Ashes to Ashes: Cremation Arose from Occult Practices?

Ashes to Ashes: Cremation Arose from Occult Practices? September 10, 2013

I don’t tend to like sharing pieces from news aggregator Huffington Post (because they do not pay their bloggers, even though they can well afford to); but this fascinating piece, inspired by a cover story in TIME, explores the roots of cremation in America, and how it was first practiced and popularized by one of the co-founders of the Theosophical Society, Henry Steel Olcott, a retired Civil War colonel.

Author Mitch Horowitz (also an editor at Tarcher/Penguin), notes that the TIME article fails to explore the origins of this increasingly popular practice. Presumably drawing upon the research done for his book Occult Nation: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation, Horowitz explains that the first public cremation performed in the United States was described as a “genuine pagan funeral” and included incense, candles and other trappings of occult pageantry. The dramatic event is described thusly:

The day of the service began with an air of tension. A crush of onlookers assembled early at the gates of Masonic Hall, drawn by press reports that promised  “a genuine pagan funeral.” Inside the hall, the service turned into a combination of occult pageant and public exposition for the nascent Theosophical Society. Olcott, playing the role of high priest, bestrode a stage that displayed the Baron’s body in a rosewood casket, at the head of which stood a cross with a serpent wrapped around it, spelling out TS, the initials of the society. Seven men draped in long black robes and holding palms surrounded the coffin, while the atmosphere in the hall was filled with Orphic hymns, the smell of burning incense, the flickering of colored candles, and the chanting of mystical incantations.”

Of course, many modern pagans have agreed for years that “traditional” burial practices are unnecessarily invasive, expensive and environmentally unsound, and have called for “green” burial practices to be implemented and made legal. But many pagans also opt for cremation after death. However, the process itself is as clinical and far removed from mourners as embalming is now. What would have to happen in order for public funeral pyres to become acceptable? Or is that even something we’re ready for?

I’d settle for having the option to eschew embalming and non-biodegradable casket materials altogether.


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  • That books sounds promising! I first read about this subject in Steven Prothero’s book _Purified by Fire,_ which is also a good read.