No Casket, No Flowers

Thomas Lynch

  • Committed to the Cleansing Flame: The Development of Cremation in 19th-Century England by Brian Parsons
    Spire, 328 pp, £34.95, November 2005, ISBN 1 904965 04 0

Mostly I remember the quick pearlescent cloud, the puff of white it made in the rush of current, when I dumped Hughey’s ashes in the water. And watching what remained of him disappear downstream, I thought of the masked man riding off at the end of that cowboy show I watched as a boy: ‘A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty Hi-Yo Silver! The Lone Ranger!’

There goes Hughey now, I thought, the lone ranger, a cloud of dust, hi-yo silver. The little bone fragments, bits and pieces of him, glistened in the gravel bed of the Water of Leith while his cloud of dust quickly worked its way in the current downstream to the eventual river mouth and out, I supposed, into the Firth of Forth and the North Sea. I dipped the little metal disc with his ID number on it –1763-99 – in the water, washing the dust off it, and slipped it into my pocket.

I snapped a photo for the file back at the funeral home, in case any of his family would want to see the little waterfall and the leafy banks of the river tucked into the west end of the ancient city that had become old Hughey’s final resting place. In my notebook, I wrote: ‘13 August 2000, dumped Hugh MacSwiggan’s ashes in the Water of Leith near Dean Parish Church and Cemetery, Edinburgh.’ I crossed back over the river by Dean Path and Bells Brae, to Queensferry Street then left at Hope and into Charlotte Square, the site of the Edinburgh Book Festival.

Brian Parsons’s Committed to the Cleansing Flame chronicles a ritual shift coincident with the Industrial Revolution. Just as the plough and pasture gave way to the furnace and factory, the grave has given way to the cremator. And the ‘sacred remains’, as the mortuary historian Gary Laderman calls the bodies of the dead, have become portable, divisible and more scattered than the centuries of our species’ dead before them. The way we dispose of the dead has changed and their place in the landscapes of our towns and consciousness has been downsized and, in some ways, disappeared.

Like Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America by Stephen Prothero (2001), Committed to the Cleansing Flame is a comprehensively researched, thoroughly annotated, impressively appendixed and richly illustrated text. Both books make a titular nod to the central and requisite shift that made the burning of dead bodies palatable to Western Christian cultures. That societies accustomed to burying treasure and burning the trash have given way, in the space of a hundred years, to landfills and crematoria, required the remarketing of fire. Once associated with destruction, damnation and waste management, fire has been transfigured into something cleansing, purifying, spiritually freeing and corporeally ‘clean’. Eastern metaphor has met Western myth. Hellfire has become the funeral pyre. The shift, as Parsons’s study makes plain, has not been easy or seamless. Though doctors and scientists, pagans and theosophists, druids and Zen Buddhists, funeral reformers and closet Communists were among cremation’s many promoters, the practice was met early on with great resistance in the mortuary and religious marketplaces. Bishops and dismal traders, green-burialists and estate agents were among the most vocal naysayers. Law and order sorts worried that foul play might go for ever undetected if corpses were cremated. Parsons quotes a sermon given by the Bishop of Lincoln in Westminster Abbey on 5 July 1874:

Brethren, more than fourteen hundred years have now passed away, since the flames of funeral piles, which once blazed in all parts of the Roman Empire, have been extinguished by Christianity. And now it is proposed by some to rekindle them in London and in other great cities of Christendom. We are assured that on the grounds of public health and public economy, this is necessary … If the reverential care of the living for the bodies of their departed friends is impaired, its moral and social, and religious condition will decline also. The substitution of burning for burial would be a falling back from Christianity to Heathenism, even as Paganism itself was a lapse from primitive religion.

This homily and others like it were prompted by the appearance in the Contemporary Review of January 1874 of an article by Sir Henry Thompson – physician, surgeon, nutritionist, porcelain collector, artist, novelist and father of the modern cremation movement – entitled ‘The Treatment of the Body after Death’:

After detailing the post-mortem changes occurring to the body and the cycle of returning elements to the earth to contribute to the creation process, he mentioned ‘graveyard pollution of air and water’ before discussing methods of disposal of the dead and focusing on the solution offered by cremation. Most controversially, Sir Henry suggested the use of bones as fertiliser and regretted that burial wasted half a million pounds of precious bones and earth each year.

Thompson had been to the Great Exhibition in Vienna the year before, and had witnessed a cremation performed by an Italian pathologist. In Italy, the cremation movement had political associations with the liberal, secular, intellectual elements of the culture. But Thompson was simply looking for an alternative to burial, a more practical method of disposing of the bodies of the citizens of an island nation with dense population centres.

‘When I’m gone just cremate me,’ Hughey MacSwiggan told his third and final wife as she stood at his bedside while the hospice nurse fiddled with the morphine drip that hadn’t kept his pain at bay. The operative word was ‘just’. He didn’t see burning as an alternative to burial so much as an alternative to bother. He just wanted it all to be over – the cancer, the second-guessing, the wondering whether he’d done irreparable harm, what with the years of drinking, the divorces, all of that carry-on. He just wanted it all behind him. ‘When I’m dead just cremate me,’ he told them all. And so they did. They dispensed with the church and the priest and procession, the mass and graveside and monument. ‘Never mind the marines,’ his children said, when I told them his service during World War Two, island hopping in the South Pacific, skirmishing with the Japanese, entitled him to military honours. ‘Daddy didn’t want any of that.’ No casket, no flowers, no eulogists or limousines, no obits, no open-bar party to follow. He was ‘just’ cremated, without witness or rubric, blather or brouhaha. His body was placed on a plywood pallet, covered with a cardboard carapace, loaded into our hearse and driven to a site towards the back of an industrial park where a company that makes burial vaults operates a retort on the side. A couple of their staff helped me roll Hughey onto a hydraulic lift and push the pallet into the retort, close the door and push the red button that started the fire that burned his body. Three hours later, when everything had cooled, his larger bone structures were ‘processed’ into a finer substance and all of it placed in a plastic bag inside a plastic box with a label that bore his name and dates and the logo of the crematorium and all of it, this greatly reduced version of Hughey, given back to me to take back to our place to await a decision from his family about what would be done.

If there is a difference between the practice of cremation in the US and the UK, it is that in Britain the living still go the distance with their dead. Cremation, like burial, is attended, witnessed and ritualised in Britain; in the United States, it is mostly accomplished behind closed doors by functionaries like me, while family and friends are elsewhere, distanced, if not from the concept of death, then from the corpse. In Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve, Sandra Gilbert writes: ‘Predicated on either the tenets of grief therapy or those of spiritualist counselling, peculiarly cheerful do-it-yourself memorial services focus on “celebrations of the life” of the “departed” rather than the pain that his departure caused.’[*] Such services are marked by the good laugh, uplifting talk, ‘life-affirming’ music and happy photos of the dead. The reverend clergy are invited, or a secular ‘celebrant’, whose job it is to declare ‘closure’ just before the Merlot runs out. Such events represent the ceremonial equivalent of a baptism without the baby, or a wedding without the bride and groom.

The accompaniment of the corpse to its final disposition remains a fixture of funeral rites in the UK – indeed, in almost every culture outside America. Thus, much of the history Parsons records is the history of rail and livery connections, and their related costs, between London and Woking, the first public crematorium in the UK. Since reducing ‘obsequial expenditure’ was among the reasons for promoting cremation, it had to be shown that money could, in fact, be saved. Parsons includes detailed construction plans not only for the furnace, but for the ‘chapel’ or gathering space that would be required for the services that would precede the burning of the body. Eventually, organs and stained glass and all the usual accoutrements of church became fixtures at Woking and other British crematoria. Parsons also records the ‘not in my backyard’ arguments that have always surrounded the building of crematoria. The objections voiced by the vicar of Woking in a letter to the Times on 31 December 1878, were typical:

Had the promoters of this scheme made choice of a site in a secluded spot remote from dwelling-houses and contiguous to one of our railway stations, they might possibly have carried on their business without injury and annoyance to anybody … but, as a matter of fact, the site selected is almost in the centre of the parish, in the midst of a growing neighbourhood, and is in close proximity to private residences, cottages, shops &c.: it is absolutely alongside of the public highway leading to the County Lunatic Asylum and the Government Convalescent Prison.

Woking crematorium’s first client, Jeannette Caroline Pickersgill, was cremated on 26 March 1885, nine years after the first ‘modern’ cremation in North America.

Cremation in the UK and in America was the exception until the middle of the 20th century. World wars, the bombed graveyards of Britain and Europe, the nuclear stand-off of the long Cold War, Jessica Mitford and the removal of the ban by the Catholic Church in 1963 all contributed to the chronology detailed in Committed to the Cleansing Flame. In 1967, the number of cremations exceeded the number of burials in the UK, and now more than 70 per cent of the dead in Britain are burned. The US cremates at about half that rate.

As for Hughey, it wasn’t so much that he wanted to be scattered as that his life was marked by a certain lack of focus. He returned from the South Pacific skinny, malarial and alcoholic, married the first woman he impregnated, bought a bungalow in the suburbs and went to work selling insurance. After a son and a daughter and more trouble with drink, his wife left him. He married again, fathered again, got fired from the agency and divorced again. There followed a decade of brief incarcerations, a bankruptcy filing, and court-ordered treatment for alcoholism. He joined AA, got sober, opened his own insurance office and married Annette after she’d kept his fledgling business afloat for ten years. They never had any children, but she kept him solvent and upright, made him take her out to dinner and dancing and mended his relations with his children. They had grown into adults he loved and admired and had children of their own who thought of Hughey as a kindly ‘Papa’. Still, lost in the shuffle of those sad years was any sense of family ground or groundedness. So when I pressed them on the disposition of Hughey’s ashes, none could come up with a location that was especially ‘special’ to all or any of them. And they weren’t keen to buy a plot at one of the theme-park style cemeteries, or a niche in one of the local columbaria. Hughey was neither pious nor spendthrift. They looked at one another blankly when I asked them where Hughey might have wanted to be in perpetuity.

‘Scotland,’ Annette whispered.

‘Scotland?’ the eldest daughter asked. ‘When was he ever in Scotland?’

Annette explained that he’d never been, but it was a place he’d always wanted to go. He never had the time, wouldn’t spend the money, and was frightened of drinking there – single malts and a range of down-market Scotches having been his drugs of choice back in the day when he was known as ‘friggin MacSwiggin’ in the local bars.

‘Can you get him to Scotland, Tom? Or even Ireland, next time you go? Can you get him that far and just cast him to the wind – surely something of him will make it to over there.’

‘Actually, I think I can,’ I said. When the X-ray at the airport showed ‘some dense packaging’ in my luggage, I told the security guard it was Hughey’s cremated remains, and asked if she’d like to inspect them further. She shook her head and let me pass. I did not declare Hughey at customs at Heathrow, kept my own counsel on the train ride north, and said nothing checking in at the Channings Hotel. I considered the gardens off Princes Street, or maybe a corner of the castle grounds, but the festival-goers made those impossible. I even toyed with the notion of leaving him in a pub near Waverley Station. Maybe a fellow pilgrim would find him there and put him to some providential use. But it was the view from Dean Bridge, the deep valley, the ‘dene’ that names the place, the river working its way below under the generous overhang of trees, the scale of it all and the privacy, that decided me. I made my way down into Belgrave Crescent, where I found an open, unlocked gate to the private gardens there. But it was a little too perfect, too rose-gardeny and manicured, and I was drawn by the sound and sense of water. So I went out and around past the Dean parish church, and the graveyard where David Octavius Hill is buried. I made my way down to the water by the footpath, and walking back in the direction of the bridge, I found a small waterfall, apparently the site of an old mill, and poured Hughey’s ashes out – some into the curling top waters and the rest into the black circling pool below. I knelt down to do it and watched till every bit of him was gone.

[*] Norton, 576 pp., $29.95, January, 0 393 05131 5.