The Burning of the Dead
by Lafcadio Hearn
The strong feeling in favor of cremation both at home and abroad is a sign of the times. It is true this feeling is by no means that of a great majority as yet; but it is the feeling of a very intelligent and imposing minority which has the power to make convertsd rapidly in multitude. The mind of the nineteenth century is undergoing a reaction in favor of ancient funeral rites and pagan common sense. Is this because we are growing skeptical—because the old superstitions and the Folklore of the Dead are rapidly passing away? Certainly the feeling against cremation is most strong where superstitions do most survive. But the vanishing away of certain dark forms of belief, and the tendency of the times to abandon old customs and old ideas, are themselves due to those vast economical changes which have already modified the face of the world, and broken down barriers between nations. The skepticism of the period is a cause, perhaps—but only a subordinate cause, for the open advocacy of cremation. The great primal cause is the enormous industrial progress of the period,
enabling countries to maintain populations ten times larger than could have found support some centuries ago. The world's markets are becoming more colossal than was ever Babylon or Egyptian Thebes; cities of a hundred thousand people spring up every few decades in the midst of what were previously wildnernesses; and towns of insignificant size receive sudden nourishment from railroads and swell to metropolitan proportions. In many American cities population doubles itself at astonishingly brief intervals; and the intervening lands are cultivated to their utmost extent by a rapidly increasing race of sturdy farmers. In Europe the increase of population is slower by far, but it is nevertheless astounding when compared with the populousness of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A generation ago London had barely three millions of inhabitants; she has now almost five millions. All the great capitals are becoming more populous. Science and invention have enabled the human race to multiply extraordinarily. But with the increase of life there is the inevitable increase of disease; and the work of Death is becoming so gigantic that the living can scarcely find place for his harvests. Cemeteries are too quickly filled;--the city grows out of them and around them and beyond them; the expenses of extramural burial increase continually; the earth is overfed with corpses until she can no longer digest them, and the air of each metropolis becomes heavy with odors of dissolution. Inhumation can no longer meet the demands of hygiene;--Science has taken the alarm, and seeks to summon Fire to the assistance of earth. Fire, the All-Producer, as personified in the sun—(Surya, "The Begetter")—is also the All-Purifier. Fire, not earth, shall devour the dead in centuries to come as in centuries that have passed away. Cremation will become at last, not a choice, but a necessity. It may first be established as optional; it will then become obligatory. These are the declarations and predictions of its advocates.
Elsewhere we publish extracts from an excellent article upon that subject, which appeared in the Paris Figaro. The author, who is a devout Roman Catholic, admirably points out the absence of any potent religious argument against the incineration of the dead, while he also dwells upon the horrors of slow decomposition and the involuntary yet inevitable condemnation of thousands to a living burial. But there is also a poetical side to the sinister question, which might be dilated upon—the swift restoration of the substances of being to their primal source of light and air—the remelting of the body into the pure and luminous elements which formed it. The body soars with the rising of the flame which enwraps it, soars toward that blue to which all eyes turn at times with indefinite longing—as though there were something of the bird in every human heart.
"The earth," poetically sang a Vedic poet, "receives the dead even as a mother wraps the fold of her robe about the weary child who sinks to slumber in her arms." The thought seems beautiful, but the words are untrue. For the earth is a cannibal;--she devours her children as hideously but infinitely more slowly than the python devours his prey--so hideously that only the bravest soldiers of Science have ever dared peer into the processes of her digestion—as did Orfila. Perhaps it would be well if certain sentimental opponents of cremation should behold that indescribable treatise of his upon Juridical Exhumation with its frightful colored plates, whose horrors surpass the most loathsome conceptions of madness and the most appalling monstrosities of nightmare.
One glance at these secrets of the tomb were enough to convert the bitterest anti-cremationists! And how slow the decay! Sometimes in five years the earth has not consumed its food. Poets may write touching pantheistic madrigals concerning the ultimate blending of all flesh with that "Universal Paste formed of the shapes that God melts down"; but has the poet ever dared to raise the coffin-lid and observe the ghastly transmutation for an instant? Could even the philosopher dare so much; for the breath of the tomb is fatal. Death permits only the high-priests of science to study that ghastly chemistry and live! Surely the noblest works of God are wrought in fire;--in flame were born all the hosts of heaven, and of flame is the visible soul of stars;--fire is the creative force of Nature; and to fire alone rightfully belongs the task of redissolving that which it first warmed and shaped into life. Modern respect for the dead is really superficial: it stops at the surface of graves and at the entrances of vaults. To abandon the body of a friend, a child, a woman beloved, to worms and to all the frightful fermentations of the tomb, seems, when we reflect on it, barbarous—hideous! Even the Parsee Towers of Silence, with their vultures and birds of carrion hovering in spiral flight, contain naught so frighful as do our fairest sepulchres;--better surely abandon the dead unto the birds of heaven than to the worms of earth. Death was not a nightmare to antique civilizations; it became so only when the funeral pyres had ceased to flame, and the funeral urns hd ceased to be. There was nothing sinister, nothing awful about the tombs of the Greek or Roman dead—only the graceful vases containing the "pinch of scentless and delicate dust" gathered from the pyre—"the dust of the soul's own butterfly-wings," as it has been so daintily termed.
The crematories of the future will do the work better than the pyres of the ancients—much more perfectly, and much more cheaply. Incineration, if not complete, also has its horrors; --excepting a corpse in decomposition, there is nothing so goblin-like and appalling as a half-burned body. The antique process was slow, and in the intervals of feeding the fire there must have been ghastly sights. But in the strong, clear flame of the crematory-retort horror cannot endure an instant. There will be no room for such a spectacle as that described by one witness of the burning of Shelley's remains.
The desire for cremation is a sign of progress, a token of a healthier tendency of mind. Yet, it must be confessed, even cremation, as now advocated in its most scientific form, does not wholly satisfy human feeling in regard to the disposal of the dead. There are strange doubts—obscure as any Egyptian prayer—anxieties and fears. . . . If it be true that one person in every 5000 is buried alive, might not one in every 5000 also be burned alive? Where is the guarantee, since there is no assurance of death before visible decomposition sets in? Again, who knows precisely when all thought and sensation dies within the most secret chambers of the brain? When must the last spark of being fade out into utter darkness? Only a ghost might know; but the dead have no voice—even in dreams. The assurances of science do not wholly reassure; for science has scarcely yet begun to comprehend the deeper secrets of physiology and the mysteries of life. Some day revelations might be made too terrible to think of—revelations of consciousness resurrected momentarily in the midst of the material dissolution—strange flaring-up of sensations, of fancies and memories long forgotten—weird vitality of remembrances rekindled by the touch of destruction, by the combustion of death—just as characters of invisible ink are made visible by the approach of flame. Electricity alone—that holiest form of fire—may furnist ultimately some satisfactory means of answering all fearful doubt, when it shall become possible to dissolve a body instantaneously—as water is decomposed by the galvanic battery.