Comfort Like a Burning Blanket
Growing up I attended a lot of funerals, what with my grandfather being a minister and me spending a great deal of time with him. My grandfather has offered more eulogies than I can possibly remember and each one was a heartfelt outpouring to the memory of the deceased and the family left behind. But I'll tell you right now that my grandfather has never told someone that their loved one is "in a better place." You see, that man read his bible - read it so much he could quote most scripture from memory. He never told anyone that phrase because, biblically speaking, it simply isn't true. The biblical truth is that the bible is rather clear that no man shall enter heaven until after the day of judgment. The reality is that dead is almost never a better place than alive.
A lot of people seem to be comforted by the theologically false idea that their loved ones go straight to heaven when they die. Most people have probably never even really given it any thought, and have always just accepted the platitudes. After all, it's so much easier to deal with the grief of losing your child to cancer if you can just believe they're up in heaven looking down on you.... right? Ask any parent that's lost a child and I guarantee that such sentiments often only sharpen the pain and have all the comfort of an eternally burning blanket wrapped around their shoulders. The thought of your child in heaven pales in comparison to the thought of your child in your arms. For any parent who loves their child it's hard to imagine any better place for them than in our care and showered with our love and affection. There's no consolation prize that takes the pain of that loss away or that can deaden it in the least.
All You Know About Me is What I Sold You
I won't quote a bunch of scripture for you here. If you want to actually read what the bible says on this matter, a simple Google search will confirm that there are several interpretations of what the bible says. Instead, what I'll offer you is simple logic: Jesus said he would return to judge all mankind. Until that day, no man has been judged and deemed worthy of entrance or exile from heaven. Therefore, until that day no one gets to go to heaven or hell. I don't care if it's an infant or the most saintly person on earth - biblically speaking, they've still got to take a number and wait to be judged. It's really that simple if you just read the book.
Given those biblical assertions, we've got another problem on our hands. You see, the honest truth is that you don't know if any of your loved ones are going to heaven at all. Unless you've experienced life side by side with them, the only things you know about them are through the experiences you've had together and what they've sold you in telling you about themselves. It may seem silly, but your Uncle Lou may have been a mafia hitman and you never knew it. Is Uncle Lou going to a better place? Biblically speaking, it's highly unlikely.
More importantly, if you haven't studied the bible enough to know you aren't going straight to heaven when you die, then you probably don't know that there's a given standard by which you'll supposedly be judged on judgment day.
31 When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
41 Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. - Matthew 25:31-46
Let me be the first to tell you that if the bible were true and this was truly the basis for judgment of being worthy of heaven, there would be a lot of Christians taken by surprise as to how many atheists are right there with them in heaven. There would also be a lot of Christians wondering why they're burning too.
The Grief Thieves
The person who offers the "in a better place" platitude may not realize it, but in offering that platitude they have attempted to steal your grief. In trying to comfort you they inadvertently make light of your loss. "It's okay, they're in a better place", is actually translated into, "Suck it up. It's not that bad and you should just get over it." Once you understand this, that platitude becomes a slap in the face. You see, we need our grief and we need to be able to accept the permanence of that loss. I've seen those who can't accept this loss or its permanence, and to them that person is still there in their lives. I've even been in that position and it nearly tore my mind apart. It was unhealthy and nearly drove me to suicide, and all because I couldn't let go. I couldn't accept that someone I loved so much is gone from my life forever.
The hardest moment I've ever faced as an atheist who was once a Christian was to go back in my mind and actually let go of those I've lost. I had to redress those losses and accept them on totally new terms. They're gone forever and I'm never going to see them again. I'll never hear their voice or see their smile again. Worst of all, I will never get to tell them I love them again. But, knowing that makes me more aware of just how precious every moment is in life. Every memory is special... because it may be the last memory you ever make with that person.
Dead is almost never a "better place" than alive.
Image by Annemariebusschers (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons