If you have never been to a humanist funeral, it may help to understand that we don’t believe in an afterlife. The focus of the service is on what happened during the person’s life instead of what will happen after their death. For a humanist, immortality is achieved through our good deeds; transcendence is attained through the actions we take and the impact those actions may have in other people’s lives, sometimes long after we’re gone. This is what gives sense and meaning to our lives.
Several family members spoke at her service and we all found comfort in our shared love for her. Most of the speakers had something nice to say about tolerance and acceptance - they recalled candid conversations they had with her about god and religion and they admitted how much they respected the strength of her convictions. They acknowledged the fact that despite our different belief systems, we are still humans that share the same human emotions and can come together to celebrate that which unites us and put aside what divides us.
Close to the end of the service, my friend’s sister stepped up to the podium to share with us something that had happened during the last days of her life. My friend had suffered a stroke and was in the hospital for over a week before passing. During that time, she couldn't communicate very well but she could respond to simple questions. One day, her sister asked her if she was aware that at one point after surgery, her heart had stopped. My friend shook her head to say “no”. Her sister then asked if during that time she had seen her room and her body from above. My friend nodded “yes”. Her sister then got really excited as she asked: “Do you believe now?” To which my friend replied by shaking her head with an emphatic “NO”. The sister then told us that someone had already tried to explain to her why some people have these out-of-body experiences. Then she said: “I was never as smart as my sister so I can’t understand all this stuff about brain synapses and whatnot, but I know for fact that one day I will see my Lord and Savior. I know that when I die I will stand in front of my God and the angels and I also know that I will see my sister again. And when I see her, I will finally get to say to her ‘I told you so.’”
All the Mormons laughed at that idea while the rest of us remained silent and feeling quite uncomfortable. The service ended on that awful note and we said our goodbyes – the Mormons feeling satisfied and the atheists feeling quite the opposite. I’m still amazed at how some people of faith miss the irony of admitting absolute ignorance while claiming absolute knowledge in the same sentence.
I still regret not speaking up that day. I keep telling myself that this was their family member, not mine, and they should be allowed to mourn and deal with her death in their own way. But sometimes I lay awake at night and I think of what I would have said had I had the courage to stand up and speak after my friend’s sister. As I lay in bed I imagine myself slowly walking towards the podium with a smirk on my face as I look at my friend’s picture. I turn to look at her family and to her sister I say: “I hope you are right. I really do. Because if you are wrong and you have chosen the wrong religion, or the wrong god, or the wrong set of rules to follow, you may find yourself at the end of your life waking up in hell. But that’s OK because that’s probably where all of us will also be and then you will get to see your sister again! And when you do, please explain to her why, even though you were well aware of the fact that she spent most of her life advocating for equality and respect for a secular view of the world, you still felt that her funeral was the appropriate venue for you to have the last word.”
I’m proud of myself for keeping my mouth shut that day.
I also like to imagine that if I had spoken up, my friend would have been proud of me.