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Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America

October 2nd, 2007 | 5 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

A few months ago, Russell Moore penned an excellent piece in Touchstone on how Christians should begin to reconsider their position on cremation (a piece, I should point out, that spawned some excellent conversation here at Mere-O).  As a practice, it is so common that most people–Christians or otherwise–approach it pragmatically and unreflectively.  It is simply one of a set of possible options, no one being better than any of the others.
Such unreflective approaches to a topic are indicative of a lack of understanding regarding that topic.  Most people have never stopped to consider what cremation is, nor how it emerged in American society.
For the interested reader, Stephen Prothero’s Purified by Fire fills void exceptionally well.

My familiarity with Prothero’s work began with Moore’s essay, where he made this claim:

Stephen Prothero’s landmark study, Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America, demonstrates that cremation flourished before Christianity and withered away when the Church spread through Europe and beyond. Prothero argues that cremation was virtually unknown in early America, its proponents limited to anti-Christian “freethinkers” who saw in the act of cremation a defiant rejection of the resurrection of the body.

Prothero’s work, however, hardly does any of those things. For one, while he asserts in the introduction that Christianity virtually ended cremation in the West, it is hardly a demonstration. What’s more, Prothero goes to great pains to point out that, in fact, the bulk of the proponents were not necessarily “anti-Christian ‘freethinkers,'” but rather those who were “liberal Christians.” He writes:

Although the cremation movement attracted religious radicals, most cremationists appear to have been committed Christians, and the rest adhered to alternative religious traditions, such as Swedenborgianism, Spiritualism, Buddhims, and/or Theosophy.”

In Russell’s defense, such adherents were hardly interested in preserving “traditional Christianity” (of the sort that we fight for here at Mere-O). Historically, however, the question of cremation was not a debate over secularism, but a question of which religion and rites would prevail.

That said, early cremation proponents appealed to two grounds: the scientific and the spiritual.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, a movement fighting for sanitation arose within American culture. Driven largely by the “genteel elites,” it was an effort to raise the lower classes to “refinement” by means of cleanliness. Built largely on the grounds of science, this movement viewed the decaying body as a potential source of disease, and hence understood cremation to be a matter of public safety, rather than private preference. In this sense, “purification by fire” suggests a purification of the body politic of the unclean elements within it. In its worst forms, this aristocratic impulse allowed the white, male, liberal Protestants in the cremation movement to “sneer at those who stubbornly resisted their largesse,” namely Blacks, immigrants, women, and Roman Catholics.
At the same time, the liberal Christians and adherents to alternative religions that composed the cremation movement argued strenuously against the traditional Christian notion of the human person as a body-soul unity. Rather than doing so at the expense of religion, however, they took a more effective route: they sought to replace traditional Christianity with a “more attractive” version. Writes Prothero:

In summary, cremationists took up three discernible positions on the doctrine of the bodily resurrection. Radicals said no to the resrurrection 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.”

While the cremation movement began (roughly) in 1876 with the opening of the first crematory, it would not reach cultural saturation as a practice until the 1960s. In the interim, the “industry” had to be refined and built. On a practical level, crematories had to be built. Not surprisingly, California led the way. By the 1930s, it housed one third of America’s crematories. During this time, crematories lost their drab scientific style and were aligned with cemeteries, who saw it as an economic threat. Cremation became a “prologue” to burial, rather than a substitution for it. This union satisfied many Christians, who began to accommodate the practice. Funerals gave way to “memorials,” wherein the families decided how they wanted to remember their own. The

But in 1963, cremation solidified its position as an alternative approach to death by Americans. While the movement was initially run by elites, this movement occurred in the counter-culture. The spark that lit the fire was Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death, which critiqued the American funeral industry as too lavish and consumption oriented. The Federal Trade Commission focused its spotlight on the funeral industry and began requiring funeral homes to list the price of cremation next to that of burials.

But Prothero points out that it was not economics that drove most people to choose cremation. Rather, it was style. Minimalism ascended, and the funeral rites of the 50s were viewed as extravagant. Prothero contrasts Kennedy’s burial with that of Eisenhowers to make the point. Kennedy was buried in Arlington after a state procession. 50 jets flew over and he was given a 21 gun salute. Eisenhower, who died in 1969, was buried in Abilene, Kansas in an $80 G.I. casket, and people sent charitable donations rather than flowers.

What emerges from Prothero’s account is mildly troubling for those (like myself) who care about Christianity and culture. With the advent of cremation, individuals began to have options for how to bury their dead. Rather than submit to the authority of the Church or that of the funeral director, they now had control over the way they memorialized–rather than buried–the dead. Cremation, then, was a part of the undoing the traditions that hold society together.

Associated with this trend was the privatization of religious practices. As individuals began to exercise their options in this area, the authority over death practices moved away from religious institutions to individuals. But those individuals were not isolated from the world around them–rather, they were shaped by the new consumerism that dominated the post-WWII era. This utilitarian, individualistic approach to death was fostered in large part by the funeral homes who saw it as the only route to replace the lost revenues of caskets and burial plots.

Finally, the cremation movement contributed to the gnosticizing of the body in American culture. The strange blend of science and alternative religions combined to undercut traditional Christian teachings on the nature of humanity. What Christianity has consistently held in a constantly tendentious unity–the body and the soul–the cremation movement worked to rend asunder.

Christians, then, who are concerned about ensuring their practices reflect an orthodox Christian worldview would do well to reconsider cremation. And those who do reconsider their positions would do well to start with Prothero’s excellent history.