disintegration of particles composing the body hinder, in a measure, the complete withdrawal of the finer properties which are made use of by the spirit.” Theosophists advanced similar pro-cremation arguments, albeit in occult language. “It is a convenient and expeditious way of letting loose the astral body,” contended one, who admitted that she was attracted to rather than repelled by the fact that Hindus practiced the rite.41

Of course, not all Theosophists and Spiritualists favored cremation. Some claimed that fire pained the spirit, while others thought the spirit learned invaluable lessons from the body in the three days between death and the moment of its liberation. There was good evidence, however, both for the claim that “spiritualists, as a class, endorse cremation” and for the boast that “theosophists everywhere are at one with us in the dogma of terrestrial purification by fire.” Both groups saw the liberation of the spirit from the body as the true resurrection.42

In summary, cremationists took up three discernible positions on the doctrine of the bodily resurrection. Radicals said no to the resurrection and, in rare cases, to spirituality itself; more traditional Christians in the liberal ranks affirmed the bodily resurrection; while most liberals hoped only for the immortality of the soul. The cremationists clearly attempted to demythologize traditional Christian responses to death. If they had stopped there, they might rightly have been labeled secularizers. But they did not. Accompanying their demythologization of Christian stories and images was a new portfolio of myths, symbols, and rites. The slowly unfolding drama of the sleeping corpse awaiting its resurrection was roundly rejected by most. But in its place came the fast-paced drama of the fiery separation of pure soul from impure body and the freeing of that soul from earthly restraints. Cremation, wrote one theologically minded doctor, represented nothing less than the “spiritualization of the body.”43

(p.89) Omit the Flowers: Funeral Reform

Around the time of the birth of modern American cremation, a movement for funeral reform arose. Though not as far reaching as the sanitary crusade, it too gave cremation a boost. According to funeral reformers, Gilded Age obsequies had become “vulgar, unbecoming, ostentatious.” “It costs more to die than to live,” one complained. Americans ought to reject, therefore, “the costly casket, the hired conveyances … the expensive tombstone … the showy mourner.”44

The impulse to simplify death rites had been around since colonial times. In 1721, 1724, and 1742 the Massachusetts Puritans passed legislation outlawing “Extraordinary Expense at Funerals,” and in 1737 a letter in the Boston Post decried funeral extravagances as “pernicious and (to many) ruinating.”45 But not until the end of the nineteenth century did this impulse produce voluntary associations specifically devoted to the cause. Spearheaded by an odd coalition of Protestant ministers and cemetery managers, the funeral reform movement agitated for simpler death rites. In a few cases—for example, the Lancaster Cremation and Funeral Reform Society (established 1884)—the movements for cremation and funeral reform came together into one association. But more often they were less officially allied.

Like all social reforms, funeral reform began with a complaint—namely, that funerals had become both costly and vulgar. Undertakers had first banded together in 1882 to form the Funeral Directors' National Association of the United States (later renamed the National Funeral Directors Association, or NFDA), and their subsequent efforts at professionalization were quickly rewarded. To the delight of the nation's first generation of death professionals, social pressures stimulated strong demand for fancy caskets, hearse rentals, door crapes, floral set pieces, mourning garments, and embalming. Funerals too became more elaborate. Whereas early Puritan funerals had incorporated neither singing nor sermonizing and were often finished in a matter of minutes, Victorian funerals typically included lengthy homilies and a variety of prayers, hymns, and scripture readings. It was not uncommon for services to stretch beyond an hour.

Funeral reformers were not able to do much about funeral extravagance, but they did bring to the American funeral a new spirit of good cheer. In the late 1880s the gloomy spirit of the seventeenth-century bestseller, Michael Wiggleworth's Day of Doom, had been largely uprooted. Threats of hell had given way to promises of heaven. Nowhere (p.90) was this new optimism more apparent than in the flower vogue of the 1880s and 1890s. Black remained the appropriate color for mourning, but reds, yellows, blues, and oranges now flooded the funeral with gaiety. The coming out party for this new style was the famous “flower funeral” of the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher in 1887. Certain that death was a promotion, as Beecher had affirmed, followers adorned his front door with a floral basket rather than the traditional black crape, and his church, too, was laden with flowers. Soon flowers were a funerary rage. Funeral parlors, churches, and homes across the country were weighed down at death with extravagant floral set pieces shaped like wreaths, crosses, anchors, harps, lambs, and broken columns. One favorite decoration, called Faith, Hope, and Charity, incorporated an anchor, a cross, and a heart in tribute to the deceased and to the new spirit of sweetness and light. In these ways the Victorians ushered in a new era in American ritualization—an era rich in pomp, circumstance, and good cheer that would last until the 1960s.

While funeral reformers applauded this cult of cheerfulness, they blasted costly indulgences (including overwrought bouquets) and their unscrupulous purveyors. Some even tarred the new Victorian funeral with the taint of “heathenism,” denouncing hired mourners as an extravagance borrowed from Egypt and floral excesses as pagan. It was time, these genteel elites decided, to lead the masses back to good taste.

One way to make funerals both more simple and more affordable, the funeral reformers argued, was to make them more private. Like the floral arrangements that adorned them, Victorian funerals had become elaborate set pieces, theatrical productions staged for public effect rather than private grieving. The spectacle of the funeral was more dreaded by some families than death itself. “The entire system of public funerals is wrong,” complained an advocate of family-only funerals. “It is even more indelicate than it would be to call into one's home a host of one's friends to witness a birth.” One additional advantage of private interments was sanitary rather than ritualistic: They would expose fewer mourners to the health hazards of standing around an open grave in inclement weather. Perhaps the most florid critique of the Victorian funeral as public pageant, the following passage makes the Gilded Age case for the privatization of death rites. It merits quoting at some length:

Public funerals, with their show of funeral paraphernalia, with their gathering in of curious, long-visaged, solemn people; with their wordy clergymen; with their doleful singers; with their crape decked pall bearers; with their (p.91) public procession from the chamber of mourning to the carriages in waiting; with their solemn journey to the church; with more heart rending words from the minister and more dole-begetting music; with more parading up and down the aisles of the church; with the slow journey to the burial ground; with another parade of the mourners about the open grave; with more saddening words from the men whose office is to comfort and not to torture the soul; with that barbarous, dreadful, blood curdling, outrageous rattle of gravel upon the coffin lid, to the atrocious accompaniment of “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” that is an almost invariable portion of the horrid ceremonial at the grave; with the conventional standing of the mourners about the pit while the diggers shovel back the earth over the form of the one just laid away; with all this empty, useless, cruel and damnable ceremonial; public funerals are simply schemes of human torture, and the sooner the whole system is abolished the better.46

Prominent in the funeral reform movement were Unitarians, who since their genesis in the late 1700s had distinguished themselves not only from Catholics but also from other Protestants by their utter disdain for ritual. The Unitarian minister Jenkin Lloyd Jones of Chicago's All Soul's Church called burial a menace to public health and to the “spiritual well-being of the community.” Convinced that—at least in death rites—less was more, he too urged parishioners to exorcize vulgarity from the funeral:

Let not the sacred privacy of life be disturbed in death; let there be a quiet, tender memorial half hour at home, where the family and their nearest friends will gather to listen to a few chosen selections from deathless writings, a breathing of sympathy and aspiration, a word of commemoration for the dead and of companionship with the living. There may be flowers, a few, if brought by loving hands and arranged in the simple, wholesome way of the home. Singing? Yes, if the dear, familiar things are sung by loving and familiar voices. No, if it means the professional quartet hired for the occasion…. After this memorial half hour let the friends take loving leave, and go to their homes, leaving the bereaved with their dead. At another hour, sufficiently removed to effectually break up the temptation to stay and see, let the undertaker and necessary friends come and take the body away. Why should the family, in their overstrained condition, expose themselves to the profitless ride to the cemetery and prolong the added strain of the unsatisfactory leave-taking? But, if they go, will the minister go along? Shall we try to have another service at the grave? … I frankly urge the abandonment of the practice. It is so great an outlay of strength, time, and money for such poor results.47

Episcopalians were also prominent in funeral reform. After a two-year study of the funeral, Episcopalians from New York recommended a simplified and economized form: “plain hearses, no trappings indicating (p.92) grief, none but a few cut flowers, none but immediate members of the family to go to the cemetery, no expenditure of money by clubs or societies, the use of material for the coffin which will decay quickly, early interment, disuse of family vaults, removal of body to a mortuary instead of retaining it in rooms occupied by the living, … the substitution of a simple garb of muslin or linen in dressing the dead, … use of churches for funeral services instead of homes, and burial where a grave can be had for $4.”48

Finally, Reform Jews weighed in for simplicity and economy. At a paper read before the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Rabbi Joseph Stolz of Chicago decried “the needless expensiveness, the indecent display, the bootless waste at our modern funerals.” After tracing the modern critique of funeral excesses to Biblical times, he suggested forgoing the cemetery committal service. Even the funeral service at the home or synagogue should be quick, simple, and rational. A funeral sermon of more than fifteen or twenty minutes was, in his words, “a torture and a cruelty.” Extravagant floral decorations were in “bad taste.”49

As this passage indicates, ritual arguments against the Victorian funeral often segued into economic and social analysis. More money was spent each year in the United States on funerals, it was argued, than on public education. Moreover, those who could afford the costly trappings typically did not indulge in them. The poor felt most acutely the social pressures to buy garish paraphernalia, and they suffered disproportionately as a result. It was not uncommon for poor families who had just lost their breadwinners to spend the family fortune and go into debt in order to pay for a “proper” funeral. The typical Victorian funeral benefited no one except the undertaker and the liveryman, critics claimed. For economic and social as well as ritualistic reasons it was time to do away with all the “costly paraphernalia of woe.”50

But not everyone was ready to give up on the Victorian funeral, and not all funeral reformers became cremationists. In a front-page article and an accompanying editorial (each called “Facts about Funerals”) the Pilot, a Boston-based Catholic paper, applauded the optimistic turn in death rites but denounced funeral extravagances, especially among the poor. Its editors suggested, however, that “it may be that handsome hearses, coffins, and other such things dissipate in part the gloom associated with death.” The front-page article listed the wholesale and retail charges of undertakers. After conceding that undertakers made “large profits,” the paper concluded that those profits were justified.51

(p.93) Dueling Metaphors

The struggle between cremation and burial, like the Gilded Age war between science and religion, was largely a battle of metaphors. It was as if both sides knew that logical arguments alone would not carry the day, that the matter of the disposition of the dead was too important to be decided on the basis of reason or utility alone. Admittedly, both sides debated doctrines such as the bodily resurrection, but opinions turned not so much on doctrine as on what comparative religionist Bruce Lincoln has called “sentiments of affinity.” Cremationists frequently derided their opponents as sentimentalists, but both sides tugged at the heartstrings of the American public. The successes and failures of the cremationist cause, in other words, turned less on doctrines than on metaphors.52

Enemies and allies evaluated key terms in the debate (fire, earth, body, soul, self, heaven, hell, God) differently. When traditionalists thought of the crematory they thought of hellfire: the retort was the devil's furnace. The cemetery, by contrast, was “God's acre,” a beautiful place of rest. But cremationists, citing a source no less authoritative than Shakespeare (“graveyards yawn, and hell itself breathes out contagion on the world”), depicted the cemetery as a site of incessant and gruesome decay—the “Devil's Acre,” not God's. Cremation they associated not with hell but with heaven. Fire, some believed, liberated the soul.53

Perhaps because most Americans stood with the traditionalists on the association of fire with hell, cremationists insisted repeatedly that fire never actually touched the body. But they also attempted to spread among the public more positive images of fire as “the purest of mundane things.” When you think of fire, they were saying, think not of punishment but of purification, not of the pits of hell but of “the fire of the immortals.” Citing the story of Moses and the burning bush, cremationists said that fire was a “symbol … of the divine presence.” And citing the Book of Revelation, they argued that “the world is saved, not lost, by fire.” While opponents associated cremation with the valiant efforts of Phileas Fogg to rescue a beautiful girl from suttee in Around the World in Eighty Days or with the tragic fire that leveled the Brooklyn Theater on the day of the De Palm cremation in 1876, supporters linked the crematory flames with the romance of the Fourth of July:

  • FIZZ-BANG! The rockets whizzed aloft,
  • And on they sped with ease.
  • (p.94) “I love,” she whispered low to Jack,
  • “Such fiery works as these.”
  • Oh, see that stick in swift descent,
  • It's fallen on the lawn.
  • “I dote on pyre-otechnics, love;
  • Cremate me when I gone.”54

Cremationists and their opponents also viewed the living body, the corpse, and the self very differently. The notion that the self is both material and spiritual is, of course, a long-standing Hebrew and Christian assumption. In the early Christian period some gnostics had challenged this view with the Platonic and Hellenistic claim (informed by a fundamental mistrust of matter) that the essential self is spiritual and immaterial, but they failed to gain control of the Church, and their claims became heretical. By the nineteenth century the Judeo-Christian idea that the self was a psychosomatic unity of body and soul had become for most Americans an obvious truth. From this popular perspective the body possessed both “a divine tincture” and “an infinite dignity.” It was “sacred flesh” not only in life but also in death. Because a corpse was thought to be dead only for a time (sown in the earth, it would be harvested at the end of times as a new and glorious resurrection body), it made no sense to discriminate sharply between living and dead bodies. (“Human reason refuses to see in the corpse,” one Catholic wrote, “an abnormal condition of the body.”) In life, death, and the afterlife the body was a temple deserving special care. The self, fragmented by death into spirit and matter, would at the end of time be miraculously reconstituted once again as a body-soul unity. The problem of the body's decay would be resolved supernaturally through a miraculous bodily resurrection. To burn a corpse in the face of these facts was, quite literally, a desecration.55

When pondering the living body, the corpse, and the self, cremationists worked with very different metaphors. Some, citing Plato, called the body a tomb that during life holds the pure soul captive in polluted matter. Others termed it “a cage in which the bird of Paradise is imprisoned” or “a tangle of wire fence that held the person a prisoner.” Either way, the body was more burden than glory, and according to at least one cremationist it had “no significance in eternity.” Most cremationists were content to adopt the ancient Christian metaphor of the corpse as seed. But they insisted that if sown in the earth, that seed would bring forth fruit long before Gabriel blew his trumpet. They also insisted that the fruit would be toxic not tonic: contagion, illness, and death. There (p.95) was therefore nothing sacred about a corpse. The body, wrote Modern Crematist, was merely “the house we live in … essential while here, to be wisely looked after, but to monopolize neither our thought nor our endeavor, and surely to be put off when we come to the noble gateway that gives entrance to the World of Spirits.” Others, citing Job—“Thou hast clothed me with skin and flesh, and hast fenced me with bones and sinews” (Job 10:11)—dubbed the corpse the “cast-off clothing of [the] soul.” In either case, it was to be stoically set aside at death. Once emptied of its immortal inhabitant, the corpse was “a mere habitation of worms.”56

If cremationists had a low view of the living body and the corpse, they had a lofty view of the human person. Most cremationists seem to have viewed the self as soul-only. The real person was a spiritual entity trapped during life in a body. The real resurrection occurred, therefore, not at the apocalypse but at the moment of death, when “the bird of Paradise” winged its way to the heavens. The corpse would be made incorruptible not by God but by technology, and not in the by and by but in the here and now. With a little technological intervention, “nature's purifier” could carry out the designs of Mother Nature more quickly and efficiently than she could herself.57

Ultimately, all these metaphors and associations supported very different views of cremation itself. Was cremation a desecration or a purification and spiritualization of the body? Was it crisping and crackling or sweetness and light? Was it like charring a pig on a spit? Or was it “like snow [disappearing] in the genial warmth of the sunshine” or, better yet, “like laying your friend robed in white upon a bed of roses”? Was earth the great purifier? Or was fire? It all depended, of course, on who had your ear.58

Purity and Pollution

The Gilded Age, America's age of debate, was also an era beset with binary oppositions. Capital pitted itself against labor, and science wrestled with religion. Whites passed anti-Asian legislation in the West and Jim Crow legislation in the South. Boxing, not baseball, was the national pastime. According to one social historian, at the end of the nineteenth century there was an obsession with social and racial hierarchies and with ranking individuals and groups on a continuum from dirty to clean. There was also “a popular fixation on the dirt associated with the bodily functions of human beings: their excrement, urine, blood, pus, (p.96) and other secretions.” This historian does not mention in his work the popular fixation on the oozings of the dead body itself—perhaps the most polluting of those “other secretions.” But there is no reason to exempt those fluids from his analysis. Both sanitary reformers in general and cremationists in particular divided American society into high and low, “washed” and “unwashed,” pure and polluted. The movement for sanitary reform was obsessed with these categories, and the debate over the disposal of the dead was littered with references to them. Partisans of burial appealed on occasion to the rage of the age for purity (for example, when they insisted that cremation would pollute the atmosphere with “the reeking stench of burning bodies”). But denunciations of pollution were largely the coin of the cremationists, for whom “pure air, pure water, pure soil” was a mantra.59

To the cremationists burial was polluting on both sanitary and ritual grounds. In fact, so intertwined were the movement's appeals to sanitary and ritual cleanliness that it is impossible to disentangle them. Consider the many ways in which, from the cremationists' perspective, the old-fashioned urban graveyard mixed up what should not be mingled. It caused the living to interact with the dead. It also brought the dead into contact with one another, as flesh and bones shifted and sank, and as the fluids of one corpse drained into the fluids of a neighbor. In another instance of bringing together what should be left separate, the burial of the Union dead in what were to become Southern cotton fields brought Yankee bones into unseemly contact with the heirs of the Confederacy. Burial was even said to mix up the races and sexes in ways that were unimaginable among the living, since in at least one exhumation the bones of an African-American man were found to be nuzzling up against the remains of a white woman in what had become a shared grave. Cremation would, of course, solve all of these problems and more—as long as crematory operators were scrupulous about incinerating only one body at a time and used magnets to separate out unwanted iron flakes from the pure, white ashes of the dead. Placing those ashes in individual urns would eliminate the possibility of untoward mixing of races or genders in the world of the dead.

According to Catherine Bell, the ritualization process does far more than create rites; it also fabricates worldviews. Bell sees three key dynamics at work in ritualization. First is the construction of a series of binary oppositions. Second is the ordering of those dyads into a hierarchy where some are seen as superior (+) and others as inferior (−). Third is the arrangement of the binary oppositions into a loose scheme in which (p.97) each element is related to every other. All these dynamics were at work in the Gilded Age cremation movement, which developed not only an alternative means of disposal of the dead but also a new way of viewing the world.60

There were two key binary oppositions in the cremationist worldview: burial and cremation, and pollution and purity. The cremationists evaluated pollution negatively and purity positively, and they associated burial with the former and cremation with the latter. Hence the most basic scheme in their worldview was:

Burial (−)

Cremation (+)

Pollution (−)

Purity (+)

To this basic scheme cremationists added a series of elaborations, which appear in table 1. The webs of meaning spun by the cremationists run down the columns (for associations) and across the rows (for contrasts). So, for example, cremation was associated with purity, which was associated with cleanliness and science, but contrasted with burial, which was associated with pollution, uncleanliness, and superstition. In the world the cremationists made, the soul was pitted against the body and seen as superior to it. The body was viewed as tomb, not temple. And belief in the immortality of the soul was said to be spiritually superior to the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. Modernity and medievalism, science and superstition, cosmopolitanism and parochialism, Eastern religion and Western religion were also arrayed in hierarchically arranged pairs. In this world, women were associated with matter and the body, and men with spirit and the soul. Blacks and immigrants were associated with burial and, through it, with sentiment, parochialism, and the past.

Cremationists believed their reform would appeal to all Americans, but as this taxonomy makes plain, it was really designed by and for genteel elites. Those who knew themselves to be white, male, liberal Protestant, and refined no doubt felt welcomed in that world. But for Blacks, immigrants, women, and Roman Catholics, such a world must have seemed unappealing and perhaps dangerous. In the social order of the cremationists' making, genteel elites worked hard to uplift the “unwashed” to a higher level of culture and civilization. But they also felt free to sneer at those who stubbornly resisted their largesse.

If, as many scholars have argued, attitudes toward the body (“the individual body”) mirror attitudes toward society (“the social body”), (p.98)

TABLE 1 The World According to Genteel Cremationists

































conservative Catholic

liberal Protestant

Christianity and Judaism

Asian religions



“dangerous classes”

“advanced thinkers”























low tech

high tech

corpse preserved indefinitely

corpse destroyed quickly





body as temple

body as tomb

self is body and soul

self is soul only

resurrection of the body

immortality of the soul

then the cremation movement can be seen as an effort to free the soul of American society from ties that held it captive to the past. In this sense Gilded Age cremationism was a quintessential Enlightenment project—a cleansing of the waste of medieval superstition by the fires of modernity. The movement might also be seen, however, as a working (p.99) out of sorts of the Northern myth of the Civil War: America would have to go through a great fire in order to be free. But there is another, more ominous reading of what the cremationists had in store for the American “social body.” Subtly encoded in the logic of cremation was a desire to purify that social body, not merely by separating it from the pollutants of the past but by banishing pollutants in the present. If Mary Douglas is right that in addition to everything else it is, ritual is also “an attempt to create and maintain a particular culture,” then cremation in the Gilded Age was an attempt to create and maintain the culture of gentility.61

Sanitary Spirituality

The culture of gentility aimed to rid the United States of many pollutants. But religion per se was not one of them. And neither was ritual. It is an ancient strategy to dismiss religious innovators as secularizers—to see in their new theologies not new religious impulses but no religious impulses at all. Denouncing ritual innovators as unceremonious is also old sport, dating back to the Protestant Reformers and the Hebrew prophets. And cremation's opponents (and in some cases the cremationists themselves) were clearly engaged in that strategy and that sport. True, U.S. cremationists rejected the Victorian way of burial, along with its emphases on formalism, tradition, and repetition. They typically denied the doctrine of the bodily resurrection, the popular conception of the self as a psychosomatic (body-soul) unity, and the view of the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit. They commonly refused to submit themselves to the authority of the Christian tradition, whether that authority was perched in the Vatican or in a venerable American Protestant pulpit. And they repeatedly stated that the cremation versus burial question should be decided on the basis of sanitation not scripture, science not spirituality. But those denials were almost always accompanied by a series of vehement affirmations. In short, while the cremationists said no to traditional religious beliefs and rites, they said yes to religious and ritual alternatives. Like the cremation of Baron De Palm—neither a secular nor an unceremonious affair—cremation's early history was unorthodox but by no means irreligious or antiritualistic. “Cremation is just as solemn and religious” as burial, one nineteenth-century cremationist rightly affirmed. He and his colleagues, from Olcott and LeMoyne on, contributed not to the secularization but to the diversification of American religion.62

(p.100) It is now commonplace to describe American religious history as a march from Protestantism to pluralism. Historians differ on when that march began, but most now see religious diversity as one of its key characteristics. Gilded Age cremationists made important contributions to that diversity. Although most cremationists would have called themselves Christians, they typically refused to deride practitioners of Asian religions as heathens. Moreover, they took seriously the alternative spiritual worlds of Theosophists, Spiritualists, Hindus, and Buddhists. Cremationists also contributed to the diversification of American ritual life by championing alternatives to the Victorian ritual regime. The cremation rites they fashioned were more idiosyncratic, more personalized, and more likely to be led by laity than the burial rites of their contemporaries. Their efforts to displace the remains of the dead from coffins to urns and from cemeteries to backyard rose gardens represented not a giving up of religion but a resituating of it (in many cases from the public to the private sphere). And while many cremationists did want to put an end to the practice of visiting dead bones in cemeteries, they hoped to popularize the practice of communing with the spirits of loved ones at home. Such communion, they believed, would be informed not by thoughts of sin, redemption, and resurrection, but by memories of a life well lived, images of the cycles of the seasons, and a certain hope in the immortality of the soul.

Gilded Age cremationists paved the way, therefore, not only for the powerful emergence in the 1960s of alternative spiritualities but also for the revolution in ritualization that came to the United States as the counterculture went mainstream. Finally, Gilded Age cremationists contributed to the diversification of American popular theology—the metaphors, narratives, symbols and beliefs that make up the theology of everyday life. Observers of American religious thought now agree that popular thinking about the self, the body, death, and the afterlife changed significantly over the course of the Gilded Age. When compared with their early-nineteenth-century compatriots, early-twenty-first-century Americans were far less likely to believe in hell or the bodily resurrection and far more likely to affirm reincarnation or to view themselves as essentially spiritual. The cremation movement participated in the development of a new, modern American self, liberated not only from the constraints of the irksome body but also from the constraints of traditions and customs—free to seek new experiences in both life and death. Exactly how or when these transformations in (p.101) popular theologizing occurred is not clear. What is clear is that the Gilded Age cremation movement contributed to this revolution too.

In “Cremation in Boston,” an unpublished manuscript written in 1895 as the period of cremation's birth was drawing to a close, J. Wetherbee linked the rise of the cremation movement with the emergence of new rituals and new theologies. “A change has gradually come in the method and form of funeral services,” wrote Wetherbee. “We rarely hear the officiating clergyman speak of the corpse in the casket as being in that sleep that knows no waking, or waiting for the resurrection trumpet when all shall rise from the dead. He says oftener today that the body in the coffin is not the man, that he has left it.” In fact, it was by 1895 an “almost universal” conviction, according to Wetherbee, that the “dead human body vacated by the soul is not the real man, only a vacated tenement”—that the “real man” is the “thinking soul” and “does not die and is not buried.” Wetherbee, who favored cremation, embraced these changes as glorious advances and saw them as “very fitting for the successful introduction of the new idea of cremation.” He was exaggerating when he said that almost everyone in America had embraced these new beliefs and new practices, but he was right to link such innovations with the growing acceptance of cremation, which as the twentieth century dawned had secured a place in America's repertoire of religious rites.63 (p.102)


(1.) “Skulls on Fence Posts,” MC 2.8 (August 1887) 122–23; “An Object Lesson,” Urn 4.5 (May 1895) 10–11.

(2.) “Odds and Ends,” Urn 4.8 (August 1895) 8; “Grave Robberies,” Urn 3.12 (December 1894) 10; “Play with Human Bones,” Urn 4.1 (January 1895) 8–9; Hugo Erichsen, “The Torch vs. the Spade,” MC 2.9 (September 1887) 136; “Opinions on Cremation,” MC 4.4 (October 1889) 56–57; Hugo Erichsen, The Cremation of the Dead (Detroit: D.O. Haynes, 1887) 214; T. G., “Cremation,” MC 1.10 (October 1886) 159.

(3.) Urn 4.5 (May 1895) 5; R.E. Williams, Cremation and Other Modes of Sepulture (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 184) 36; Urn 4.7 (July 1895) 11.

(4.) “An Object Lesson,” Urn 4.5 (May 1895) 10.

(5.) Max Levy, Why Modern Cremation Should Replace Earth-Burial (San Francisco: Bacon & Company, 1885) 18–19.

(6.) “Dr. Gross on Cremation,” Medical Record 14 (December 7, 1878) 460; Hugo Erichsen, “Urn or Grave?” MC 1.9 (September 1886) 139.

(7.) C.N. Peirce, Sanitary Disposal of the Dead ([Philadelphia]: Philadelphia Cremation Society, [1891]) 9; Felix Adler, quoted in “The New Crematory Temple,” Times (November 20, 1884); Samuel Bernstein, “Cremation a Sanitary Reform,” MC 4.2 (April 1889) 20.

(p.234) (8.) Urn 2.6 (July 1893); “Posthumous Revelations: From the Diary of a Corpse,” Urn 4.6 (June 1895) 1–2. For more postmortem photographs, see Photographic Likeness of Bodies Taken from the Cemeteries of Paris, a brochure published around 1900 by the Odd Fellows Cemetery Association of San Francisco.

(9.) Carolyn Walker Bynum, “Bodily Miracles and the Resurrection of the Body in the High Middle Ages,” in Belief in History: Innovative Approaches to European and American Religion, ed. Thomas Kselman (South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991) 77.

(10.) Ziemssen's Cyclopoedia of the Practice of Medicine, cited in Augustus G. Cobb, Earth-Burial and Cremation (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1892) 93; A.W., “To Prevent Premature Burial,” Tribune (January 11, 1880) 5; New York Cremation Society, Urn Burial (New York: New York Cremation Society, 1882) 10. On grave signals, see Robert W. Habenstein and William M. Lamers, The History of American Funeral Directing, 3d rev. ed., ed. Howard C. Raether (Milwaukee: National Funeral Directors Association, 1962) 180–88; and “Grave Signal,” Urn 3.2 (November 1894) 4. The voluminous literature on premature burial has yet to be mined by historians of American religion. An interesting exchange appears in G. Eric Mackay, “Premature Burials,” Popular Science Monthly 10 (January 1880) 389–97; and Dr. William See, “The Extreme Rarity of Premature Burials,” Popular Science Monthly 17 (August 1880) 526–30.

(11.) Hartmann quoted in “Apparent Death and Cremation,” Urn 4.11 (November 25, 1895) 2. A gruesome premature burial tale appears in Jacob Wyce Horher, “Cremation” (M.D. thesis, University of Pennsylvania, 1875): “It is stated that about two years ago a young mother, shortly after the birth of her child, was one evening seized with a fainting-fit, so severe as to be mistaken for death even by the physician, who considering the great heat of the body prevailing at the time, advised the inhumation within six hours. This was unhappily carried out, but its frightful results only came to light the other day when, the young widower having expressed his intention of marrying again, the mother of his dead wife claimed her daughter's body, intending to have it reinterred…. The vault was opened, and to the grief and horror of all present, the coffin was found broken open, and the corpse lying by its side with hair and garments torn, and hands bitten through” (37–38).

(12.) Cobb, Earth-Burial and Cremation, 17–18; Erichsen, The Cremation of the Dead, 196; “Chicago Clergymen,” Urn 4.7 (July 25, 1895) 11.

(13.) Quoted in “Cremation or Earth-Burial?” Urn 1.6 (July 25, 1892) 7; “The Church and Cremation,” ACQR 11 (June 1886) 361; “Paupers Must Be Buried,” Tribune (February 18, 1888) 1; James P. Murphy, “The Cremation Movement is Anti-Catholic,” Catholic World 73.436 (July 1901) 459; “Against Heathenism and the Devil's Furnace,” Sunnyside (July 15, 1912) in ES.

(14.) “Ohio Freemasons,” Urn 4.7 (July 25, 1895) 3; “Masonic Stage Thunder,” Urn 4.5 (May 1895) 1; “An Infidel Cremated,” Times (June 20, 1885) 1; “The Processes of Cremation,” MC 1.1 (January 1886) 11; “The Death of God,” Urn 1.12 (January 1893) 10–11. Robert Ingersoll's “Effect of the World's Fair on the Human Race” appeared in the Urn 1.3 (April 25, 1892) (p.235) 5–6. His admonition—“It is a responsibility to think and act for yourself. Most people hate responsibility”—appeared in Urn 1.11 (December 25, 1892) 8.

(15.) “A Blow at Cremation,” Urn 1.3 (April 25, 1892) 4; Henry M. Taber, “Conservatism as a Clog,” Urn 3.9 (September 25, 1894) 3; Augustus G. Cobb, Earth-Burial and Cremation, 11. The connection between the cremation movement and freemasonry is not only admitted but celebrated in “Masonic Stage Thunder,” Urn 4.5 (May 1895) 1–2: “Cremation has many warm friends among freemasons. They have in fact been staunch supporters of that cause from the very beginning of its modern revival” (1).

(16.) “Light and Shadow,” Urn 2.4 (May 1893) 1–2.

(17.) The Reverend J. Hogan is quoted in Urn 3.8 (August 25, 1894) 2. Another critic is quoted in “Cremation,” MC 2.11 (November 1877) 172.

(18.) Mrs. P.T. Lamb, “Disapproves Cremation”; “A Work of More Importance,” Detroit Commercial Advertiser; Hugo Erichsen, “A Plea for Cremation.” All these sources can be found in ES.

(19.) Monseigneur Gaume, The Christian Cemetery in the Nineteenth Century; or, the Last War-Cry of the Communists (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1874) 12, 14, 133, 134. The rabbi is quoted in Jacob Wyce Horher, “Cremation,” 27.

(20.) M. C. Lockwood, “Relation of Cremation to Christianity,” in Addresses Incidental to the Dedication of the Crematory of Cincinnati (Cincinnati: The Cremation Company, 1889) 5; A. Cleveland Coxe, “Vulcan, or Mother Earth?” Forum 1 (March 1886) 71–72.

(21.) Quoted in J. D. Beugless, “Mr. Beecher on Cremation” (letter to the editor), Tribune (July 16, 1884) 7.

(22.) These excerpts, which may have first appeared in the Detroit Commercial Advertiser, can all be found in ES.

(23.) Wordsworth quoted in John D. Beugless, “Incineration,” Princeton Review 59.2 (September 1883) 155; Stevens quoted in “More Cremation Conversation,” Inquirer (December 7, 1876) 2; “It Is Raised a Spiritual Body,” MC 1.3 (March 1886) 38.

(24.) “The Church and Cremation,” ACQR 11 (June 1886) 360, 358.

(25.) H. A. Brann, “Christian Burial and Cremation,” ACQR 10 (October 1885) 678, 681, 693.

(26.) “The Church and Cremation,” ACQR 11 (June 1886) 362; H.A. Brann, “Christian Burial and Cremation,” ACQR 10 (October 1885) 682.

(27.) On Buddhists and cremation, see “A Theosophist Incinerated with Hindoo Rites,” Urn 1.4 (May 25, 1892) 8. The article actually describes the “first Buddhist incineration ever performed in the United States.”

(28.) Dr. Hugo Erichsen, “Cremation and Freemasonry,” MC 1.11 (November 1886) 168; Lawrence quoted in “The New England Cremation Society,” Urn 3.1 (January 25, 1894) 5; “Disposal of the Dead,” MC 1.1 (January 1886) 8.

(29.) Quoted in Hugo Erichsen, The Cremation of the Dead, 186.

(30.) Henry Houston Bonnell, Cremation: Scientifically and Religiously Considered (Philadelphia: D. C. Chalfant, 1885) 8; Rev. Howard Henderson, Cremation: Rational Method of Disposing of the Dead (Cincinnati: (p.236) Geo. P. Houston, 1891) 42; Dr. W. H. Curtis, The Disposal of the Dead (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1882) 18.

(31.) “What Shall We Do with Our Dead,” Urn 3.5 (May 1894) 9; “Cremation as a Practical Issue,” World (March 15, 1874) 4. Caroline Walker Bynum discusses versions of this theory throughout her Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200–1336 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995). She notes that “from the second to the fourteenth centuries, doctrinal pronouncements, miracle stories, and popular preaching continued to insist on the resurrection of exactly the material bits that were laid in the tomb” (10). The conviction that personal identity would be secured in the afterlife by material continuity, she continues, “showed remarkable persistence even where it seemed almost to require philosophical incoherence, theological equivocation, or aesthetic offensiveness” (11). Bynum interprets the theory of material continuity as “both a defense against and an articulation of the threat of decay” (27).

(32.) “Cremation Strongly Favored,” Times (May 20, 1884) 1; Deseret News, quoted in Hugo Erichsen, The Cremation of the Dead, 194.

(33.) “The Resurrection of a Cremationist: Revelation XXI, 27,” Urn 4.8 (August 1895) 1–2; Shaftesbury quoted in Williams, Cremation and Other Modes of Sepulture, 71.

(34.) William Lawrence, quoted in “The New England Cremation Society,” Urn 3.1 (January 1894) 5.

(35.) J. P. MʼCaskey, “‘Be Thou Clean!,’” MC 1.1 (January 1886) 2; “Resurrection,” Urn 1.7 (August 1892) 2; Gallia, “Cremation As It Is, Not Burial As It Was,” MC 1.2 (February 1886) 18; MC 1.4 (April 1886) 55.

(36.) Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992).

(37.) “Making Too Much of the Body,” MC 1.2 (February 1886) 26; George Hodges, “Ashes to Ashes,” address given at the annual meeting of the New England Cremation Society, January 15, 1895, 7–10.

(38.) Bishop of Manchester quoted in Williams, Cremation and Other Modes of Sepulture, 72; Adler quoted in “The Belief in Immortality,” Urn 3.4 (April 1894) 7; Gallia, “Cremation As It Is, Not Burial As It Was,” MC 1.2 (February 1886) 18.

(39.) Cobb, Earth-Burial and Cremation, 18; J.P. MʼCaskey, “‘Be Thou Clean!’” MC 1.1 (January 1886) 2.

(40.) Col. Olcott, “Cremation,” Medical Record 16 (July 12, 1879) 48; “California Physicians,” Urn 3.9 (September 1894) 9.

(41.) “Spiritualism and Cremation,” Urn 1.7 (August 1892) 3; “Spiritualists Favor Cremation,” Urn 1.10 (November 1892) 4; “Our Columbarium,” Urn 1.9 (October 1892) 11.

(42.) “Our Columbarium,” Urn 1.3 (April 1892) 9; “Our Friends the Theosophists,” Urn 2.10 (November 25, 1893) 6.

(43.) D. M. Skinner, “A Plea for Cremation,” M&SR (October 5, 1889) 370.

(44.) Ben H. Pratt, “Funeral Reform.—‘Interment Private,’” MC 1.2 (February 1886) 21; “Cheap Dying,” Medical Record (October 10, 1885) 408; Howard M. Holmes, “Incineration of the Dead,” MC 2.8 (August 1887) 117.

(p.237) (45.) Habenstein and Lamers, The History of American Funeral Directing, 125.

(46.) Ben H. Pratt, “Funeral Reform—‘Interment Private,’” MC 1.2 (February 1886) 22–23. Historians have long observed a shift in religious practice during the nineteenth century from the public sphere of the church to the private sphere of the home. See Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1977); Colleen McDannell, The Christian Home in Victorian America, 1840–1900 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986); and A. Gregory Schneider, The Way of the Cross Leads Home: The Domestication of American Methodism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993).

(47.) “Burial Reform,” Urn 3.10 (October 1894) 10; “A Liberal Minister,” Urn 4.3 (March 1895) 3.

(48.) “Precept and Practice,” Urn 4.1 (January 1895) 4.

(49.) Rabbi Joseph Stolz, “Funeral Agenda,” paper read before the Central Conference of American Rabbis at Montreal, Canada, July 9, 1897, 14, 17, 14.

(50.) “The Floral Element of Grief,” MC 1.7 (July 1886) 101.

(51.) “Facts about Funerals: Undertakers and Their Charges,” Pilot (December 16, 1876) 1–2; “Facts about Funerals,” Pilot (December 16, 1876) 4.

(52.) Bruce Lincoln, Discourse and the Construction of Society: Comparative Studies of Myth, Ritual, and Classification (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989) 21. Lincoln argues that sentiments of affinity construct and maintain societies.

(53.) “Current Opinion,” Urn 1.3 (April 1892) 9; Henderson, Cremation: Rational Method of Disposing of the Dead, 26.

(54.) J.P. MʼCaskey, “‘Be Thou Clean!’” MC 1.1 (January 1886) 2; J. Heber Smith, “The Desirability of Disposing of Infected Bodies by Cremation,” paper read before the Boston Homoeopathic Medical Society (June 2, 1896) 3, in JCL Pamphlets; “Cremation,” World (March 15, 1874) 2; Urn 2.1 (February 1893) 7; “A Request,” MC 1.8 (August 1886) 113.

(55.) Reverend Charles Reilly, “Pagan or Christian,” 10–11, in ES; H.A. Brann, “Christian Burial and Cremation,” ACQR 10 (October 1885) 678; James P. Murphy, “The Cremation Movement is Anti-Catholic,” Catholic World 73.436 (July 1901) 456.

(56.) Dr. P.F. Hyatt, “The Disposal of the Dead,” MC 3.4 (October 1888) 54; “Of Interest to Spiritualists,” Urn 4.8 (August 1895) 5; L.D.Z., “Passe,” MC 2.12 (December 1887) 185; J.P. MʼCaskey, “‘Be Thou Clean!’” MC 1.1 (January 1886) 2; “What Cremation Is Not,” Columbarium 2.5 (July 1895) 2; Williams, Cremation and Other Modes of Sepulture, 73. The Lynn Press called the corpse “so much refuse” (“Editor's Retort,” Urn 3.5 [May 1894] 4). Cremationists did not typically go that far.

(57.) MC 2.7 (July 1887) 110.

(58.) “The Process Explained,” Columbarium 2.5 (July 1895) 4; Anonymous, Cremation, by an Eyewitness (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1880) 9.

(59.) David L. Gollaher, “From Ritual to Science: The Medical Transformation of Circumcision in America,” Journal of Social History 28.1 (Fall 1994) 12–13; H.A. Brann, “Christian Burial and Cremation,” ACQR 10 (October 1885) 695; (p.238) “Report on Cremation,” JAMA 6.22 (May 29, 1886) 607. This sort of division has operated in many other societies, notably in India where ritual bathing has been one of the main ways that pure, high-caste Brahmins differentiate themselves from polluted “untouchables.” Like America's cremationists, those Brahmins are “pure” in both the ritual and the sanitary sense of the term. It should be noted, however, that Brahmins are forbidden from tending to cremations themselves. That work, which is considered polluting, is performed by “untouchables.”

(60.) Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) 101–104. This approach has its critics. See Louis Dumont, Essays on Individualism: Modern Ideology in Anthropological Perspective (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986) 223–33. See also Rodney Needham's rejoinder in his Counterpoints (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987) 102–86.

(61.) Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (Boston: Ark, 1984) 128.

(62.) J. Wetherbee, “Cremation in Boston” (Roxbury, 1895), handwritten manuscript in Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard University.

(63.) Wetherbee, “Cremation in Boston.”