Charles Robert Darwin, naturalist, is buried in the north aisle of the nave of Westminster Abbey, not far from Sir Isaac Newton. He was born in Shrewsbury on 12 February 1809, son of Robert Waring Darwin (1766-1848) and Susannah, daughter of Josiah Wedgwood. He studied with his brother Erasmus at Edinburgh University but disliked the idea of following in his father’s footsteps as a doctor. At Cambridge University he became very much interested in natural history and sailed on the ship HMS Beagle in 1831 to South America and the Galapagos islands. In 1839 he married his cousin Emma Wedgwood and they went to live at Downe, a small village in Kent. His famous work “The Origin of Species by natural selection” was published in 1859 and he continued working although his health was often poor. He died at Down House on 19 April 1882.
The Dean of Westminster, George Granville Bradley, was away in France when he received a telegram forwarded from the President of the Royal Society in London saying “…it would be acceptable to a very large number of our fellow-countrymen of all classes and opinions that our illustrious countryman, Mr Darwin, should be buried in Westminster Abbey”. The Dean recalled “ I did not hesitate as to my answer and telegraphed direct…that my assent would be cheerfully given”. The body lay overnight in the Abbey, in the small chapel of St Faith, and on the morning of 26 April the coffin was escorted by the family and eminent mourners into the Abbey. The pall-bearers included Sir Joseph Hooker, Alfred Russel Wallace, James Russell Lowell (U.S. Ambassador), and William Spottiswoode (President of the Royal Society).
The burial service was held in the Lantern, conducted by Canon Prothero, with anthems sung by the choir. The chief mourners then followed the coffin into the north aisle of the Nave where Darwin was buried next to the eminent scientist Sir John Herschel, and a few feet away from Sir Isaac Newton. The simple inscription on his grave reads
“CHARLES ROBERT DARWIN BORN 12 FEBRUARY 1809. DIED 19 APRIL 1882”.
Although an agnostic, Darwin was greatly respected by his contemporaries and the Bishop of Carlisle, Harvey Goodwin, in a memorial sermon preached in the Abbey on the Sunday following the funeral, said “I think that the interment of the remains of Mr Darwin in Westminster Abbey is in accordance with the judgment of the wisest of his countrymen…It would have been unfortunate if anything had occurred to give weight and currency to the foolish notion which some have diligently propagated, but for which Mr Darwin was not responsible, that there is a necessary conflict between a knowledge of Nature and a belief in God…”. A later, widely believed, rumour of a “deathbed conversion” to Christianity was denied by his daughter, who was actually present at his death.
A bronze memorial, with a life-sized relief bust, was erected by his family in the north choir aisle, near to the grave, in 1888. The sculptor was Sir J.E. Boehm. The inscription just says simply DARWIN.
Photos of the grave and memorial can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library
“The Survival of Charles Darwin” by Ronald Clark (1985).
The Darwin Museum at Down House: www.english-heritage.org.uk
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