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Purified by Fire

Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America

Copyright Date: 2001
Edition: 1
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Purified by Fire
    Book Description:

    Just one hundred years ago, Americans almost universally condemned cremation. Today, nearly one-quarter of Americans choose to be cremated. The practice has gained wide acceptance as a funeral rite, in both our private and public lives, as the cremations of icons such as John Lennon and John F. Kennedy Jr. show.Purified by Firetells the fascinating story of cremation's rise from notoriety to legitimacy and takes a provocative new look at important transformations in the American cultural landscape over the last 150 years. Stephen Prothero synthesizes a wide array of previously untapped source material, including newspapers, consumer guides, mortician trade journals, and popular magazines such asReader's Digestto provide this first historical study of cremation in the United States. He vividly describes many noteworthy events-from the much-criticized first American cremation in 1876 to the death and cremation of Jerry Garcia in the late twentieth century. From the Gilded Age to the Progressive Era to the baby boomers of today, this book takes us on a tour through American culture and traces our changing attitudes toward death, religion, public health, the body, and the environment.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92974-6
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    Death is a sort of alchemy. it changes us in an instant into something completely new. Spirit, soul, and mind flash away, and what was once a living body becomes a new creation. This new thing, the corpse, is most evidently flesh and bones: pound after pound of inert ligaments, veins, arteries, organs, nails, skin, and hair. But it is also a powerful symbol, charged with meanings as many and varied as human cultures and individual personalities. The corpse represents, among other things, a threat to social order, an economic burden to the family, a reminder of our mortality, an...

  6. PART ONE: BIRTH, 1874-1896

    • 1 The Cremation of Baron De Palm
      (pp. 15-45)

      On december 6, 1876, in the small town of Washington, Pennsylvania, the corpse of Baron Joseph Henry Louis Charles De Palm went up in flames in an event billed as the first cremation in modern America. Supporters hailed the event, the first cremation in modern America, as a harbinger of a new age of scientific progress and ritual simplicity. Opponents denounced it as Satan’s errand. Reporters too were divided. Some wrote up the story as a tragedy, others as a comedy. Either way, the event was a grand triumph for the U.S. cremation movement.

      Although it is difficult to fix...

    • 2 Sanitary Reform
      (pp. 46-66)

      Around the middle of nineteenth century cleanliness sidled up to godliness, and the sanitarian movement was born. Although this movement did not draw as much attention as the efforts to abolish slavery or to win the vote for women, its advocates were no less passionate. Speaking at an early convention of sanitarians, as these evangelists called themselves, Dr. Jacob Bigelow of Boston said that the sanitary crusade was “one of the greatest reforms that this country has ever entered upon.” According to most accounts, the sanitarians were remarkably successful, instilling in everyday Americans in the years immediately following the Civil...

    • 3 Resurrection and the Resurrectionists
      (pp. 67-102)

      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...

    • Plates
      (pp. None)

    • 4 The Business of Cremation
      (pp. 105-126)

      Shortly after the de palm incineration theNew York Timesran an article called “The End of Cremation.” The practice was laboring under such “heavy disadvantages,” wrote theTimes, “that it will be surprising if it does not give way under them and disappear.” Another source reported around the same time that “the public are as much, if not more inclined to old-fashioned burial than ever.” It looked at first as if the public would stay that way. After an initial flurry of activity in 1874, the cremation movement mimicked a depressed economy by going into what even supporters admitted...

    • 5 The Memorial Idea
      (pp. 127-160)

      During its bricks and mortar phase from 1896 to 1963, the U.S. cremation movement grew modestly and expanded its geographic reach. In 1900 there were twenty-five crematories operating in the United States—four in California and the remainder in the Northeast and Midwest. In 1919 there were roughly seventy, including eighteen in California. There were still none in the South, however, and none in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Utah, or Arizona. Over the next two decades, new crematories were built at a rate of roughly six per year, and the option to cremate came to the South, Southwest, and...


    • 6 Consumers′ Last Rites
      (pp. 163-187)

      Just as 1874 marked the birth of the American cremation movement, 1963 ushered in the cremation boom. The year did not start auspiciously. When Paul Bryan, the immediate past president of the Cremation Association of America, stepped to the rostrum at the Congress of the International Cremation Federation in Berlin in June 1963, the CAA was commemorating its golden anniversary. But there was little cause for celebration. Cremation was suffering, Bryan noted, from “declining acceptance” in the United States. “There is still a strong and emphatic feeling,” he said, “that cremation is a pagan practice, that those devoted to their...

    • 7 Contemporary Ways of Cremation
      (pp. 188-212)

      On april 21, 1997, cremation boldly went where no man had gone before. Early that morning Houston-based Celestis, Inc., rocketed into low-earth orbit portions of the cremated remains of LSD guru Timothy Leary and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. As the millennium approached, Leary, Roddenberry, and twenty-two other clients of the Celestis Earthview Commemorative Spaceflight Service were safely in orbit in individual lipstick-sized aluminum capsules, passing overhead roughly once every ninety minutes. Eventually their miniaturized mausoleum will tilt back to earth and burn out in a quick flash of light. “I’ll be a space pioneer,” Leary boasted shortly before his...

  9. Timeline
    (pp. 213-218)
  10. Abbreviations
    (pp. 219-220)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 221-252)
  12. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 253-262)
  13. Index
    (pp. 263-266)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 267-267)