Funerals Without God

A dark night fell on a young couple from our church on Monday. They lost their infant baby girl only 5 days from the delivery date. I was called to the hospital and spent a couple of hours there with this couple and some family members. They asked for me because they knew my wife and I had a similar experience years ago. Our son would be 24 this year in October. Going to that hospital room and feeling the heaviness of that loss brought back so many memories. I am gathering up the strength to do the funeral on Friday, but even through the fragility of it all, I am still confident in the hope of the resurrection which is rooted in the reality of Christ’s resurrection on a Sunday morning outside of Jerusalem.

Since I am out of ideas for new material today, I went back to something I wrote in 2008. It is much longer than my usual stuff here and a little more “combative,” but I hope you will read it. Here it goes:

Some time ago I read an article about a 30 year old Harvard Chaplain, Greg Epstein, who is an avowed atheist and an up and coming humanist voice in this world of confused allegiances. Though he is not by any stretch a unanimity among humanists (as he prefers to refer to himself), he is certainly generating a lot of buzz on the blogsphere.

What caught my attention more than anything in this article, though, was the reporter’s description of funerals without God, which Epstein conducts for those who do not believe. Who would have thought, a man who dares offer comfort in the face of death without a theological framework!

This article made me think of a chapter in Ravi Zacharias’ Can Man Live Without God? There is a section there titled “Where is Antitheism When it Hurts?” A passage in that section is particularly disturbing. It describes a funeral in which one person in the audience felt utterly disappointed and let down because instead of offering any kind of hope the priest made a political statement about how we need to dedicate more funding to fight certain kinds of diseases, etc.

The thought of conducting a funeral without God is so preposterous to me that I dared to do something I had never done before — I wrote an atheistic sermon! Before you read on and perhaps think unkind thoughts about my audacity, please, consider this: I’ve yet to see any atheist or agnostic organization flock to a campus, such as Virginia Tech last year, on the aftermath of the terrible shootings that happened there, and offer real hope to a community in search of meaning and solace.

Now I am not saying this has never been tried before. I am questioning whether it really works. I am saying that when tragedy hits us and our dark hour threatens to engulf us, it is those who have a connection with God, or are perceived to have a connection with God, that are sought after.

So at the risk of exposing my insanity, I offer atheists a script of what a funeral sermon without God should look like. Obviously, Epstein is not asking for one and his would no doubt be more eloquent than mine. But would it be more truthful?

I am talking about a sermon that would tell it the way it is, no sugar coating, no empty talk; the is the equivalent of what people in my circles call a “come to Jesus talk,” only in this case it would be more like a “come to nothing” talk.

This is a sermon without God about the death of a fictional young female called Jane, who died a tragic and unexpected death from cancer and left a couple of kids behind. Her family and a small band of friends are there to hear the “holey” homily. Here is how I imagine it to be. Read it and tell me what you think:

“I want to thank you for coming this morning. I know we are all overwhelmed and saddened by the sudden death of our beloved Jane. And I know you all came to her funeral because you wanted to honor her memory. But I would be foolish if I didn’t think you also came here in search of some answers. After all, she has just been removed from us. Yesterday she was here, today we are here but she isn’t. Tomorrow we ourselves might be gone. There is some persistent finality in this and we all struggle to make sense of it all.

Well, as your local atheist minister, I have news for you: Your answers are as good as mine. I would love to be able to tell you that I know where your loved one is now, or even that I believe I know where your loved one is now, but that would be a lie. The truth is, since I don’t believe in life after death, I think this was the end for her. Like a candle that gently burns until its flickering light is no more, such is the fate of all of us mortals. There is no coming back, no “Mommy will be watching us from up there,” no “God called her to his side,” no “Mommy is an angel in heaven now,” talk. Not even “she will come back in another life.”

The only thing I can say for certain is that Jane is no longer suffering. As we all know, her last days here on earth were of intense suffering. Well, now we should take consolation in the fact that she is no longer in pain. It’s all gone now. Of course, she is gone too and that’s why we should all get mad at a god – if there were only – who permits such dreaded diseases to run rampant in this word.

And for all of you who might believe something different, I invite you to look at Jane’s body. You look at her and the same beautiful face, the shy smile, the mischievous look, are still there, but we all know Jane is not there. There is no evidence that she went anywhere and all of those who went before her and all of us who will one day follow her – no one has ever come back to tell the story. At least no one that we can irrefutably say was dead has come back.

I know there are writings about a dead Nazarene carpenter who was supposedly buried for three days and came back to life. But these, along with other ancient stories, are myths our modern minds, enlightened by science, cannot accept as facts. If you, however, insist on believing such things, I respect you, but I would have to keep my children away from you in fear that your fancy ideas might poison their little brains. Nothing personal, though.

Lest you think that I am only a secular version of a prophet of doom, I would like to say that though we don’t have ultimate answers to the problem of death and we are fairly certain that life as we know it is a product of natural selection, randomly but determinedly working to make us who we are; though we may not know exactly what our purpose here on earth is, and I am reasonably sure that there is nothing unique about this planet we call “earth,” or the humans who live here, in spite of all of this, there is still a multitude of things we can do to honor Jane’s life with all the creative powers that are within each one of us.

You can go home and hug your children and promise them you will always be there for them, no matter what. We already heard that Jane was such a dedicated mother to her young children and though I can’t say that she is there for them in any physical sense now, there is a sense in which the memory of who she was, her gracious spirit, her generosity, her tireless work for people who were disadvantaged, all of these things will remain with us as long as we live. I know this will be a great source of comfort to her children and to all of us who are, were, her friends.

I have asked the ushers to hand each of us a freshly cut beautiful white rose from Ecuador. I hope you will take one as you leave this morning. They were Jane’s favorite flowers and their wonderful, exuberant scent reminds us of the new season of Spring which this day is just announcing. It speaks of new beginnings, which death always sort of signifies — at least for the ones who remain living.

Please, take the flower home with you and care for it for the next few days. I know that just like our life, the flower is going to eventually wither and die. But while you have it, enjoy it, smell it, feed it, and tenderly handle it. We have even included a small flyer explaining how you can make your flower last longer. May this rose be a reminder to all of us that there is still a lot of work to be done, in order to make this world a better place. May we not falter, even if we know we only have a window of time to achieve our goal.

I hope you will draw strength from the energy found in this beautiful flower. May it remind you of Jane’s beautiful life and may we all resolve to continue her fight to make this world a just and equitable place for all. Perhaps, in doing this, we may find some semblance of meaning here while we await for that inevitable end.”

There it is. You feel reassured yet? Let me simply say this: I am just glad I will never have to preach it. Better yet: I am delighted I don’t NEED to ever preach it.

Reverend humanist Epstein: try this one at Virginia Tech or at the West Nickel Mines School in Pennsylvania.

“I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. 26 Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die.” (Jesus Christ).

Ivanildo C. Trindade