Voltairine de Cleyre, “Katherine Karg Harker—Obituary” (1896)

MRS. KATHERINE KARG HARKER.—OBITUARY.[note]An address delivered at the funeral of Mrs. Harker and at the grave. Mrs. Harker, who died at the age of seventy years, had been an Atheist for sixty years, and a member of the Philadelphia Liberal Club for the last twenty-five years.[/note]

IN the presence of those solemnly closed eyes, these pulseless hands, these voiceless lips I come to speak, as someday I wish that one will speak for me, telling the truth of life and death,

The trust of the dead is very sacred. There is but one thing equally so—and that is the trust of a little child. The supreme sacredness of both rests in their utter helplessness. Therefore the highest principles of honor demand that in nothing shall we disobey the wish of her who is powerless now, as all of us will be one day, to say if wrong be done her memory.

It, was her wish, then, that as liberty of thought was her last watchword hi life, no service of creeds or dogmas which bind thought should be holdover her when dead. As in life she faced the burdens and responsibilities of life, seeking to throw none of the weight which was hers upon others, so she went out fearlessly into the great darkness of Death, in perfect confidence that whether it were a long, eternal sleep, or whether light lay beyond, she had done her best here, and needed no one upon whom to cast her failures. No atonement as a passport to the future.

She lived in one world at a time and did her duty in this while she was with us. Who does this has naught to fear hereafter. Prayers she needed not living, nor does she need them dead. Her acts, her aspiration towards the uplifting, freedom-loving spirit of the race, these were prayer enough; and much more worthy prayer than a form of words rend from books, or repeated as a task.

Tears?—Ah, these she needs not, tool Out of the fullness of the mourning heart great tears will fall for the unfinished work, “the broken blossom, the ruined rhytnn” of life. And yet as I look upon her, so peaceful, so painless, so utterly beyond all that wounds, and hurts, I think I can almost hear her saying: “This I should, as I do pity you.”

To those who are bound in the old creeds Death is a terrible thing —a moment when the soul, wrung in its parting from loved ones, trembles upon an awful threshold of fear and flame. To her, to us, it means a melting out, of the individual “I” into the universal All.

But not fear, not torture, not pain. It is the escape from these —it is Rest, after long, long years—after the long, long fever of living, complete, utter, ineflable rest.

She believed, we believe in the Universal Kinship of all. The blush of a rose leaf or a human cheek, the light of a star or a human eye, the music of a waterfall or a beloved voice, all these are interwoven, interlocked parts of the great panorama of the universe. One law binds all—we are perpetually allied to the infinitely tittle, and when all is said we do not know which is great and which is small. But resting sure upon the truth that beyond the all we cannot drift, we know that Death only returns us to our deathless elements.

And as of the body, so of that other part of us which religion calls the soul—that part which thinks and feels and loves and hopes and suffers. This, too, returns to its elemental sea, never again to reappear among the living, but ever to reappear in other forms, in other souls, in all the generations yet to come, in all the unborn ones, wherever plain and simple duty is to be done, wherever truth is lo be told, wherever liberty is to be served, wherever superstition is to be torn away, wherever the race is to be lifted up—there, I say, will the elements of the soul of her who lies here, the elements of devotion, sincerity, fearlessness, idealism, gleam out purer, stronger, brighter, because she has lived, and been moved by them, and strengthened them in this life.

These were the real person, and these deathless. A gift from the past she was, now given to the future. And the future may not know her name, and forget her individuality, as it will that of all of us; none the less will she have her part in it, a glorious part, and so we say to the form, Farewell.

Farewell, brave heart which dared to be true to yourself, even unto death. This last trust of yours has helped to break a link in the fetters of the world.

Even your pale dead face still gives the “everlasting no” to every liberty-denying creed that seeks to bind in slavery the minds of men.

We praise you and rejoice with you in your rest. From the peace of your paleless face we learn infinite hope for our own time of rest coming, and repeat with the great singer of America, Whitman:[note]Walt Whitman’s Memories of President Lincoln.”[/note]

“Come, lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.
“Prais’d be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love—but praise! praise! praise!
For the sure en winding arms of cool-enfolding death.”


And now, with that real faith which rests upon the rock of knowledge, we give this body back to our dear Mother Earth, trusting, certainly trusting, that out of the wonderful womb of Life, whence all forms come, this dust will, in the infinite resurrection of all dead things, issue forth again in the beauty of living form, in myriad transformations, in endless procession of usefulness. Take, O Grave, this sacred charge 1 Well we know that thou wilt do thy holy task. Within thy walls so quiet, so somber, so dark, wherein so many pains and sorrows are laid down, silent, unseen of men, the busy hands of Life take up the sacred elements, and weave and unweave them, losing not one, giving all back at last, unto the uttermost. Human eyes are thick with salt, human lips are quivering with anguish, human love cries out against the bitter mandate so relentlessly remorseless to lift its hands. But when the heart has sobbed itself quiet, when after a little time it has lost the intensity of self, and with eyes free from tears looks into you, O Grave, and sees, not the somber walls, the coffin, nor the silent flesh; but under you, beyond you, away beyond you, the endless vision of forms coining from you to you again, and the endless, mysterious procession of the human race into its future—a future whose greatness it cannot see but which fills it full of dreams—and trusts that Do matter how the storms may break, beyond all is well.

A trust that makes self and its griefs little, and the individual life a passing scene. And still as the Heart, gazes on into the faces beyond you, the unknown stranger faces, it sees with joy, unutterable joy, upon the mouth of one the smile of sympathy that shone so often upon the dear dead face committed to the ground, and in the eyes of another the bold spirit of truth shining, that always shone in yours; and in the hands of another the same work she loved to do, and from the lips of another hears the sentiments hers so often spoke, and lo, in all the faces of the strangers it sees the soul of its beloved, and cries: “O Grave, well has thou done thy work! Thou hast given my love, the real heart of my love, to her brothers and sisters—and indeed though she be dead, yet she liveth.”

Voltairine de Cleyre, “Katherine Karg Harker—Obituary,” The Free Thought Magazine 14, no. 6 (June 1896): 387-389.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.