Three funerals, three common denominators:
- My Grandma’s funeral. She was an atheist and wanted her funeral to reflect her socialist values. My Grandma’s cousin, a Humanist, was to conduct the ceremony. UNTIL … a religious bit of the family decided to participate by having my cousin’s husband, a pastor, take part of the ceremony and say lots of prayers and talk about how she would be reunited in heaven with lost relatives.
- My friend’s dad’s funeral. He was a bit religious, but had lots of other hobbies and interests. His neighbour, a minister, made the whole ceremony intensely religious and there was lots of talk about how he had grappled with his religion towards the end.
- My partner’s auntie’s funeral. An atheist, but someone had found a bible in the drawer of the hospice where she died, with passages marked out. This passage was read out and the Lord’s Prayer was recited. (Don’t Gideons leave bibles in drawers in every hospice room?).
If you believe in a god or gods, then you can make sure that they are appeased in any way you see fit at your funeral, but why on earth do Christians seem intent in shoehorning religion into everyone else’s last hurrah? At funeral #3 I turned to my partner and whispered “I’m going to have to get a tattoo that says ‘No religious funeral'”. Even better, I’m going to make sure that I have a will which specifies this emphatically.
Yes, funerals are for the living, and while I’m lying in a box what do I care about what happens next? But I see a funeral as the last statement that you make before you slowly disappear from the memories of those who loved you and knew you. I would hate for that statement to be hijacked by someone else’s belief system – particularly when it’s one that I have been so contemptuous about in life. If you believe in gods or pixies or ‘energy’ or whatever, fine; you might attend the funeral of an atheist and believe that the soul/spirit/pixie juice/’energy’ of that person is still going. Fantastic. That might be less depressing than thinking about a corpse being burnt or rotting in the ground, but it’s YOUR belief, not mine, so at my funeral sit and think about that silently. I attended a Baptist funeral and didn’t tell anyone that they were wrong or insane or a wee bit creepy – I kept my mouth shut and silently fantasised about the death of religion.
A slight digression, but my refusal to pretend to pray actually got me banned from school assemblies as a youngster – the teacher stopped, mid-prayer, and pointed out to the whole school that I was the only person not joining in. My response (age 8) was “I am an atheist and an anarchist and I will not pray”. This personal moment of triumph was swiftly followed by a slap. An ugly scene, in response to an eight year old girl sitting quietly in a non-religious school!
In a maudlin conversation, we might talk about what music we would like to have played at our funerals. Often, though, the end is such a big emotional mess that this stuff isn’t really communicated. It is, after all, pretty trivial stuff. Grieving relatives try to pick something appropriate but do you really want that 80s soft rock playing as everyone files out past your coffin saying their last farewells?
The moral of this story? Make it clear what you want. Make it so that it would be an embarrassing and flagrant breach of your wishes to do anything off-script. Be a nice person, so that no-one is tempted to subvert your wishes because you were a horrid old battle-axe of an aunt, who gave rubbish birthday presents, and smelled of hummus “I hated her – she’s going Catholic-style”.