78. “Concord’s Irreparable Loss! The Death and Funeral of Ralph Waldo Emerson.” Front page article in the Concord Freeman for May 4, 1882. Letterpress on paper.
In April, 1882, a frail and forgetful Emerson attended the funeral of his old friend Longfellow, remembering neither the man nor, after the event, the ceremonies. Over the following week, a cold that he had recently caught walking coatless in the rain developed into pneumonia. Surrounded by family and friends in his last days, Emerson died on April 27th, a little before 9:00 P.M., one month before his seventy-ninth birthday. At his death, the First Parish bell broke the night silence seventy-nine times.
The Emerson family and the people of Concord planned a funeral in keeping with Emerson’s national and local importance. Judge Hoar brought First Parish organist Thomas Whitney Surette to the Emerson house to choose hymns for the April 30th church service. Daniel Chester French—who had enjoyed Emerson’s endorsement in obtaining the commission for his Minute Man statue and who in 1879 had sculpted a bust of Emerson—draped the body in a white robe, dramatic in contrast with the dark wood of the black walnut coffin.
The women of Concord made black and white rosettes to decorate houses that people would see on the way from the depot and along the route of the funeral procession. Public buildings were hung with black drapery. The Fitchburg Railroad arranged special trains to bring the anticipated throng of mourners to Concord. The floors and galleries of the First Parish were reinforced to support the weight of the numbers expected.
Both private and public services were held on April 30th. The private service at Bush, conducted by William Henry Furness, began at 2:30. At its conclusion, a hearse carried the coffin to the First Parish, accompanied by pallbearers, members of the Social Circle, and carriages bearing family members.
The First Parish was decorated with pine and hemlock branches and a variety of flowers. Louisa May Alcott—who had idolized Emerson—had prepared a lyre of jonquils. The service, conducted by James Freeman Clarke, began at 3:30. Judge Hoar spoke emotionally. Bronson Alcott read a poem he had written for the occasion. At the conclusion of the ceremony, some of those waiting outside were allowed to enter and file past the coffin.
The body was transported to Sleepy Hollow. Samuel Moody Haskins—Emerson’s cousin—conducted the Episcopal burial service. The Emerson grandchildren and the schoolchildren of Concord dropped flowers and greenery into the grave. Before the mourners dispersed, the sun broke through the clouds that had threatened rain all day.
Later, the Emerson family marked the grave with a large piece of rough-hewn rose quartz bearing a bronze plaque inscribed with lines from Emerson’s poem “The Problem.”
National press coverage of Emerson’s death and funeral was intense. As significant as his passing was to the nation, however, Concord felt the loss in a way no other place could. Much of the May 4, 1882 issue of the Concord Freeman was devoted to Emerson and to events connected with his death and burial. “Concord’s Irreparable Loss,” a front-page article, expressed the town’s particular claim to grief: “Here, for half a century, he walked up and down among the people, grandly, yet humbly; thinking and living at times in a realm far above and beyond the people, yet like all truly great men, in sympathy with his surroundings, and interested in the commonest … events … [H]e whom many of the great and good from every clime who came to our shores were glad to meet and visit in his unpretentious home, he who never sought, but always received flattering consideration from the world’s intellectually and spiritually distinguished, loved this village and this people ... ”
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