A Quaker’s Take on Life, Death & Religion

A Quaker’s Take on Life, Death & Religion November 29, 2018

By Linda LaScola, Editor

My mother-in-law was a soft-spoken woman who was known to sit through a rollicking family conversation without saying a word.  Then, when someone asked her opinion, her response would make it perfectly obvious that she had tracked every word and every nuance of meaning.

About 12 years ago, when I was starting to explore religion, she told me about Sam Harris’s book, The End of Faith.  She was reading it in her Quaker Book Club.

She died, a few weeks ago, at 96, with three of her children and a grandchild nearby.  In the three weeks preceding her death, everyone had a chance to say goodbye.  This is because when she fell ill, after decades of good health, she decided to stop eating and drinking.  So it was just a matter of time until she died.  She was in good spirits most of the time, but towards the end, she became impatient with the slowness of the process and wished her body would just stop.

It finally did, with one of her children by her side, soothingly strumming the guitar.

About 20 years ago, before committing to donate her body to science, she sent a letter to each of her six children telling them of her intentions and saying that if any one of them disapproved, she wouldn’t do it.  No one disapproved.  They all understood their mother’s sense of practicality, her respect for science and her desire to be helpful.

Then the time came.  Seven of us were present when the man with the gurney arrived.  We left the room, while he placed her on it.  She was covered with a quilt made by members the retirement community where she lived for 16 years.  We quietly followed her out to the loading dock where the van was waiting.  I realized that this was the funeral procession, such as it was.  There will be a memorial service – a Quaker meeting – but unlike the typical Christian funeral, there would not be a viewing or even a casket or an urn.  This was it.

Her youngest child must have realized it too, because she suggested that we give Mom the traditional family farewell.

They are descended from French Huguenots and get together regularly with extended family in the US and Europe. Whenever anyone leaves a family gathering, those who are staying behind gather to wave and say “Au Revoir!”

So that’s what we did, as the van pulled away.  “Au Revoir” we shouted, with as much enthusiasm as we could muster.

And she was gone, to be of service one last time.

Because this blog is about religion and because she wrote about her “Spiritual Journey” a few years ago for her Quaker Meeting, I am quoting some of her thoughts about religion here.  It demonstrates the in-between space that so many people inhabit in their thoughts about religion.  It is a tribute to her.

“How would I describe myself? By some people’s strict definition, I’m sure I’d qualify as a happy agnostic or an ethical humanist.  But I consider myself a Christian, a believer in the way of life that Jesus taught. …It was obvious to me from the beginning that that people had to pick and choose from the Bible because it didn’t always hang together – but the essence was there.  I must have had some decent Sunday School teachers or I was a born doubter since, when I was ready to be confirmed in the Episcopal Church at age 12, I was willing to say that I was a follower of Jesus Christ, but not that I believed that he was the son of God – and the minister said that that would do just fine.”

She talked a bit about her take on Sam Harris’s book:

“…the theme is that religions vying to conquer or convert all others have caused most of the war through the ages.  Without these dogmas, people would figure out for themselves how best to live together and there would be peace.  That may be true, but the idea that faiths can ever be suspended throughout the world seems to me hopelessly unrealistic. “

So she was not a simple agnostic.   In another section of her personal story, she says this:

“I do feel that somehow God is benevolent and cares about us. This is a concept that may not be logical but it is a given that I choose not to question.  I feel that if I try to follow in right paths the best I know how, however limited that may be that I’ll be OK – whatever OK turns out to be, if anything.  So that whole question is off my screen.”

And this:

“This description of where I seem to be on my spiritual journey is not exactly inspirational. It’s too vague and iffy for most people who want faith to be a rock to stand on. But it satisfies me and that’s why I am Quaker.  For me, acceptance of uncertainty and randomness doesn’t mean that you have no faith or religion.”

But for me and for many of the readers of this blog, that’s exactly what it means.

Clearly, good people are not all alike.

And my mother-in-law was a good person.


Bio: Linda LaScola is co-author, with Daniel C. Dennett, of Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind(2013) and “Preachers who are not Believers”(2010). They are also co-producers of a play in development, written by Marin Gazzaniga, that is  based on their research.  Linda lives and works in Washington, D.C and holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the Catholic University of America.  She is a co-founder of The Clergy Project and Editor of the Rational Doubt blog.

>>>>Photo Credits: Her original Artwork, Photo by Linda LaScola ; by Adele Banks, Religion news service



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  • Scott Stahlecker

    That was a nice tribute to you mother-in-law and I’m sorry for your loss. I lost my own father-in-law a few months ago. She seemed like she was a wise, but realistic and practical soul.

  • Linda_LaScola

    Thank you Scott. You captured her essence well.

  • Mark Rutledge

    Thank you for sharing this profound family experience. What a profound person your mother in law was. My son is a Quaker and so I resonate to her on a personal level. She expressed and lived on dimensions I wish we could all reach. I really appreciate your thoughts on the depth of human experience that she lived on and her words, which captured her wonderful experiences as well as words can. She lived it. Thanks.

  • mason lane

    “Pick and choose” Christians, or “cherry picking” Christians as they are commonly known today. Yes the US desperately needs more of them like your mother-in-law.

    She wrote, “But I consider myself a Christian, a believer in the way of life that Jesus taught.” So she had to be a cherry picker as you indicate she was not the kind of person who’d embrace this kind of Jesus diatribe: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a son against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. -Jesus character, Matthew 10:34

    All good writing involves re-writing and I wonder if one day the pick and choose cherry picking Christians will do a re-write of the so called Bible that would actually be aligned with the beliefs they profess. Mr. Jefferson has already given them a fine start. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-thomas-jefferson-created-his-own-bible-5659505/


  • Beautifully said, Linda. A good story to share, with a little light in dark times.
    Sorry for the loss of this inspiring voice in your life.

    She sounds a bit like one of my “secular saints,” Lucretia Mott. I’ll be teaching a class on this powerful and radical Quaker lady in a few months. Maybe I’ll borrow a few lines from your MIL.

  • And, some cherries might be good to pick. “By their fruits you will know them.”

  • Linda_LaScola

    Please do, the family will be honored. Let me know and I’ll share it with them.

  • Linda_LaScola

    We just returned from her Quaker memorial service – which now ranks as the best memorial service I’ve ever been to. It was ALL about the deceased, and at the end there was a group handshake – or more like a holding of hands.

  • Linda_LaScola

    Interesting insights, Mason. If I’m ever again in the company of Quakers, I’ll ask them how they deal with the Bible — I bet very much like my mother-in-law did.