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The Wishes of the Dead: Do Memorial Plans Matter?


One thing that is true of many people: We want to be remembered. We want to feel like our lives had meaning that will outlive our own existence. In my experience, religion or a lack thereof doesn’t make much difference; even if you think your incorporeal self will survive your physical death, there is still a world here, and we don’t like feeling that it will have been left unaffected by our tenure in it. We know that the story goes on, but we don’t want it to go on entirely without us.

This is primarily what a funeral or memorial seems to be about, from the perspective of the person for whom it will be held. I do think that memorials serve a purpose for the living, but there is also a sense in which one’s ability to control the kind of service held in their memory is an important one to uphold. We are largely powerless about our deaths, and people will remember us based on how we interact but also on circumstances outside our grasp, so being able to dictate details of our memorial service is a kind of posthumous empowerment.

So it is one of the most infuriating things that I experience when I talk to others who have gone through losses of loved ones, only to have that person’s memory rendered virtually unrecognizable in their memorial service.

I wrote before about an experience I had where the deceased’s memory was hardly even the focus of the service, which is a failing of a different kind for a celebrant or officiant. But in many cases, others have told me that an officiant did not simply fail to memorialize the deceased fully but that they have even lied about the deceased.

I asked about stories like this (which I have heard many times from people in conversation) on Facebook. Here’s Lori:

I went to a friend’s funeral where the pastor waxed poetic about how devout he’d been, and how he loved the Lord and something about church, etc. My friend was flamboyantly gay and a practicing pagan. Almost everyone there knew it, too (I have no idea if his parents knew and were being dicks or didn’t know and were the only ones who didn’t). The first time the preacher said something about how devout he’d been, ALL of our heads snapped up, jaws dropped, and we all just stared at each other.

Alicia’s story was even more harrowing:

In July 2012, my baby brother downed in the Spokane River.  He was 21 (10 years younger than I), and I haven’t been the same since.  My parents are fundamentalists (more in judgment than practice), and knowing my brother was definitely not Christian (we spent hours talking about this), I really had to struggle to advocate for a service that reflected who he was that at the same time somewhat satiated my parents. There was also some attempt to conceal part of him, like social anxiety, learning disability, and questioning sexuality; really anything that lay outside of what is recognized as white Christian piety.

I know funerals are in many ways for the living,, but I also knew I couldn’t handle  to hear my brother’s life and death framed in the context of religious oppression – especially after what we lived through at the hands of our parents. While I didn’t feel pressed to share everything that he himself wasn’t prepared to have everyone know, I also wanted people to know who he was, and just as importantly, who he wasn’t as a survivor of religious abuse.   So it was kind of a precarious process of slaying dragons and compromise that culminated at one point in a confrontation with my Dad in a minister’s office.

And these are only two of countless others I have heard. As shocking or dismaying these stories may be, they are all too common.

Now, let the record show that I am sympathetic to little lies when it comes to death. Death, as I have said, is hard, and I have a great deal of compassion for those who resort to the use of euphemism to help soften the emotional impact of death. I also sympathize with the dying, who often engage in small lies to make their loved ones feel better. My own grandfather, who had an aortic aneurysm and simply never awoke from subsequent surgery, had a “come to Jesus” moment in the hospital with my minister father and one of my uncles, and with over fifteen years and a worldview change behind me, I can now suspect that it was something else entirely: my grandpa taking pity on his children, who had come to religion despite not having been raised with it and now wanted their father to go to the grave with the hope of being reunited in the great beyond. What did my grandfather have to lose? He would be dead and that’s it. I can’t say for sure that I would do otherwise in that situation.

Ed Brayton has described his own father’s feelings, which are very similar:

My father is now 77 years old. He is in relatively good health and I expect and hope that he will live many more years. He is an atheist, but he is married to a Pentecostal. A few months ago I had a dream that he had died and my stepmother and I got into a big fight because she wanted a religious funeral and I thought that was inappropriate because he was an atheist. I told my dad about that dream and he agreed that it was quite realistic. But he told me not to worry about it and not to fight over it. “I don’t care what goes on at my funeral,” he said. “I don’t plan to be there.”

But it is the choice of the individual to utter those convenient falsehoods for the benefit of their loved ones. It is not the responsibility of anyone, least of all a celebrant who may be acting on behalf of the family more than the deceased, to make their lies for them.

This is a principle that I believe in far beyond just secular individuals, who I think are more prone to this kind of deception by their families. My own mother is only in her late fifties but has enough health problems that the issue has come up, and I know that when she dies, my wife and I will be the ones primarily responsible for her arrangements. I am fully cognizant of what she will want in her funeral service, even though I do not know all the details; I know that she will want a minister to officiate and the service to be a standard Protestant one (she is a lifelong Southern Baptist), and I know that she will want at least one or two hymns or Christian songs played or sung as well. I know that when it comes time (unless I have an unlikely change of heart back to the faith of my childhood) for this, I will be faced with elements that I will find uncomfortable at a time when I will be emotionally vulnerable. But it wouldn’t be my mother’s memorial service if I were to make it the kind of service I would want to commemorate her life with, however beautiful and poetic that might be, rather than one that reflects her wishes and beliefs in life.

Of course, all of this rests on the willingness of one’s loved ones to carry out your wishes, and in a future post, I’ll discuss what you can do to help make plans that minimize this risk as much as possible.

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About Galen
Galen is a certified Secular Celebrant with the Center for Inquiry (CFI). The views expressed on this site do not necessarily represent those of CFI. (For more information about Galen, click here.)
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