How To Kill the Dead

How To Kill the Dead January 4, 2012


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.

"Best to you, Mr. Fox, and for your efforts."

Goodbye Patheos—Hank Fox Bows Out
"All the best, Hank! Your thoughts and words have always given me something to ponder."

Goodbye Patheos—Hank Fox Bows Out

Browse Our Archives