Voltairine de Cleyre, “In Hora Mortis Nostrae” (1893)


ON Wednesday, March 15th, Mrs. Ellen Harker died at Reading, Penna; and with the going out of her breath one of the stanchest and most long-tried friends of liberty of thought and speech went out into the great unknown. Philadelphia Liberals, to whom hers was a familiar figure for so many years, will feel that they have lost one of their central lights, have parted with one of those dear grandmothers of the movement whose white hair and kind smile denied the oft-repeated accusation that there is no veneration or reverence in the worshippers of liberty.

Mrs. Harker was born at Wilmington, Delaware, nearly three-quarters of a century ago, and her girlhood and early wedded life were spent in that city. When quite young she was united in marriage to John Newton Harker, then editor and proprietor of the Delaware Gazette. Mr. Harker unfortunately died when his youngest daughter was yet a mere infant, leaving the care of three children to his brave-hearted widow. Those who knew her will know it was as impossible for her to shrink from any responsibility as to take a gift of redemption she had not herself earned. Although delicate and fragile of body she took up the weight of life cheerfully, said to the world. “Since it is my duty I will conquer you,” and during all the years that followed, never wavered in her determination to give the best possible gifts to those holding claims upon her— to her children, education, moral training and the lesson of self-helpfulness. Not long after her husband’s death she established herself in Philadelphia, as offering a wider business field than Wilmington, and here took up her work for Freethought. For more than twenty years she was a constant worker in all the organized efforts of Liberalism in this city, only a short time before her death coming down from Reading (which was her residence during the past year), to attend the annual Paine celebration. Her last hours were quite painless, her last words an expression of consideration for her daughter, characteristically unselfish to the end.

The remains were brought to Philadelphia for cremation, in accordance with her provision, funeral services being held at the residence of undertaker Heacock. Her daughters, many of her former friends and neighbors, and members of both Friendship and the Ladies’ Liberal Leagues. to both of which she belonged, were present to take a farewell look at the kind old face, so peacefully resting on its last pillow.

The following address was delivered by Voltairine de Cleyre:


Friends: To those who die in the beautiful fullness of beautiful years, Death is a lovely, a beautiful thing. Its sadness is like the sadness of the autumn shine that melts and melts, and melts into the kissing shadows of the night. So she died, this mother, this lover and friend of us all; into that tremulous, mystic, mighty umber, that puissant, pregnant shadow from which all souls float up and form, and back to which they float and mix again, she has gone down. Full of the beauty of perfected days, full of the strength of service, and right ways, full of the rest of a settled spirit, full of long-proved trust in the faith of truth, of human freedom, she has gone down to the great Sea of Life, to the great Under-Soul that ebbs and pulses through this race of ours, bearing these rich gifts in her hands—gifts that shall flower and fruit in many another soul hereafter, when she and we, and all that live and love to-day are vanished and forgotten. I said the sadness lying over her was the softened sadness that comes when something that has rounded out the measure of its life departs. It is not that bitter grief which rends when something young is shocked and shredded from its unfinished task; but that melancholy which droops around the spirit when one who has passed the leaf-time and the flower-time passes away, too, into the purple haze beyond the time of the falling fruit, leaving the benison of all its sweet behind. And none can say how far that benison may reach. Shall a foot stumble on the path of freedom? It shall take courage and rise up, and go upright upon the path, not knowing that long ago her feet stumbled there, and her strong soul battled there, and her heart took courage of itself, and overcame and sent down the gift of overcoming to the future years. This small. delicate, white hand, so cold now, so very, very quiet now, which of us knows how far its touch may reach. loving, caressing, protecting, warning, defending? For the end of the touch of a hand is not to-day, nor to-morrow. According to the spirit in which it is given it shall live moments or aeons; and we who knew her know that when we touched her, we touched real sympathy, right candor, and strong fearlessness.

I did not know her so well as some of you, but I. too, hold the memory of a long, lingering clasp with which she pressed my hand once when she had given me a bunch of flowers. I felt better then for having felt that touch; I feel better now remembering it. I knew that I had come in contact not only with a gentle hand, but with something greater that does not change in all this slipping world of change, and 1 was grateful for it. Out of her earnest eyes shone an unflickering light, and written all over her dear old face, over all its lines and seams and traces of years, was one strong word, “Steadfast.” Never swerving one hair from what she deemed the truth, never bending before Gods, or creeds. or men;

never suing at any shrine, never searching help from any outside power, but always in her own quiet, courageous heart, she walked alike through the fields of pleasure or over the rocks of pain, steadfast—steadfast.

O you whom she loved, take that word with you. Her body goes back to our Mother to-day—back, as she wished, to the light and the air; but that word she carved her life into, take it and bear it forever with you.

Mr. Geo. Longford, Secretary of the League, read the following verses, as in life Mrs. Harker had once requested him to do:

“It shall be a light in the dark, dark days.
It shall be a rift in the clouds that frown;
It shall be a voice guiding all your ways,
A thread thro’ the tanglesome treacherous maze,
From the far, fair heights of the truth coming down.

Beautiful, silvery silken Death!
So soft, so still, so long longed for;
Thou givest rest where thou takest breath,
Thou takest brown leaves, and givest a wreath
Of the fairest, whitest flowers that are.

Peace is the name of the great pale rose
That opes and broods o’er the brow of the dead;
Silence the lily-white bud that blows
Where the sweet cold eyes will never unclose
And the mouth curves yet with a shadow of red.

Cruel, O Death, are thy wings and winds,
But thy flowers are wonderful white-and rare;
We weep sad salt where our pain begins,
But we bless the silence her pain upbinds.
And the great pale rose in her silver hair.

Thou hast given her back to the Mother-All,
Mother—lover of women and men:
One day we shall lie with her under one pall,
The wild wide sky and the clear wind call,
The gold and crystal of sun and rain.

O dear, dead body, our eyelids swell
Red with the sorrowful tears of us;
Thou shalt not know; none shall ever tell
The long sad song of this last farewell,
Tho’ it ring on thro’ all the years of us.

Nay, it is good, for now thou art free,
And freedom, sure thou didst worship it;
A tired wave slipping back to the sea.
Thou goest, bearing our love with thee;
Well that no pain follow thee, well and fit.

All Nature, self-existent, power innate,
Life gives and takes, forms solve as adaptate,
Nature obeys, vice disobeys her laws;
In short, all good this only evil draws,
No good or ill by supernatural cause.

Let not imagination take its flight
Upwards to fancied regions of delight,
Science and virtue lead to happiness,
Known truths, not future faith, give real bliss.

She had no fear, because she’d not
Nor faith nor hope in Juggernaut,
Nor Foh, Grand Llama, Bouth nor Zend.
Nor Bible systems without end,
Nor Alearan, nor_Mormon views,
Nor any creed priest-followers use.

Each class, self-pure, condemns the rest,
Enlightn’d minds the whole detest;
In strongest faith no virtue lies,
And unbelief no vice implies.

A bare opinion hurts no man;
Then prove it hurts a God who can;
To others do, to others give,
As you’d have done, or would receive,”

The services over, the hearse, followed by the mourners and friends, was driven to the Germantown Crematory, where no further words were spoken, the body being simply lowered into the receiving room and prepared for incineration. By permission of the manager a few were allowed to descend and witness this last service to the dead. The body, folded in a white shroud, soaked in alum to prevent its catching fire, reposed upon a kind of trestle before the mouth of the retort. At a signal the door was slightly opened revealing all round the sombre stone a wreath of roseate light. An instant so, this ethereal halo, then the door was swung wide, the beautiful light shone out a moment in the solemn room, the corpse was quickly glided into the heart of it, the door closed again, and we knew that there, in the clasp of the opaline glow, the pure body was melting into its elements. No slow rotting of time, no horrible decomposition, no putrid years under ground; just the dissolving kiss of the fire—the quick, kind, clean fire, the fire without beam or flame, the distilled soul of the fire, and then—a little heap of pure white ashes.

As we drove away, the clouds that drooped heavily, all the morning broke and let through the old, old wonder of the sunlight.

V. DE C.

Philadelphia, March 28, 1893.

Voltairine de Cleyre, “In Hora Mortis Nostrae,” The Freethinkers’ Magazine 11 no. 6 (June, E. M. 293 (1893)): 378-381.

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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.