Meaning In A Time Of Mourning: Secular Celebration of a Life Well Lived
This post is my contribution to the Forward Thinking project, an amazing online community project started by Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism and Daniel Finke of Camels With Hammers. For more information or how you can contribute click on the links above. The topic of interest this time is “Mourning Death Collectively”.
When my Grandfather passed away two years ago, I sat in the chapel of the funeral home where his service was held and listened to a Minister deliver a eulogy to a man he had never met. My Grandfather was not a religious man- at least not in my lifetime. He was clever, kind, jovial, and gentle; he was the kind of man that made a room light up with his presence. He never talked about God, and he never went to church.
The Minister did an admirable job of ducking and weaving; he recounted the life of a man who left so much love in the hearts of those he touched, a man whose life had purpose and meaning, a man whose life seemed bursting with grace and bereft of God.
The Minister had clearly done his homework; he had spent several hours during the days leading up to the service talking to several of the friends and relatives who would be in attendance. He had cornered me on the day of the funeral- asking me to share the memories I had and the things I might miss most now that my Grandfather was gone. He listened attentively to the stories of going to visit my Grandpa on the farm he had worked at when I was little; how I was thrown ten feet by a sheep that took exception to my petting her lamb. Stories of him taking me up to the top story of the barn to look through all the arched doors, stained glass and cast iron fixtures collected over a lifetime of renovating century homes and landmarks with his construction company, of giving me my sense of wonder and a love of architecture and history. What I would miss most about my Grandpa, I said, was how he would always have a magic trick or two to show us when we sat around drinking coffee; he would confound everyone with his sleight of hand, showing us the same trick over and over as we tried desperately to figure out how he did it.
During the eulogy, the Minister recalled this story of my Grandfather and the magic tricks. Being the rhetorical magician that most Ministers are, he took the moment to try and teach us a faith lesson about how a man can be so close to the beauty of religion without ever actually expressing it in words. The Minister seized upon this moment, telling us all that here was a man who loved the mystery– who embraced the illusion; here was a man who saw that there was something more to things than what lies at the surface. Isn’t that what faith is about? Isn’t it about trusting that there are reasons that lie beneath everything that we see, even when it is not visible to the eye?
There was a part to the story of my Grandpa and his magic tricks that the Minister had left noticeably absent from his retelling. The reason I liked those tricks was that after frustrating over so many of the solutions, and admittedly solving very few of them on my own, my Grandpa would show me how it was done. He would slow it down, take special care to make me aware of his hands and what they were doing- and expose the illusion as just that: an illusion. My Grandfather loved the mystery, yes. What I want to think he valued more was watching me solve the puzzle; he wanted me to look past the surface and see that there was no magic there other than what he had wanted me to see. I like to think that my Grandfather did much to train my mind to break an illusion down into simple, explainable steps and not get caught up in what seemed to be the implausible.
Maybe this Minister thought that in a moment of grief that none of us would give much thought to what can only be described as the worst analogy ever. Maybe he thought it was just a cute segue from a personal story to the conciliatory platitudes of his faith. I wanted to laugh. I thought to myself that my Grandfather had played one last sleight of hand that day- he had let a rhetorical magician build an illusion; he watched as I carefully examined the sleight of hand and exposed the trick. My Grandfather respected illusions, but he always wanted you to be in on the sleight of hand.
As we gather together to celebrate the lives of those who are close to us, it will increasingly be the case that we will have these confused mash-ups of religious tradition and secular culture. Funerals are, of course, for the living and not for the dead. At this moment in time we have families and communities that are not, as we were perhaps a half century ago, religious monoliths. It was the case with my Grandfather that his funeral was religious more because the people who planned it were religious and not because he would have wanted it that way. I was in the minority in that room, and I’m in some sense glad that the Minister was able to balance those religious platitudes with an honest acknowledgement that my Grandfather was not one to suffer religious hand-wringing. Increasingly though, there will be more and more people like me who are grieving more and more people like my Grandpa. As our society shifts farther toward the irreligious, those traditional ceremonies will be increasingly less relevant to both the mourners and the memory of those being mourned. The religious people delivering eulogies, too, will feel the pressures of the tightrope walk between not disparaging the dead and the honest acknowledgement of what their faith says lies ahead for those who “turn their back on God”.
It was amusing for me to watch a religious man wax poetic about how downright godly my atheist Grandfather was. I wonder, too, if these moments take hold in the imaginations of the religious mourners who must be torn between reality and faith. How can a man who has done so much good be destined for eternal torment? Why should my belief in Jesus be the difference between everlasting bliss or punishment? Is there no value to being a positive light if that light doesn’t give all credit to God? In death the assumptions of religion come to loggerheads with the reality of a life well lived- for every person who tastes their own mortality perhaps another will see how simple it is to live on. Mourning is a cathartic moment and each of us has unique and meaningful experiences.
With the death of those closest to us comes the cold realization of mortality and the inevitable questions about the meaning of life, consciousness, and what lies beyond. These questions are the bread and butter of religion- many a person has taken comfort and refuge in the idea that corporeal existence is merely a springboard to the eternal. I don’t believe that we are all taking part in some “cosmic audition” for a role in eternity. I don’t believe that my life can be boiled down to a job interview for my spiritual career. I don’t find those ideas compelling or even desirable- but so many of us do. I would rather a compelling explanation over a desirable one- but for me religion offers neither. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think that atheism has a compelling or even a desirable narrative to offer those of us struggling with mortality, grief and the meaning of life. I think we have both. Life is transitory, death is not; it is not a path to something that transcends it. This is all we have, and all we ever will have. We need to make the most of our time under the sun. I was not aware before I came into this world and I will have no awareness once I leave it. Compelling? Yes. Desirable? Perhaps not.
This is just one part of the narrative of life, though; we do afford ourselves some measure of immortality. The lives that we touch and the differences we make will outlive us and outlive their contemporaries. We do get to be a part of the eternal. My Grandfather was a product of those who touched him and the culture of his time- and he in turn touched my life and the lives of so many others. The buildings he built still stand; and they will be here long after I am gone. His life was bursting with meaning- and he was just a construction worker and farmhand. He was infinitely special and nothing special at all. So am I; so are you. We leave an eternal footprint deep and tangible, regardless of whether we are giants or mere men. We are the only known species to have a robust understanding of history and culture, and these things will make us immortal for better or for worse. So be better, not worse.
That, to me, is a desirable way to live- and to live on.
Funerals can and should be an opportunity to reflect on the ways that the mourned have changed us- and in so doing have changed the world. We ought to be sharing the value of a life that will transcend its corporeal limits. I’d like for my funeral to be a time where my friends and family share the ways that my life gave them something that cannot die. I’d like it if we all took the time to think about a life well lived and share that message with others.
If there is one thing that I believe important to take away from the grief of losing someone who was close to us- if there is something that we ought to take away from our mourning and build upon- it is that our lives are not strings that are measured and cut by the Fates. Our lives are braids that are woven with every other person we come into contact with. Even after our string has come to its end, that braid goes on in perpetuity through those we have allowed ourselves to be tied to. If we take the time to change the course of others around us, we don’t die- we just take a well earned rest. My Grandfather taught me to see wonder- he taught me to appreciate architecture and history- he made me open my eyes and question what I saw. I will take those lessons and teach my children, and they in turn will give those lessons to others.
My Grandpa isn’t really dead, because his life has shaped my own.