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vol. 4, p. 27
from Adyar archives of the International Theosophical Society
vol. 4 (1875-1878)


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The "High toned" Tribune’ Dec. 7. 1876

The Cremation Folly

The Baron de Palm is now only a little heap of ashes. Our correspondent vividly describes the ceremonies of the cremation of his mummified body, and the account will be read with mingled curiosity and disgust. In the mere fact of cremation there is nothing repulsive, though many persons view it with repugnance because of custom. That is a beautiful feeling which causes those who have lost a friend to look upon the mound where his form crumbles into dust as a sacred spot, yet it is only a feeling which grows out of habit. The ancients paid respect to their dead by burning their bodies. The description of the funeral pyre of Patroclus is one of the finest episodes of the "Iliad." In England cremation was frequent, as Sir Thomas Broune has shown in his "Urn Burial" In later days the body of Shelley, killed by water, was finally destroyed by fire on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The disposal of the dead body is of small importance if it is attended with respect to the survivors and accords with the laws of health.

But such a scene as that at Washingion, Pa., yasterday, when the Baron de Palm's remains were burned, is simply a farce. There was no reason for the ceremony. The body had been embalmed, and had lost nearly all of its weight. It should have been left to crumble in the grave. Instead of that charity Colonel Olcott and other well meaning theorists dragged the poor corpse from its tomb and made it a spectacle for fools to jeer and clowns to despise. Not one scientific purpose was served by the cremation. It was proved that a mummy could be burned, but that was known before. The Egyptians for ages plundered their ancestral sepulchres to kindle festal fires along the banks of the Nile. Cheops became kindling wood, and Pharaoh was taken from the Pyramids to cook the dinner of an Egyptian Zellah. But this cremation ceremony in a small Pennsylvania town was merely a desecration. The obscene jokes, the heartless levity, the absence of any useful purpose, the scandalous management are faithfully depicted by our correspondent, and the result will be inevitably to bring the whole theory of cremation into contempt, which it does not really deserve.

<Untitled> (The historic, scientific and literary aspects)

The historic, scientific and literary aspects of the cremation question are fully discussed by The World correspondent who attended the last funeral of Baron de Palm ; the whole is illustrated by a graphic picture of the scenes which took place in Washington, Pa., yesterday. It is against cremation in our day, that every instance of it seems a mere piece of pastime or an experiment. A corpse is roasted in an oven as carelesly as if the whole affair were the barbecue of an ox. Grief, reverence, delicacy, religion, all are absent, and no matter how many arguments are brought in favor of a funeral in which these are wanting, humanity will not be convinced of its fitness. We may feel that it would be better to be changed into. “two handfuls of white dust shut in an urn of brass,” than moulder away in an oblong box underground ; but until something of the pious care that watches over human dust is bestowed upon human ashes, cremation will not be popular. The philosophers must learn a little reference if they would advance their theories.

Baron de Palm Cremated

A Strange and Forbidden Spectacle in the Town of Washington, PA.

Washington, Pa.,December 6.

“ One tourch of fire,
And all the rest is mystery !”

When in 1873 The World, in series of papers following close upon the remarcable publication in England by Sir Henry Thompson, explained the arguments of the advocates of the creation of the dead, a very unusual interest was displayed. in connection with the subject by several classes of readers. On successive Sundays The World gave a portion of its space to the discussion, which had a practical effect. Whatever dormant repugnance existed in American minds to the interment and slow corruption of corpses in the earth, then had an opportunity of public expression. All the urgency which could be used in favor of the method of burning was employed. The result is, to-day's cremation of the remains of Baron de Palm.

Assuming the population of the world to be 200,000,000–which is 177,500,000 less than the figures given in the latest statistics–then 30,000, 000 die every year, 2,625,000 every month, 82,192 every day, 3,425 every hour, 60 every minute. In 1870 there were 492,263 deaths in the United States alone. The death-rate in the city of New York has for several years ranged from 27 to 33. of the 1,000 inhabitants. The arguments of the cremationists against the interment of these dead and in favor of their incineration are based on three statements:

First–That the burial of the dead in the earth is unhealthy and often fatal to the living.

Second–That the burning of the dead, in the manner prescribed by modern science, is innocuous.

Third–That the preservation of the remains, in a form not abhorrent, is accomplished by reducing them to ahes.

Sir Henry Thompson, reinforced by somewhat less than a thousand medical and statistical authorities, proved the fearful consequences to the health of certain communities of the injudicious management and occasional digging-up of graveyards. Ten years ago, in 318 acres inside the city of London, 1,500,000 persons were buried. The death-rate near the cemeteries comprising those acres was much larger than elsewhere. There is no doubt that emanations from burial-ground are noxious. Dr. Walker stated in the Journal of Public Health that a single inspiration of the product of human putrefaction has in numberless instances destroyed life, and that it has in other instances induced consumption, typhoid and scarlet fevers. From a single coffin unadvisedly opened in Dijon in 1773 there was emitted such an effluvia; that of 170 рersons present 140 were seized with a putrid and malignant disease, which assumed an epidemic character throughout the city. In New Orleans, after visitations of yellow fever, recurrent effects have been distinctly traced to the burial-places of the victims. Local epidemics where graveyards are disturbed, poisoning from wells sunk near graveyards–these and kindred effects resulting from the present method of interment have been, it is fair to say, distinctly proven.

The consequences, too, of intramural interment are shown to be injurious to the living in numerous instances.

The opponents of human burial say it is all vicious, and ought to be done away with. They would substitute cremation–if not exactly the process of cremation which has been followed to-day, at least some process.

It is a grave matter. It ought to be considered not only in the heat of the furnace which bas baked the Baron de Palm, but in all the light, that can be thrown upon it.

The methods of disposing of the dead, adopted in the past were many. They often included burning. Egypt had its corpses embalmed and preserved in coffins of imperishable wood. Stored in the cities they bred a pestilence. The Egyptians built the Pyramids upon the plains, and there at least the blackened, shrivelled bodies of their ancestors found a long rest wich the curiocity of decent ages prevented from being eternal. No museum is now complete without it’s mummy. Ethiopia, like Egypt, believed that the spirit of the dead would always inhabit the body. The Ethiopians undertook, therefore, to preserve their corpses carefully, but upon another plan–they inclosed them in columns of glass, placing them upright like statues. The Hebrews and the Assyrians interred their dead after embalming them ; though Saul and his three sons were burned, and Asa was burned with extraordinary pomp. Cremation was always adopted by the ancient Jews when they wished te[4] render extraordinary distinction to the fallen. The Massaget*[5]–killed their old men and ate them, on the plea that they would enjoy their youth again in the the veins of their descendants. The Hindoo surrounded the dead with all fancies his poetical religion gave birth to. Fire, the principle of life, embraced the body, released to the winds the matters composing it, which, borne back to the elements from which they came, were united to the god the dead adored. On the contrary the Persians refused either to burn or bury. For them the sacred fire must not be polluted by touch of corpse, nor must the earth, be soiled, by its contact. Their dead were inclosed in wax and deposited in wild places or on high mountains, where they might be eaten and carried away by carrion. The Greeks at first burned or buried, indifferently. Devotion to the memory of their ancestors, which lay at the bottom of their religion, demanded the care and finally the preservation in some form of their remains. With the Greeks the rite of burning was solemn and beautiful. It may be well at this time for the advecates of cremation to take into account the difference not only between the empressive spectacle of the burning of Patroclus and the scientitic roasting of the Baron de Palm, but between the poetical anscients who sanctioned the former proceeding and the cold conservative Anglo-Saxons who will shudder at the latter one. Says Homer (translated Mr. Bryant) of the funeral of Patroclus :

They who had the dead in charge
Remained, and helped the wood, and built the pyre
A hundred feet each way from side to side.
With sorrowful hearts they raised and laid the corse
Upon the summit. Then they flayed and dressed
Before it many fatlings of the flock
And oxen with curved feet and crooked horns.
From these magnanimous Achilles took
The fat, and covered with it carefully
The dead from head to foot ; beside the bier,
And leaning towards it, jars of honey and oil
He placed ; and flnng[6] with many a deep-drawn sigh
Twelve high-necked steers upon the pile. Nine hounds
There were which from the table of the Prince
Were daily fed ; of these Achilles struck
The heads from two, and laid them on the wood.

After Achilles had added the twelve gallant sons of brave Trojan, Boreas and Zephyr were invoked to breathe upon the lighted fire, and all night the swift-footed of Pelens fed the flame with a double beaker from a golden jar of oil. When the fire burned low –

First thiey quenched with dark ređ wine
The fire where'er the flames had spread, and where
Lay the deep ashes ; then with many tears
Gathered the white bones of the their gentle friend
And laid them in a golden vase, wrapped round
With cane a double fold. With the tents
They placed them softly, wrapped in delicate lawn,
Then drew a circle for the sepulture,
And laying its foundations to inclose the pyre
They heaped the earth, and having reared the mound,

The early Romans interred their dead, but during the republic burning was introduced. The corpse of Scylla was one of the first of the Romans burned. In the meanwhile burning was by no means confined to the Southern nations. The Druids disposed of their dead by fire, with lofty and severe ceremonies. The Gauls brought to the close of life a gorgeous fiery pageant. Even the Dano delighted in a lofty pile with high wavering flames. He knew no other way to honor the memory of princes–no worse way than burial to degrade a criminal.

But here Christianity intervened. In Rome and througout Northern Europe it extinguished, as it spread, every funeral torch. The doctrine of the resurrection of the body seemed to require its preliminary burial ; and few devout Christians have since been found to approve of any other method of disposing of the dead. Still there have been notable modern instances of creamation in Europe. Shelley's <... continues on page 4-28 >

Editor's notes

  1. The Cremation Folly by unknown author, High toned Tribune, The
  2. The historic, scientific and literary aspects by unknown author, World, The, Thursday, December 7, 1876
  3. Baron de Palm Cremated by J.B.S., World, The
  4. So in text.
  5. No footnote found
  6. So in text.