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Dec 05 2011

I Am a Bitter, Selfish Granddaughter

My post about the proselytization at my grandfather’s funeral has caught the attention of some people involved in funeral planning. I meant the post as a place for people to be able to vent with others who knew what they were talking about, but this is an excellent result. Any time someone wants to listen to a minority viewpoint and think about how people are affected in various situations, I’m (obviously) all for it.

At one topical blog, however, a commenter responded thusly:

Having read the full text, it seems to me the conflict of interest might be a combination of a poor communicator in the Lutheran pastor, and an bitter, selfish granddaughter venting her atheistic anger on a religious funeral chosen by her grandfather.

The unchurched do indeed heap vilification on the religious in a way that is rarely returned in equal measure. People constantly libel and slander the Church out of willful ignorance and hateful bigotry. Child abuse is a distinctly Catholic evil that is less likely to occur in families or other religions. The war-time Pope was a Nazi sympathiser. The Crusades and the Inquisition demonstrated quintessentially Catholic cruelty. The Church is anti-science. All tiresome nonsense, of course, to anyone who has bothered to research in order to discover the fact-based truth, and moved beyond the revisionist propaganda.

But moving to the interesting discussion point you raise: ‘Now that we are living in a multifaith society where any funeral audience is likely to span the spectrum of beliefs, do faith groups have a duty to take cognizance and adjust?’

If a priest is requested for a funeral, he is duty-bound to conduct a religious ritual involving God and our spiritual salvation. Sometimes, he will be a good communicator who will still offend anti-believers, sometimes he will be poor even in the eyes of believers, just as civil funeral celebrants vary.

If someone doesn’t want a religious funeral then they can book a celebrant who is not in holy orders. Choice is good. Civil celebrants are free to adapt their performance on demand, whether it’s to talk to the atheist majority in the congregation/audience, or water it down to be palatable to those with faith. A priest cannot do this as his service is not driven by consumer market forces.

Anyone demanding otherwise has an agenda to harm religion out of disrespectful resentment to its grip on billions of decent people, peacefully holding onto their faith without responding to their increasingly intolerant detractors. Why is it that so many atheists seem to have more in common with Islamofascists than anyone else?

My response:

“Bitter, selfish granddaughter” here. I’d like to thank you for not heaping any of that vilification on atheists–or I would, if that’s what you’d actually done at any point in your comments.

Did you read my post? If so, I’m confused by your assertions that I wanted the pastor to leave out a vital part of the ceremony, which was not a church ceremony, by the by. I noted that the music was chosen by my grandfather (though this was the only part of the ceremony that was; he wasn’t lucid much of the time near the end). I specifically noted that talk of heaven is service to the mourners. I did not object to prayers, although I didn’t participate in them.

The only thing I objected to was the pastor proselytizing specifically to nonbelievers. Now, perhaps there is some cultural confusion here, but is this considered a necessary part of a funeral where you are? It isn’t here in the U.S., despite our reputation as a fervently religious country.

If this is deemed critical where you are, perhaps you can also explain to me why that is. As I mentioned, my objection is that it serves neither the dead nor the mourners. My grandfather certainly never requested any such thing. The believers listening don’t need an exhortation to believe. Nonbelievers are distracted from their remembrances and–because we are not actually selfish–prohibited from engaging in an exchange of ideas on the topic on any sort of equal basis.

So why would a funeral service be considered not just an appropriate but a necessary place for proselytization?

We’ll see what the response, if any, looks like.

12 comments

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  1. 1
    Gretchen

    I didn’t get a chance to comment on your original post, Stephanie, but I do agree with you.

    I’ve attended lots of funerals. My father is a conservative Christian minister, and it was just part of my growing up, in addition to the funerals of far too many loved ones over the years.

    I’ve sat through ceremonies where the deceased’s life was celebrated, their “heavenly home-going” discussed, meaningful hymns sung and so on. I found these services moving, both before and after my “deconversion” because they reflected the lives and beliefs of those who had passed. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

    But I have also been there when the minister takes hold of the pulpit for an alter call, or heavy handed conversion speech. This is not ok! Christian or atheist, it is opportunistic and manipulative, and steals attention from the reason for the gathering. I would never propose to stand at a funeral and tell mourners their faith (in whatever form) is stupid and idiotic and must be changed now – why is it ok for the minister to do so?

    It’s not a sign of your evil, bitter atheism that you are bothered by this — it’s an offense to propriety and proper decorum.

  2. 2
    bksea

    My response is to imagine the atheist version of this happening. An atheist is chosen to speak at a funeral. He/she offers comfort through secular thoughts. Then the atheist begins to criticize people for religious beliefs and urges relgious people to give up those beliefs.

    I have a hard time believeing religious poeple would consider this appropriate. To paraphrase, I expect this would lead the religious to heap vilifcation on the unchurched.

    The religious need to realize that this is how their proselytization is viewed by atheists.

  3. 3
    raymoscow

    Any talk of ‘hell’ and how unbelievers ‘deserve’ it is far more rude and hateful than anything I’ve ever heard an atheist say about a believer.

    Of course, the proselytising is rude in itself.

  4. 4
    LKL

    My first words to my dad after leaving the church where my grandmother’s funeral was held were, ‘I am so grateful to you and my mother for not forcing my brother and me to attend church regularly.’

  5. 5
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    I missed the original post, so I read it after this one.

    This sort of thing really pisses me off. Both the preacher and the lying religious apologist can get stuffed.

    Thing is, it doesn’t matter if there were no such thing as an atheist, or if everyone were adherents of the exact same religion. Funerary services are for the deceased and the mourners, not for promoting the religion. That is inappropriate and inconsiderate.

  6. 6
    Cuttlefish

    I was a bit surprised to see the link to the Good Funeral Guide blog–I have found them always to be respectful, and could hardly believe such a description could come from there. Ah, though. One commenter. One quite vocal commenter, but one commenter, and others there are certainly not in agreement with him.

    I feel for you, Stephanie–there were a [small] number of people at my brother’s funeral who appeared to feel it was the perfect occasion for a religious message, despite the fact that my brother was an atheist since high school. Had I been able to speak at all, I might have wanted to say “the good that my brother did, he did because he knew there was no god to do it for him”… but it is no more the time for that message than for religious proselytizing. And it does not take a bitter person to recognize that there is a time and a place to stfu about some things.

  7. 7
    flakko

    In college a fraternity brother of mine committed suicide. He was well liked, and we were all devastated. About a week after, we held a memorial service for him in the small campus chapel. I don’t know who the chaplain was or who asked him to lead this, but he spent the entire time letting us know that our friend was burning in hell for the mortal sin of taking his own life, but it was not too late for us if only we were to accept Jesus as our savior. At that time I was an unwavering, unthinking Christian, but even so I realized how grossly inappropriate and disgusting this was. We were there to remember and honor our friend, but instead heard how God had set him on fire for all eternity and would be more than willing to do the same to us. Years later I still think of this. As an atheist now, I wish I had the courage then to stand up and say something, to disrupt the vile hate coming from this man. I don’t know how the others felt about this; we never talked about it. I can only hope they were as offended as I was.

  8. 8
    The Phytophactor

    Attended a wedding for a couple of divorcees who had found each other many years after each had an unsuccessful marriage and had gotten divorced. The minister officiating gave a brief sermon on the sin of divorce, a most tasteless, rude, and inconsiderate contribution that left many of us shaking our heads. The couple remains happily married. The rest of the celebration was great. And religion dropped another notch in my esteem, and it was pretty far down to begin with.

  9. 9
    Art

    The purpose of a funeral is to memorialize the dead, comfort the bereaved, and provide a forum to both celebrate the person’s life and mark the the loss in the community. It also provides a nexus for the community surrounding the family to organize relief and support.

    Proselytizing in or around a funeral is simply predatory. Yes, people who are traumatized and mourning are more likely to succumb to proselytizing. Yes, many preachers consider ‘bringing people to Christ’ a higher calling and far more important than avoiding looking like a bullying, insensitive ass. That doesn’t make it right.

    It takes a lot of self control for some preachers to to not make any gathering into a revival meeting. Evangelicals are the worse in this. I’ve seen a particularly egregious evangelical attempt to convert a family at the side of a road where their daughter died while the fire department was still cutting her remains out of the wreck. A helpful highway patrolman, a devout Christian himself, was kind enough to drag the preacher away bodily in mid-sermon and demand that under force of law he maintain a safe distance. As expected, deprived of a flock to tend, he wandered off. Rumor was that the families oldest son administer a laying on of hands at a later date. There might be some justice left in this world.

  10. 10
    JoeKaistoe

    Another Bitter, Selfish Grandchild checking in.

    I wonder how the poster of that comment might receive a hypothetical “conversion” sermon by an equally idiotic atheistic “preacher” at a funeral:

    “He had a long, busy life. Although, as a priest that life was largely a waste, being used frivolously in the belief in a fictional character. Yes, while he did good in his life, it was all done to please his invisible friend, and therefore meaningless.

    “I say to you good people, who have assembled here today to honour this man; Do not waste your life on meaningless drivel like he did! Discard your religion and live your life for itself, yourself and others!”

    I would be furious, how about you? There’s a time and a place, but those aren’t at a funeral.

  11. 11
    Ace of Sevens

    What’s worse is a friend of mine who was a staunch atheist who died quite unexpectedly in a car accident at age 23. Her parents held a big religious funeral with their pastor who didn’t know her using it as an opportunity for a sermon, instead of having the minister from the Unitarian Church she attended conduct the whole thing. This was two years ago and her friends are still torn. We feel sorry for her parents, but also bear a pretty strong grudge.

  12. 12
    opposablethumbs

    I’ve been to a couple of religious funerals – one where the officiant at least had some connection with the deceased’s family and friends, one where it was just the nearest priest. No comparison; one was actually about the person, the other was off-the-peg boilerplate.

    More moving by far, imo, have been the several atheist funerals I’ve attended (and helped organise, in the case of my parents) – all personal tributes, memories, favourite music, jokes.

    It’s good to know you don’t have to turn to a religious officiant if you don’t want to.

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