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Why Death is Hard and Must Be Faced


“What would you tell someone at a funeral? What kind of hope could you give them?”

Thus said my (religious) mother when I first told her that I was planning on becoming a secular celebrant and that I wanted to perform memorials and funerals as well as weddings and commitment ceremonies.

Death is not an easy subject for anyone, I don’t think, not even the most ardent believer who claims to be rejoicing over a loved one in the loving bosom of their deity. Any feeling person, regardless of their beliefs (or lack thereof) in a peaceful hereafter free from the suffering of earth, cannot help but be viscerally affected when someone they love dies – or in many cases when someone they love loses a loved one.

Still, there persists this idea that what the bereaved need is some easy answer – a “They’re in a better place” – in order to cope with their grief, that we simply cannot handle the loss of a loved one without the hope of an afterlife in which we can be reunited with our loved ones. When my mother asked me what hope I could give, she wasn’t asking an earnest question; she was challenging my ability as a non-religious person to help others grieve.

Ironically, this seems to me a complete lack of faith in humanity, in our resilience in the face of bare, unadulterated pain. Humanist Rabbi Adam Chalom perhaps says it best: “Just when life seems too much for us, that’s when we’re most human.” The human experience is one of grand exultation and joy and one of extreme sadness and grief (and everything in between), and in many ways, a memorial is about coming together to say, “We must be brave in the face of such loss. We must do this because it is difficult.”

And I have seen this focus on the hereafter, on some imagined future instead of the present, actually fail to provide the comfort that it claims to offer.

In my former life as a high school English teacher, I was in the unfortunate position of inheriting the classroom of a veteran teacher, a thirty-plus-year institution of the small school where I taught. This was compounded by the fact that this teacher, who had been out of the classroom for only a few years, passed away very suddenly during my first year of teaching, at a time when I was dealing with the last class that had been taught by her and their resistance to my different, less experienced ways of teaching. (In fact, in a weird coincidence, we had had a conversation about her in that class on a Friday, and the death occurred in the intervening weekend.)

Since this teacher – iconically known in the school and community simply by the initial “H” – was so highly regarded, the funeral service was held in the gymnasium of the high school. The officiant was a Catholic priest, which was the decision of the deceased’s children. It was clear very quickly when he began his part of the service that he had nothing of substance to add to the memorial; his message included some perfunctory, exceptionally weak comments about the value of teachers and then went straight to God-talk. I had barely known the woman other than through my students – who had a wealth of memories to share – and it was clear that anyone who had known her could have given her a more fitting tribute. (In fact, the poem that her final class composed under my direction ended up being a far finer way of remembering her impact.)

Evidently, this priest didn’t see his job as helping to memorialize H but instead to proselytize, to stand up in front of a gym full of grieving people and say some pious words meant to provide solace. I found them flat and worthless – and at that time, I was religious. I should have been comforted. I was not.

The problem, as I see it, was that the service did not attempt to grapple with the very human emotions of the moment. A dearly loved woman had passed away, in a way that only seemed to be capricious and unfair, and the response was not to say, “We lost a loved one, a friend, a colleague, a teacher, and it should not have been so,” but to say, “Never mind that coffin; just think happy thoughts about God and heaven.”

There was no bravery in that service – except in the one former student who got up and read a brief eulogy and recited, in a quick and pained manner, Dylan Thomas’s classic villanelle “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” It was clear that he wasn’t prepared to say what needed to be said, but he said it anyway.

That is why I think that it is so vital that secular celebrants do not overlook end-of-life ceremonies – death is hard, but we must face it. To do anything else is deny our common humanity and shrink from an honest look at what it entails.

For more information on dealing with grief from a secular perspective, visit Grief Beyond Belief.

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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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