Sunday, May 26, 2013

Secular Rituals Around Death

Just putting up this article about grieving, death and funerals among rationalists and atheists - an article which frankly I find odd. The writer and his friends who were raised atheist (as I was) apparently had parents who demanded no grieving, no rituals, no special ceremony, out of some rationalist distaste for such things.

To be blunt, I have difficulty believing someone would be so emotionally blind as to place these kinds of demands on their families, and I feel bad for the writer if this is really his experience. I was brought up atheist too, and have already had to bid farewell to my father, and I can tell you what it was like. The ceremony wasn't at a church, and there was no mention of religion. But there was a lot of crying (duh!), and a lot of talking about his life by family and friends, and a special regard for his remains and where they went - partly scattered over Mount Nittany (which Penn Staters revere as their own secular sacred mountain) and partly in the family graveyard, tucked away along a quiet green road in the Appalachians. During his life he'd made repeatedly clear that there was nothing to fear from death, aside from never again touching the things we love in this life and worrying about the sadness we cause to those we leave behind. But never was there a next step of "and therefore we shouldn't be sad, and there shouldn't be a ceremony, and just let animals eat my body[1] (or something"). Probably not incidentally, when the subject came up, there was also a clear-headed discussion that no heroic life-extending measures should be taken in the event of cardiac arrest.[2] Which made the decision much, much easier when in fact that very situation arose. I knew what he wanted. Period.

Mt. Nittany in autumn. Some of those nice
carotenoid pigments are made out of my dad. Photo by William Ames Photography.

As an aside, when Americans of my age or older mention we were raised atheist, by atheists, I think sometimes people picture us sitting around a commune or professorial-looking office, with bookshelves loaded with Intellectually Serious Stuff, quoting Nietzsche over dinner, but no: Dad was a metallurgist and U.S. Naval officer on the old diesel subs, who came from a coal town in western Pennsylvania, Mom a secretary from PA Dutch country. Pretty regular and middle America. There were books but they were Danielle Steele and Tom Clancy. Not only that, we even had Christmas every year. Because Christmas trees are pretty, kids like presents, and family dinners are nice. See? This stuff isn't hard to figure out at all!

1. Yes, there are some places where people routinely do have loved ones' remains eaten by animals; the one I know of is Tibetans' practice of having vultures do it. Interesting, but gruesome to people who aren't used to it. But it accomplishes a familiar farewell to the inert form of your loved one that everyone can witness. If you're still skeptical, there's a very practical side too: how about you volunteer to start digging deep holes in that rocky "soil" at high altitude. Yeah, that's what I thought!

2. Squeamishness about discussing death has made many peoples' last days much worse and more frightening than they would otherwise have had to be. I've seen this multiple times already. Yet another case where being a grown-up and addressing the truth head-on leads to a better life. Have you had these kinds of discussions with your family yet? Because every decision you force them to make in your absence is another thing on their mind when they're missing you; putting off these discussions hurts your loved ones, period. Life is no different from other projects: planning backwards from the end is most likely to lead to success.

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