When David Lander of New York City found himself some fifty miles southwest of Kalamazoo in the town of Buchanan, Michigan, he quite naturally asked his business associates there if there was anything worth seeing in Buchanan. There was indeed, and on a freezing winter morning he was taken out to the town’s cemetery to visit one of the most remarkable monuments in America.
When in 1870 Joseph Coveney, a respected citizen of the town, planned to erect a memorial monument, the Common Council of Buchanan granted him the best space in the cemetery. Rumors had it that the stone was going to cost three thousand dollars and would be one of the most beautiful monuments in southwestern Michigan, a source of considerable civic pride. Imagine, then, the general outrage and consternation when in 1874 the monument was unveiled to reveal graven on its surface what a local newspaper called “slanderous inscriptions… against Christianity.”
People were particularly baffled because the author of the violent atheistic sentiments on the stone had a great reputation for generosity and love of his fellow man. This sort of dichotomy is perhaps less puzzling today, but to the Christian citizenry of Buchanan in the 70’s it was completely inscrutable.
But Joseph Coveney had early in his life witnessed some of the grimmer effects of Christianity. He was born in County Cork in 1805, to a Catholic family that was forced by England to contribute one tenth of its total income to the Protestant Church. By the late 1820’s Coveney apparently had had a bellyful of Christians of both sects, and he set out for the United States. By the time he reached Michigan in 1833, he was a skilled carpenter, and he prospered. Whatever his religious feelings, he was able to reconcile himself to marrying a minister’s daughter, and the couple purchased property near Buchanan, where they spent the rest of their lives.
Coveney was a rich man and was paying half the expenses of the local school when his controversial monument appeared. On its east face was inscribed
Thirty-two thousand virgins given by command of the Bible God to an army of twelve thousand to debauch Numbers 31. A poor consolation to Mothers.
The offending monument was quickly defaced by indignant towns-people, who scribbled on it with red chalk, broke off small ornamental decorations, and spewed tobacco juice over the inscriptions. Bridling in particular at damage caused by a minister’s son, Coveney proclaimed: “I was raised in a Catholic country, but it remained for a Protestant Christian to try to refuse me the right to maintain this monument in a public cemetery.”
The town council attempted to smooth things over by denouncing the vandalism and calling attention to Coveney’s many good works, but the ripples spread as far as Chicago, where the influential Daily Times deplored the inscriptions and their author.
But in time the furor died away; and when in 1897 Coveney went to rest beneath his curious tombstone, the local obituary was calm enough, mentioning the stone and adding that Coveney ”… was a follower of Paine. Mr. Coveney left one of the largest estates in Berrien County.”
A group of freethinkers made a yearly pilgrimage from Chicago to view the stone up until the igSo’s, but they are gone now, and Coveney’s radical sentiments have been largely obliterated by time and the elements.