Up in Smoke: Theosophy and the Revival of Cremation

Reprinted in the Winter 2009 issue of Quest magazine. Originally printed from the Cabinet of Wonders Web site: http://wunderkabinett.co.uk/damndata/index.php?/archives/992-Up-In-Smoke-Theosophy-and-the-Rvival-of-Cremation.html (Site no longer exists).

Theosophy is generally acknowledged as the grandparent of the New Age movement. H. P. Blavatsky’s potent blend of Eastern and Western mysticism was a formative influence on figures as diverse as the Austrian esotericist Rudolf Steiner; George Adamski, the first of the alleged UFO contactees; and L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology. Less well known is the small but significant role Theosophy played in the modern revival of cremation.

The year was 1876. The Theosophical Society was newly born, and HPB was hard at work on her magnum opus Isis Unveiled. Her loyal sidekick, Colonel Henry Olcott, was equally hard at work on more practical matters. In addition to taking care of HPB’s daily needs, the colonel was a tireless proselytizer for the new faith. He organized committees, addressed public meetings, composed pamphlets, and generally did his utmost to promulgate Theosophy in the face of considerable ridicule.

Theosophy was not the colonel’s only passion. He was also a member of the New York Cremation Society. Cremation, long considered a barbaric custom fit only for savages, was enjoying a newfound respectability thanks to the efforts of public health campaigners. Cemeteries, declared these radicals, were breeding grounds for germs and toxins. The rotting dead not only released noxious vapors into the atmosphere but also poisoned local water supplies. Surely it was obvious that the only hygienic way to dispose of a cadaver was to reduce it to sterile ashes?

The New York Cremation Society lacked only two things: a body to cremate and a crematorium in which to cremate it. The first deficiency was solved by the timely arrival of an impoverished Bavarian aristocrat named Baron Joseph Henry Louis Charles De Palm. De Palm entered New York carrying only a trunk and a letter of introduction to Colonel Olcott. The colonel was so impressed by the baron's “engaging manners” that he appointed him to the ruling council of the Theosophical Society. Sadly, the elderly baron's health was failing fast. He died in May 1876, leaving all his worldly goods to Olcott. His final request was that his body should be disposed of “in a fashion that would illustrate the Eastern notions of death and immortality.” In short, the baron wished to be cremated.

“Here, at last, was the chance of having a body to burn,” enthused the colonel in his memoirs, Old Diary Leaves. Here too was a chance to show the world how the Theosophical Society honored its dead. The colonel and HPB set to work devising an elaborate funeral ceremony to be held in New York’s Masonic Temple. After the ceremony, Baron De Palm’s body was to be handed over to the New York Cremation Society, which would organize the actual incineration.

The press greeted the announcement of the first Theosophical funeral service with ghoulish delight. The New York World printed a lengthy lampoon about it, predicting that Colonel Olcott would officiate dressed as an Egyptian priest while attended by a retinue of slaves bearing cider and asparagus. The colonel—who rarely bore a grudge—thought it “one of the wittiest burlesques” he had ever read. The New York Cremation Society, however, was not amused. They sent Olcott a curt note lamenting that "they would have to give up the cremation because of the great noise that the papers had made about the funeral and their attacks upon the Theosophical Society.”

The colonel was outraged that “these respectable moral cowards dared not face the ridicule and animosity which had been excited against us innovators.” Moreover, he now had a decaying cadaver on his hands and no way to dispose of it. The ceremony, of course, would go ahead as planned. After all, the Theosophical Society had already issued 2000 tickets to an expectant public eager to attend. But what of the cremation? The colonel considered burning the corpse in the open air, but the civic authorities made it plain they would not tolerate such an outrage. In despair, he hastily embalmed the body using potter’s clay and carbolic acid. Now that the baron had been put on ice, so to speak, the problem of his disposal was no longer quite so urgent.

On the day of the ceremony, the Masonic Hall was packed to the rafters with a boisterous crowd, who appeared to the colonel to be “in a dangerous mood.” Outside, a line of policemen struggled to control the tide of people trying to force their way into the building.
“It was easy to see that the multitude had come to gratify its curiosity, certainly not to evince either respect for the dead or sympathy with the Theosophical Society,” wrote the colonel. “It was just in that uncertain mood when the least unexpected and sensational incident might transform it into the wild beast that an excited crowd becomes at times.”

The “unexpected incident” was not long in coming. The baron's coffin (decorated with mystic symbols by Madame Blavatsky) rested on a Masonic altar surrounded by seven candles representing the seven planets. A small group of Theosophists stood nearby, waving palm leaves to keep evil spirits at bay. The colonel was conducting the ceremony in person, assisted by a Methodist preacher (a relation of one of the Theosophists).

“There is but one first cause, uncreated,” he began, launching into the litany Madame Blavatsky had prepared for him. At this, the Methodist leapt out of his seat, gesticulating wildly. “That's a lie!” he shouted dramatically. As one, the audience rose to their feet, eager to see what would happen next.

“Some of the rougher sort mounted the chairs, and, looking towards the stage, seemed ready to take part in fighting or skirmishing in case such should break out,” recalled the colonel. “Stepping quietly forward, I laid my left hand upon the Baron’s coffin, faced the audience, stood motionless and said nothing. In an instant there was a dead silence of expectancy; whereupon, slowly raising my right hand, I said very slowly and solemnly: ‘We are in the presence of death!’ and then waited.

“The psychological effect was very interesting and amusing to me, who have for so many years been a student of crowds. The excitement was quelled like magic, and then in the same voice as before, and without the appearance of even having been interrupted, I finished the sentence of the litany —‘eternal, infinite, unknown.’”

As the troublesome Methodist was led away by the police, Madame Blavatsky, seated among the audience, stood up and pointed accusingly at him. “He's a bigot—that's what he is!” she yelled indignantly. The crowd burst into laughter, and any remaining tension was harmlessly dissipated. The ceremony proceeded without further incident, and even the skeptical press had to acknowledge that the colonel had conducted himself masterfully.

The actual cremation did not take place until six months later. By then, Colonel Olcott had come into his inheritance, which proved far less lucrative than the baron had led him to expect. The press reported that Baron De Palm had bequeathed the colonel two Swiss castles and 20,000 acres of farmland, as well as shares in numerous gold and silver mines. In fact, he died quite penniless. The first thing the colonel found upon opening the baron’s trunk was two of his own shirts, “from which the stitched name-mark had been picked out.” The remaining contents comprised a bronze bust, several unpaid bills, some faded letters from “actresses and prima donnas,” and various legal documents that proved quite worthless.

To add insult to injury, a rumor somehow got around that Baron De Palm was the true author of Isis Unveiled. The colonel was outraged by this calumny. After all, the baron had possessed neither “literary talent, erudition, nor scholastic tastes.” Even worse, he turned out to have been a convicted fraudster. The idea that such a man could have composed the founding text of Theosophy was clearly absurd. All in all, Colonel Olcott rued the day he ever crossed paths with Baron De Palm. Nevertheless, he was a man of his word. He had promised the baron a cremation, and a cremation he would have.

An opportunity to be rid of the baron finally arose when the colonel read in his morning paper that an eccentric Pennsylvania physician, Dr. Francis Lemoyne, had ordered the construction of a private crematorium for the disposal of his own remains. Olcott immediately wrote to Dr. Lemoyne asking if he might bring Baron De Palm to be incinerated in the new facility. The doctor gladly consented. And so, on December 6, 1876, the baron was finally consigned to the flames.

The colonel had, of course, ensured that the press was in attendance. Indeed, considering that the baron’s body was the first to be cremated in the United States, it would have been hard to keep them away. Unfortunately, the sight of the baron’s mummified remains proved rather too much for the pressmen to stomach. “No spectacle more horrible was ever shown to mortal eyes,” wrote one. Another lamented that “for all the ceremony that was observed, one might have supposed that the company had been assembled to have a good time over a roast pig.”

Theosophical Society - Henry Olcott Cremation Memorial Nevertheless, the incineration itself went without a hitch. Colonel Olcott was delighted to observe “how clean and esthetical this mode of sepulture is in contrast with that of burial.” Afterwards, the Colonel and Dr. Lemoyne made their way to the town hall to address a public meeting on the subject of cremation. Then the colonel returned to New York carrying the baron’s ashes with him in a “Hindu urn.” He later scattered them in the harbor “with an appropriate, yet simple, ceremonial,” as he described it.

“And thus it came about that the Theosophical Society not only introduced Hindu philosophical ideas into the United States, but also the Hindu mode of sepulture,” wrote the colonel with obvious satisfaction. Naturally, he hoped that when the time came, his own body would also be “reduced to harmless ashes” so as not to “become a peril to the living.”

Colonel Olcott lived for a further three decades, finally passing away in India in 1907. A simple stone monument marks the spot in Adyar, India, where he was cremated. The inscription reads: “Henry Steel Olcott, Colonel of the U. S. A. Army, president, founder of the Theosophical Society. On the spot his body was given back to the elements by fire, February 17, 1907. May he soon return.”

This article is reprinted from the Cabinet of Wonders Web site: http://www.wunderkabinett.co.uk/damndata/index.php?/archives/992-Up-in-Smoke-Theosophy-and-the-Revival-of-Cremation.html (Site no longer exists).