Via the Huffington Post, Mitch Horowitz reveals how the practice of cremating the dead came to the United States – partially as an anti-vampire measure – and kindled anti-pagan riots and panic in New York City:
Cremation was introduced to America in the 1870s by a retired Civil War colonel, Henry Steel Olcott, with a deep interest in the esoteric and paranormal. Since leaving the military, he had become an investigator of ghostly phenomena and a globetrotting advocate for the rights of Hindus and Buddhists.
While cremation possessed ancient roots, it was little known among Americans. Indeed, to most late nineteenth-century Westerners, the concept of cremation seemed otherworldly and even un-Christian.
But Olcott saw cremation (mostly) as a social reform: more sanitary than burial, a deterrent to disease, and a help in freeing up land and labor from inefficient burials. And then there was the deterrence of vampirism, which Olcott took seriously: “…there are no vampires save countries where the dead are buried.”
To promote the practice, Olcott organized the nation’s first public cremation service — or “pagan funeral,” as the press called it — at New York’s Masonic Hall on the westside of Manhattan. So controversial was the idea of cremation, that the proceedings on May 28, 1876, caused a near riot and raised cries that the colonel was spreading heathen rites in the city.
While New York’s “pagan funeral” is long forgotten, cremations today account for about 40 percent of all American passages. This represents just one way in which ideas introduced by occult movements have transformed American life — and death.
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