I was listening to NPR the other day (it was brief, and I don’t remember which program it was that I heard a snippet of), and heard a man speak of the death of his mother, which happened many years after he and his siblings had left the Catholic Church. As non-believers, and more importantly, as individuals independent of any faith traditions, he and his siblings were at a loss: what do you do with the body? Not in the sense of “do we just let her lie there and decompose?”, but more in the sense that they had no rituals, no traditions to follow. (More, after the jump:)
The faith communities have rituals by the ton; there are (or rather, may be—I certainly cannot speak to all such communities) expected services, expected words, expected behaviors. At a time when survivors (is that the right word?) may be numb, grief-stricken, or perhaps merely annoyed and busy, having such structures may be a welcome scaffolding, a support when the whole world has just undergone a tectonic shift.
What, then, of atheists? I have been through two more funerals over the past couple of years than I have wanted to, where both men were atheists (one explicitly, the other for all intents and purposes, though culturally Persian and non-practicing Shia); family and loved ones included a variety of faiths and lack thereof. The Cuttlefish family are mutts; there are strong currents of one culture or another, but over the extended family, they mix. Mind you, each current thinks itself special, and deserving of special accommodations, so there was (for instance) a strong expectation of Christian prayer at my atheist brother’s funeral.
I’ve said before, elsewhere, that the clergy were uniformly useless during this process. They had their rituals, but those were not ours, and were about as much use as a sweater on a fish. The master of ceremonies at the memorial service was a minister, who kept noting “I did not know him, but it’s clear he was special…” Part of what made him special, part of what made him who he was, was precisely why you did not know him. He was not of your community.
There was one person at the time who made a world of difference. He was trained as a rabbi, but he was acting at the time simply as a bureaucrat, a government functionary who was part of the process of officially identifying my brother’s body. But he was a source of practical and needed advice, from navigating the paperwork through what to expect emotionally for months to come. He did not speak through his faith community (it was not until late in our conversation that we found he was a rabbi), but much more broadly and inclusively—he had clearly spoken with people of many different traditions over the years, and this knowledge had made him… wise.
There have been others, since then, who have made a difference. As always, there are good and bad in any profession; we happened to have stumbled upon a competent but unspectacular funeral director, whose advice was not terrible, but was nothing helpful either. I have since found a site I really like, where a preoccupation with death, dying, and ceremony has made them wise, like the rabbi bureaucrat. (They also liked some of my verses, so that helped.) The people at the Good Funeral Guide are something special. They are not limited by a particular tradition, but show respect for the human condition that transcends the “ritual for ritual’s sake” my Christian relatives required. Their blog makes for a good read, whether you have reason to contemplate death, or just want to enjoy life. I don’t know that I could do their job, but I am very glad they are doing it. I also don’t know that I could give any advice about funeral traditions for atheists (indeed, I am certain many do not want any ritual of any sort), but if there is anyone who I’d look to for that advice, it’s them. And no, they didn’t pay me to say that.
Anyway, enough of my rambling. A verse! This one was originally inspired by the Good Funeral Guide people; they had tweeted about a story on an epidemic of naked dancing at funerals in Zimbabwe. Not part of my family’s traditions, but hey…
Dance naked at my funeral! Because
You can; because you are alive to dance!
Dance naked—never mind the laws—
The cops might care; you’ll have to take that chance!
Dance beside the fresh-turned earth—my grave—
With nothing on but bright blue sky, or clouds
If the sky is mourning my loss. Misbehave!
Dance naked! You have no need of shrouds!
Dance, naked, around my silent stone;
If I were there, and living, I’d dance too!
But no, my music’s stopped; my dance is done
Dance for me! That’s all I ask of you!
Dance naked—mourn in movement, in the buff;
For now, forget… you’ll join me soon enough.