When Religion Stayed Out of the Funeral - A Lay Minister’s Viewpoint

In a follow up from Michael Foster’s blog – When Religion Stayed Out of the Funeral, I was inspired to write about how things feel from the other side. It’s hard to talk about loss as atheists because it’s typically followed by offers of prayers and condolences, saying it was all part of god’s plan. What do you do when a family doesn’t care about prayer and find pain in the idea that a fake god planned to rob a family of the joy of their loved one? This is my story of my first experience performing the last rites for a secular family.

The Beginning of the Loss

I sat in a strange home on a couch that seemed well loved, holding the soft hand of a stranger who had called me for help. Her son had died unexpectedly and she was lost, didn’t have the money for a proper burial and didn’t want to reach out to the religious community for assistance, as she held no belief in god. He was young, beautiful, full of life and contained more potential than he ever got the chance to show. She’d told me everything she could before the tears left her choked.

She had paused to gain her composure when my heart couldn’t hold back any longer. I wrapped my arms around her tight and she exploded in a fit of tears, fury and pain that no mother should ever have to know or understand. I cried with her. At that moment we weren’t strangers; the differences between us were none. We were two mothers, two sisters, holding each other and crying over the loss of a child and everything he had to offer this world.

This was the first memorial I would ever conduct. Fresh to the secular ministry, I had no prior experience to learn from. I wanted to conduct myself professionally but at the same time, I’m a human with great feelings for everyone around me. I knew this memorial was going to change my life, but I had no idea what impact it would have on the family left behind. I was terrified but refused to show it. I gathered every bit of information I could about Michael. I listened to stories that made his family laugh through their tears. I memorized everything, because everything about who he was, was most important now.

The Beginning of the Healing Process

Michael’s family was estranged. Religious differences were far from the only thing that separated them all. The family was filled with hurt feelings and anger over matters that held no importance compared to death. As part of the preparation, I urged the family to reunite so that everyone could have a chance to mourn and grieve for their lost nephew, grandson, cousin and son. Under no circumstances did his mother want to feel tension during this sad time.

I knew there was much work to be done. Judgments were going to be cast for the cremation of his body, the length of time it took for his mother to set up a proper memorial service, and everything from the color of flowers to the Humanist chosen to give the memorial outside of a church were going to be criticized.

Was it my place to step in and try to help? How was I going to make everyone feel welcome to grieve in the way they needed to let Michael go in peace? Quickly I devised a plan. This mother called me for help and I was going to help this family say goodbye and heal from the tragedy appropriately.

The Beginning of Letting Go

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The day was dark and rainy. We were donated a room at a funeral home to use for the memorial and the parking lot was empty thirty minutes before the memorial was to begin. His mother sat in pure silence, staring at the urn her son was now resting in. Flowers filled the table around a beautiful picture placed in his honor; his personal belongings scattered around in order of importance to his mother.

Looking at his mother, I saw a single tear fall from her eye. At that moment, all time stopped. My mind emptied, I had no idea what I was going to say anymore. I had no idea what I was going to do, where I was going to start talking. That tear clung to her face as if it were clinging for its life. Once it was to fall, it would no longer be a teardrop, but a splat of water upon a shirt, later to be washed away, forever losing its value; forever being forgotten.

Before I knew it, the room started to fill. People came crashing in waves and were hugging each other and crying.  I watched as the family and friends passed by his table of memory, touching his jacket, glaring at his pictures. Music played but to this day I couldn’t tell you what music it was. I stood up at the podium and everyone stopped to look at me. I looked around the room and on everyone’s face was a look of pure hope. Hope that something would help take their pain away. Hope that he could somehow live on forever.

In my mind I had already planned what to say but everything escaped me. This was going to be a day about Michael, about his family’s memories, about his mother’s wishes. I remembered the peace that was needed for all and while I stood there silently for what seemed like ages, I finally spoke, “Today is a day we say hello.” I went silent again, not understanding what I said or why I had said it. I looked around the room and everyone was focused and confused. My heart took over and I started again, “We’re not saying goodbye to Michael, but we’re saying hello to the way we will remember him; we’re welcoming a new way of keeping him in our lives forever.”

Finally my message went on and I was able to remember everything I wanted to say to celebrate Michael’s life. I offered a moment of silence for everyone to pray, collect themselves or find peace. Family members were then welcomed to take the podium and give a happy memory about Michael. Before we knew it, the entire family was smiling, laughing, hugging each other and just having a great time in reliving the past; the past that would now be the new future for how Michael was to live in their lives.

The Beginning of the End

The family had no fight that day. Everything that seemed to keep them estranged before had melted away with a newfound love and appreciation for life. Sometimes it’s good to remember that once we’re gone, we are merely a person who will no longer have new memories in the lives of the people who keep us in their hearts. It’s important to let go of the pettiness, we have one life, we have this one day, and we have only this one moment.

Many atheists tell me that when they die their bodies are no longer needed. They don’t care what happens to their bodies and would like to have them donated to science. I admire that, but urge everyone to think of the ways you can help your loved ones live on after you leave. There are great things to do with your bodies. Donate your organs to help others live and have a green burial to allow your body to feed the earth. You can have locks of your hair, or parts of your ashes given to a company that takes your carbon and grows actual diamonds from the carbon in you. These can be created for your children so that they can have a piece of you to keep forever. You can also have your ashes put into a biodegradable urn so you can nourish a tree with your body. If you have any questions or concerns about what you can do after you die to let your body do the most good, please consider these resources:

  • http://www.lifegem.com - “from ashes to diamonds”
  • http://www.greenburialcouncil.org - “We believe burial is "green" only when it furthers legitimate environmental aims such as protecting worker health, reducing carbon emissions, conserving natural resources, and preserving habitat.
    We believe the field of funeral service needs to embrace a new ethic for new era.
    We believe death can and should connect to life.”
  • http://urnabios.com - “The Bios Urn is a fully biodegradable urn designed to convert you into a tree after life. Mainly composed by two parts, the urn contains a seed which will grow to remember your loved one. Bios Urn turns death into a transformation and a return to life through nature.”

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