What Funerals Should Be About

James Croft on Humanist funerals and what they are about:

First, a recognition of an individual’s life, a marking of it, an assertion of its significance. Second, the chance to consider together what a life has meant, a collective moment of storytelling to bring a community together to make sense of a life. Third, the opportunity for loved ones left behind to share memories of the deceased and receive the consolation of others. Fourth, a sense of psychological closure which can be deeply valuable, particularly in tragic circumstances. And finally, most important, a moment set aside to remind ourselves of the shortness and precariousness of life, to prick ourselves to live better and more fully.

The truth is, and has always been, that funerals – whether religious or not – are not for the dead or their “immortal souls”. They are for us. For the ones left behind. A Humanist funeral is therefore the most honest and powerful of all funerals – a funeral in which people refuse to lie to themselves or to others and look the fact of death squarely in the face, confronting their mortality with dignity and grace. A funeral for the living.

Last fall, as part of my response to Bad Catholic on religious responses to suffering, I expressed why I found the Catholic way of running a funeral repugnant on many levels.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Gordon

    I hate Catholic funerals so much, and I always get asked to do a reading!

  • raytheist

    I don’t know that any social ritual “should” be about this or that, but they do serve to mark significant events; what they mean or what purpose they serve is largely up to the individuals involved.
    I have very few funerals in my own life from which to draw guidance, and I’ve already told my kids not to have one when I pass, although they are welcome to have a memorial party or whatever they wish after I’m gone.

  • http://pcyandel.posterous.com/ Phil Y

    Funerals, memorial services, or other death rituals, help us to acknowledge (not accept) the death and to close the book on how we will remember the deceased. Their legacy and history is the only thing that will live on after their death and these rituals seem to me to be the perfect place and time to close that final chapter on them. We seem to focus on the positive aspects of their lives even if they led less than perfect lives. After my wife’s mother died, all my wife could think about was how “classy” she was and imagines how she would have responded to situations that arose in my wife’s life. Truth be told by someone that had known her, my MIL was a selfish, narcissistic, disloyal bitch. The only legacy she left was an example NOT to follow.

  • http://eschaton2012.ca Eamon Knight

    I have been in charge of arranging two funerals (or maybe they’re better called memorial services, since they weren’t associated with an interment), ie. my father’s and mother’s. I got a UU chaplain to act as MC, but wrote and delivered the eulogies myself — who else could? And I think I did roughly what Croft says — tell the story of their lives, and try to answer the question: What did this person leave us? What does their life tell us? Metaphorically, every life writes a page in the huge book of human experience: the memorial service should, as it were, be an attempt to read that page.

    My parents were cremated, per their request. I hung on to the ashes for several years, because I really didn’t know what to do with them. I the end, I took half the ashes back to my parents’ native England, got together with some of my cousins who had known and loved them, and scattered them on a hillside in the Lake District. The rest I scattered in a park on the north shore of Lake Superior.

  • Kris

    I was raised Missouri Synod Lutheran and every funeral I attended under the church’s auspices was treated as an opportunity to proselytize, to smugly assure the believers that they would see their loved ones again in heaven as opposed to the unbelievers, and to urge any non believers to change their ways in the face of death. When my sister died, it was a great relief that her sons did not find it necessary to have any minister of any church at the funeral. Instead, those of us who wished to got up and spoke of her. It was the most moving funeral I’ve ever attended and it accomplished the purposes that Croft writes of.

    • http://eschaton2012.ca Eamon Knight

      One thing I appreciated about the United Church funerals I went to during the years I was there, is that they were in many ways humanist. The service was usually called “A Celebration of the Life of X”, and the minister talked about them, and maybe the family said a few words, and the afterlife was hardly even mentioned, if at all.

  • Makoto

    When I die, I don’t want a funeral – I’ve already demanded that any organ/part that can be used should be used for the living, anything left should be used for training future doctors and such if it can be, and toss the rest, as apparently no one has any use for it.

    What I do want is a party. I want people playing games, chatting, and remembering the good times, bad times, that one event where I was super annoying, and so on. Remember my life, because that’s how all of us become immortal, in other people’s memories. I want them to remember the real me, not the ‘best’ me, if that makes any sense.

  • Robster

    Why don’t the victims of religious fraud celebrate the departed heading off to a happy afterlife forever on the baby jesususus’ right hand for ever and ever and ever. Hang on, I understand that most of them really don’t belive the nonsense but still try to get the warm ‘n fuzzies pretending that there’s such a thing as an afterlife.

    • http://pcyandel.wordpress.com/ Phil Y

      Robster, you come across a bit angry with people of the Christian faith that don’t seem to believe in the eternal life (heaven or hell) taught by their religion. IME, people invent stories and explanations for life events that are traumatic or not understood. Some of these people cling to beliefs that make no rational sense to me in order for them to find meaning in their lives. These people are from the same groups that believe that without a belief in a (I mean, their) personal god, one is unable to be good, kind, honest, or live a moral and ethical life. I pity these people because they wind up living their life in the future, and never relishing in the splendor and possibilities of the now.

  • http://themerelyreal.wordpress.com Chana Messinger

    Speaker for the dead!