Purified by Fire book cover

Purified By Fire: A History of Cremation in America

University of California Press (2001)

Just one hundred years ago, Americans almost universally condemned cremation. Today, nearly one-quarter of Americans choose to be cremated. The practice has gained wide acceptance as a funeral rite, in both our private and public lives, as the cremations of icons such as John Lennon and John F. Kennedy Jr. show. Purified by Fire tells the fascinating story of cremation’s rise from notoriety to legitimacy and takes a provocative new look at important transformations in the American cultural landscape over the last 150 years.

Stephen Prothero synthesizes a wide array of previously untapped source material, including newspapers, consumer guides, mortician trade journals, and popular magazines such as Reader’s Digest to provide this first historical study of cremation in the United States. He vividly describes many noteworthy events—from the much-criticized first American cremation in 1876 to the death and cremation of Jerry Garcia in the late twentieth century. From the Gilded Age to the Progressive Era to the baby boomers of today, this book takes us on a tour through American culture and traces our changing attitudes toward death, religion, public health, the body, and the environment.

Acclaim for

Purified by Fire

Mortality and Matters Mortuary

“Sets cremation in its religious, historical and pyscho-social contexts as well as its economic one.”

Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2003

A Model for Writing Cultural History

"Readers of Purified by Fire will find themselves enthralled by their own history and left pondering the disposition of their own remains. Prothero has crafted a thoroughly admirable book, a model for writing cultural history on religiously significant topics. The scholarship is exemplary. Prothero is accurate, critical, anlaytical, and all the while, he tells a good story."

– Ronald L. Grimes, University of Ontario

Expert Analysis

"In Purified by Fire Stephen Prothero deals with the history of cremation in a superbly innovative and sophisticated way. His training in American religious history and the history of religion shines through, and his ability to situate debates over cremation in the larger social and cultural ecology makes the arguments even more compelling for the reader. The scholarship here is superior."

– Gary M. Laderman, Emory University