The married couple accepted that he was dying, but they just couldn’t agree what to do with his body afterwards. He wanted his remains cremated; she couldn’t stand the idea. So a deal was struck: For six months after his death, the mortician would hang on to his corpse. If she still opposed his wishes at the end of that time, she could bury him.
Given the historic prominence of the Oates and Comstock families, it’s usually easy to find a “6 degrees of separation” link to Comstock House. This route, however, is a bit unusual:
Dana L. White (I) was a member of the Shaker community at Harvard, Massachusetts, from about 1838-1863.
In 1843, when he twelve, a utopian commune called “Fruitlands” was established nearby. Founding members included the family of Louisa May Alcott (II), who was about a year younger than Dana White. Although the commune only lasted a few months, it is possible that the children met, given that Fruitlands was based partially on Shaker principles and that the fledgling community had to trade handmade goods for food.
Around 1862, Alcott adopted a 4 year-old boy named Francis Edwin Elwell (III) who became a noted sculptor.
His son, Alcott Farrar Elwell (IV) married Helen Chaffee (V) and in 1907, Helen and another young woman were the guests of honor at a fancy soirée held at the home of Mr. and Mrs. James Wyatt Oates, where a little orchestra was tucked behind potted palms in the library.
Cremation was still a pretty exotic affair back in 1908 America, outside of the the San Francisco Bay Area. There had been only about 48 thousand cremations nationwide since record-keeping began in 1876, and nearly 1 out of 3 was performed in this area.* (Two crematories were operating in San Francisco since 1895, and one in Oakland followed in 1902.) Strongly opposing cremation were Catholics and other orthodox christians whose belief system demanded that a corpse be buried ready and waiting for a physical resurrection on judgement day. Someone who wanted cremation was probably a “free thinker,” a member of the Masons or Odd Fellows, or belonged to a religious group such as the Quakers. And that was the background of Mr. Dana L. White, who had been raised as a member of the “United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing,” also known as the “Shakers.”
White was probably an orphan when he taken in by the Shaker community at age seven. The movement was then at its peak, with about 6,000 members. That figure may seem small and cultish today, but it was a lot of people around 1840; today it would be the equivalent to a good-sized California city such as Richmond or Ventura (or any other cities with a pop. of about 103k, such as Wichita Falls, South Bend, or Cambridge). The Shakers viewed death as a dust-to-dust proposition. In their monthly journal, “The Shaker Manifesto,” letters and essays can be found calling for “rational burials” and ridiculing the notion that someone’s “never-again-to-be-animated form” would actually rise from their graves as “distasteful,” “false theology” and “idiotic.”
In the end, however, Mr. White did not win his post-mortem debate with his widow. He is buried in the Stanley section of the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery.
Obl. Believe-it-or-Not footnote: Although he died in 1908, Mr. White might be another victim of the 1906 Santa Rosa Earthquake. The article below notes that he returned to town just a week before the disaster, and “was an invalid, and was nearly always bedfast” from that point on. He suffered from acute asthma for much (or all) of his life, and a man who lived about three blocks away died of pleuritis a few days after the quake, his lung problems presumably exacerbated by the great clouds of dust kicked up by the collapsing buildings and the fires that burned for two days. (Mrs. White was listed in the 1908 city directory as living at 914 Santa Rosa Ave, which would have been directly south of the modern Highway 12 overpass.)
DEAD MAN’S WISH PREVENTS BURIAL
Widow Opposes Cremation; Body Lies in a Vault Until Decision is Made as to its Disposal
The body of D. L. White, who passed from life January 30, reposes in a private vault at Stanley’s Cemetery. Mr. White himself favored cremation as the correct disposal of the remains of the dead, but his wife viewed that with disfavor. When he knew that death approached, he discussed the matter with the woman who was soon to be widowed, and the two agreed that when he had passed away he should placed in the vault for several months, and taken out when the window felt reconciled to incineration of the body, or, if her feelings remainder the same after a half a year’s reflection, she still opposed cremation, she should then dispose of it by burial.
Although Mr. White had lived many years in Santa Rosa, he was not well known here. Much of the time he was an invalid, and his acquaintances were consequently few. Those who knew him and had great admiration for his character. Studious, well informed, and possessed of high intellect, he was a charming companion for those who did know him. He was born in Boston, 77 years ago. At the age of seven he was placed in a Shaker community at Harvard, Massachusetts, and remained there until he was 32 years of age. He received a thorough education in literature, and was trained as a druggist, also as a botanist, the Shaker medicament being purely botanical. At the age of 32. He left the Shaker settlement. Much regret at parting was felt, both by himself and by those he left behind. He was an Indian Territory pioneer, and also a pioneer in Idaho. He was a miner in the latter territory and for a while had 180 men working for him. Although he prospered greatly while in good health, he saved no fortune; for he was a lifelong sufferer from asthma, and had frequently to abandon work and business, and spent large sums in travel and for treatment. After six years in Idaho he came back to Santa Rosa. For two years he was a partner of Jack Atkins, an old-timer now passed away.
Mr. White was married in Santa Rosa in 1873, to Sally Ricklifs, daughter of the late Peter Ricklifs. After a few years here, Mr. and Mrs. White removed to Truckee. He was in the drug business there seven years, and then went to Fruitvale. They again returned to Santa Rosa just a week before the great disaster of April, 1906. During all of his last residence here, Mr. White was an invalid, and was nearly always bedfast, with his wife as his constant and devoted attendant. His end was peaceful, painless, and calm. Deeply religious, and confident of the future, he had no fear of eternity.– Press Democrat, February 8, 1908