What It Was Like Attending Aaron Swartz's Funeral

Aaron Swartz was no ordinary man, so it is only fitting that his funeral was as extraordinary he was.

(For more, see The Persecution Of Aaron Swartz.)

Besides the press and speakers and attendees of his funeral - from Internet luminaries like Lawrence Lessig and Tim Berners-Lee and writers like Dan Sinker and Quinn Norton - the service also drew the Highland Park Police Department and some 30-odd fans and members of the hacktivist collective Anonymous. The latter two groups had set up around Highland Park’s Lubavitch Chabad Central Avenue Synagogue to protect mourners from the Westboro Baptist Church, as the religious hate group had threatened to picket Swartz’s funeral. They never showed, perhaps fearing retribution from Anonymous.

Despite the chill, by 9:40am some 100 family, friends and fans - myself included - were already seated in the small synagogue. By a little after 10:00, the room was packed with roughly 350 mourners lining the walls and sitting on the floor.  

Laughter Amidst The Tears

The entire service lasted less than two hours, and while some speakers elicited rueful laughter with amusing tidbits of Swartz's life -  when Quinn Norton suggested he get LASIK eye surgery, for example, Swartz apparently quipped: “no, lasers are supposed to come out of your eyes” -  the mood hovered on the verge of tears.

Two refrains echoed throughout the service: placing the blame of Swartz’s suicide on persecution by the U.S. government, and calling for everyone in attendance continue to fight for the ideals Swartz held dear.

Taren Steinbrickner-Kauffman, Aaron Swartz’s partner of 20 months, opened the service saying, “The night before he died, we shared a grilled cheese sandwich.” She talked about Swartz’s love of cheesy foods and his excitement over the possibility of a $1 trillion coin, before telling attendees that “we must change the world” by fighting for open access and destroying the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act which she said allowed prosecutors to hound Swartz to death.

Wise Beyond His Years

Tim Berners-Lee called Swartz “wise beyond his years” before describing how surprised he was to learn Swartz was only 14 when they first met. Aaron saw “coding as one way to change the world,” said Lee.  “We’ve lost an elder,” he added, before concluding with the hopeful thought that perhaps if we come together and work towards Swartz’s ideals, the world can “compensate for his loss.”

Lawrence Lessig called Swartz “a mentor to elders” and a “wise soul” always asking the question, “How do I make the world a better place?” He joked that the parenthood potion for creating a beautiful and brilliant boy like Swartz was “probably patented,” before breaking down and taking a dig at the Massachusetts prosecutors that he felt drove Swartz to suicide. “Aaron was depressed because God was depressed” said Lessig, who closed his speech with, “All is not okay, but we will make it better” in his name, a reference to an email exchange the two shared years ago.

No Ordinary Waif

Swartz’s defense attorney Elliot Peters, upon meeting his client, was struck by how “small, vulnerable, and waifish” Swartz was, before quickly realizing “this is no ordinary waif.” Peters knew right away Swartz was “something very valuable to protect,” an individual who needed “protection from the government, from stony-faced bureaucrats.” Speaking to Aaron Swartz as if he were alive and in the room, Peters admitted he was disappointed not just in himself  - “my job was to protect you” - but also “disappointed in you because you didn’t give our routine a chance. Protect you we would have.”

He had planned to evoke “the Boston Harbor” and early American revolutionaries in his closing statement at Swartz’s trial, and was confident the verdict would be favorable. “I am disappointed I won’t feel your arms around my neck” in celebratory thanks “when they read 13 not guilty verdicts,” said Peters.

A Father's Love

Perhaps even more moving than Peters' statements were those from his father Robert Swartz, who wavered when he first stepped in front of the crowd, saying, “I don’t know if I can do this.” Through Robert Swartz, we learned Aaron taught himself to read while other children were in nursery school, a feat which “embarrassed” him at the time, and that Aaron dropped out of both high school and Stanford University in his first years to pursue other agenda, like building Reddit.   

“How is it that Aaron did something that wasn’t illegal and was destroyed for it,” yet Zuckerberg is “idolized” and “Wall Street bankers” who ruined our economy “dine at the White House,” wondered Robert Swartz, who went on to describe Aaron Swartz’s characterization as a “malicious hacker” by the U.S. government as “false.”  

“Why are you destroying my son,” he asked through tears, adding his son “was killed by the government, and MIT betrayed all its basic principles... He could have done so much more and now he is dead.” He closed by saying, “We must never stop” trying to make the world a better place.

The Best Way To Honor Aaron Swartz's Memory

Aaron Swartz may have already done that, and not just by others taking up his cause of open access and an uncensored Internet. Just a few days before his suicide, JSTOR opened its electronic doors to offer free but limited access to its database of academic articles, most likely in part because of Swartz's act of protest in 2011.    

Upon leaving the service, I ran into an Occupy Wall Street organizer and admirer of Aaron Swartz: the 50-year-old IT consultant Padraig O’Hara. "I believe the State murdered Aaron Swartz," said O'Hara, who went on to add the "last democratic thing we have is a free, open Internet," which is why he has made it his mission to follow Swartz's footsteps and "help social transformation" through Internet activism. 

A worthy goal for anyone who wants to honor Aaron Swartz's memory.

 

Image by Fruzsina Eördögh.