Few English men have been as controversial as Aleistar Crowley. Nicknamed the “Great Beast”, Crowley rose to prominence in the early 20th Century as a adherent and exponent of the occult. He famously founded the Abbey of Thelema in Sicily in 1920, using it as a base to educate his followers in magical practices. These practices became scandalized for their extreme sexual content and rejection of mainstream morality and decency.
Despite Crowley’s dangerous persona, he was by no means an outcast. He is alleged to have rubbed shoulders with the great and the good of the age, including authors Ian Flemming, L Ron Hubbard and Aldous Huxley and even the mother of a future US first lady, Pauline Pierce, mum to Barbara Bush. He is credited by some as being the mastermind behind the sinking of the Lusitania and despised by others for being an outspoken sympathizer of the German Kaiser during the First World War. He is known to have cooperated closely with British intelligence services during the Second World War and there is even a rumour that he invented Winston Churchill’s famous V for Victory signal.
Despite his association with the upper echelons of society and a life spent traveling the globe, Crowley’s last years were spent in relative isolation, obscurity and poverty. He lived out his last days at a guest house in Hastings, England. He died of chronic bronchitis aggravated by pleurisy on 1 December 1947, aged 72. The Great Beast went out with a whimper instead of a bang.
Aleister Crowley’s funeral was organised by a few of his closest friends and associates. In accordance with his last will and testament, his cremation was instructed to take place during an occult ceremony at which magical rituals would be performed and occult verses read aloud. The chosen location was the Crematoria at Woodvale Cemetery in Brighton.
It is thought by some that the decision to chose Brighton as the location for Crowley’s funeral was in part informed by the ancient, mythical folklore which exists within the settlement. Brighton is littered with ancient sites of worship and devotion, but among its most prominent are those that relate to the city’s sacred waters. For example, a local spring, St. Anne’s Well, was formerly known as the Chalybeat and said to be inhabited by a powerful god-like being. The spring lies at the exact end point of a ley line that runs the breadth of England.
Woodvale Cemetery was also an appropriate venue for Crowley’s funeral because of its impressive layout and macabre Gothic grandeur. The cemetery stands as excellent to testament to longevity of Brighton’s weird and wonderful culture. It’s ostentatious and extravagant tombs provide a true feast for the eye and presumably, the perfect backdrop for an occultist ritual.
Crowley’s funeral took place on 5th December 1947 and was attended by only a dozen or so of his closest associates and followers. Having solemnly processed through the grounds of Woodvale Cemetery, the guests congregated at the Crematoria, where it was said they read aloud from the Gnostic Mass, The Book of the Law, and the “Hymn to Pan” whilst Crowley’s mortal body was turned to ash. After this, what was left of the Great Beast was mailed to the United States, where the remains were buried unceremoniously in a back garden in New Hampshire.
Aleister Crowley’s funeral may have been sparsely attended, but it was by no means uneventful. Quite the contrary is true. In fact, the funeral caused a public outcry from the people of Brighton and Hove, who were terrified by what the tabloid press had alleged would be a Black Mass on their doorstep. After the funeral had taken place, the local Council declared the event a desecration of holy land and an act of abuse against the entire town.
The outrage and terror of the local people of Brighton and Hove was immense. Christian services were hastily organised in and around the (now) city in order to counteract the malevolent forces that the people feared may have been released by the acolytes of Crowley. An inter-congregational prayer meeting was held at St. Peter’s Church, with around 10 clergymen attending and packed-out pews.
Today, Aleister Crowley is considered an icon of 20th Century culture. His legend was confirmed and popularized by the great musicians of the 1960s and 1970s. The Beatles featured him on the cover of Sgt Pepper, Ozzy Osbourne paid tribute to him in his song “Mr Crowley” and David Bowie pretty much modeled an early stage of his career of the Great Beast. By the 1960s Crowley had been transformed into a major influencer of popular culture. This only makes it even more bizarre that just 20 years before this, his funeral caused such consternation and moral panic within Brighton and Hove.