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?