Sunday, 26 October 2014

Funerals? God, no!

In recent years, I've lost two close relatives.  My Grandmother died not that long ago (see here for her story - it's worth a read) and back in 2010 my Dad died (see here for a rather different take on the aftermath of a close family death).

When my Grandfather died, over ten years ago, the thing to do was to get a vicar to do the service.  Neither my Granny nor Grandfather actually believed in God (strangely, my Granny's logic was that no God would've allowed the things that happened to her family to happen, and that's when she lost her faith) but it was just the thing to do.

A few years later, and my Dad was ill.  He'd been ill for years and he knew the end was coming.  He had managed years at home thanks to getting on the internet, home grocery deliveries and Amazon for DVDs.  Although he didn't get out of the house much, the computer kept him connected to the outside world.

But in 2010, it was obvious that the ten years of living with COPD were about to change.  His trips into hospital became more and more frequent, and several times the doctors called me up to he hospital to have "that talk".  He knew exactly what was going on.  He wasn't scared of death, but wasn't particularly looking forward to it either.  Amongst the things he did in his last few months was give me instructions for his funeral.  It was a little odd to have him say "do you mind popping along to the funeral directors this afternoon to book my funeral.  Book all the details, just don't set the date yet" he said with a grin.

He was very clear what he wanted.  He wanted a few specific pieces of music, but didn't want religion to play a part.  He wasn't "anti-religious" but his lack of belief in an afterlife meant that he didn't want people at the funeral to be talking about his eternal life and that we would all see him again. He wanted the funeral to be a full stop.

And that was my first experience of a non-religious funeral.  The lady who did the funeral met me and my Dad's sister before the service. We provided some details of my Dad's life and I decided that I'd speak at the funeral too.  The whole service was structured around my Dad's life, and celebrating that life, without any talk of there being a way to see him again.  "He's gone.  And we are all very sad about that.  But let's celebrate the things we remember whilst he was still here" was the honest and - to my mind anyway - positive message of the day.

After the service, many people told me how moving they found the service.  Even relatives who profess a belief in God thought the service fitted my Dad's life perfectly.  There was no explicit anti-religious content in the service, there was just no mention of God or afterlife or seeing my Dad again.  As an atheist, I believe that he is gone.  I won't ever see him again.  I wish that weren't the case, but my belief is that it's over.    The service wasn't upsetting. It was uplifting. It was funny.  Even if I do say so myself, I got a few proper laughs with my speech (which was about swimming giraffes - really).  Everyone was smiling.  My Dad's life was a good one, and we remembered that.

Over the years following that my Granny - on my Mum's side - my Dad's mother died years before I was born - started to say that when she went, she wanted a non-religious funeral.  And that's exactly what she got.  The funeral was tailored to her.  It was more emotional than my Dad's - but that was fitting. I spoke again.  The celebrant spoke of my Granny's life - well an abridged version, it was quite a life - and everyone cried, everyone laughed and everyone remembered my Granny with fondness.  No talk of her being "back with my Grandad".  No talk of her "being back with the family she lost many years before".  She didn't believe either of those things, whilst not denying the right of anyone to believe those things if that's their belief system, it would've seemed wrong to make it explicit as part of the funeral service.

The thing I've noticed since both of these funerals is just how many people have said to me that they don't plan to have a religious funeral.  A few years ago, it seemed that having a vicar do the ceremony was seen as "the thing to do" even if you didn't really believe in God.  For those who believe in God, having a religious funeral seems the appropriate thing to do.  But for those who don't, it feels more honest and more fitting to have a funeral service which reflects their own belief system.  But just because you remove God from the service, you don't remove any of the emotion nor any of the meaning.

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