Human roots, goddy bark

Back when I was about 30, a friend had his dog put down. We worked at a ranch and the Boss didn’t like the fact that this guy, who lived in the bunkhouse with me and one other cowboy, had two big dogs, one of which had been accused more than once of harassing the horses.

So Farfel had to go. Tom took him in to the vet, coming back in about half an hour, the deed done. He was quieter than normal, but we barely noticed. None of us had anything in our lives to guide us in how to treat someone who lost a loved one in such a way, so we went on as usual with our workday, talking and joking.

Years later, after I’d lost a beloved dog-friend of my own, oh boy did I know what it was like. Whew. It hit me hard and echoed in my head for months.

It was only in this reflected view that I understood what Tom must have been feeling, but how none of us recognized or honored it at the time. None of us gave him space to grieve.

And long after that, I think I understand that … call it “griefspace” … is an important reason for death-related social ceremonies.

When we have a funeral, or a solemn ceremony to honor a departed person, it gives the friends and loved ones of the departed a chance to feel and express grief.

Part of the way it does this is that it enforces upon those of us with no experience of grief the necessity of being quiet and observant in the moment, rather than our usual boisterous and self-absorbed selves. That shared and enforced quietness is a moment of social compassion, even if some of the people going along with it have no idea, in that moment, what it is they’re doing.

For that short time, as a gift to the grieving, we back off on the volume at which we continually blare ourselves out into the social auditorium, and allow a little bit more signal to come in from these unhappy others. The mere act of listening, in this time of pain, becomes social support. It allows the unhappy ones to ride out the experience and come to terms with it internally, without having their attention monopolized by the near-constant social demands of others.

As an atheist, I’ve deliberately thrown out of my life a great deal of what goes on in the Christ-O-Sphere.

But I occasionally remind myself that SOME of what goes on in the broader practice of religion is social observances that both predate and foundationally undergird the religious overlay.

That a religious overlay can obscure more basic aspects of human nature is easy to see, just in the subject of morality alone. “Thou shalt not steal” is a Christian commandment, but it’s stupid to think, as some people appear to do, that non-Christians either don’t know or can’t know that stealing is a bad idea.

Anyone who thinks about it with a head clear of religion can see that stealing is a bad idea both for broad social reasons – outer-directed reasons – as well as for inner-directed reasons, those related to one’s own personal development.

So while a Christian might insist that not-stealing is a specifically Christian value, the truth is that not-stealing is a HUMAN value, and it only appears in the Christian mythology because otherwise … well, Christianity wouldn’t exist. It wouldn’t have stood even cursory examination by potential adherents, and would have expired early.

In that happy future in which religion has expired and left us with a society without it, there will still be ceremonies of grief. There will still be funerals. And at those funerals, though many things will be radically different from most of the religious ceremonies of today, I expect that people will still say and do SOME things that might otherwise appear, to those of us caught up the goddy society of today, as somewhat religious.

But that will be solely because religion assumes and rebrands human nature for its own purposes and appearances … rather than because human nature is innately religious.

Whatever ceremonies we develop, free of religion, will spring from humanist roots and reasons, rather than religious ones.

The trick, in the intervening time, will be examining the needs of grief – and other human social needs – and making sure that whatever parallel ceremonies we’re developing are done for these more basic Human reasons rather than the frivolous sectarian religious ones.

Whatever things look like in the end, and we probably shouldn’t shy away from similar appearances, they should be founded humanistically rather than religiously.


Followup: Let me toss in something about why religious interjections into funerals, especially for people who aren’t all that religious, are so damned nasty.

How many times have you heard someone say something like “It was horrible. The preacher didn’t even know Granny, and he just spouted about Jesus the whole time.”

I swear I’ve heard that a dozen times — from deeply religious people! Imagine how much worse it is for a non-Christian.

The business above about backing off on our own volume, giving grieving people the silence and space to experience and deal with their own pains …? In this kind of service, the volume is instead RAISED.

The silence is stolen away from the grief-stricken, and the idiot priest uses it to advertise God and Jesus.

And isn’t that disgustingly selfish and insensitive?


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  • Tiktaalik

    I have a ceremony every year to celebrate and remember dogs past. I read various quotes about dogs and life and light a candle, look at videos and photos, and cry. I put a note up on my door telling people not to disturb me and I don’t answer the phone. I’m an atheist, but have had some association with the Unitarian Universalists, and I use some of their material. There’s nothing religious about it; it’s a nod to my own ability to remember and love and appreciate the lives of beings other than humans on this earth.

  • cathyw

    Your followup touches on what I didn’t like about Baptist funerals. In one case, grief was acknowledged, and used to manipulate the attendees (“You miss him, right? Say the magic words and you can be with him again after you die!”), and in the other, the preacher was encouraging us to be joyful, not sad, because Papaw’s in heaven with Jesus! – no acknowledgement was made of the idea that we might miss Papaw, right here, right now, and not only was there no “griefspace” there was a bit of implication that I was wrong to want one.

  • otrame

    I can give an example of how non-religious grief-space can work. A few months ago a coworker and friend died of cancer. He was a popular guy, full of life, a friend to so many, and his death in his forties was a tragedy.

    At work we had a memorial gathering. There were no religious overtones at all. Dozens of people showed up, some coming hundreds of miles. It turned into a chance to catch up with old friends who had moved out of town, a chance to talk about our friend, and a chance to celebrate why he had been special to us. It was remarkably easing to the grief that had been so awful.

    Both his wife and his father were religious and I occasionally heard “We’ll see him again” and “He’s looking down on us now” from a few, but he was a thorough atheist and most of his friends, even the religious ones, felt no need to make such remarks, knowing how he himself would have viewed them. Even the Catholic priest knew better than that.

    I miss him. He was one of my closest friends and I miss him, but the memorial helped me step back from him, to let him go in my heart. When I think of him now, I am less likely to remember the look on his chemo-ravaged face when he told me the doctors had told him that though they would keep trying, there was very little chance. I remember him laughing, I remember his rabid anti-Republicanism, I remember how much he loved his sons,

    So, yeah. Grief-space. We won’t lose it when religion goes, because it is a human need.

    • Hank Fox

      otrame, that was beautiful. Thank you.

    • geocatherder

      I too, many, many years ago, lost a co-worker who was a good friend to an aneurysm. One moment he was chatting casually with his girlfriend, and the next moment he was on the floor, dead before the paramedics even arrived.

      I attended the funeral. My friend was not religious, the service was conducted by the funeral director, and it was stogy and had lots of vague references to heaven and whatnot, with nothing about what kind of a person my friend had been. I imagined him in the back row in his signature T-shirt and jeans, with his white sneakers up on the back of the pew in front of him, laughing at the whole spectacle. I could not bring myself to go up front afterwards for the “viewing”.

      The next morning at work, I took a box of Kleenex, ducked under the tape stretched across the door of his cubicle, sat in the oh-so-familiar visitor’s chair, and cried and cried. Many people walked by, including those who might legitimately have demanded that I leave, but nobody bothered me. They gave me grieving space, and I appreciated that.

  • docsarvis

    Seven years ago my best friend and business partner drowned in a kayaking accident. He was atheist, his family Catholic. For some reason I felt compelled to attend the church funeral. The priest had never met my friend, and kept hitting all the talking points in his fill-in-the-blanks eulogy. He made eye contact with me as he was talking of my friend’s love for Jesus. I glared at him and subtly shook my head side to side. The priest never looked my way again, and I walked past him without shaking his hand after the ceremony.

    Most of us then proceeded to my friend’s in-law’s river property, where about 100 of us threw a two-day party celebrating his life, mourning his loss, and telling stories about him. We held a beautiful ceremony featuring a procession to the river where we threw flowers into the water while singing appropriate songs, and there are some very talented singers in our circle. We toasted my friend with excellent tequila and whiskey. This was the appropriate memorial. The Catholic funeral was a farce.

  • jakc

    If Christians really believed, there would be no grief at their funerals. The fact that death causes grief is as simple a disproof as I can think of for the idea that most Americans believe in God. They say they do, but in the end, the average Christian has no more faith than the average atheist.

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