What do you say at an atheist’s funeral?

First, don’t be alarmed.  This isn’t about me.  I’ve got plans to spend a few more decades on this planet.  Longer, if possible!

half-mastBut I recently ran into a conversation where a very nice Christian pastor had been asked to speak at an atheist’s memorial.  Much of this person’s family was religious, but the deceased and a few family members were decidedly atheist.  The pastor was at a loss of what to say that wouldn’t offend someone.

I sympathize with the pastor – if he is truly empathetic then he is in a difficult position.  The answer is much easier to someone who lacks sympathy and rests on the black & white worldview of a devout evangelical.  That person would just declare the atheist to be lost from God, and take the opportunity to evangelize to the rest of the people at the memorial.

This pastor is one of the good guys.  He wanted something meaningful to say about an atheist.

An atheist usually doesn’t believe in an afterlife – but there is still the very human urge toward some sort of permanence. There is still the human hope that we matter.

I think it is appropriate to celebrate our good fortune of being alive.

Richard Dawkins, in his book, “Unweaving the Rainbow”, speaks of this good fortune:

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?”

I agree that this sentiment is true, but I also think it lacks feeling.  It lacks that spiritual poetry that Carl Sagan was so good at creating.  I also think that it lacks our own expression of how we will miss others.

Here is how I would say it:

We are here today to remember and celebrate the life of someone we love.

We share a world where each of our lives brush against the lives of those around us. We splash down through life with the shock of a stone thrown into a quiet pond. The furrows and waves of our life expand outward from our impact to buoy up those around us.

We are each molded by concentric ripples of those who lived before. Those we know and knew, those we know of, and those hidden from us. Each person that is swayed by our actions will in turn make their own impact, and those ever expanding swells will transform others.

What we do matters. Our actions, trivial or historic, are anchored to here and now. The stars of the universe will eventually wink out – one by one, but what you do will never be un-done. Speak the truth, give aid to a stranger, help a friend, hug a child, kiss your lover – once it happens, it can never un-happen.

The one we love is gone. But what they did mattered, and continues to matter to us now.

How shall we celebrate the life of the one we love?

Let us cherish the stories of the moments we shared. Let us reminisce over their anecdotes, their history, over stories amusing and somber.

In sharing these stories, we are amplifying the ripples of the one we love into a surge that caresses and changes us all once again.

I’ll talk about the difficulty of grief in another post.

(The wording of this post has changed substantially from its original post, and will probably change again before I’m completely satisfied with it. – Calladus)