A Pioneering Theosophical Funeral in 1870s New York City

In the first series of his Old Diary Leaves (1874-’78), Colonel Henry Steel Olcott records the events of a Theosophical funeral ceremony he devised and presided over at the Masonic Temple in New York City. The ritual was to mark the life and death of the Baron de Palm, a member of the then-recently inaugurated Theosophical Society, and Col. Olcott’s record – evincing both impressive candor and a solid sense of humor – stands in distinct and poignant contrast to the mainstream media’s “reviews” of the ceremony, exemplified by an unsympathetic journalist from the New York Tribune who summarized it as “a hodge-podge of notions, a mixture of guess-work and jugglery, of elixirs and pentagons, of charms and conjurations.”

Ritualists and other cultural creators may experience a pang of kinship with Col. Olcott …

If the details of early T.S. (Theosophical Society) history were known to the majority of its members this historical retrospect might be left to some less busy person than myself to compile. In point of fact, however, no other living person knows them all so well as I; no one save H. P. B. (Helena Petrova Blavatsky) and I assumed all the responsibilities, took all the hard knocks, organised all the successes: so, perforce, I must play the historian. If I do not, the truth will never be made known. The special incident to be dealt with in the present chapter is the story of Baron de Palm’s connection with our Society, his antecedents, death, will, and funeral; his cremation will require a separate chapter.

This is not Theosophy, but I am not writing Theosophy; it is history, one of several affairs which were mixed up in our Society’s concerns, and which greatly occupied the time and thoughts of my colleague and myself. These affairs threw upon me, as President, in, particular, very grave responsibilities. When I say that I carried through the De Palm funeral obsequies with the conviction that it would cost me a professional connection worth some £2,000 a year, my meaning will appear. The thing apprehended did happen, because I mortally offended the gentleman—a bigoted Christian—who controlled the matter in question, and who influenced its transfer to another friend of his. Of course, I should do it over again, and I only mention the circumstance to show that it cost something to be a worker with the Master in those early days.

Joseph Henry Louis Charles, Baron de Palm, Grand Cross Commander of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre and Knight of various other orders, was born at Augsburg, May 10, 1809, in an ancient baronial family of Bavaria. Late in life he emigrated to America, lived a number of years in the Western States, and about December, 1875, came to me in New York with an introductory letter from the late Col. Bundy, editor of the Religio-Philosophical Journal, commending him to my courtesy. Finding him a man of engaging manners evidently familiar with the best society, and professing much interest in Spiritualism and a wish to learn something about our Oriental theories, I made him welcome, and at his request introduced him to H. P. B. The acquaintance was kept up, the Baron joined our Society and, a vacancy occurring soon after by the resignation of the Rev. J. H. Wiggin, he was elected a Member of Council on the 29th March, 1876.

As he complained of feeble health, and of having no one in New York who cared whether he lived or died in the wretched boarding-house where he was put up, I invited him to come and occupy a room in my “apartment,” looked after his comfort, and called in a physician to prescribe for him. Symptoms of pneumonia and nephritis showing themselves and the medical attendant pronouncing him in danger, he got me to send him Mr. Judge, the Society’s Standing Counsel, and executed a will devising certain parcels of real estate at Chicago to two lady friends, making me residuary legatee, and appointing Mr. Newton, Treasurer of the T. S., and myself his executors, with full powers. Under medical advice and at his own earnest request, he was removed to the Roosevelt Hospital on Friday evening, May 19th, (1876) and died the next morning. The result of an autopsy was to show that he had for years been suffering from a complication of diseases of the lungs, kidneys, and other organs; a medical certificate that he had died of nephritis was given and filed, as prescribed by law, in the Health Bureau, and the body was conveyed to the receiving-vault of the Lutheran Cemetery pending the completion of arrangements for internment.

In religion Baron de Palm was a Voltairean with a gloss of Spiritualism. He particularly asked that no clergyman or priest should officiate at his funeral, but that I should perform the last offices in a fashion that would illustrate the Eastern notions of death and immortality. The recent agitation of the subject of cremation in Great Britain and America, caused by the incineration of the body of the first Lady Dilke, the scientific experiments of Sir Henry Thompson (vide his published essay The Treatment of the Body of the Death, London, 1874), and the sensational article and pamphlets of Rev. H. R. Haweis upon the unspeakable horrors of the burial-grounds of London, led me to ask him how he would wish me to dispose of his remains. He asked for my opinion upon the relative superiority of the two modes of sepulture, concurred in my preference for cremation, expressed a horror of burial, some lady he had once known having been buried alive, and bade me do as I found most advisable.

A dilettante sort of body calling itself the New York Cremation Society, had been formed in April, 1874, and I had enrolled myself as a member, and been elected a member of the Legal Advice Committee; but beyond passing resolutions and issuing pamphlets the members had done nothing to prove the faith that was in them. Here, at last, was the chance of having a body to burn, and thus inaugurating the very needed reform. I offered it to the Society in question and it was accepted. The weather being warm for the season, urgent haste was called for, and up to the evening before the day appointed for the public funeral of the Baron, it was understood that after the ceremonies I was to deliver over the body to the Society’s agents for cremation. Meanwhile H.P.B. and the rest of us bestirred ourselves to organise an impressive “Pagan funeral”—as the press chose to call it—compose a litany, devise a ceremonial, write a couple of Orphic hymns for the occasion, and get them set to appropriate music.

On the Saturday evening mentioned above we were rehearsing our programme for the last time when a note was brought me from the Secretary of the N.Y. Cremation Society, to say that they would have to give up the cremation because of the great noise that the papers had made about the funeral and their attacks upon the Theosophical Society. In other words, these respectable moral cowards dared not face the ridicule and animosity which had been excited against us innovators. The quandary we were in did not last longer than a half hour, for I finally offered to take the whole responsibility upon myself, and pledged my word that the body should be burnt if I had even to do it myself. The promise was fulfilled in due time, as the sequel will show.

Through the obliging courtesy of the Rev. O. B. Forthingham, whose congregation were worshipping in the great hall of the Masonic Temple, at the corner of Twenty-third Street and Sixth Avenue, New York City, we were enabled to hold the Baron’s obsequies in that vast apartment. An hour before the appointed time the street was crowded by an eager, even somewhat obstreperous multitude, and a strong body of police had to be sent for to prevent the doors being forced. We had issued two kinds of admission tickets, both of triangular shape, one a black card printed in silver, for reserved seats, the other a drab one printed in black, for general admission; and the police were instructed to admit nobody without one or the other kind. But an American or British mob is hard to restrain, and there was such a rush when the doors were opened that the 1500 holders of tickets had to find seats as best they could. The great hall, which holds 2000 people, was crowded in every corner, the very passages and lobbies were blocked, and from the buzz of conversation and uneasiness prevailing it was easy to see that the multitude had come to gratify its curiosity, certainly not to evince either respect for the dead or sympathy with the Theosophical Society.

It was just in that uncertain mood when the least unexpected and sensational incident might transform it into the wild beast that an excited crowd becomes at times. Through the whole of the previous week the leading papers had been lashing public curiosity into a frenzy, and one of the wittiest burlesques I ever read, that appeared in the World upon our anticipated ceremonial and public procession, set all New York laughing. For the benefit of our Theosophical grand-children I will quote the following fragment:

“‘All right,’ said the Colonel; ‘go ahead and make out your programme, but leave everybody out but the members of the society, for the Masons wont have anything to do with it.’
“Two hours were then spent in making out an order of march and a programme of exercises after the procession reaches the Temple, and the following is the result. The procession will move in the following order:
“Colonel Olcott as high priest, wearing a leopard skin and carrying a roll of papyrus (brown card-board).
“Mr. Cobb as sacred scribe, with style and tablet.
“Egyptian mummy-case, borne upon a sledge drawn by four oxen. (Also a slave bearing a pot of lubricating oil.)
“Mme. Blavatsky as chief mourner and also bearer of the sistrum. (She will wear a long linen garment extending to the feet, and a girdle about the waist.)
“Colored boy carrying three Abyssinian geese (Philadelphia chickens) to place upon the bier.
“Vice-President Felt, with the eye of Osiris painted on his left breast, and carrying an asp (bought at a toy store on Eighth avenue).
“Dr. Pancoast, singing an ancient Theban dirge:

“‘Isis and Nepthys, beginning and end;
One more victim to Amenti we send.
Pay we the fare, and let us not tarry,
Cross the Styx by the Roosevelt Street ferry.’”

“Slaves in mourning gowns, carrying the offerings and libations, to consist of early potatoes, asparagus, roast beef, French pancakes, bock-beer, and New Jersey cider.
“Treasurer Newton, as chief of the musicians, playing the double pipe.
Other musicians performing on eight-stringed harps, tom-toms, etc.
“Boys carrying a large lotus (sun-flower).
“Librarian Fassit, who will alternate with music by repeating the lines beginning:

“‘Here Horus comes, I see the boat,
Friends, stay your flowing tears;
The soul of man goes through a goat
In just 3,000 years.

“At the Temple the ceremony will be short and simple. The oxen will be left standing on the sidewalk, with a boy near by to prevent them goring the passersby. Besides the Theurgic hymn, printed above in full, the Coptic national anthem will be sung, translated and adapted to the occasion as follows:

“Sitting Cynocephalus, up in a tree,
I see you, and you see me.
River full of crocodile, see his long snout!
Hoist up the shadoof and pull him right out.’”

With this sort of thing going on for days together in advance, it may be imagined in what sort of dangerous mood was the crowded audience, only a handful of whom were members of the T. S. and most of whom were positively prejudiced against it. All went peacefully enough, however, until an excited Methodist, a relative of an F.T.S. who was assisting me in the ceremony, rising and wildly gesticulating, shouted “That’s a lie!” just when I had pronounced the words “There is but one first cause, uncreated—.” Instantly the audience sprang to their feet and some turned towards the door, as people will in such crises, not knowing whether the confused shout may not mean an alarm of fire: some of the rougher sort mounted the chairs, and, looking towards the stage, seemed ready to take part in fighting or skirmishing in case such should break out.

It was one of those moments when the turn of events depends upon the speaker. As it happened, I had once seen the great Abolitionist orator, Wendell Philips, by imperturbable coolness quell a mob who were hooting and catcalling him, and as the memory flashed within me I adopted his tactics. Stepping quietly forward, I laid my left hand upon the Baron’s coffin, faced the audience, stood motionless and said nothing. In an instant there was a dead silence of expectancy; whereupon, slowly raising my right hand, I said very slowly and solemnly: “We are in the presence of death!” and then waited. The psychological effect was very interesting and amusing to me, who have for so many years been a student of crowds. The excitement was quelled like magic, and then in the same voice as before, and without the appearance of even having been interrupted, I finished the sentence of the litany—“eternal, infinite, unknown.”

The two Orphic hymns that we compiled for the occasion were sung by a volunteer choir of the New Yorker Sængerbund and the organ accompaniment was the music of an Italian Mass, 300 years old; “and,”—says the Sun’s report—“as it swelled and then died softly away in the half gloom of the crowded but hushed room, with the symbolic fire flickering (on the triangular altar) and the ancient knightly decorations flashing on the coffin, the effect was very impressive.”

After the singing of the first Orphic hymn, an invocation, or mantram, was made to “the Soul of the World, whose breath gives and withdraws the form of everything.” “The universe,” it went on to say, “is thy utterance and revelation. Thou, before whom the light of being is a shadow which changes and a vapor that passes away; thou breathest forth, and the endless spaces are peopled; thou drawest breath and all that went forth from thee returns again.” Good Vedântism this and good Theosophy! The same thought ran throughout all the parts of the service—the hymns, invocation, litany, and my discourse. In the latter I gave such particulars about Baron de Palm as I had got from himself (and very misleading they were afterwards proved to be when I heard from the family solicitor). I explained the character and objects of the T. S.1 and my view of the complete inefficacy of death-bed repentance for the forgiveness of sins. I am glad to see upon reading the newspaper reports after the lapse of many years that I preached the doctrine of Karma, pure and simple. There was an outburst of applause and hisses when I said that the Society “considered the ruffian who stood under the gallows a ruffian still though twenty prayers might have been uttered over him.” I immediately commanded silence and continued my remarks,—reported thus:

“He then went on to say that Theosophy could not conceive of bad going unpunished or good remaining unrewarded. It believed a man to be a responsible being, and it was a religion not of professions but of practices. It was utterly opposed to sensuousness and taught the subordination of the body to the spirit. There, in that coffin, lay (the body of) a Theosophist. Should his future be pronounced one of unalloyed happiness without respect to the course of his past life? No, but as he had acted so should he suffer or rejoice. If he had been a sensualist, a usurer, or a corrupter, then the divine first (and only) cause could not forgive him the least of his offences, for that would be to plunge the universe into chaos. There must be compensation, equilibrium, justice.

After the singing of the second Orphic hymn, Mrs. E. Hardinge Britten, the Spiritualist orator, addressed the audience for about ten minutes, in the capacity of a speaking medium, concluding with a strongly emotional apostrophe to the deceased Baron, bidding him farewell, declaring that he had “passed the golden gates wherein (sic) sorrow entereth not,” and strewing his bier with. flowers, “as symbols of full-blown life!” This closed the proceedings and the huge audience quietly dispersed.

Given that there were, at the time of Baron de Palm’s funeral, no suitable crematory facilities within the USA, it took another six months – and a number of further misadventures – before his final wishes could be fulfilled, as described in this entertaining video by Caitlyn Doughty of The Order of the Good Death:

Leave a Comment