De Palm's incineration
October 4, 2012 12:26 PM   Subscribe

In May 1876, Baron Joseph Henry Louis Charles De Palm died, leaving his worldy goods to Theosophical Society president H.S. Olcott with the request that his body be disposed of “in a fashion that would illustrate the Eastern notions of death and immortality." And so, after what the press called a "Pagan Funeral" in New York and with the help of Pennsylvania doctor Francis LeMoyne, his became the first modern cremation in the United States. The New York Times of 1876 covered both funeral and cremation. (That is, if you can stand to read grainy pdf scans of old newsprint.) In Winter 2009, a theosophist telling of events was published in the American society's quarterly, Quest magazine. Olcott himself devoted several chapters to De Palm's story in his Old Diary Leaves.
posted by Lorin (10 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
The 1876 Times article on the cremation contains perhaps the only written instance of the words "one may ejaculate very appropriately."
posted by Nomyte at 12:37 PM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

If I had been a Heathen,
I'd have piled my pyre on high,
And in a great red whirlwind
Gone roaring to the sky;
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And a richer man than I:
And they put him in an oven,
Just as if he were a pie.
posted by No Robots at 12:39 PM on October 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

I grew up in the neighborhood that Olcott worked and died in -- Adyar, in Chennai, India. It's always interesting to see posts like this because the Theosophical Society headquarters were so close by and almost every street and landmark near my house had some association with it. The Olcott Memorial High School. Besant Nagar, named after Annie Besant, theosophist, socialist and feminist and supporter of Indian independence. The renowned dance academy -- Kalakshetra -- founded by Rukmini Devi Arundale, who scandalized Indian society by falling in love with and marrying George Arundale, an English theosophist nearly 25 years her senior. The KFI school based on Jiddu Krishnamurti's teachings. The Theosophical Society grounds themselves are an amazing green lung in the city, and my parents and I often went for walks in their zealously protected woods.
posted by peacheater at 12:50 PM on October 4, 2012

He realized that, not only can you not take it with you, but also, you can't come back and get it later.

When I die, take my ashes to Muir Pass and throw them to the wind. If I die on the trail, please roll me downhill far enough that I don't scare the mules. I'll feed the bugs and add my bones to the soil. Summer pretty faces will love me, and the small lupine will be thankful.

No. When I die, take my ashes to the spaceport, and take me into orbit around the moon, and then poof me out the airlock, let me drift down to the surface of the moon. Please, do this on the side facing away from Earth. I promise to be inconspicuous.

No. Take me to Mars. Stand at the rim of Valles Marinares and enjoy the view for a while before you toss my little crockpot over the edge. I want to hit the slope at speed, and mix my scatter with whatever I can kick up from the dry cold sands of Mars. I'll settle down, or scatter with the rest of it, and I promise I won't make trouble, but I may show up in the occasional dust-devil.

Don't put me in the cold ground in a box under a blanket of overcut grass, in a field of dead bodies. I won't like it there. I promise I will send what soul I have left to hunt you down and make you sorry you didn't get rid of me when you had the chance.
posted by mule98J at 12:57 PM on October 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Purified by Fire kept coming up in searches but unfortunately there's nothing beyond reviews available online. Apparently this story was big news at the time, carried as far away as New Zealand. Curse these newspapers and their ridiculous archive methods.

As far as my own remains, I believe I'll follow the more humble philosophy of John Prine.
posted by Lorin at 1:38 PM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Theosophy is basically metaphysical ideas from India (reincarnation, karma) grafted on to elements of Western occultism - is that right?
posted by thelonius at 1:45 PM on October 4, 2012

Blavatsky called theosophy "the archaic Wisdom-Religion, the esoteric doctrine once known in every ancient country having claims to civilization." But, by all accounts, her masters were from India and much of her studies were done there and (allegedly) in Tibet, so I think that's an accurate enough description. She was indeed responsible for spreading the idea of reincarnation in America and Isis Unvelied does read like a sampler of every sort of occult science and eastern religion.
posted by Lorin at 2:04 PM on October 4, 2012

Most of the pagan-type people I know seem to be eagerly syncretistic. It seems like the 19th century seers were no different!
posted by thelonius at 5:57 PM on October 4, 2012

I hate the idea of being buried in some confining box in the ground. When I die, let my atoms be scattered widely, to feed the birds, bugs and plants, so I will live on forever.

Although, having said that, my preference is that my ashes be scattered over Angelina Jolie.
posted by SPrintF at 8:15 PM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I die, there will be no remains, nor anyone to do anything with them. Everything will be gone. This is all my dream.
posted by Goofyy at 6:15 AM on October 5, 2012

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