Birmingham’s Key Hill is the city’s oldest cemetery (outside of a churchyard), opened in 1836 as the non-denominational Birmingham Central Cemetery. Alongside a host of Birmingham’s great and good, two of the 19th century’s most remarkable freethinkers are buried at Key Hill: Harriet Martineau and Constance Naden. Both women embraced a humanist philosophy of reason, empathy, and rational inquiry, detached completely from theological ideas.
Martineau’s grave can be found at KH: I 790, and Naden’s at KH: P 460.
Harriet Martineau (1802-1876)
Harriet Martineau was a pioneering writer, thinker, and activist, who left behind the Unitarianism of her youth in favour of a deeply humanist philosophy. She is buried in Key Hill alongside a number of her family members. Over the final two decades of her life, Martineau suffered declining physical health and progressive deafness, though her mind remained sharp. In a letter written a few weeks before she died, Harriet Martineau wrote:
I cannot think of any future as at all probable, except the ‘annihilation’ from which some people recoil with so much horror. I find myself here in the universe — I know not how, whence or why. I see everything in the universe go out and disappear, and I see no reason for supposing that it is not an actual and entire death. And for my part, I have no objection to such an extinction. I well remember the passion with which W. E. Forster said to me ‘I had rather be damned than annihilated.’ If he once felt five minutes’ damnation, he would be thankful for extinction in preference. The truth is, I care little about it any way. Now that the event draws near, and that I see how fully my household expect my death pretty soon, the universe opens so widely before my view, and I see the old notions of death, and scenes to follow, so merely human — so impossible to be true, when one glances through the range of science — that I see nothing to be done but to wait, without fear or hope or ignorant prejudice, for the expiration of life. I have no wish for future experience, nor have I any fear of it. Under the weariness of illness I long to be asleep.
Constance Naden (1858-1889)
Scientist, poet, philosopher, and freethinker Constance Naden is buried in Key Hill alongside her mother and maternal grandparents. The gravestone, broken up and buried in the 20th century, was replaced in 2019 following a fundraising campaign. As well as the stone’s original text, the replacement bears an inscription from Naden’s poem ‘The Pantheist’s Song of Immortality’: ‘For earth is not as though thou ne’er hadst been’.
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