While researching family history in 19th century Southern newspapers, I recently stumbled upon the most delightful atheist’s obituary I’ve ever seen. I’ve no idea who Gus M. Setzer of China Grove, North Carolina, was. But if his final act in the spring of 1889 and these sweet words about him are any guide, I wish I could have known old Gus:
He was a pronounced infidel, believing in neither God nor a future of any kind. Two weeks before his death, knowing his demise to be imminent, he went to a tree near the yard and under it marked a place for his grave, giving instructions as to how it should be dug and his mode of burial. He wanted a layer of cedar brush at the bottom of the grave, to be filled up with dirt. He said that when decomposition set in the sap of the tree would draw him up the limbs and he could perch on the top of the tree and view the surrounding scenery for ages to come.
Reading those words, my eyes welled from a profoundly felt connection with this old dissident, the ancient and spreading trees, and the glorious life inhabiting their gnarled branches.
Or so I hallucinated, because as we all know, atheists are incapable of feeling spiritual depth.
But it was the last line that really left me smiling in delight:
Setzer was perfectly rational to the last.
So much to savor here! From the poignancy of its title, “An Infidel’s Grave,” to the fact that this 128-year-old clipping held more respect for a philosophically inclined old infidel than most discussions about atheists in the media today. And I have questions! Who wrote this? Did Gus write it for himself, or was it written by a friend or family member? If it’s the latter, did they share his beliefs, or were they honoring them despite their differences? Did the editor who wrote the haunting title know Gus personally? What kind of response was there?
Old Gus was ready to enter a vibrant, living tapestry of twisted branches, vines of fragrant passion flower and clematis, and blue-gray gnatcatchers flitting among festoons of draping Spanish moss. That Gus didn’t believe in “a future of any kind” isn’t quite right, though. Gus believed in a truly beautiful, nearly everlasting future for himself.
What he didn’t know was that, over a century later, in a new, strange world he could never have imagined, Gus would be enchanting infidels still.