It was on this day in 1909 that an unusual funeral was held in the small town of Ada, Ohio. William H. Morrow, a Baptist minister-turned-atheist, had carved out a respectable name for himself among his neighbors. He had offered his services as Health Officer for twenty years, free of charge; and he was President of the Ada Building and Loan– with a reputation that would inspire George Bailey himself.
When confronted with the reality that he didn’t have much longer to live, William Morrow decided to do what any “atheist in a foxhole” might do. He began planning his funeral. He didn’t want a traditional funeral, but rather a public display of his personal beliefs.
He ordered a monument covered in freethought quotes from Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll. He hired a marching band to play in the streets. He asked a well-known atheist, Dr. J.B. Wilson to speak at the “event.” And on the day, cards were handed out all over town that read:
Death is a natural event, neither to be dreaded or mourned. I do not regard death as a disaster to the individual, but esteem it as much of a natural event as birth.
Much reflection has caused me to discountenance and to disapprove of the ordinary funeral service and regard them as partaking of the custom of barbarous people, whose minds have not been enlightened by reason or comprehensive views of the order of nature. Feeling this way, I do not want my death to be the occasion of a vain or egotistical display of mourning emblems.
William Morrow died at the age of 77. Over 2000 people showed up to the Armory, which held 1500, against the strong advice of local clergy. Dr. Wilson, the featured speaker at the service, offered a detailed (and delightful) write-up on the whole affair in the Blue-grass Blade:
I had corresponded with Mr. Morrow, and it was his wish that I would serve the Tobasco hot. It was the strongest funeral address that I have so far given, and strange to say, the best received, which goes to show that the time has arrived when it is safe and popular to speak the blunt truth.
Speaking for myself, I said: “I want to live again, and hope for another life, but I don’t want to go to the Christian Heaven, which, in my opinion, is worse that the Christian Hell. Also, that I had no curiosity or desire to see any of the Gods, Ghosts, Saviors or Prophets of antiquity, – neither the Jewish Jehovah, nor Zeus, nor Buddha, nor Osiris, nor Zoroaster, nor Apollo, nor Jesus, nor Jeremiah, Hezekiah, Obadiah, nor any of the rest, – for the simple reason that they were all either myths or frauds, and I wouldn’t walk up one flight of the golden stairs to see the whole bunch.
This seemed to afford them special amusement, and I told them that it was plain to me that this reflected their own minds, – otherwise they would have been shocked.
While I spoke feelingly and tenderly at times, and got up among the clouds, and down among the dew-drops, and plucked posies in the pastures, and gathered garlands in the green-woods, and wild-flowers by the water-falls, and sailed out of sight through the silver sunsets, and all that, you know, still I aimed for the most part to keep down to plain, hard facts, and hit the nail on the big end and drive it home.
I had come across this article by accident a few months ago and bookmarked it because of how much I enjoyed Dr. Wilson’s telling of the day’s events. I read it again yesterday and saw today would be the official anniversary, so I thought I would share it. A search through the archives for “atheist funeral” led me to all sorts of entertaining stories, and I spent most of my night getting lost in those dramatic and detailed descriptions that I love most about old newspapers.
Nothing draws a line between atheists and Christians quite like death. While most of us go through the motions of whatever is traditional in society, why not make our funerals more interesting? Isn’t it enough that we must dwell on the finality of a person’s life and our own immortality—should we also grapple with keeping faith in a plan that must make sense, even when it couldn’t possibly? No thanks. Sure, we can turn our grief over to God and lean on hope that we may all meet again. But even that causes more grief than relief when our loved ones lose faith.
(Or we lose faith ourselves.)
I prefer to feel grief completely, and learn how to accept it as part of who I am. To live comfortably with it. Mr. Morrow (and plenty others) had the right idea. Who wants a traditional funeral that carefully words itself around God? Let’s be honest and inspiring; because the most beautiful and hopeful words I have heard concerning the topic of mortality have often come from those who believe this is the only life we have.
It is as difficult and thrilling to wrap our minds around an eternal universe as it is to wrap our minds around the distance of time that exists both before and after us. What better time is there to dwell on such mystery than when we are already helpless to escape the thought of it?
As Robert Ingersoll pointed out at his own brother’s graveside: “Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities. We strive in vain to look beyond the heights.”