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Funerals Make Me Glad to Be an Atheist

My grandfather died recently, so I had to go home for the funeral. I hate funerals. They’re just not for me. I don’t have this kind of very public grieving process that some people evidently have. I just do my best to get on with life, and if I need to cry, then I cry and get it out and move on. Funerals are supposed to help people to do that, I know, but personally I don’t need it. The whole idea of having this big, formal process — basically a pageant — to deal with private, personal grief just makes no sense.

But that’s not why I say they make me glad to be an atheist. I’m glad to be an atheist because I know my funeral won’t be hijacked by some asshole with an agenda and completely fucked up priorities.

The eulogy was read by a family friend, and it talked about how my grandfather grew up in a poor neighbourhood, served in the Army, raised his kids and then grandkids. It talked about how proud he was of his grandkids, how he took care of all of us even into his old age. The eulogy talked about his personality, how he could be stubborn and crotchety sometimes but he still loved his family and was loved by them.

Then the pastor took the floor. He talked about how totally sweet heaven is. It’s “a million times better than Hawaii”, he said. Then he talked about how my brother talked my grandfather through a deathbed conversion. (My brother’s like that, even though he doesn’t attend church.) The pastor said it was the best decision my grandfather made in his life, “even though it came right at the end.”

FUCK YOU, Pastor Asswad.

What about raising a family? What about caring for his grandkids? What about picking them up from school and cooking them dinner so his daughter, my mother, could work and make enough money to put us through school? What about the shit he did that actually mattered? What about all the little decisions he made that actually affected people and made their lives better?

This is why I’m glad to be an atheist. Because I know that, when I go, there won’t be some asshole up at a podium using my death to push his agenda. Instead, my family will be there, remembering me for the life I actually lived and the things I actually did. That’s how I want it to be. That’s how it should be.

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  • Betty

    I would consider myself agnostic, but I share the idea. We just held a funeral for my father wholost a battle with cancer. Though a spiritual man, he hadn’t stepped foot in a church, save for weddings and funerals, in the past 30 years. Though we had a friend who did a wonderful eulogy and again spoke of how my dad cared for friends and family, and how he had pride in who he was, the work he did, and the children he raised. A very moving speech.

    Of course, the pastor of the church my grandmother attends came up and was supposed to do a simple prayer, and instead turned a simple funeral into a sermon. Even went as far as the plug the church he pastored for. Angered my mother so much that she squeezed my hand until I thought my fingers would break. He self-serving turned a touching memorial into a charade that will mar the memories my mother, my sister and I hold for my father’s funeral. And to make matters worse, the pastor got pissy that our friend had cut him off and did the ending prayer himself. And after, at the reception, the pastor had the nerve to go up to my mother, the grieving widow, and apologize for not having enough time to really open up and get going on a good sermon.

    Never Again.

  • http://tobascodagama.com Joshua

    Thanks for the comment, Betty.

    There seems to be a lot more people who feel the same way about funerals than I would have thought. Most are atheist/agnostic, but not all.

    I meant to include this in the post, but it slipped my mind when I was writing it: this is more or less exactly why we need things like the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy. I’ve disagreed with the current Chaplain, Greg Epstein, on quite a few issues, but after this funeral experience I can see a little more clearly why the organisation he leads is a vitally important part of building a secular future.

    Funerals are one of those ceremonies that are constant in our culture, and, like weddings, they are hijacked by the religious. If someone actually wants a religious ceremony, that’s their right, but there needs to be a valid alternative for the non-religious among us, those of us who prefer to focus on the world we know exists and the only lives we know we get.

  • http://www.cognitivedissident.org cognitive dissident

    First, I’d like to offer my condolences on your grandfather’s death. When my uncle died, the church service held for him was a painful experience, but we made up for it later by inviting a bunch of his musician friends to play at a local fire hall. We drank beer, told stories, and were able to commemorate his life in a much more fitting manner.

    I hate funerals too, but horrible events like that are reminders that–as members of a misunderstood minority–we need to take responsibility for planning our own memorial services.

    Write your own obituary (update it annually) and file it along with your will. Document your wishes for a non-religious event, pick the person to deliver the eulogy, select your own secular readings and music, and clearly explain all these things to your family and friends. When you’re gone and they’re suffering from your loss, the last thing they need is an insult to your memory from some “Pastor Asswad” who thinks he can get the last word in because you’re no longer able to correct him.

  • http://lockenet.blogspot.com Locke

    Great post! This is exactly how I feel as well and I think that it should be an unusual and only-by-request thing to have those type of dickheads even AT someone’s funeral, let alone being part of it and much less being the focus of it. By default, a funeral should be about the person and their loved ones, and it should only be religiously tainted if they so chose, not the other way around. Sorry about your grandfather, and good luck in future endeavors.

  • Gojo

    I disagree, funerals make me kinda wish I wasn’t an Atheist.
    Wouldn’t it be great if there WAS a paradise to spend eternity in? Come on, that would totally be awesome. But sadly that is just a fairy tale.

    And you obviously don’t understand the Christian mindset. These people (for the most part) truly believe that if you are saved you go to heaven when you die.

    Think about it.
    If you really believed that wouldn’t you want to share that good news?
    Most pastors know that people are more open to receiving this ‘good news’ at funerals.

    I don’t agree with their views, but I understand their motives.

  • Adam Seale

    Of course, that comment wasn’t meant to be a comfort for anyone in the family currently grieving who might happen to be Christian. He just said it because he has an agenda.

  • Dillon

    Yeah, i hate it when the pastors do that, “He had a great personality, but realy, it was god who gave him that.” like nothing he did was of his own will, god did everything for him. Bunch of bull. that is a very good point cognitive, I should start that immediatly.

  • Helen

    Funerals are incredibly frustrating. I want to remember my loved ones for the things they did in this life, our only life. I want my funeral to be just like yours.

  • Lunautilus

    My condolences on the death of your grandfather. I’m glad you’ve posted this, though.

    A few years ago, a friend of mine died (from a treatable infection, had the diagnosis been made in time) at the age of 19, leaving behind her 18-month-old son. She was a lapsed Protestant of some kind, and voiced real doubts about her faith in some of our conversations.

    During the funeral, the priest/pastor (chosen by her parents, perhaps) waxed on about how Jessica was with Jesus now, since she was such a good Christian, and how she was so happy in Heaven that she wouldn’t even want to come back to see her son. How her value came from her relationship with God, rather than her worth to us as a friend, daughter, and mother. How it was her generic Christian saintliness that defined her life, when all of us knew her for real, and how if she had to define herself, Christian might not even make the list of attributes. How, on her deathbed, she told him she was ready for God, even though we all knew damn well she died across the state shortly after being air-lifted from the local hospital and there was no way, logistically speaking, that he could have possibly been there. Our group of friends (mostly Wiccans and atheists) was almost as upset by the bullshit spewing out of this man’s mouth as we were by our friend’s wasteful death. And while it may have been imagination, it felt like the pastor was pitching much of his sermon to our little huddle of goths, losers, and outcasts, as if to…I don’t know, convert us during our grief? Or maybe just piss us off while twisting the knife.

    I admit that I understand the point of telling people their loved one is someplace better. What I fail to see, however, is how laying it on so thickly and acting as if death was the deceased’s idea (‘cuz Heaven rocks!) can be seen as appropriate, regardless of your religious beliefs. I see from the comments above that our experience at her funeral was not unique. What a fucking disgrace.

    Sorry to have gone on so, but reading your post brought forth a fresh wave of outrage. That was almost six years ago, and the reminder is enough to make me spend twenty minutes venting to total strangers and the internet at large.

  • Patricia

    I’m so sorry this happened at your grandfather’s funeral. I made sure my daughters know what I want. No crap, just a party where they will dance and eat. No heaven, no god, just me and them.
    Like it was all their lives and mine.

  • Diane

    I’ve got a fresh wave of outrage going on too, but it is refreshing to hear other people validate my experience at my ex-husband’s funeral.

    I can’t bear to go into the whole thing, but suffice it to say that I told the preacher that he WOULD play the songs my children had picked out instead of the Christian drivel he had in the program.

    I told him that my kids had been damaged by my ex-husband’s freaky ex-com born-again wife and her pathetic and cruel attempts to make Christians out of them.

    He did play the songs my kids chose, and he did a pretty good job of changing the service at the last minute to appease me. He also turned my ex-husband’s brief career as a rabid Christian into the jumping-off point to say how wonderful his God was.

    I hope my daughters remember what I said to them that night. They are atheists by their own choice, and they could not take comfort in the concept of everlasting life. Their father was gone.

    I touched my daughter’s head and told them that her father lives on in their minds and hearts. I said, and I really believe, that “he will live on in your very cells, in your DNA, and in the people they will become.”

    I emailed the preacher later when I found out that there was a misunderstanding. He had not been told about the songs my kids picked out, so he chose the music himself. I apologized, and explained why I had been so adamant that day. He apologized to me on behalf of mutant Christians (my words, but that’s what he meant), and offered to talk to me anytime if I wanted to learn about the other side of Christianity.

    I politely told him not to hold his breath.

  • misanthropope

    if you have a funeral, its GOING to be hijacked. the funeral industry is loathsome. donate your cadaver- your loved ones can have a fine time with the couple grand they save and some perfect strangers will benefit too.

  • ELBSeattle

    Great post! I do think there is value to having closure with a person’s life. But it has become hijacked by the funeral industry and the religious nutjobs who think everyone must believe in their imaginary friends.
    Several years ago my friend George died of complications from Hiv/AIDS. He was an organist at a Lutheran church. No one – not even I – knew he was sick. Half of the congregation had no idea he was even gay. At George’s funeral there was a strange representation of people in George’s life. On on side of the church sat George’s many gay friends – actors and dancers he had worked with, and just friends he had made. And on the other side of the church sat George’s parents and relatives: very staunch Lutherans, very fundamentalist in their beliefs. Many of them didn’t know George was gay either.
    The minister took this opportunity to preach hellfire and damnation. The message was clear: accept the blood of Jesus now, or you’ll be burning in hell like George is. Of course he didn’t say it in those words, but no one could mistake the intent. I was furious on top of being in complete shock and grief.
    After the sermon the minister invited people to come up and say things about George. A few people got up and said what a good organist he was, etc etc etc. I could not stand it. I got up and I said, “George was the first person I had ever heard say ‘I am a Christian, and I am gay. And there is no conflict there.'” You could have heard a pin drop. I went on to talk about how if there was a God, and if there was a heaven, that George was there at that moment. And that all the judging in the world didn’t do a thing to change him while he was alive, nor would it do a thing to change anyone in the church that night. I looked the pastor right in the eye when I said: “And if God is going to send someone as sweet as George to hell because he loved another man, then I want nothing to do with him. That kind of God is nothing but our own fears projected on the sky.”
    Oh, it felt great to say that.

  • http://tobascodagama.com Joshua

    And you obviously don’t understand the Christian mindset. These people (for the most part) truly believe that if you are saved you go to heaven when you die.

    Quick comment about this: yes, I do understand the mindset. I was a True Believer up until my late teens/early twenties, in a very fundamentalist Baptist church no less. I could easily see myself doing what my brother did in those circumstances, so that’s not really the problem I had.

    It’s not really so much that I don’t understand as that I do understand, and am repulsed by it.

  • Rosemary Lyndall Wemm

    Sorry that you had to go through that experience. It’s not what you need when you are grieving. In fact, it’s not what you need, period.

    ELBSeattle: LOL at your story. Good for you! That really needed to be said.

  • Vlad

    I totally share this sentiment. I’m glad no one even thought of spilling such crap at my father’s funeral, ’cause I would beat him on the head with the nearest cross.

  • EV

    I dont ever want to go to another funeral thats being held at any religious building. THEY ALWAYS DO THAT. it makes me so angry I can barely speak. i lost my father at 15, and the funeral was held at the funeral home, i cant actually remember anythign but stories, which was good, but i was also in an entirely different world than alot of other peopls there, so maybe i missed some god junk thrown in there. i wasnt listening. then my sisters dad died a couple years ago, and the pastor at the church where his funeral was held, did nothign but talk about jesus and how great god is, didnt even talk about heaven, her dad, or anything, it just sounded like another sunday bullshit parade. i was livid. i cant even describe my fury.
    and as far as “the people who preach truly believe” stuff, i sincerely doubt that. the higher you go into a system the fewer rules you follow.

  • gus

    I want to know how people who help others all their lives, and do not have a “death-bed conversion”, go to hell, while the child raper who “converts” in prison goes to heaven!!!

  • Matt

    Dude, I can only hope that there will be that many good things that people can say about me when I die. Word to everything you said.

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  • nate

    Sorry to hear about your grandpa. My grandma died a couple years ago, so I kinda know how you feel.

    There are a lot of pastors out there that are jerks. Being a pastor myself, I just want to apologize and ask that you don’t hold it against all of us.

  • John

    My friend died in high school. He was wiccan, and his parents were christian. I had to listen to a sermon for 3 hours at his funeral about JESUS, with only passing mentions to my friend. Because a lot of students were there.

    They still will use you for their own agenda. It doesn’t matter.

    Corpses = potential?

    Yay theists.

  • http://youmademesayit.blogspot.com PhillyChief

    I’m sorry for your loss. Your experience sounds like mine. I find it reprehensible that religious people will exploit tragedies and times of despair to push their agenda.

  • zeek

    My great grandmother’s funeral was even a little worse than this. She was never a regular church-goer and the pastor spewed his typical bullshit about how good a christian she was and how she’s in heaven and how awesome it is.

    And then he plugged his new book, which was for sale in the lobby.

    Despicable human being.

  • http://tobascodagama.com Joshua

    He plugged his book? Ok, that guy wins for being a craven, self-serving ass.

  • Peter

    How would he be craven? Where does fear come into this? I would use much worse words to describe someone like that. But as long as he makes a profit…. right?

  • Kenny

    I feel EXACTLY the same way.

  • John

    On the other side of the coin, I recently went to a wedding of a relative. Both he and his bride are “born-again” and asked their “youth minister” to conduct the service (in a chapel). In his remarks at the wedding, this “youth minister” complimented bride and groom on their abstinence from sex, mentioned how hot each of them was (with details), and then proceeded to tease them about all the positions they would be using that evening (after the reception) as their reward for having waited so long. He then went on to encourage my relative to “get it” now because as “everyone knows” women lose their looks and become unsuitable for sex. He concluded with a prayer to Jesus to watch over their evening of discovery.

    I kid you not!

  • http://wcuk.wordpress.com Will

    well said

  • http://tobascodagama.com Joshua

    John: I guess I should give kudos to the pastor for being sex-positive, but still, uh… that’s a little awkward. And it reminds me of this XKCD comic.

  • http://ww.tourguidehawaii.com Dr. Donald B. MacGowan

    Quote: “Then the pastor took the floor. He talked about how totally sweet heaven is. It’s ‘a million times better than Hawaii’, he said.”

    Dude. I live in Hawai AND I am an atheist. You are right–that pastor, as you said, is an asswad who obviously doesn’t know what he is talking about, either as regards salvation or Hawaii.

    Spit on him for me, OK?

  • http://relationary.wordpress.com/ Grant Czerepak

    “My father said,
    ‘Son, there’s nothing else.
    Before you love someone
    you must learn to love yourself.
    Know when they’re gone,
    They will truly be gone.
    So don’t you waste your time.'”

    — Joel Plaskett
    Non-believer

  • http://doubtingmoab.wordpress.com/ Moab

    Dude. It’s amazing how insensitive religion can make people. It’s logical – according to their beliefs – but it’s asinine and so completely based in irrational in the face of _everything_else_.

    I’m sorry you and your family had to put up with that. I’m sorry, also, that your Grandfather made a death-bed conversion (probably out of fear) rather than receiving the comfort that can come at the end of life.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

  • http://humans.scienceboard.net Alethea

    I haven’t had any loved ones die real recently, but it doesn’t prevent you from thinking about what ceremony can bring you and others you care about. Or what it can take away.

    Funny enough, I had just posted about something similar a few days ago here: http://humans.scienceboard.net/?p=408. In there is a link to the “hijacking” business, which I do find rather convincing: http://www.atheists.org/comingout/dying.html

    It seems like we could have a more biological, less frightened approach to death. We could honor the real accomplishments someone made during their lifetime.

    Douglas Hofstadter addressed the idea of how one person can “live on” in others, progressively more and more diluted, and I take that as a really interesting idea to counter that of a “soul”. It’s in his book “I am a Strange Loop” discussed here: http://www.perseusbooksgroup.com/basic/book_detail.jsp?isbn=0465030785.

    Enjoy, hope there aren’t too many links.

  • http://tobascodagama.com Joshua

    How would he be craven? Where does fear come into this? I would use much worse words to describe someone like that. But as long as he makes a profit…. right?

    Ok, you caught me out on the vocab. This word, it does not mean what I think it means. (Although one could possibly argue that it’s cowardly to hide behind religion when doing something so self-serving as to plug a book at a funeral.)

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  • Patricia Thrift

    I went through about this same thing yesterday at my father in laws funeral. There was not just one pastor but 3 one of which didn’t even know my father in law but preached at the church my brother and mother in law go to. The Hell Fire and Brimstone Preacher not only said to the congregation that was there for his funeral that he was an alcoholic, but also said that no one would allow him into their homes which was a blatant lie!!! He then start pushing his agendas against other religions, Muslims and LDS members being his main points of contention. I was raised in the LDS church and I was PISSED. A funeral is a place to HONOR a persons life, not to bring up their shortcomings and save other people!!!

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  • http://www.lonas.ca Dave G

    Well Said. Makes Me Glad to Be an Atheist.

  • Lara

    My grandfather committed suicide almost fifteen years ago after he found out he had the first stages of Alzheimer’s. He didn’t tell any of his family about it before he did it, but of course afterward, his doctor came forward and told us ‘what might have been the reason.’

    I’m an atheist, and I don’t believe there’s anything beyond this life, and don’t believe that there’s any virtue in melting slowly to a puddle of goo for the sake of family. I understand my grandfather’s choice.

    But I’ve never been able to finish grieving for him. Since the graveside service, I’ve never been back to his grave, even though it’s less than one hundred miles from where I live.

    Recently, however, I’ve felt the need to do so. And it will not be with prayers and tears for his soul. It will be with the flowers he loved, and a reading of his favorite poem.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_JDP46DTJPQYCYXGMCZPNSCKDDA Cece

    This happened at my mother-in-law’s funeral too, even though she just wanted a simple family only service at the graveside.  It turned into a “Oh, you all need Jesus in your lives” spiel instead of about Mildred.  After it was over, my son looked at me and said, “Mamaw would have been pissed at that.”  He’s right. 

  • http://twitter.com/Inrideo Inrideo

    Make sure that you have arrangements made in advance. Wills are typically read *after* a funeral, and someone else is going to be doing the planning for you if you haven’t made your wishes known in advance. I’m sending in papers to a school of anatomy to donate my body, and making sure that it’s well known by all. I’m from an atheist family, so don’t have any worry of evangelicals hijacking my death, but I’m sure some of you may face that problem. And some jerk using your death to recruit your young relatives is just sick.

  • Truth Teller

    Well put. I have seen this many times. I have given eulogies for m parents and others. I have made it clear tha I want to religious nonsense at any service for me. I’ve gotten along very well without it since I was 13 and don;t need any of that crap after I am no longer able to throw the BS flag.

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