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Oration at a Child's Grave

WASHINGTON, D.C., Jan. 9.--In a remote corner of the Congressional Cemetery yesterday afternoon, a small group of people with uncovered heads were ranged around a newly-opened grave. They included Detective and Mrs. George O. Miller and family and friends, who had gathered to witness the burial of the former's bright little son Harry, a recent victim of diphtheria. As the casket rested upon the trestles there was a painful pause, broken only by the mother's sobs, until the undertaker advanced toward a stout, florid-complexioned gentleman in the party and whispered to him, the words being inaudible to the looker-on.


The gentleman was Col. Robert G. Ingersoll, a friend of the Millers, who had attended the funeral at their request. He shook his head when the undertaker first addressed him, and then said suddenly, "Does Mrs. Miller desire it?"


The undertaker gave an affirmative nod. Mr. Miller looked appealingly toward the distinguished orator, and then Col. Ingersoll advanced to the side of the grave, made a motion denoting a desire for silence, and, in a voice of exquisite cadence, delivered one of his characteristic eulogies for the dead. The scene was intensely dramatic. A fine drizzling rain was falling, and every head was bent, and every ear turned to catch the impassioned words of eloquence and hope that fell from the lips of the famed orator.


Col. Ingersoll was unprotected by either hat or umbrella, and his invocation thrilled his hearers with awe, each eye that had previously been bedimmed with tears brightening and sobs becoming hushed. The Colonel said:


MY FRIENDS: I know how vain it is to gild a grief with words, and yet I wish to take from every grave its fear. Here in this world, where life and death are equal kings, all should be brave enough to meet what all have met. The future has been filled with fear, stained and polluted by the heartless past. From the wondrous tree of life the buds and blossoms fall with ripened fruit, and in the common bed of earth patriarchs and babes sleep side by side. Why should we fear that which will come to all that is? We cannot tell. We do not know which is the greatest blessing, life or death. We cannot say that death is not good. We do not know whether the grave is the end of this life or the door of another, or whether the night here is not somewhere else a dawn. Neither can we tell, which is the more fortunate, the child dying in its mothers arms before its lips have learned to form a word, or he who journeys all the length of life's uneven road, painfully taking the last slow steps with staff and crutch. Every cradle asks us "Whence?" and every coffin "Whither?" The poor barbarian weeping above his dead can answer the question as intelligently and satisfactorily as the robed priest of the most authentic creed. The tearful ignorance of the one is just as consoling as the learned and unmeaning words of the other.


No man standing where the horizon of a life has touched a grave has any right to prophesy a future filled with pain and tears. It may be that death gives all there is of worth to life. If those who press and strain against our hearts could never die, perhaps that love would wither from the earth. May be a common faith treads from out the paths between our hearts the weeds of selfishness, and I should rather live and love where death is king than have eternal life where love is not. Another life is naught, unless we know and love again the ones who love us here. They who stand with breaking hearts around this little grave have no fear. The largest and the noblest faith in all that is, and is to be, tells us that death, even at its worst, is only perfect rest. We know that through the common wants of life, the needs and duties of each hour, there grief will lessen day by day until at last these graves will be to them a place of rest and peace, and almost joy. There is for them this consolation: The dead do not suffer. If they live again their lives will surely be as good as ours. We have no fear; we are all children of the same mother and the same fate awaits us all. We, too, have our religion, and it is this : "Help for the living, hope for the dead."


At the conclusion of the eloquent oration the little coffin was deposited in its last resting place covered with flowers.


Comment on Ingersoll's Oration
Chicago Tribune, Jan. 14, 1882


Chicago, Jan. 13. -- In this morning's Tribune you quote from Col. Ingersoll's remarks at the grave of the little boy in Washington and ask: "Is Mr. Ingersoll beginning to experience a change of heart, and is he hedging the way for his return to the belief of his fathers Or is he assailing that faith in one place and in another using what he terms the 'mummeries' of that faith to rob the grave of its terrors? If the latter, then the man is insincere!"


I think you do not quite correctly expound Mr. Ingersoll. His position is that of profound recognition of the infinite mysteries of life and death, and a frank and honest confession that he is helpless in the presence of these "kings," and unable to explain them; also that the representatives of the most authentic creeds, in fact, are as helpless as he is, and with all their pretensions to knowledge know no more than he does.


Who knows whether "the grave is the end of this life or the door of another"? Does not Mr. Ingersoll know as much about that great unanswered question as the recognized representatives of the creeds? If not, why not? Is there any secret knowledge that is not accessible to men of Mr. Ingersoll's intellect? "It may be that death gives all there is of worth in life." That is, ushers us into a new life which is the culmination and fruitation of this life. Who knows? And who knows more or better than you, Mr. Editor, or I, or Mr. Ingersoll, except those who have passed the gates of death? Are there any arguments, or philosophies, or revelations, or facts of science not accessible to Mr. Ingersoll that are known to a priest, or a Pope, or a Doctor of Divinity?


In all departments of human thought except religion, actual facts, discoveries, and established principles only are relied upon. Why should this not be the rule in religious investigation? It is true all men may and must speculate beyond the regions of actual explorations and survey. Discoveries, or the germs thereof, are first found in the imagination. Imagination is the pioneer corps of the mind. The creedmakers and upholders have a right, and it is laudable to speculate. It is all right to use the imagination , and build theories upon assumed facts; but it is not proper to claim actual knowledge and infallible law and hard facts, when there is nothing but speculation and guesswork. Mr. Ingersoll has directed his wit at these assumptions of the clergy. This is the head and front of his offending. He has stopped at the line which separates, so far as known, the known from the unknowable; while the clergy have pretended to know, as well, what is beyond that line as they do what is this side of it, and sometimes even better. It is to this assumption that Mr. Ingersoll directs his terrible batteries.


He has many times said that it would be no more wonderful for man to live hereafter than to live now. But who knows that he actual does live hereafter? Do the clergy? All men know that D.D. does not stand for any more, intellectually or spiritually, than A. B. or LL. D.-not an iota. This age is peculiar. It has thought more profoundly on the great problems of life and death than any preceding age, perhaps. If our thinkers have made no new discoveries of positive truth they have found out negatively that they do not know many things that have been taught as verities.


They deal in negatives because that which is not known to be true is positively asserted in the bulk of the creeds. There is discernible in all this negative thought progress toward a higher, a broader positivism.


Why should mankind be able in an early and unenlightened age to reach a finality on the profound problems of religion, when ignorance was equally profound on most of the common questions of this world and this life? Why should religion come by unnatural processes, cross-lots, and in a lump, to ignorant men, who geography, geology, chemistry, astronomy, political economy, social science, physiology, architecture, and all branches of human thought and correct conduct come by slow degrees and in in a natural way to wisest men at first and by the profoundest research?


These questions are being widely considered by the common people, both in the churches and outside of the churches, and the Ingersolls and the subjects of the creed expounders are getting nearer and nearer together every day, and ancient positivism is crumbling rapidly to pieces, and new and profounder, and more rational theories are taking its place.


-- A.J. Grover

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