"Purified by Fire" by Stephen Prothero

Denounced as "heathen," then touted as tasteful, cremation in America has lately taken a turn for the tacky.

Published March 7, 2001 8:37PM (EST)

Up until the late 19th century, the vast majority of Americans believed that it was better to bury than to burn. Yet by 1999, a quarter of all those who died were cremated, some half a million people annually. How we went from being a society in which incinerating the dead was considered "heathen" and heartless to one in which the fiery furnace is seen as just another "memorial option" is the subject of Stephen Prothero's readable new history. It's a peculiar, heroless yarn, since cremation's proponents were often their own worst enemies, insensitive or even oblivious to the powerful emotions people attach to the rituals of death. As a nation, we half-consciously stumbled, unguided, toward the flames, carrying a whole lot more baggage than just the corpses of our dead.

The first American champions of cremation were, according to Prothero, "by and large, genteel elites ... white, well-educated, middle-class ladies and gentlemen from the Northeast to the Midwest." The Gilded Age, when their campaign flourished, fostered legions of idealistic reformers, from suffragettes to free-love advocates, all ready to bring the concentrated energy of the Protestant work ethic to bear on their chosen causes. Cremationists included members of "liberal Protestant denominations such as Episcopalianism and Unitarianism" who also embraced the modern ethic of sanitary science. Burial, they argued, meant not eternal sleep, but a long, repulsive, gooey process of decay in which corpses seeped a dangerous "miasma" into the atmosphere, spreading disease. Cremation, on the other hand, was quick and dry and far more tidy, a purifying transformation. Those who opposed it could only do so on account of ignorance and superstition. And cremation's most avid supporters published no fewer than three different periodicals in the late 1800s saying as much.

Though well intentioned, these people, like most zealous reformers, were terrible snobs: "It is a pity that our neighbors do not know as well as we do what is best for them," sniffed the Modern Cremationist. Often, "superstition" worked as a code word for "Catholicism," the faith of many of the new immigrants, whom reformers saw as recalcitrantly "primitive" and "dirty." And while quite a few of the cremationists were Christians, some of the kookier elements of 19th century religious life -- Theosophists and spiritualists, basically the Victorian equivalent of today's New Age fringe -- flocked to their ranks as well. The first person to be cremated in modern America was one Baron De Palm, an Italian who was reputed to be both a Freemason and a Rosicrucian, and his cremation turned into a media circus, with raucous crowds and a cheeky reporter lifting the baron's shroud to check out his "private parts." One writer likened it to a "pig roast."

Even sympathetic observers complained that the Pennsylvania crematory where the baron was transformed into ashes looked depressingly utilitarian and shabby. The lack of ceremony didn't stop there. An English cremationist, Sir Henry Thompson, argued that cremating the people who died in London each year "would yield 200,000 pounds of high-grade 'bone-earth' worth approximately 50,000 pounds sterling," while a New Yorker suggested that human corpses could be rendered into "fat substances" to fuel the city's gas lights. This kind of attention-getting "reformism" branded the movement, in many people's eyes, as shockingly irreligious and crass.

Nevertheless, the cremationists got in a few shots at the interment industry, harrowing the public -- who believed their buried loved ones to be resting in peace -- with stories of grave-robbing medical students, necrophiliacs, cadavers unearthed by floods and civic construction projects, premature burial and the mixing of blacks' and whites' bones in supposedly segregated graveyards. Cremation's foes had their own versions of these stories (race mixing seems to have been a particular bugaboo) and raised the cremationists' tales of worms and rot with vivid descriptions of flesh crackling and scorching in the furnace. Plus, they had the pope on their side, Leo XIII to be precise, who called cremation a "detestable abuse" and cemented Catholic resistance to the practice.

Religious opposition to cremation referred to the doctrine of the resurrection, the belief that on Judgment Day, God will unite each soul with its risen and perfected body. That was in turn grounded in the Jewish and Christian notion that the body and soul are inextricably linked in the "mixed" -- that is, physical and spiritual -- nature of humankind. To deliberately destroy the body was considered blasphemous. The idea, often held by cremationists, that human beings consist of a pure spirit imprisoned in a material and ultimately disposable body was associated with the ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as with "Hindoos" and other Asians -- godless "pagans."

Whether cremationists were trumpeting the superior efficiency and space-saving advantages of incineration or painting it as an expeditious liberation of the spirit from the flesh, they were hardly in the sentimental mainstream of the Victorian era. Cremation didn't catch on, though it didn't die out, either, and such famous people as Albert Einstein, Fats Waller, Henry James and Humphrey Bogart had their bodies burned rather than buried. Prothero writes that during the first half of the 20th century, a more pragmatic camp took over the cremation cause. "From idealists to managers" is how Prothero describes the shift, and this new, Babbitt-like element had its finger much more firmly fixed on the pulse of the public.

The new, business-oriented cremationists understood that "cultural practices are extraordinarily resistant to change" and that "the most stubborn are religious rites, and of all religious rites, the most entrenched are the rites of death." The solution, obviously, was smarter marketing, for as Prothero demonstrates over and over again, the battle to legitimize cremation had to be fought on symbolic and emotional, not rational, grounds. Crematories needed to look stately and serene, not merely functional. Funeral directors moved into the business, and the handling of the remains both before and after cremation became more elaborate as undertakers encouraged grieving families to go with "the memorial option": expensive urns, grand columbaria where the departed could be visited and even, perversely enough, burial sites with markers.

Above all, the scattering of ashes, because it was a low-cost method of disposal, was discouraged. Prothero notes that crematories ceased to crush the "cremains" -- which, unprocessed, consisted of large bone chunks as well as "fluffy ashes" -- after burning in order to discourage the practice. Though funeral directors who handle cremations may have argued that crushing the ashes was sacrilegious, "they were also aware, of course, that relatives were far less likely to scatter unprocessed bone fragments."

This kind of calculation, inevitably masked with a facade of reverent sympathy and concern, became the fodder of Jessica Mitford's gleefully muckraking 1963 bestseller, "The American Way of Death." Mitford's target was the entire funeral industry, from embalming and overpriced caskets, services and flowers to elaborate cemeteries. She held up cremation -- especially a modest cremation provided by a not-for-profit memorial society -- as not just a cheaper alternative but a more dignified one as well. The funeral industry put up a disastrous (if highly entertaining) fight, accusing its critics of being, in the words of American Cemetery magazine, "in line with the Communist program to break down confidence in the American way of life."

The industry's protests were as ineffectual as their rhetoric was dated. As Prothero points out, when the cultural tides shifted in the '60s, lavish funerals and entombments suddenly seemed vulgar, while understated, simple "deathways" appeared more tasteful -- and environmentally responsible as well. Prothero sees another trend contributing to the rise in cremation, exemplified in the handling of John Lennon's death. Lennon's body was quietly cremated without religious services while his widow, Yoko Ono, encouraged the public to memorialize him by praying "for his soul wherever you are." "Lennon's cremation does highlight an important turn in American religion and culture," the author notes, "but that turn is not secularization. It is instead the ongoing pluralization of U.S. religion and ritualization."

Though Prothero also sees the increased popularity of cremation as part of a "modern revival of Puritanism and Progressive Era moralism," he predicts an eventual swing in the direction of funerary excess. (Extravagant "traditional" weddings have certainly made a comeback.) And if big funerals and fancy burial arrangements once seemed to be the last word in tacky death, cremation is catching up. The personalization that Americans now demand from their religions has extended to their cremation urns. Prothero lists a wince-inducing assortment of kitschy options, from Japanese pagodas and Egyptian temples to a teddy bear urn for children's ashes, a "Lambda Triangle" urn for gays and lesbians and -- one that will surely one day be available from the Fingerhut and Lillian Vernon catalogs -- a walnut vessel shaped like a golf bag. Call me a Puritan, but that's up there with talking toilet seats and "I'm with Stupid" T-shirts.

Fortunately, those of us who prefer to be scattered (over the ocean for me, please) still have plenty of company; despite the best efforts of the funeral industry to promote the "memorial idea," half of all cremations are followed by scattering. Yet even the most seemingly austere of deathways isn't immune to the cheese factor: Prothero notes that "wildcat scattering was so popular that Disney World and Wrigley Field (home of the Chicago Cubs baseball team) found it necessary to ban it." Compared to floating along in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride or being slid through by Sammy Sosa on the way to home plate, the old-fashioned graveyard is starting to look mighty peaceful.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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