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:

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

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