How To Kill the Dead


I came across a link to Stephanie Zvan’s Nov. 22 “Preacher at the Funeral” post, which I had missed, and I heartily sympathized with her dislike of the time spent by the preacher at her grandfather’s funeral, “advertising Jesus.”

In her case, the advertisement was separate from any statement about her grandfather. As she said,

He did not, thankfully, try to pretend that he knew anything about my grandfather, as the pastor at my grandmother’s funeral had done.

That quote brought to mind some things I’d been thinking about, struggling with, since I visited my Dad in California and sat with him through his last four days.

One of those “somethings” was just this:

How does — how should — an atheist view death?

In my book Red Neck, Blue Collar, Atheist: Simple Thoughts About Reason, Gods & Faith, one chapter late in the book, Hello Mr. Death, is specifically about one’s own impending death, and how an atheist might deal with the realization of it. An earlier chapter attempts to explain religion itself — where it comes from, why we do it. But it also touches on death, under the subhead “Why An Afterlife?”:

The fact that we can talk about a thing sways us to believe in it, but I suspect the way we talk about it affects us even more.

If you say “Bob is tall” or “Bob is out jogging,” you clearly picture Bob doing or being. After years of this, even if the thing you eventually say is “Bob is dead,” you’re still saying “Bob is,” and it sneaks into your head the idea that Bob is still somehow doing or being.

Maybe “dead” is just another state of existence, like “asleep” or “away.” Bob exists in the somehow-or-other state of deadness. Instead of going from Bob to no-Bob, we go from Bob to Dead Bob. Bob’s a little different, but still there, still with us. We’re a little foggy on the details, but hey.

If Bob still exists, it’s only a short step to imagining places for Bob to be. The no-longer-here-but-still-somewhere Bob leads us to postulate – and populate – heavens and hells, souls and afterlives, as places for Dead Bob to inhabit.

There’s another important point here: If you believe in an afterlife, your personal relationship with Bob continues. But if you don’t buy into this afterlife stuff, the love that you have for the recently deceased Bob has nowhere to go, no way to be expressed. All the things you didn’t tell him and do for him when he was alive, all the things you would be telling him and doing for him if he was still alive, they sit hopelessly at the roadblock of his death.

This is powerful motivation for belief. Living day to day, how many of us truly express the depth of affection and respect we feel for each other? How many of us ever get around to apologizing, or thanking, or paying back all our personal debts? With the parting caused by a loved one’s death, some measure of guilt falls on us right along with the grief.

But what if fatherly old Pastor Rick tells you that all the stuff you didn’t get said, all the things you didn’t do, all the debt-paying and favor-returning and last-wording, could still be done … through him?

Wouldn’t you know it? Churches and shamans of all sorts (including ‘psychic’ con men) are right there to bleed off that load of guilt and grief. They provide a connecting link to the no-longer-here Bob by assuring you that your beloved friend or relative is still alive, somewhere, somehow. Bob hears you, Bob knows you care, and you’ll even see him again … but only through us.

The fantasy of an afterlife, with a church as the go-between, provides a tidy mechanism for siphoning off the love we feel for each other, and feeding on it.

If you believe what they say, live as they tell you to live, keep on giving them your time and money and allegiance, you get to keep active the connecting link between you and your departed love, thereby avoiding the sorrow, the guilt, the pain, the loss.

It’s a con job for which many of us can’t help but feel grateful.


So … here I am with the realization of the death of my Dad, Dan Farris. Thinking about how I feel about it, about how I’ll live the rest of my life without him in it.

Although I do not in any fashion believe in an “afterlife,” I do have this comforting thought about what has become of him.

First, let me underline the concept of death for an atheist like me.

Death is The End. There is nothing left of the living person. They no longer exist in any fashion. They’re gone, forever, period.

Cut down a tree, chainsaw it into pieces, send the pieces through a wood chipper, burn the chips in a hot furnace and then scatter the ashes. Go back to where the tree was and there is no tree there. There is no after-tree. It is simply gone, and cannot in any way be said to exist. Tree. No tree. Something. Nothing.

It’s exactly like that with humans, just as it is with every other living thing.

But there is this way in which loved ones can live on IN US: We make mental recordings of them. We absorb something of their selfness. The things they might say. The feeling of their love. Values that we learned from them and internalized as our own. The effect, large or small, they had on us.

A story I once intended to write, but never got around to, had to do with multiple personality. The story presented the idea not as a mental illness, but as a mental asset. A sort of life tool, something you could use to better yourself.

The basic idea of the story was that we all actually ARE multiple personalities. We absorb and mirror the selfness of the people around us. What if you could use that attribute to transcend a personal problem such as a limiting belief? What if you could temporarily but deliberately become another person who didn’t have that limit? What if you could speak on stage, dance unself-consciously, approach members of the opposite sex with perfect confidence? Or even learn a new skill — languages, piano, fencing, any number of things — at an accelerated rate?

Just as multiple languages are somehow stored in our heads with an index that keeps us from mixing them up, we seem to have the capacity to build a number of personality compartments in our heads, somehow recording and storing the people we know, keeping them separate and distinct in our heads. For instance, every one of us has said, at one time or the other, “I know just what Mom would say!”

I have a recording of my mother in my head, and I can even reproduce her voice in pitch-perfect copy, calling my name in tones of surprise and reprimand. I have a copy of my brother in my head, his solemn preachy nuances and southern accent, as he suggests this career or that I should choose, instead of any I actually did.

Recorded personalities can be fairly distinct, but they can also bleed into us to some degree or other, gifting us with traits of mind of the people we got them from – moral values, life habits, things we might say or do.

The copy I have of my brother, I have internalized virtually nothing of it. My mother, on the other hand, there’s probably more of her in me than I want, a lot of it having to do with being afraid, nervous, careful in everything I do.

But the copy I have of my Dad, my old friend Dan Farris … I have a lot of him, and I hold it close and well-loved.


Something I’ve been very careful about since Dan died is to keep my memories of him intact. I’ve been careful in what I’ve said and what I’ve thought about him.

The truth is, though, not every second of Dan Farris’s life was spotless, nor is my every memory of him pleasant. There were people who didn’t like him, and even he and I had our differences.

For instance, he simply would not call or write me (even when I sent him stamped postcards in my letters). It just wasn’t in him. For a couple of years, that bothered me. I saw it as a lack of caring, and it hurt. On the other hand, I never called him that he wasn’t glad to hear from me. He’d take the time for a long, leisurely conversation. He even said, more than once in our last couple of years, “Thanks for calling, Hank. It’s good to hear your voice. It really means a lot.”

But here’s the thing: The part of him that I remember never calling me … if I changed that part, deliberately pushed it out of my head or somehow overwrote it in memory by telling people constantly that he was this pristine perfect friend, it would rob me of the immense pleasure I take in remembering his thank-yous.

It would erase this little I have of him, these true memories, his real story, and turn it into this other person – a mythical somebody who never existed.

Let me repeat what Stephanie Zvan said:

He did not, thankfully, try to pretend that he knew anything about my grandfather, as the pastor at my grandmother’s funeral had done.

How many times have you heard stories about what preachers said about deceased family members, things that weren’t true? I know I’ve heard a dozen of them, and not from atheists. I’ve heard them from devout Christians. How the preacher knew nothing at all about the person, but insisted on acting as if he did, offending or even shocking grieving loved ones by saying things about what the person was like that were far different from what he or she really was like.

And the reason I think those things are so offensive is this:

There’s the physical death of the person, and it’s something everybody has to do. No matter how much we love someone, their death will happen and there’s no way to prevent it.

But there’s the possibility of this second death, the death of their memory and legacy as it exists in our heads. The death of their story, the true story of who and what they were, as it might be told to others to help them know the person as you did.

THIS death, in these cases is no accident.

People die because they die. But when you destroy the memory of them, that’s a type of murder.

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Race and Culture Again: Bessie and Lois
  • Brad

    People die because they die. But when you destroy the memory of them, that’s a type of murder.

    Powerful and poignant. Thanks, Hank.

  • Happiestsadist

    Thank you for this.

    When one of my closest friends died a few years back, his parents arranged his funeral to be a Catholic Mass. His mother actually half-apologized for it ahead of time to me, saying it was for the comfort of his more distant relatives. She knew that I and others had arranged a memorial of our own. I supplied/chose the photo of him that was displayed, and going through those happy memories was both incredibly difficult and comforting. Almost all of them were of the two of us, teasing, poking at and generally not being remotely adult with each other. But there was one.

    And then the service. Where the priest who’d (maybe?) met him once while he was alive (campus chapel and all), went on about how his studies and plans were to the glory of god, and he was such a Christian blah blah blah, in his brown sandals with black socks. I was beyond shocked. Because the copy of The God Delusion that was on my table at home? Was his, he had finished it and wanted my take.

    I’m keeping his real memory in my head. His stealing sips now and then from my G&T while I was singing karaoke, even though he wasn’t supposed to drink with his heart condition. His always, always arriving early. His being the strangest person I’ve ever met, all of him.

  • Nick

    Every time I read one of these articles, I’m reminded why you’re becoming one of my favourites of the FTB crew, Hank. Thank you for this.

    And thank you for the reminder—not that I needed one, but it can never hurt—to cherish and preserve the memories of my brother. I can still see and hear him clearly, still remember the Christmas Eve we drunk each other under the table, still remember, as a silly catholic boy, calling him an ‘atheist’ as an insult, still remember the ridiculous nonsense that brothers fight about, and how we came together, always, afterward. Thank you for reminding me my memory is my tribute to him, and that every detail is important.

  • george.w

    Thanks for this Hank. My dad’s been gone about 20 years. Sometimes I forget he’s gone and then I remember and it’s like being struck down by a rogue wave on shore, without time to catch your breath first.

    It is a crime against the dead to whitewash them, but also against the living. It’s like those photoshopped people on magazine covers, their flaws impossibly smoothed over, setting an equally impossible standard for the rest of us. I want my kids to remember what an idiot I could be sometimes, and occasionally what a jerk, so they won’t have to live in the shadow of some saint who never was. That could happen if they remember the good things I’ve done and forget the bad.

    So glad you’re on FTB. I have RNBCA on my breakfast table, reading my way through it a little bit at a time. Because I don’t want to finish it too fast.

    • Hank Fox

      George, thank you!

      And thank you for ordering and reading RNBCA. I could have done a better job of publicizing it, but it’s gratifying to see how many people have found it anyway. I’ve wished more than once that there was a way I could get it into the hands of large numbers of people, especially young people — I keep thinking it would go a long way to converting/convincing those sitting on the fence.

  • jakc

    Grief at funerals is one of the strongest proofs that Christians don’t believe either.

  • PlayatHomeDad

    My youngest sister died a few years ago. I am always a little saddened, and disappointed, when I hear my parents speak about her as if she were a saint. She was certainly not. She was loud, opinionated and bull-headed. She was self-destructive and vindictive and occasionally cruel. We were so much alike that we couldn’t really even be close friends. But she was also trusting and generous to a fault, amazing in her chosen profession through sheer stubbornness and hard work rather than in-born talent, and she taught me what it means to work whole-heartedly toward your dreams. To forget the negative parts of her is to forget that she was a whole person and it destroys the wonder of the brilliant woman she was in spite of them.

    Thanks for the reminder, Hank. They’re always welcome.

  • Daniel

    Very nice post, Hank. I love how you tell your thoughts on atheism through these personal stories. It’s a nice change from the more intellectual atheism which most other people write about. I love that too, but it’s good to have sort of down to earth, how-to-live-an-atheist-life stories too. Maybe I should buy your book.

    By the way, what you said about other people living on within us in a way reminded me a lot of some things Douglas Hofstadter said in his book ‘I am a strange loop’.

  • Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

    Bit late on this, but I’d like to use your tree analogy for death in a slightly different way.

    My grandfather was a woodcrafter. He took wood and turned it into awesome pieces of work – he built a few end tables, a dining table, a huge hutch, a grandfather clock, and a bar that I know of. The trees that were cut into these wooden masterpieces are gone forever, but the memory of those trees live on in the wood that was lovingly crafted into the works of art that I’ve sat at, that I’ve looked at with amazement, that I’ve heard chiming away in long hours of the night. I chose my grandfather because he died, and I still remember things about him – not just the tangible sensation of still sitting at that table eating dinner with family, but of the man’s kindness, gentleness, and ridiculous sense of humor that broke his quiet nature all too often.

    That’s death to me.

  • stevenhansmann

    My beloved grandmother, Hazel, who I lived with a good part of my childhood with, was a wonderful woman. She let me fill her house with monarch chrysalis’s, taught me how to fish, and bonelessly filet panfish, could milk a cow faster by hand than anyone I’ve ever met, and……………never went to church except for funerals and weddings, and never once uttered jesus or god in any context other than the infrequent times she swore.

    When she died, the church had imported some sawed off little literalist prick who turned my granma’s funeral into a sickening clusterfuck of old testament shit. I was so outraged, and disgusted, if my mother hadn’t been there, I would have made him stop. The funeral ended up being nothing about my grandmother, and everything about this waste of human genetic material’s pathetic beliefs. I’m still angry about it and her funeral was in 1991.

  • Richard Rosa

    Thank you for honoring my grandfather by elucidating upon my sister’s (stephanie zvan,) post. I have my own ideas about the afterlife or lack thereof. All of the electrical energy that makes the brain work dissipates upon death. I believe that we all become a part of the planet again upon death. The electrical impulses which enable our body and brain to work don’t just disappear, they are returned to the planet and shared back out to every living being. I truly believe that this creates a form of afterlife. I see and hear my grandfather all the time when I have interactions with random people. Maybe I am a little bit crazy or deluded but to me, as an atheist, I take comfort believing that he does in fact still exist through the rest of humanity in the world.

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