Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
By the time this is answered, it will be a moot point because the funeral is tomorrow but I thought I would ask. My young cousin died very unexpectedly and our family is having a Catholic ceremony for her. I am an atheist and while this is known to my immediate family and probably to a good portion of my extended family, I am not sure that my aunt knows it. This is important because she asked me to do one of the readings at the funeral. Wanting to be supportive, I said yes. One of my other cousins who is also an atheist is doing the other reading. When I first said yes, I had very few misgivings because I was doing it more for my aunt and family than for me. However, I wonder more and more whether I should have opted out. I worry my aunt or other people may find out about my atheism and resent that I did not decline the offer. Additionally, I worry that I may be compromising my beliefs by actively participating in something I don’t believe in.
I will still end up doing it because I want to make this funeral as easy as possible on my aunt and but I do wonder whether it would have been better for everyone if I had politely declined.
Besides my grandpa, whose funeral was not religious and whose death was not surprising, this is the only other funeral I have been to, much less participated in, so I am very new to how to handle any of this.
Note: I would like to point out that I do not hide my atheism and that most people know I am one. It is just something that I have never blatantly declared at family gatherings though I have argued against religion plenty of times.
Thanks for your time.
I admire what you have done for your aunt and your family. They are lucky to have you as a family member. You are both conscientious and compassionate, which is what gave you this feeling of having a conflict. Such conflicts happen to people of high character.
I assume that your aunt is your deceased young cousin’s mother. If so, that means that she is in severe grief, and since it was unexpected, she’s in shock as well. She has serious pain, and she needs plenty of support and comfort. In a state like this, every task can be magnified to the level of overwhelming. She needs things to go smoothly and easily.
I don’t think you need to worry about compromising any belief of yours by actively participating in this. You’re following a principle that I think we too often neglect in favor of other concerns:
Compassion and loving kindness.
When trying to decide what is the right thing to do, people seem to follow a handful of principles or values, even if they aren’t very conscious of them. I have seen five principles to be very commonly featured in their inner deliberations:
Respect and Respectful Treatment
Compassion and Loving Kindness
Honesty and Truthfulness
Fairness and Equality
Promoting and Permitting Freedom
These have no order or rank. Any one will be an obvious element in a given situation, but life constantly puts us into predicaments where following one of those principles means going against another. Then we have to use our judgment to decide which one to favor over the other. People may have their general preferences, but it is never a good idea to mechanically follow the same one principle in all situations. Each decision should be made keeping in mind the effect our actions will have on others, not just always being “true to our selves” in a self-centered way. We should weigh the needs of others as well as our own. The balance is found in a different place almost every time.
For instance, you could have applied honesty and truthfulness, and told your aunt that you would not be able to do the reading. That might serve your personal sense of propriety, but you also considered the effect that your action would have on her while she is in this very vulnerable and needy state. So you chose to let compassion and loving kindness guide you in this particular situation. In my opinion your judgment call was sound. You decided that the benefit to her was far greater than the small sacrifice of your intellectual comfort for a few minutes’ worth of reading.
In some other situation, being kind might have to take the back seat to honesty. Every one of these principles can be pitted against one or more of the others in the sticky, prickly circumstances through which we must daily pick our way. We try to use our best judgment, often with insufficient information, and often when there are no painless solutions, and we must accept responsibility for the consequences of our decisions.
This is not easy, simple or “fair” in the way that a child might use the word. Life ain’t fair. We try our best to do the right thing, and we still get our lumps. Keep trying anyway. Cookie cutter, mechanical, unchanging responses to life problems prescribed by moral systems claiming absolute authority from a superhuman source are for childish minds that cannot handle the ambiguities and complicated dilemmas of real life. Real adults have to use their judgment, freshly reconsidered every single time.
I don’t think it’s likely that your aunt or others will be resentful if they learn that you don’t believe what you had read at the service. Being willing to do that says a great deal about how much you care about her and the others in their grief. If anyone questions you about it, just calmly say that all that mattered to you was doing what she and other people needed for comfort and solace, and that’s all that should matter to anyone in this circumstance. The fact that you don’t believe the words you had read neither subtracted from nor added to any power of those words. That is entirely up to the listeners.
I hope you recited the passages with a tone of passion and conviction. It was for those who wanted to hear it, not for you. I hope it helped them to begin their healing. Your healing, as a human-centered person, was helped by your willingness to do what it took to soothe them in their pain.
My heartfelt condolences to you, your aunt, and all of your family.
Here is a related post about how to relate to religious people in times of grief. As one of two atheists in a Catholic family, you might find it helpful.