Controversial monument immortalizes atheist

The Joseph Coveney monument in Buchanan, erected 23 years before his death in 1897, was very controversial. Among the passages etched in the stone are "All Christian denominations preach damnation." Debra Haight / H-P Correspondent

BUCHANAN - The Joseph Coveney monument in Oak Ridge Cemetery might be old and weathered, but at one time it was a major source of controversy in the Buchanan area.

Coveney, an Irish immigrant, caused a great stir when he erected a monument in the city cemetery in 1874 that was engraved with phrases that a local newspaper called "slanderous … against Christianity."

To get an idea of what's on the monument, near the top of each of the four sides have one of the following phrases: "Free Religion," "Free Press," "Free Speech" and "Free Thought".

Coveney's freethinker ideas are expounded on other parts of the monument, some of which have been obliterated by time.

"The Christian religion begins with a dream and ends with a murder" is one of the statements.

Other inscriptions include "All Christian denominations preach damnation," "The more priests the more poverty," "The more religion the more lying," "The more saints the more hypocrites" and "Nature is the true God, Science is the true religion."

Since he didn't die until more than 20 years later, Coveney had plenty of time to enjoy the furor, History Center curator Robert Myers said.

He included a biography of Coveney in his first volume of Berrien County historical sketches.

"… He was certainly one of the more interesting characters in the area," Myers said.

"I would say his monument is one of the most unusual in the county. He liked to tweak people's noses. I think he did it for the notoriety.

"Buchanan residents were kind of horrified he put it up in the cemetery."

Myers said the monument was expensive.

Coveney was very prominent, owned a lot of farmland and one of the wealthiest men in the Buchanan area.

Coveney Road in western Buchanan Township is named after him.

His son, John, is buried in a different part of the cemetery away from him in a plainly marked grave.

Myers said the Detroit Free Press had a story about the monument, and the New York Times mentioned the monument when it ran a notice of his death in February 1897.

The Times article is entitled "Death of an Infidel" and called Coveney "one of the most noted infidels in the United States."

The story noted he refused to renounce his beliefs on his deathbed.

According to the article, the monument cost $3,000 and was inscribed with "some of the most sacrilegious statements ever uttered by mankind."

A Google search on the Internet of Joseph Coveney brings up not only the New York Times death notice but also accounts from americanheritage.com and the book "The Best, Worst and Most Unusual" by Bruce Felton and Mark Fowler.