Cremation may soon surpass burial as the most common type of funeral in the United States – nearly half of all Americans are now cremated. But there was a time when the practice was anything but the norm. While the first cremation in America occurred in 1876, the practice was slow to catch on. By 1918, fewer than one percent of those who died in the United States were cremated; by 1965, that number had grown to just 4 percent.
There were a few famous names who went against the tide of public sentiment, though, and in light of the times in which they lived, their final choice was all the more unusual. Check out our list of some of the most famous Americans of times past who chose cremation at a time in American life when nearly everyone else chose just the opposite.
1) Jack London
“I would rather be ashes than dust” – Jack London told his friends just two months before his death. When The Call of the Wild and White Fang author died in 1916, his remains were cremated, and his ashes buried on his property in Glen Ellen, California. As it happens, London was born the same year that the very first cremation occurred in the United States; by the time of his death, there were roughly 20 crematories in operation around the country.
2) Isadora Duncan
The legendary American dancer was no stranger to tragedy. In 1913, both of Duncan’s young children drowned alongside their nurse in a freak car accident that saw their vehicle careen off a bridge, into the Seine River. Their remains were cremated. More than a decade later, Isadora Duncan also died in an automobile accident. Her ashes were placed next to those of her children in a Paris cemetery.
3) Fanny Brice
Long before Barbra Streisand won an Oscar for portraying Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl,” the famous comedian and singer had cemented her status as a consummate entertainer through songs like “My Man” and “Second Hand Rose.” Brice was born on New York’s Lower East Side to Jewish immigrant parents. After a long career, first in burlesque revue, and later, in radio and on television, Brice died in 1951 of a cerebral hemorrhage. Brice was cremated, and her ashes were interred at a Jewish cemetery in Los Angeles.
4) Eliot Ness
As the leader of “The Untouchables,” Eliot Ness solidified his image as one of the most famous federal agents in law enforcement history. In his lifetime, Ness was the incorruptible agent who helped bring down Al Capone; at one point, the gangster even bribed Ness with weekly paychecks if he overlooked his bootlegging activities. Ness refused the bribe, and when he died at the age of 54 in 1957, he was nearly broke. Ness’s ashes were scattered in a small pond at a Cleveland cemetery.
5) Albert Einstein
The German-born physicist was just 36 when he developed the general theory of relativity, and went on to publish more than 300 scientific papers over the course of his lifetime. A vocal supporter of civil rights, Einstein became a U.S. citizen in 1940. When he died in April 1955, Einstein’s remains were cremated and his ashes scattered at an unknown location, in keeping with his final wishes, to “discourage idolators.”
6) Walt Disney
You’ve probably heard the popular rumor that Disneyland’s founder was cryogenically frozen after he passed away in 1966. But it turns out Walt Disney was actually cremated two days after succumbing to lung cancer at the age of 65, with his ashes interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. While Disney’s choice was unusual for the times, it represented a slow shift in prevailing opinion. Just three years earlier, in 1963, the Catholic Church lifted the ban on cremation, and in 1966, Catholic priests began to officiate at cremation ceremonies.
7) Joan Rivers
OK, we know that by the time of Joan Rivers’ death, cremation had largely gone mainstream – but not so much among American Jews. When the pioneering queen of comedy died in September 2014, a private memorial service was held at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan, followed by cremation at the Garden State Crematory in North Bergen, New Jersey. The final arrangements were in keeping with Rivers wishes. A few years before her untimely passing, Rivers had even joked about mixing her ashes with that of her beloved dogs in “one big barking urn.” Only Joan Rivers! (Photo credit: Joan Rivers by David Shankbone NYC 2010 via Flickr CC)