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Burying Ben. April 21, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about a major—but far from the last—event in the life of our blog mentor and hero, Dr. Benjamin Franklin. Today marks the 219th anniversary of old Ben’s funeral back on April 21, 1790. Ben had died at age 84 on April 17th.

Like his life, Ben Franklin’s funeral was extraordinary. Held in his adoptive hometown, Philadelphia, it was more like a parade. That’s because he was not only the most famous citizen of Philadelphia—at the time, the largest city in America—but also the most famous man in the world. The citizens—20,000 of them—poured into the streets to accompany his coffin to its resting place, Christ Church burial ground. Today, when hundreds of thousands gather to watch a football game or rock concert, 20,000 may not seem like much of a crowd. But back in 1790, the entire population of Philadelphia was only 28,500. Imagine more than two-thirds of the population of, say, modern New York City, London, or Mumbai taking to the streets for somebody’s funeral, and you’ll get an idea of what Dr. Franklin’s funeral procession must have been like. 

The sheer size of the crowd wasn’t even the most amazing thing about Ben Franklin’s funeral. The procession itself was like a microcosm of old Ben’s entire life and achievements. It was led by the assembled clergy of Philadelphia, regardless of denomination, to honor the man who had made freedom to worship as one pleased a cornerstone of the new Republic and had done so much to raise funds for the building of the city’s houses of worship. This may have been the first ecumenical gathering ever. There was even a rabbi—and this was back in 1790, in the same century that gave us the Salem witch trials!

Prominent Philadelphia dignitaries, including the mayor and the astronomer David Rittenhouse, carried the coffin. Behind it marched the city’s printers (Franklin considered himself first and foremost a printer), then the philosophers (Ben had cofounded the American Philosophical Society), then the physicians of Philadelphia (Dr. Franklin was also a founder of the first medical school in America). The Society of the Cincinnati, an elite society of officers of the American Revolution whose members included George Washington, came next in the procession. From printer’s apprentices to the most elite and exclusive society in America, from physicians to philosophers, from priests to politicians, Benjamin Franklin’s funeral procession summed up the true work of his life, which was to bring people from all walks of life together in friendship, to their mutal benefit and betterment.

Let’s contrast this with another funeral. George Washington, undoubtedly America’s First Citizen and inarguably greatest of all Americans since Franklin’s passing, followed him in death by just nine years. When Washington died in 1799, he was buried quietly at Mount Vernon, attired in his Masonic regalia and accompanied to his grave by his family, his coffin borne by his fellow Freemasons.

At heart, Benjamin Franklin was a plain man. So it’s fitting that his tombstone, rather than some towering monument of curlicues and statuary, is a plain slab that simply reads “Benjamin and Deborah Franklin 1790.” You can see his grave for yourself, as I have, in the churchyard at the corner of 5th and Arch Streets in Philadelphia. But the country and the world he made better places were not through showing their grief at his passing. At James Madison’s suggestion, the House of Representatives wore mourning for a month. The French National Assembly also wore mourning to honor the man the French loved perhaps even more than his fellow Americans did. (As Count Mirabeau so ably summed it up, “He was able to restrain thunderbolts and tyrants.”)

Let me end with a fun fact about Ben’s grave: To this day, people toss pennies onto the gravestone of the man who said “A penny saved is a penny earned.” From 1790 to today, it’s been believed that the practice will bring the penny-tosser good luck. Up in Heaven, old Ben must be laughing!

You’ll find more about Ben Franklin’s funeral, and about his life and achievements, at a wonderful website called “The Electric Ben Franklin” (www.ushistory.org/FRANKLIN/). Highly recommended!


1. islandgardener - April 21, 2009

Thanks for that bit of history today. Very interesting!

My pleasure! Ben Franklin—and pretty much everything connected with him—is just so fascinating!

2. sjones71 - April 22, 2009

I’ve got my favorites… Einstein, Darwin etc., but I think I’ve got a growing place in my heart for Ben! Can’t think of another grave that I’ve actually gone to other than Ben’s. No pennies from me though.

Glad old Ben’s growing on you, sj! I’ll confess, I didn’t throw a penny, either. Figured it was better to let sleeping Bens lie!

3. Rick Caty - June 18, 2009

Benjamin Franlin was truly the First American.
And a legend in his own time.

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