Funerals are for us, not them

Funerals are for us, not them

I’ve been thinking about funerals lately. Not because I want to, mind you. Just because people I know have been dying. And a few are in the wings. I guess we all are.

A friend died a few months ago, and his family didn’t have a funeral because he didn’t want one. I get that, but I think it’s wrong headed. Funerals are for us, the living, not for them, the dead.

This friend was an atheist. In fact, he’s one of the first people I knew who identified himself as an atheist. I suppose he was persuasive, because I identify that way now.

Unlike him, I was raised in an evangelical Christian home. My dad was a preacher, and we went to a lot of funerals because he was the one who spoke at them and organized them. As much as I criticize the Southern Baptist institutions in which I was raised, I miss some aspects of that life.

The hymns. The ritual. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t miss the details of the Southern Baptist funerals of my youth. Open casket, sermons filled with sanctimony and doctrinal garbage, congregations always with a knot of insincere voyeurs.

But they did good work for the community and the families who lost folks. Death rips through the fabric of communities, and funerals baste things back together. They help us imagine how to survive our losses. In a world where nothing makes sense anymore, they remind us that we share common values.

Despite the general conviction out there that atheists don’t have values, we actually love our families and our friends and our communities just as much as those who believe in god. I’m convinced that we need to secularize some of the rituals that define faith communities. Especially at death.

Thomas Lynch, a poet, essayist and a funeral director, writes beautifully about death and funerals. He expresses what I’ve always felt:

This is none of my business. I won’t be there. But if you’re asking, here is free advice. You know the part where everybody is always saying that you should have a party now? How the dead guy always insisted he wanted everyone to have a good time and toss a few back and laugh and be happy? I’m not one of them. I think the old teacher is right about this one. There is a time to dance. And it just may be this isn’t one of them. The dead can’t tell the living what to feel. (from The Undertaking, 198)

Funerals offer families a chance to mourn among friends who are also mourning. Loss can be terribly frightening, enormous, overwhelming. My mom died unexpectedly when she was 52. She was a shy woman, insecure. It never occurred to me that she had a life outside of our immediate family. At her funeral, my family and I sat on one of the first few rows. I turned around in my pew to see the people behind me. The church had seats for three or four hundred people. People were standing in the aisles and at the back. Every seat was filled.

It was the first time after she died that I cried. It was moving to know that her death affected so many people. I also realized that I didn’t have to be in control at that moment. There were plenty of other people to run the show.

I had little in common with most of those people and I knew very few of them. But in that moment, as a group, we stood for something that mattered. We believed that my mother’s death mattered. We acknowledged the hole, the emptiness, the absence.

It was easier to do that with so many others present. I knew that I could drop the ball, give in, sit back, let others do the heavy lifting. I could look into the abyss and know that plenty of people would keep me from falling in.

A preacher said words that day that meant very little to me. Even if I could remember them, I’m certain that I wouldn’t agree with them. Prayers were said to a god I don’t believe in. People said things: “She’s in a better place.” “It’s god’s will.” “You’ll see her again.” I believe none of those things.

And, yet, the gathering of those people, singing songs and practicing rituals, helped me get through one of the hardest days of my life.

So, if it were up to me, I’d want my family and friends to mourn me when I die. I don’t want partying and dancing. I want a funeral. But, it’s not about me. It’s about them.

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