Human Rites

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I recently attended the funeral of an old friend. Forty years ago we met through our mutual interest in science fiction and cosmology, and we had stayed firm friends forever after, frequently talking about the awe of galactic vistas and the thrill of possible future spaceflight for humanity. But her death and funeral brought me back to earth with a thud.

As an atheist, I have attended a number of Catholic funerals. Despite my desire to show respect for the beliefs of the deceased, I have found it somewhat wearying to endure the innumerable times we are asked to stand for some (to me, meaningless) prayer or doctrinal babble and then sit down again; even more puzzling is the burning of incense, sprinkling of water, ringing of bells, ritual chanting, and even the holding of communion in the middle of a funeral. The hymns and music are often familiar but lack any personal connection to me, and moreso the Biblical readings, but still I always try to understand the underlying ideas of rebirth, redemption, or whatever it seems they are trying to convey.

Perhaps not surprisingly, what I find it most perplexing is that the majority of the service concentrates very little on the person being memorialised and more upon the rituals and doctrines of that church. Why such a predominance upon ritual? Is this some generic human thing?

I understand that the idea of life after death, and the somewhat appealing notion of eventually being reunited with lost ones, can give consolation to the bereaved and their family/community, but the religious claptrap often seems so distant and far removed from the rest of their lives. Case in point: to their credit, my friend’s extended family and community knew who I was and made me feel welcome. We chatted about the fact that my friend’s funeral was coincidentally being held on Star Trek Day, and we swapped stories about past times. I feel that such welcoming inclusion of strangers and newcomers within communal activities would be a good idea for atheist and humanist communities to learn – as might (or so some argue) the inclusion of rituals that provide meaning and communal bonding during life events.

I left the church feeling glad that I had attended, but also possibly feeling somewhat smugly superior because I clearly did not share their need for symbolic rituals. And then, as the hearse left, I flashed my friend the Vulcan salute.

© 2022 Geoff Allshorn

4 thoughts on “Human Rites”

  1. I agree about the problematic nature of religious funerals. People who want to be remembered in a secular celebration of their lives should leave specific instructions to that effect in their wills, and also let their friends and/or family know. I am looking forward to being sent off by Bruce Springsteen, Janis Joplin and the soundtrack of The Magnificent Seven. And by friends who remembered me, warts and all, no pious clichés and euphemisms.

  2. Funerals are generally arranged by, and cater for, those left behind rather than the dear departed. If there is any religiosity in the family it will go that way because the religious often can’t imagine otherwise.
    As we of No Religion grow from a scattered few to openly humanist or atheist families, and even communities, there will be less and less religious funerals.

  3. Challenging if subtle ideas about the universal nature of ritual, and the need for atheists and humanists to adopt some form of rituals into their activities. This would pose a challenge for secular people to formulate and marry rational and artistic forms together

  4. How I agree with Geoff’s post! When I conducted Humanist funerals I made sure to include people with religious beliefs in the section dedicated to quiet reflection, saying this could be used for prayer. The rest of the ceremony would be dedicated to talking about the person’s life and playing music, hearing words that helped us remember them.
    No such consideration in religious funerals, some of which barely include the person being remembered but bang on about God endlessly. I am aware that my rant partly represents an irreconcilable clash of belief systems but plenty of religious people have approached me after a Humanist ceremony to say how much they appreciated it concentrating on the life of the deceased.

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