(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Subjects relating to death in the way that Purified by Fire does often fail to entice imaginative writers or, when they do, may result in books that border on the morbid. Fortunately, Stephen Prothero, an assistant professor of religion at Boston University, has brought to his task of detailing the history of cremation in the United States an admirable energy, wit, and writing ability. Prothero’s earlier book, The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott (1996), provided a logical springboard for Purified by Fire. Olcott, as executor of Baron De Palm’s estate, made the arrangements for the cremation that De Palm requested before his death.

The story of this first cremation in the crematory that Dr. Francis LeMoyne had constructed on his estate near Washington, Pennsylvania, at a cost of $1,500 is a complex and fascinating one. Although De Palm died on May 20, 1876, his remains were not cremated until December 6 of that year. His body was embalmed and held until everything was in place legally for his cremation, the first indoor cremation in the United States. The cremation oven was so constructed that the body would not be consumed by flames but rather broken down by heat into a white ash.

De Palm’s cremation, although officially designated private, was attended by some forty journalists, physicians, clergymen, and public health officials from around the United States. The event, designed to be solemn, turned into a circus as newsmen joked about the deceased’s appearance and, in one case, went so far as the lift the sheet covering the body to glimpse De Palm’s genitals. Newspapers throughout the country reported in detail the events surrounding the cremation.

Prothero, as a religious scholar, is particularly interested in how changing attitudes toward cremation over a period of about 125 years reflect ways in which people and religious organizations have revised their views about religious rituals during that time. In 1886, for example, Pope Leo XIII specifically forbade Roman Catholics from joining cremation societies and from having their remains cremated. Less than one hundred years later, in 1963, Pope Paul VI lifted that ban, although the church still urged Christian burial as opposed to cremation and forbade priests from accompanying corpses into crematoria and from conducting services in such facilities. The 1963 decree removed cremation from the list of mortal sins, where Pope Leo’s edict had placed it.

Proponents of cremation, including such notables as Mark Twain, Edward Everett Hale, and a host of clergymen from the more liberal congregations, argued both on environmental and religious grounds that cremation was preferable to burial in the ground. Twain pointed out in Life on the Mississippi (1883) that above-ground internment, common in New Orleans, was a threat to sanitation and that every body buried was a potential assassin to those who were exposed to its vapors as it decayed. On the other hand, Walt Whitman came out foursquare in favor of burial in the earth.

Prothero notes the main secular reasons apologists for cremation advanced in presenting their cases. A major fear of many people, in an age when medicine was sufficiently limited that sometimes it was impossible to tell whether one was dead or in some sort of trancelike coma, was the fear of being buried alive. As early as 1792, Henry Laurens, president of the Continental Congress, opted for cremation on the grounds of his estate in South Carolina.

Laurens’s daughter had been declared dead after suffering from smallpox and was on the brink of burial when she emerged from her deep sleep. This startling recovery caused Laurens to state explicitly in his will that when he died, his remains be cremated, threatening disinheritance to anyone who disobeyed his edict. Fear of premature burial became a major factor in attracting many people to the cremationist cause.

A more significant factor, however, was that of sanitation. Many notable physicians supported this stand, and the American Medical Association (AMA) in 1882 passed by a vote of 159-106 a resolution endorsing cremation over burial in all large cities for sanitary reasons. This resolution was finally tabled and never again brought before the AMA.

The last third of the nineteenth century,...

(The entire section is 1769 words.)