Inline Commenting

I just installed a new plug-in for my site that allows inline commenting. This means that in addition to a comment being posted at the bottom of a page, assuming a page allows comments, now the reader can add comments paragraph by paragraph. This allows a greater specificity to comments. This does not mean you should not put comments at the end, because it will add the comment to the page, at least in blog posts, but it does allow the ability to highlight exact content one wishes to comment on. The plug-in also allows you to subscribe to the thread and to the blog in general. I look forward to your comments, inline or otherwise.

American Religious Change and Caring for the Dead

[Originally posted on the Religion in American History blog on 1/30/2015]

Burial and caring for the dead has been traditionally something associated with religion. When we teach our introduction or defining religion classes, we frequently discuss what might be called religious behavior of prehistoric peoples. We point to the ways they buried their dead, including objects, arranging the body, and placing materials, like ochre, on and around the bodies. In some cultures, whole religions are associated with death and caring for the dead, such as Buddhism in Japan. In the United States, burial practices have often been influenced by prevailing religious attitudes. For instance, how one behaved in life influences if one can be buried in hallowed ground. In the South, it was not until after the Civil War that the undertaker became professionalized as a mortician who offered the services of embalming, shifting care of the body from a religious concern to a medicalized one. Yet, many Southerners were concerned about the effect of embalming on bodies when they were to be resurrected. As Charles Wilson writes, “The undertaker had trouble convincing many tradition-bound southerners to allow this tampering with the earthly remains of the temple of God.”

During this this period, cremation was also introduced to America by the Theosophical Society. The first cremation in America was in Washington, Pennsylvania. Henry Steel Olcott, of the Theosophical Society, organized the cremation of Baron Joseph Henry Louis Charles De Palm (pictured) on December 6, 1876. While Olcott’s motivation was a result of his orientalism, the sudden explosion of cremation after De Palm was led by other concerns including sanitation. Yet, there was much concern about whether cremation was compatible with Christianity. Stephen Prothero notes in Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America (2002) that despite many of the first participants in cremation coming from alternative religions, the vast majority were Christian and the debate about the suitability of cremation versus burial was an intra-Christian one (80-81).

Cremation, though, has become more and more popular over the last fifty years. According to the Huffington Post, in 2012, cremation was how 43.5% of all bodies were handled, up 1118.5% from 1958 in which only 3.6% of American bodies were cremated. But this trend intersects with another, the decline in participation with organized religion, and the increase of the spiritual but not religious (SBNR). What do the SBNR do with their bodies after death? It turns out there have been many responses, but most deal with remembering the person while forgetting the body.

Corpses are becoming less and less of an issue for people to be concerned with when a loved one dies. Upon death, the body is quickly taken away by morticians and funeral home staff. More and more, memorials are taking the place of funerals and viewings, meaning that once the body is in the possession of funeral home professionals, loved ones may never see the body again. Instead later they might just see a closed casket lowered into the ground or a box or urn containing ashes. Candi K. Cann notes that this dislocation of the body results in people looking for other means to remember the lost loved one as ways to deal with their grief. In Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the Twenty-first century (2014), Cann writes, “Whether it is a memorial located at the place the body was last intact before its death, such as roadside memorials and the Sandy Hook Elementary memorial, or it is a memorial service held with cremated remains and no corpse, bodiless memorials are clearly indicative of the trend towards memorialization without bodies” (17).


Cremation is common with the SBNR and there are creative ways in which bodily disposal reflects the values of the departed. For instance, a recent product on the market targets the environmentally conscious offering a biodegradable urn that also is the basis for growing a new tree. Bios burial urn is made of organic materials which contain the ashes, but also have a place at the top for a tree’s seed. Before death, the individual can choose what kind of tree they want to be. Later, as the “spirit tree” grows, its roots spread into the ashes allowing the deceased to become nutrients for the tree. Trees can be planted anywhere, at least theoretically. However state laws vary regarding the disposal of cremated ashes. Other times the body is turned into a manufactured diamond, or combined with tattoo ink and embedded in the skin of loved ones. These types of memorials, whether a tattoo, or a flourishing tree allow people to “remember but not to encounter death itself” (Cann 18). But what about someone’s online presence? Most online companies now have policies of how to deal with one’s digital demise. One of the most common responses, though, is to create an online memorial. Of course there are companies that help with this.

Another implication of the bodiless memorial is that any place can become sacralized. In the past, the body denoted the places of remembrance, whether buried in a cemetery, or ashes kept in a columbarium. But when bodies are displaced, and the memory of the loved one becomes the focus, anything or anywhere can become embedded within the sacred. This matches how place, space, and objects become sacralized for the spiritual but not religious. No longer is a backyard just a backyard, now it can be the final resting place of mom or a tree becomes the spirit tree of dad. Personal fields of the sacred are negotiated in secular public spaces.

As the role of religion changes in America, so does its place in the care of the body, including its disposal. More and more, Americans are less capable of dealing with death. In the past there have been social customs of grieving over weeks, months or years, and taking pictures with the deceased, cleaned up and staged doing their favorite activities. However, as Cann points out, today society has little patience for prolonged, or complicated grief, as some psychologists call it. One of Cann’s points is that our society is so in denial about death that rarely do companies have bereavement policies, and when someone loses a loved one, it is considered a personal issue, no different than taking time off for a vacation. Similarly, just as death has been displaced from the day-to-day lives of people, bodies are displaced, and instead memorials emerge. It is here that the individual can be celebrated without the encumbrance of a corpse. These trends are likely to persist and increase. I also think, in contrast, there might be a back-lash response to the displacement of the body, a movement to bring the body back into view, and for family and friends to have more involvement with the care of the loved one. It remains to be seen. Playing attention to the care of the body will be a useful way to track the way religion is changing in America’s shifting religious landscape.

Dismantling the Myths of My Family History

Being trained as an historian of American religion has provided me certain skills and methodologies to look at myth making and understanding its role in identity, and practice. Myths are made sometimes to legitimize, and other times to explain the unknown. As scholars, we are expected to get underneath or behind these myths, to look at their origins, their function, and their impact. But I wonder how often we use these skills to look at ourselves or our families, to get behind or underneath the myths that circulate at family reunions, and are passed down, generation-to-generation.

Over the last couple of months, I have been researching my genealogy, mine and my family’s history. In some cases I have been very successful, in others, less so. For instance, through my maternal grandfather, I have found that I am related to the Beebe’s of Northampton, Great Britain, and that this line relocated from England to America when John Beebe and his family migrated from Broughton, Kettering, Northamptonshire, England to the American colonies in 1650. Unfortunately he died during the trip on May 18 aboard the SS Speedwell. His family, however completed the migration and became established in Connecticut, and then later New York. Descendants of his fought in the Revolutionary War and helped found new towns in both Connecticut and New York. Much of this is documented in Monograph of the descent of the family of Beebe compiled by Clarence Beebe and published around 1904.

Another interesting discovery has been why my paternal grandmother, Imogene Brothers, was orphaned. Using a variety of records, including various newspapers, I discovered that Imogene’s mother died in childbirth, leaving her and her sisters in the care of their father, Marvin Brothers. Subsequently, Marvin was killed when he was hit by a truck. The orphaning of the five girls has had significant repercussions throughout the family history, one that is still present in the lives of relatives today.


James David Crow and Alta Alva Crow (Hamlin)

While I have found the connection to the Beebes interesting, and the explanation of the Brothers sisters helpful, it has been the direct descent of the name Crow that has been my primary focus. Up until this round of research I could not get farther back in my direct descent line than James David Crow, my paternal great great grandfather, born in Stoddard, Missouri in 1874. I attributed this to the belief that he was, at least in part, Native American—from the Crow tribe—as has always been the assertion in my family. As being Native was a liability in the 19th century, many individuals with this background often ignored that of their heritage. Moreover, record keeping within tribes was inconsistent. As a result I believed this was the main reason I was stumped. I was supported in this belief too. My father lived his life believing he was descended from Native Americans as have my aunts, uncles, and cousins. Yet, I wanted to confirm this and so I kept digging, kept looking. During this round of research, however, I was able to find some connections and they revealed a whole different story.

It now appears that I am not descended from the Crow tribe, and that my Crow related heritage goes back to Europe. I have traced my Crow lineage to James Crow born between 1771 and 1774 in South Carolina. What is significant about this is that there were no Crow Native Americans in the colonies during the eighteenth century. So while I don’t know if the Crow name is coming from Great Britain or Germany, or somewhere else in Europe, I know it is not native. Moreover, I have found that there are seventeen unrelated (in modern times) Crow DNA family groups. They are named after colors. The green Crow DNA group is the oldest going back to Sir William Crow, born 1547 on the Isle of Man. James Crow is in the gold Crow DNA group. For Christmas I received a DNA testing kit as a present. I will be confirming my placement with in the Crow DNA project. (To any of my relatives reading this, I would encourage you to participate in the project too.)

In a strange way, I feel a loss by discovering I do not have a Native American connection through the Crow name. It has been such a foundational myth within my paternal family. To learn it is false has, in a way, stripped us of an important identity marker. I have always looked at my own body, the DNA that composed me, as a living testament to the complexity of the American story. How colonizer and colonized came to terms with the realities of the situation, going so far as to create families together, and spawn a new nation of new, Native-European hybrid people. While this story is still true, it seems it is no longer my story. My story is one of various Europeans coming together, and shedding their continental identity, in favor of one emerging from de Crèvecœur’s melting pot. One thing that was confirmed by this research is that my family’s heritage is one of agriculture. My distant kin were all farmers. From central Texas, to the Dakotas, from California, to Connecticut, one thing consistent, they were directly connected to the land, or at least until the early twentieth century. The Beebes became wealthy land owners, with numerous holdings. The Brothers were itinerant farmers, renting farm property by the season. To learn who they are and how they lived their lives is the least I can do to honor them since their lives are what have made mine possible. Yet, in doing so I must dismantle myths and rebuild based on fact. It is a stronger foundation to stand on, but it is not without its costs.