Why did they bury Darwin in Westminster Abbey?

| October 6, 2006 | 79 Replies

In September, 2005, I traveled to London to attend a conference.  While in London, I visited Westminster Abbey

 westminster-abbey-lo-res.jpg

It is hard to imagine a place more rich in history–there was so much to see.  But I made sure that I took the time to visit the burial site of Charles Darwin.  In comparison with many of the other tombs in the abbey, Darwin’s tomb is simple.  I risked the “no photography” rule of the Abbey to take a (non-flash) photo:

                      Darwin buried.JPG

While walking and meditating at Westminster Abby, I wondered how it came to pass that Darwin was buried there.  Lo and behold, the January/February 2006 edition of Skeptical Inquirer contains an article directly on point: “Why Did They Bury Darwin in Westminster Abbey.” (The article is not available online, but you can see a brief description of it here)

The author of the article, R.G.Weyant, starts out as follows:

Late in the afternoon of Wednesday, April 20 6, 1882, a most improbable event occurred. In a ceremony attended by hundreds of individuals, including members of Parliament, ambassadors from the diplomatic corps, scientific notables, Church of England divines, the Lord Mayor of London, and other assorted dignitaries . . . the earthly remains of Charles Robert Darwin were interred in Westminster Abbey, close to those of such other great English scientists as Sir Isaac Newton.

Some of the information from this article came from a 2002 Darwin biography (Charles Darwin: the Power of Place) written by Janet Browne.  She wrote that “Dying was the most political thing Darwin could’ve done.  As Huxley and others were aware, to bury him in Westminster Abbey would celebrate both the man and the naturalistic, law governed science that he, and each member of the Darwinian circle, had striven, in his way, to establish.”

It turns out that the plan to bury Darwin in the Abbey was engineered by Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton and Darwin’s friend, Thomas Huxley.  Through their efforts, a petition persuading church officials to approve the event was signed by various parliamentarians.  “For many people, the ceremony in the abbey signaled not only Darwin’s importance to English society but also a kind of reconciliation between science and religion.”  In fact, within a decade after the 1859 publication of origin of species, “most educated Englishman, including many of the clergy, had accepted the fact of evolution.  More than a few were uneasy about where the evidence and the reason were taking them, but they went nonetheless.”

As elaborated in the Skeptical Inquirer article, by the time Darwin died, most Englishmen considered evolution to be more than a theory because the evidence in favor of evolution was “simply overwhelming.” At the time Darwin died, his ideas had “become the ideas of his time and culture, and it was convenient for both church and state to recognize that fact.” In fact, by the time Darwin died, evolution had become a source of English national pride.

Times have changed, of course.  If Darwin died in the United States today, our government, prodded by fundamentalist churches, would arrange to have his remains unceremoniously thrown in a dumpster somewhere off the beaten path, along with all of those inconvenient fossils documenting the fact that species change over time.

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Category: American Culture, Evolution, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (79)

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  1. A closer to home example of parallel but distinct evolution is Australia. Those who know what I'm talking about, know what I'm talking about. Those who don't ought to look it up.

  2. allan says:

    What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, but lose his own souL?

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