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Jewish World Review March 30, 2001 / 6 Nissan, 5761

Dave Shiflett

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Consumer Reports

Atheist for sale -- The quiet burial of what's left of Madalyn Murray O'Hair has upset her colleagues at American Atheists Inc., for whom some sympathy is due. Ms. O'Hair's ashes, along with bones of two family members who perished with her, were deposited in an unmarked grave by her son, Bill. Bill's a believer — an evangelist, no less. That an evangelist would oversee the burial of the nation's loudest atheist has been too much to bear.

"He hasn't heard the last of us," says AA's president, Ellen Johnson. "He shouldn't have gotten them."

One hates to snicker at a funeral, but these days quality entertainment is hard to come by, and the scrap for these scraps is amusing to a cosmic degree. Ellen is upset that Bill has made off with something she clearly believes belongs to her — something she was counting on having. A lifetime of speculation leads to one conclusion regarding motive: money. Quite clearly, Ms. O'Hair's former colleagues hope to sell her remains in the open marketplace as relics.

No one expects AA to admit to this, of course — at least not until they have the goods in their possession. Instead, the organization will argue that MMO would loudly protest the turn of events that placed her remains in the hands of her son. That is a reasonable position. Indeed, the last years of her life were a public-relations disaster. It is as if a cosmic playwright intervened to deny her the ending that she — and her atheist colleagues — would have clearly preferred.

Here, after all, was a publicity-crazed drum-pounder — a roaring sack of rage and mockery — whose death should have been a protracted affair, during which she could engage in much fist-shaking at the heavens, clergy, and anyone who disputes their fate as mere dust in the wind. She might have eventually presented herself as a wise elder, going gentle into that good dark night — in her view, a night of total blackness, if not blackness unperceived. All the while she could have been raising money to ensure that her message survived her.

Yet this was not to be. Instead, MMO apparently fell victim to a band of low-rent swindlers who abducted her and two family members, forced her to hand over a portion of her gold, then chopped up the trio and buried their remains like so many acorns. To top off the horror, these remains were eventually dug up and handed over to her fundamentalist son. All that's missing from the mix is the discovery of a rosary.

Bill Murray has acted honorably enough, though from the shrieking one would think he had displayed Ma's remains on the 700 Club. He not only buried her without fanfare, but in an unmarked grave. Reportedly, there were no prayers at the ceremony, out of respect for her lifestyle choice. "It's done," said Bill. "They're hopefully resting in peace, and hopefully people will leave them alone."

This brings up a persistent problem with evangelists — they don't understand how the world works. Her associates cannot leave this alone. Not only has their friend suffered a terrible twist of fate. They have been denied the opportunity to make the most of her demise.

Again, their case is powerful. There is no doubting that many people would pay top dollar for a pinch of MMO — some out of the simple desire to own a piece of history, others out of philosophical allegiance. Every religion, after all, has its saints and shrines, and anti-religions do as well. In addition, a shrine that contained a smidgen of MMO would be the destination for pilgrims and tourists alike, whose purses could be lightened through the sale of books, pamphlets, videos, coffee mugs, mouse pads, and memberships in AA.

MMO would surely support the sale of her dust to immortalize her cause. Nor would she mind if her granddaughter's femur went over someone's mantle for the same purpose. And so, Bill Murray might rethink his position. There would be a deep and pleasing irony in fueling the engines of salvation with MMO's ashes. For as it is written: Not everyone goes to heaven. For the rest, there's eBay.

JWR contributor Dave Shiflett writes from Midlothian, Va. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2000, Dave Shiflett