The consolations of faith: on leading on non-religious funeral

Today I led a funeral service for my grandmother; in accordance with her views, and the wishes of her children, the service was devoid of any ‘religious’ content.

I found this odd. Not difficult, but odd. Obviously, when asked to do it, I said yes; it did not take any thought to decide to help family members at such a time, and I rapidly worked out that, whilst I could not lead a ceremony speaking words I did not believe, I have no problem (indeed, a fair amount of experience, one way or another) in acting with integrity in public whilst not saying certain things that I do believe. What difficultly there was lay in working out what the service was for, in order to construct an appropriate form of words (I keep saying ‘liturgy’ in my head, although that’s the one thing it definitely wasn’t…). But for a funeral that was not so hard: we come to remember; to say goodbye; to stand together in grief. There is little trouble in finding words that speak well to these purposes.

Inevitably, I looked around for help; I’ve done enough liturgical work to know that there are always riches from which to borrow. That said, the Humanist material I discovered surprised me – although on reflection the problem was predictable. Like most contemporary ‘humanism’, it all failed rather badly to be nonreligious. I looked at half-a-dozen or more published patterns for a humanist funeral; every one borrowed central Christian texts, deleted the obvious references to God, and then used the filleted remains to shape the service. (Even Scripture was not immune; Eccl. 3 was several times in evidence. John Donne’s Divine Meditation XVII was also referenced more than once.) This of course reflects the reality – and the tedious banality – of too much contemporary Western atheism: take a philosophically-rich account of things; delete surface references to the divine; and assume that what is left will be meaningful or coherent or interesting. Nietzsche, the world hath need of thee…

The experience itself was interesting; the defiant rebellious joy of a Christian funeral was of course absent (‘Where, death, thy sting? Where, grave, thy victory?’ (a phrase I recall Graham Tomlin describing as the liturgical equivalent of ‘You’re not singing, you’re not singing, you’re not singing anymore!’); ‘Thine be the glory, risen, conquering Son – endless is the victory thou o’er death hast won!’), but that did not feel like a huge problem. We came to say goodbye, and goodbye was said; if I personally could have said so much more, that was the absence of a wonderful bonus, not the presence of a yawning absence. I know the philosophical stuff on the obscenity of death, but my grandmother died old and full of years, and it did not feel like that.

My mind went to various nonreligious weddings/civil partnerships I have attended. They were far worse; duty was heaped upon duty, and responsibility upon responsibility, and not a finger was lifted in promised help. The offering of prayer for a couple newly-wed; the humility and confidence expressed in the confession, ‘by God’s grace, I will’; the sense that these open-ended and absolute promises are undergirded by benevolent divine power – all of this, for me, is necessary to the uttering of wedding vows, or their equivalent. To commit oneself in one’s own strength to such things is an act of promethean courage, of which I at least would not be capable.

All of which makes me reflect: for me – I do not generalise – the point at which I find God’s grace to be necessary for existence, and not merely a wonderful bonus, is not in thinking about what happens beyond death, but in thinking about how it is possible to live before death. I desperately need grace and strength and assurance of the forgiveness of sins not for eternity, but for tomorrow, and for tonight, and indeed for this moment right now.

I respect and admire those like Nietzsche who, with eyes wide open and with no self-deception, can live and die in their own strength; at the same time I know that I am not one of them (and I recall Nietzsche’s own last years). That said, I suppose that dying will be relatively easy; everyone seems to manage to do it adequately in the end. Living is the challenge. I do not propose a general rule, but, as far as I know my own heart, for me the reality is this: I need grace to live more than I need it to die.


  1. Ken Pidcock
    Sep 7, 2014

    The offering of prayer for a couple newly-wed; the humility and confidence expressed in the confession, ‘by God’s grace, I will’; the sense that these open-ended and absolute promises are undergirded by benevolent divine power – all of this, for me, is necessary to the uttering of wedding vows, or their equivalent.

    In defense of your grandmother, she probably held a different understanding of what humility entails.

  2. Cconti
    Sep 10, 2014

    I have participated in wonderful secular memorial services where no one really was left wanting for inspiration and celebration of the life of the departed as well as the living congregated to eulogize their friend or relative.

    Are you sure it wasn’t more a failure on your part to find and recognize adequate non religious content? Wasn’t it maybe that you resented having to leave out your religious heritage at the door to accommodate the dying wish of your grandmother?

    I don’t blame you for that.
    I know that if I were asked to perform a religious funeral for someone I loved I would find it hard and I probably would be less than enthusiastic about the material.

    But in that case I would not blame the religious canon, I would very likely blame myself for my shortcoming and inability to properly honor my relative in her tradition of choice.

    But I cannot help blaming you for choosing to use your grandmother last wishes as an excuse for a cheap shot against a belief system you both do not like not understand.

    Would have she been happy to read this post? Would have she appreciated that instead of letting us know how great her life was, you choose to tell us how meaningless you found her death ? So much so you could not help but seeing it through the lens of the religion she adamantly choose not to subscribe to?

    Again, I would not have fared better if I were in your shoes with the roles reversed.

  3. GBJames
    Sep 10, 2014

    I’m an atheist, just so you know where I’m coming from.

    My mom died last year. I was responsible for handling affairs, including the family gathering when we buried her ashes in the small town in which she was born. I had no trouble finding things to say about her life. It was a meaningful and moving “goodbye”. And I don’t think the event would have improved by having someone with a religious motivation performing in opposition to his own beliefs at the graveside.

    I have no idea where you looked for “help”, but it doesn’t seem that you looked very far. When my son got married last month I found inspirational material in the writings of Robert Green Ingersoll. Did you look there by chance? Google can provide all sorts of links to appropriate material.

    I think the problem here is that you just can’t imagine that funerals and weddings can mean anything without a hefty dose of Jesus thrown in. That’s fine. Your opinions are what they are. But a shortage of imagination in this regard is not a measure of what provides meaning to those of us who don’t share your religious notions. Our lives are not diminished in the least by having abandoned religion.

    Final comment… Why is it that christians always haul out Friedrich Nietszche as the example of “respectable” atheism? It must be part of divinity school training. I would have thought that with what appears to be a family of non-believers available, you might have noticed that at least some of us do just fine not-believing in our own way.


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