Over at Friendly Atheist, there’s a discussion going on about atheist funerals. It got me to thinking (and to posting a much longer comment than is usually considered necessary), and I wanted to talk about it here.
It’s funny. Back in my woo days, I used to say that I didn’t care what happened at my funeral, since I wouldn’t be sticking around to see what it was like and hear what was being said about me. Then it occurred to me: Bullshit. I am exactly the kind of person who would stick around to see what her funeral was like and to hear what was being said about her. I’m nosy; I’m gossipy; I’m a glutton for praise. If there were a life after death, that is totally what I would do.
But now I’m an atheist; and not just an atheist, but a naturalist, someone who believes that the natural, physical world is all there is, and that there’s no life after death except for our memories and ideas and genes being passed on. (And I’m definitely falling down in the “genes” department. My genes can go suck an egg.)
So here’s the paradox: Now that I’m an atheist, I actually do care about my funeral. More than I did when I believed in some sort of afterlife. Maybe it’s just that I’m older now, and the whole issue is more in my face at age 46 than it was at age 27. But my funeral and my burial are the last things I’ll do on this earth, and I want them to express who I am.
One of the questions being raised at Friendly Atheist is, “What if you’re an atheist but you’re family isn’t? Since atheists think funerals are for the living, and the dead won’t be there to care, should we insist on atheist/ secular funerals? If a religious funeral would give comfort to our families, why should we care?”
Fortunately, my family are all godless heathens, too. (A fact for which I am more grateful every day.) So I don’t have to worry about their religious sensibilities being offended by my atheist funeral. But even if that weren’t true, I think it’d still be worth holding out for an atheist/ secular funeral. After all, one of the biggest charges leveled against the godless is that we don’t have any comfort to offer in the face of death. I think it’s important to show the world, and one another, that that’s not true. Again, my funeral will be the last thing I do, and I’d love to have the last thing I do be to say to the world, “Life and death without God or the afterlife are still rich and meaningful.”
And after all, if someone from a religious family left that religion to convert to another, it’d be generally expected that their funeral would be in the religion they’d chosen, not the one they were brought up with. If a Christian converted to Judaism, for instance, nobody would be surprised that they wanted, and got, a Jewish funeral. (Except maybe the person’s Christian family, if they were super-hardcore.) Why shouldn’t that principle apply for atheists? No, atheism isn’t a religion — but why should that matter? Why shouldn’t the choices we made in our lives be honored and respected in our deaths?
But should we be planning our funerals at all? After all, if you don’t believe in life after death, doesn’t that mean that funerals are for the survivors? Shouldn’t they get to decide what kind of funeral to give you — what kind of funeral would help them the most?
I agree that a funeral is mostly for the survivors. It’s for the dead person only to the degree that planning it may give them some comfort while they’re still alive. But I don’t think that translates to, “I won’t be around to care, do whatever you want, this is for you not for me.” I think it makes sense to give at least some guidelines as to what kind of funeral, or lack thereof, you want. In my experience, having guidelines from the guest of honor helps the survivors. It gives them a place to start, instead of a blank page to be squabbling over. (Not that guidelines are a guarantee against squabbling…) And it gives them a feeling of honoring their loved one in death as well as in life.
So here are some ideas about what I want. (All subject to change, of course.)
Lately, I’m leaning strongly towards a green burial. There are now cemeteries that act like nature preserves, with your un-embalmed body acting as fertilizer… instead of the water-sucking, fertilizer-hungry, chemically-dependent, modified golf courses that serve as modern cemeteries. I like the idea of my body going to make plants grow; and I like even more the idea of it going to keep some land set aside for nature.
As to the funeral/ memorial location, I think I’d like it in a public place that has some meaning for me. A bookstore. The Humanist Hall where the queer contra dance happens. The Center for Sex and Culture, maybe. Not a church. Not even a Unitarian one.
Plus, of course, I want somebody to read Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God.
And I don’t think I go for the “celebrating a life, not mourning a death” vibe. Mourning is important. When the people in my life die, I don’t effing well want to celebrate. Yes, I want to hear about how their life touched the people around them and made the world a better place. But I also think a funeral should be one place where you’re allowed to be publicly sad, and to share your sadness with others. The idea that not even a funeral should be sad is so very American, in the worst way. This compulsion we have to avoid unpleasant emotions, even for a second… it’s like a disease. Letting yourself experience grief is how you get through it; pretending it’s not there is how it fucks you up for years. Believe me, I know.
Of course I want people to say nice things about me, to talk about my writing and my dancing and my sense of humor and whatever else about my life they thought was cool. But I hereby give people permission to cry at my damn funeral. Thank you.
So what about the rest of you? What do you want for your funeral? Do you even care? This nosy, gossipy atheist wants to know.