My friend Kate Miller recently lost her older brother Matt. He died of cancer at the age of 46.
Kate’s family held a memorial service for him and they gave me permission to share the program for the service (PDF). It may be different than other funeral programs you’ve seen because Matt was a Humanist.
The program includes a lot of Matt’s writings (which had a humorous, atheist slant) and ways to remember his life. There are no prayers or Bible verses or mentions of Heaven or anything like that.
Kate also spoke at the service and her reading is below. To some religious people, it may seem cold and without the hope and optimism you tend to hear at these times. But to me, it’s realistic, honest, and beautiful:
Couple of days before Matt died.
Just off the phone with mom, who says the news is bad. The kids are in the bath, they wash their bodies with soap. The smell of the soap, their small bodies, soap over skin over muscles over bones. I wash their hair, the feeling of their hair under my fingertips, follicles growing like trees. Their eyes look up at me, their eyes connected to brains, lumps of cells interconnected a billion times, interconnected with my brain. They get out of the bath and I wrap the towels around them, warmth against the cold. Caterpillars curl up in cocoons. My hands are on the towels. They’re mother’s hands, bringers of warmth. The towel is soft. I pull clean clothes out of the dryer and Caleb jumps naked on the couch with joy. “Warm clothes from the dryer!” he shouts. Warm clothes from the dryer, his clothes, which we bring for him because we are animals that love.
Matt lies in his bed in his own bones and skin, the same as mine and yours and the children’s. His eyes open and close, open and close. His mouth makes words by pressing on the air, just like Caleb did on the couch, and that air floats to my ears, where it shakes my eardrums and lights up my brain. My tongue pushes the air around in my mouth, which shakes Matt’s eardrums in return.
I massage Matt’s foot and it feels soft in my hands. Dad’s hands are on Matt’s other foot, moving slowly. I see the veins in Dad’s hands, ferrying blood around. Chimpanzees are grooming each other somewhere. I run my knuckles up and down Matt’s instep, and his eyes are closed. The nerves run up from his feet, through the sacrum where they thread past cancer cells, to his head, where they announce the foot rub, and it feels good. Bears scratch their backs on tree trunks, and it feels good. Giedre kisses Matt’s forehead, and it feels good.
Matt’s eyes look at mine while he talks. I can see the fear. It makes my heart jump and my brain fill with empathy, and love, and anger, and despair, and irritation, and fatigue. My limbs are filled with lead, and ladybugs crawl around on the walls.
To be a humanist, to value humanity, to see us all as creatures and to revere that. To see that helping Matt in his last days with the disgusting and poetic details, that is human, that is ancient, that is bestial. To push a child out of your body is human and ancient and bestial too. To raise that child, to connect him with others, to feel the rush of love. And then to watch him wither and die, and to grieve for his body and his mind. To grieve for how he lived and thought and pushed the air around, and ran and slept and laughed and wrote computer code.Seahorses swim upright in tall sea grasses. Octopuses fold their boneless bodies into tiny spaces. Humans love one another.
We think Matt’s death comes out of turn, out of order, but it hasn’t really. The seahorse watches its babies die, just like the lioness and the octopus and the ladybug. Baby creatures lose their parents. Creatures mourn, and struggle, and sometimes live and sometimes die. There you have it.
We’re on this rock, falling through the space that’s curved around our sun. The sun gives light, which gives life, which makes us. No one, no one, no one can say why this happens. To ask why it happens is nonsensical, it makes me laugh, it makes Matt laugh. We two mammals in a hospital room, Matt and I, raise our heads and expel air from our lungs in short vocalized bursts. Lovely neurotransmitters race through our brains, and we feel good. We are large mammals, megafauna. We are megafauna in a hospital room momentarily enjoying the absurdity of being megafauna in a hospital room.
No one, no one, no one can say that this is meaningless, that this rock — with its creatures with their vocalizing lungs and their eyes that meet – that being part of this rock isn’t worth it. Matt — that particular sac of water and chemicals – is part of it. When that sac loses its electrical impulses for the last time, we will pick him up and we will remember him, like Neanderthals, like hyenas, like octopuses, like people.
In the hospital room it is difficult to stay in this frame of mind. Matt won’t have it. He doesn’t want curved space or sea horses, he wants distraction with American Idol and trying to remember Napoleon’s campaigns. In this situation, chocolate is necessary.
Matt will die, yes, and the rest of the family will live, until the day we lie in bed with our withering bones and skin, pushing the air around and piercing the hearts of the other two-legged animals in our hospital rooms.
Matt will die, yes, but there will always be children in baths being washed by their mothers, there will always be octopuses, there will always be eardrums, there will always be warm clothes straight from the dryer. There will always be space curved around the sun and there will always be sadness and chimpanzees and absurdity and eye contact and love. That is what we have, and it is plenty.
I didn’t know Matt, but he was clearly a man close to his family and loved by so many, including his wife and two daughters. He’ll be remembered for generations to come. You can see pictures of him here.