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:
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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.