RECORD: Anon. 1882. [Request to bury the body of Charles Darwin in Westminster Abbey.] The Times (26 April): 11.
REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed (single key) by AEL Data 2010, corrections by John van Wyhe 2.2012. RN1
When a celebrated Englishman dies the world is accustomed to hear a loud demand that his body shall be buried in Westminster Abbey. The illustrious writer, the general, th statesman, has commonly been surrounded in life by a band of admirers. They compare him dead with famous occupants of the Minster, and insist that his achievements equal theirs. Entombment in Westminster Abbey has become a standard by which great men's great deeds and their vitality are measured. Sometimes the movement which conveys the dead to their historic sepulchre is less a continuation of the honour paid in life than a spasm of remorse for its meagreness. A generation not rarely testifies to its tardy discovery that it had a prophet in its midst by the self-accusing splendour of funeral solemnities. For the masses the desire to inter at Westminster the remains of a popular hero is the same sentiment which enshrines in a Catholic cathedral the relics of a saint. There is the material instinct that death is not wholly death while the flesh and bones of the genius or the warrior are laid up in the national sanctuary. It is characteristic of the man that when CHARLES DARWIN died no requisition of a place for him within the straitened bounds of the Abbey witnessed to any of these various emotions on his behalf. His disciples were conscious of no need to vindicate his glory, and to challenge comparison. It was enough that the earth from one end to the other joined to proclaim his praises. A season there had been when antagonists of conclusions they themselves chose to draw from his passionless array of facts might have felt his premature death stir in them a wish to make amends for baseless invectives by burying the sufferer in pomp. That period has long gone by. He and his theories alike have lived down personal hostility. Popular enthusiasm loves to link a lofty name with material associations. It buries the objects of its worship at Westminster that it may remind itself not so much of their works as how and in what circumstances they accomplished them. The career of CHARLES DARWIN eludes the grasp of personal curiosity as much as of personal enmity. He thought, and his thoughts have passed into the substance of facts of the universe. A grass plot, a plant in bloom, a human gesture, the entire circle of the doings and tendencies of nature, builds his monument and records his exploits.
Yet it is equally characteristic of him whose mortal remains are to be deposited this morning in the Abbey that the decision to place them in it has awakened no surprise, and hardly a comment. They would have rested not inharmoniously under the tall elms in the quiet churchyard of Down. They could rest nowhere so fitly as among the brotherhood of English worthies at Westminster. By every title which can claim a corner in that sacred earth, the body of CHARLES DARWIN should be there. Conquerors lie there who have added rich and vast territories to their native empire. CHARLES DARWIN has, perhaps, borne the flag of science farther, certainly he has planted its standard more deeply, than any Englishman since NEWTON. He has done more than extend the boundaries of science; he has established new centres whence annexations of fresh and fruitful truths are sure continually to be made. The Abbey has its orators and Ministers who have convinced reluctant senates and swayed nations. Not one of them all has wielded a power over men and their intelligences more complete than that which for the last twenty-three years has emanated from a simple country house in Kent. Memories of poets breathe about the mighty church. Science invokes the aid of imagination no less than poetry. DARWIN as he searched imagined. Every microscopic fact his patient eyes unearthed, his fancy caught up and set in its proper niche in a fabric as stately and grand as ever the creative company of Poets' Corner wove from sunbeams and rainbows. If toil for humanity be the test of rightful acceptance in the British Campo Santo, half a century of loving labour in the cause of truth bears unanswerable witness for him. If unanimity of recognition be a condition of admittance to a distinction which should be awarded freely and frankly if at all, none in the army of renowned dead at Westminster can boast a more absolute and universal assent. The whole civilized world has arrogated a right to extol and lament DARWIN with a sense almost of appropriation of his work and his genius which would sting the heart of England could England reproach itself, as happily it cannot, with shortcomings in its tribute of affection. One point alone, indeed, is missing to match the funeral pageant of to-day with the chief which have wound their way triumphant though sad through the Abbey aisles. Death seals cynical lips and appeases or lulls party malignity. Only once in the history of the Abbey has the note of public grief for a famous life ended been jarred by vengeful protests. But seldom have the careers which close under the Abbey roof amidst a chorus of national gratitude and praise won the crown without having stood at the stake. Biographies of the glorious tenants of Abbey tombs are for the most part bitter reading. The men have fought a hard fight, and have come out of the battle not always unstained. Had DARWIN died when the attacks upon him were fiercest, his mourners would yet not have had to lament that enmity and anger had soured, or clouded even for an instant, his bright and wholesome mind. Except for the touch of bodily infirmity, which was not all loss, Westminster Abbey has never given its final impress of national veneration to seventy-three years more unsullied by the dints and smoke and fury of life's conflicts as well as more abounding in its victories.
The moment the thought arose, not, apparently, in any single mind, but spontaneously and everywhere, that the body of the great naturalist ought to be buried at Westminster, it was felt that the Abbey needed it more than it needed the Abbey. The Abbey tombs are a compendium of English deeds and intellect. The line would have been incomplete without the epoch-making name of DARWIN. How long the era he opened will last none can tell. Veins of thought supposed to be of inexhaustible wealth sometimes fail. It is still less possible to predict that a larger law may not sooner or later embrace and merge that of evolution itself. But it is no rash assertion that the facts must survive, and something more than the facts, which DARWIN spent his happy life in collecting. He accumulated facts, and he will have taught posterity how to accumulate them. Should the theories which he inferred from facts as he knew them ever become subordinate or obsolete, it will be in virtue of discoveries made through the method he used and enthroned. The horizon he beheld may widen or contract; no increase in the facilities for observing nature or enlargement of the range of physical knowledge is likely to disprove the value of his method, or render it possible to view some departments of nature except under the aspect in which they, revealed themselves to him.
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Citation: John van Wyhe, editor. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (http://darwin-online.org.uk/)
File last updated 9 October, 2012