Voltairine de Cleyre, “Cremation” (1890)

For the Boston Investigator.


Mr. Editor:—An article in the Truth Seeker from the pen of A. B. Bradford upon the subject of cremation suggested to me the propriety of describing a visit to the Chelten Hills cemetery made by a friend and myself some months ago. Much of the prejudice prevailing among even Freethinkers against this method of disposing of the dead is owning to ignorance of the process of cremation, and the surrounding of the last home of the silent.

One bitter winter evening, by a queer accident, the manager of the Cremation Society called upon my friend, with the idea that the corpse of some cremationist lay in the house awaiting services. No such sad event having occurred, we fell to chatting on the comparative merits and demerits of burial and incineration, and being all of one mind, it is needless to say that undertakers, coffins, graves, and the rest of the barbaric paraphernalia of burial were speedily consigned to the past, in company with the incantations, altar lights, priestly garments, and lying funeral orations which are a part of the tyranny and waste of Christianity. The upshot of it was that we were invited to attend an incineration the following day, and examine the machinery of this pagan—and sensible—custom,

I do not clearly remember just whose fault it was (and, therefore, shall put it on my friend, which is a convenient way of shelving responsibility). But we missed the train which is regularly met by the visitors’ conveyance, and the result was a two mile tramp over the spongy country road, “up hill and down dale,” in a frame of mind and body which led me to devote the whole earth, and particularly the Reading railroad, to that big crematory down below, which God’s brightest angel is said to preside over. Why the Reading railroad? Well, because it is always behind time on every occasion, excepting when the passengers are, and then it beats the schedule.

But the days always have an ending, weariness has its own time of ceasing, bitterness and rancour are not immortal; and if the years are long enough for these to die in, I suppose I may soon forget the mud clogs, the hills, the lanes, the stumblings of that tedious walk, and learn to love the railroad as myself. At length out of the greenness, that even February could not kill, arose the small, neat dome of the Columbarium, and shortly after, we approach a flight of gray stone steps that led to the solemn house of ashes; for, do what you will, you cannot break the air of solemnity that always hangs around a place of memories.

The services we had expected to attend were over, but the manner of their holding is briefly explained. On passing through the vestibule you find yourself in a softly-lighted hall, of beautiful architecture, whose walls from wainscot to ceiling are line with small glass doors opening into niches wherein repose the urns which hold the ashes of the dead. The sort light comes through windows, stained to reject the harsher beams, and through them, and down from the dome, slows that quiet, somber shadow, that grayness-bearing hush upon its wings, which often broods in still places where a summer sun is dead. An echo rises from beneath you when you footfalls move upon the marble floor, as if some voice were calling gently, very gently, that its breath might not blow upon the dust in the niches. Opposite you, upon your entrance, is a small raised platform, from which any Faith or Unfaith may speak to those within the auditorium.

Sitting there in the silence one might think how vast the revolution Time has witnessed since the days of the introduction of burial by the early Christians. How fair are all things now, when from the same footplace may be spoken the blessing (save the mark) of Calvinism, the touching invocation of Spiritualism, the grandeur of Agnosticism bowing to the Unknown, or the sublimity of Atheism teaching above the coffin Race-immortality; how fair all this compared with that bygone day when, in the name of God, faggots were built for living victims, and earth depopulated to fill hell for the sake of appeasing heaven.

What an object lesson in the harmonizing spirit of Liberty! What a hall of learning for those backward-looking souls, who, accepting the facts of Freethought, seeing the evil wrought by Gods, and knowing how naught but Liberty ever brought harmony, yet fear to trust the principle, and in the name of Society murder, as did the bigots of old; who, in the name of the god, Purity, imprison men, in the name of the god, Property, rob men, in the name of the god, Order, do every crime for which they condemn Calvin when he sacrificed his fellow-beings to his god, Jehovah. A study-room, this Columbarium, where you, who sing hymns to Liberty, yet spit upon and mock her, may do well to learn.

Before the platform surrounded by a brass railing is a square enclosure, the floor of which is a trap. Upon this trap the coffin rests, covered by a black cloth so disposed, that at the close of the service the corpse sinks down unseen to the room below. Here the undertaker removes the body to the preparing room, where it is covered with strips of cloth soaked in alum water to prevent the clothing from catching fire, and is then suspended upon a long iron lever. This is rolled forward, and the body lowered till it rests within the heated retort. The lever is then withdrawn, the door closed, and in ninety minutes the body is reduced to a few pounds of fine white ashes.

In ninety minutes there is done that which years of slow decay would also do. Within the shroud of rose-colored light the body swiftly crumbles, and nothing remains to be a putrid sore beneath the skin of the earth, to mix its poison with the running streams that slake the thirst of the living, or to take up that ground the living need to use. No flame touches the body; the furnace fires are below, and only their hot breath passes up the flues that coil about the retort. The fire of coke is built nine hours before the incineration takes place, and the tremendous heat alone dissipates the oils and gases of the body, finally crumbling the bones.

The next day the ashes are removed and disposed as the friends desire. There are a number of urns within the Columbarium, others have been buried, others removed to their homes, and one, disposed as the writer would wish to be, her ashes sprinkled on the green lawn before the building, to mix with the grasses in the sunshine, to be blown by the straying wind as far as it might wander.

I do not know, but to those who sentiment clings to burial, and it never had anything but a sentimental foundation, let me say that to me cremation has not only all the logic, but all the poetry and beauty that can cling to the last service of life to death. Not to slow decomposition, not to the gnawing of worms, not to the black putrescence of underground decay, not to the darkness of the under earth, not to a selfish holding of the need of others, not to the base of a monument whose tall shaft mocks in its stoniness the loving hearts that bleed around it, not to the pomp of consecrated rot, but swiftly, brightly, in an aura of light, to go back to the winds, and the beams, and the life of the things which bless the race they have left.

Let me hope that these lines may set in motion the thoughts of some who have refused to think upon the subject, or who have deemed it not sufficiently important. It is important. It is important that we, by practical example, demonstrate our freedom from the fetich of the resurrection, upon which burial is based. It is important that we consider the health of the living, that we shall break as soon as possible the prejudice which prevails against cleanliness in favor of waste, disease, and filth. Civilization will never be worth the name as long as graveyards exist. They are a blot upon the century, and we should do what we can to remove the stain.

Voltairine de Cleyre.

P.S.—Greeley said, “the way to resume is to resume.” Since writing the preceding lines a number of us have resolved to materialize our sentiments, and the plan appears to me so good that I want to present it to my readers. The cost of cremation at Chelton Hills is $35,00. As this is rather too large a sum for any person in poor circumstances, or even sometimes those moderately situated, to pay all at once, we have resolved to form a society of thirty-five members, each of whom is to pay one dollar admission into the hands of a secretary-treasurer. Upon a death in the association, each member to pay an assessment of one dollar, and a new member to be admitted. In this way we shall secure the benefit of co-operation, pay only small amounts, and the probabilities are that no one member will ever pay the amount of a cremation certificate. Now let every one who “believes in cremation,” but who does not feel able to take out a certificate now, yet fears to die and have the expense of death upon his friends, write to us and help us fill the required number. The secretary is Mr. Jas. B. Elliott, of Friendship Liberal League, who may be addressed at 3515 Wallace Street, this city, and who will gladly furnish information concerning the project. Let us see who is ready to act his belief.

V. de Cleyre.

Philadelphia, Pa., July 26, 18[90].[note]The published date of 1886 is incorrect. A. B. Bradford’s article, “A Practical Reform,” appeared in “The Truth Seeker” on May 3, 1890.[/note]

Voltairine de Cleyre, “Cremation,” The Boston Investigator 60 no. 19 (August 13, 1890): 1.

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