Religion and Death: How Will I Behave at Mom’s Funeral?

“Heaven, as conventionally conceived, is a place so inane, so dull, so useless, so miserable that nobody has ever ventured to describe a whole day in heaven, though plenty of people have described a day at the seaside.”

--George Bernard Shaw


“It’s an incredible con job, when you think of it, to believe something now in exchange for life after death.  Even corporations, with all their reward systems, don’t try to make it posthumous.”

--Gloria Steinem


“Certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one.”

--Sam Harris


 “And like a good Jewish boy, he couldn’t stand Mama – her politics, priorities, relationship to money, or religion.”

Jonathan Safran Foer, on Bobby Fischer, in “Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame” (2012)


Much as we try to avoid it, atheists sometimes find themselves an uncomfortable minority of one in the presence of believers practicing their faith.  In brief, one-on-one interactions, it’s all well and good to create snappy comebacks to “I’ll pray for you” and “God loves atheists.”  But how about when you find yourself at a service or ceremony and the religious crap just drags on and on?   Try as we may to avoid houses of worship and religious ritual of every kind, we are sometimes trapped.

Such is the case with my Mother’s funeral.  No cause for alarm -- she is still very much alive (and driving!) at 95.  But there are two scenarios for her inevitable demise. One involves a sudden cessation of life, preferably during sleep.  The body just quits.  The other is a prolonged illness, though she hates dependency (Dad never gave her any sympathy, one of his few failings).

In either case, there will be a quick funeral. Unlike other believers, who have a wake and viewing (because what if the person isn’t actually dead? – a very real possibility in times past), Jews like to get ‘em in the ground quickly, in 24 hours.  So the title of this post is a question I’ve tried to answer in advance, because I’ll need the answer sooner or later.

Religion and death 

They’ve been together all along.  The latter is the primary motivation for the former.  At first, it was worship of ancestors.  Where did they go??  Later, gods, up there.  My second father-in-law, a skeptic with only a high school education, had long ago divined that the primary motivation for religion was death. 

What’s the alternative?  How does a courageous humanist die?  Christopher Hitchens is a role model, if not for the behaviors that cut him off prematurely.  He faced death courageously and wrote about it eloquently.  I was looking to Rabbi Sherwin Wine to set an example, but he too was cut off prematurely (at 79, at the top of his game) in a car accident. 

One thing is certain: the ability to face death without yielding to the temptations to flee into fantasy is a mental muscle, requiring years of training.  It’s not likely that a weak believer, or even a hedging-my-bets, wishy-washy one will abandon religion in his/her last months, days, or hours.

Waiting arms

The flight from fear of death leads into the waiting arms of the cleric, always willing to give fake comfort and to craft bogus, cookie-cutter eulogies.  When people die in Western cultures. priests, ministers, and rabbis take over, but I’m sure every other culture links religion with death somehow.  The Japanese, at their traditional fall festival O-Bon, put paper lanterns out to sea, there to meet the souls of the departed.  

In the case of the death of my wife’s mother, rabbis and “black hatters” took over.  The latter are all-the-way orthodox Jews who affect Amish-like dress, along with the side-curls and fringes hanging down from their waists; very attractive.  A rabbi intruded and provided stale bromides.  Lots of praying.

Yes, folks, death is where they get you, and preparing to die right is what it’s all about.  The clergy are there with all their rituals, including – highly distasteful to me – humiliating prayers to God, even prayers of praise, as with the obnoxious, groveling, Jewish Kaddish.  In other prayers, God is begged to “accept” the deceased, whatever that means.

Tradition is piled on tradition.  Get ‘em in the ground fast.  At the cemetery, observant Jews are expected to do all the shoveling; no back-hoe for them.  They can get little pin-on rags so they don’t have to rip their clothes.  Evidently their ancients went too far, since the Torah prohibits mourners from gashing their own flesh.

Final finale

It’s the 21st century and we’re still burying our dead; such is the power of the religion/death nexus..  Think of the need for affordable housing or arable land or forests in this great country…all of that land gone to waste (like golf courses), all occupied by often vast, non-taxable expanses of grass littered with mounds or slabs of stone; below, corpses, in containers, in various degrees of decomposition.  Long after Homo sapiens is gone, the alien anthropologists of the future will be scratching their heads over that (if they have heads).

Funerals cost tens of thousands of dollars, as the morticians prey on the mourners, who pay up out of guilt, grief, ostentation, or all three.  All this post-mortem expense to dress up the corpse and put it in the ground, yet still deny that before long it will turn into something horrible and unrecognizable.  Here in New England, a church and cemetery in the town center are de rigeur.  Religion and death, side by side, literally.

I could go on and on about religion and death.  Suffice it to say that people get very irrational and take refuge in ritual.  

Four pillars

Mother’s religion follows the (unofficial) four pillars of wishy-washy Conservative Judaism: (i) some sort of Passover Seder, (ii) High Holiday/New Year synagogue attendance, usually three days; (iii) lavish bar/bat mitzvah; (iv) Hanukkah menorah/party. 

That’s about it.  For Mom, frequently uttering “God willing” takes the place of prayer, as if to say to God, “I know you’re there and in control.  I just can’t be bothered with praying three times a day.” 

There is also a quasi-religious quality to her insisting that (i) her burial service be done by the local congregation (same name, but now in a different building), by this rabbi (even though he’s probably the 10th in her 60+ years), in front of the people who knew and liked her, of which there are many; and (ii) both sons attend.  This will presumably build up existential brownie-points and guarantee her safe passage across the river Styx to Hades or to the Promised Land.

The deal

So I cut a deal: I would be there, on 24 hours’ notice, on the conditions that I not pray (including the revered Kaddish, repeated numerous times while standing), not stand at all, and not wear a yarmulke (skullcap) or tallit (prayer shawl).  Mom agreed.  SO I get to keep my dignity – at my age, I’ve run out of pretendability, though no one will understand that -- and Mom gets the pre-mortem satisfaction (because she sure won’t get any afterward) of my being there.

In the same vein, she fulfills a promise made to her father to visit him, i.e., his gravesite, and visit she does.  She actually says, “Here I am, Pa.”  I wish she could see what her father actually looks like : 0

But it doesn’t end there.  Funerals are for the living.  It is the living, not Mom, who will see me sit quietly, bare-headed. 

At this point, events become unpredictable.

What will they do? 

Will the local Jewish bourgeoisie ignore me?  Or will they leave their pews and converge on me, epi-pens drawn, invoke my Mother’s memory, and try to arm-twist me into submission?  It won’t work. 

Will they tell me that this is a house of God (it is not – it is a house of darkness, superstition, and make-believe) and that I should have respect?  That misses the point of religion: it’s the believers who must respect it; it’s their religion. 

If my religion enjoined me not to practice other religions (as Judaism does), or if I were, say, a Hindu and didn’t believe any of it, would I be allowed to sit bare-headed?  Or will we get into a discussion, right in front of Mom’s coffin, of what is a Jew?

Will they ask me to leave?  What if I say I promised Mom I’d be there?  Do they want me to violate a deathbed oath?  Do I have to get all candid and say, with a what’s-the-fuss? expression, “I’m sorry, but what’s the problem?  I just don’t believe any of this stuff.  The important thing is that YOU believe it.”

What then?  Will they get nasty?  Will they call the cops?  Nah.  Jews don’t like to make trouble, especially with the goyish constabulary.  So I will play their game: let them know that if they eject me, they will be forcing me to renounce my promise to my Mother, and the weight of that “sin” is on them.  Then I will leave.

Bully pulpit

But suppose I stay and am asked to deliver a eulogy?   Maybe I should use that bully pulpit to denounce the fairy tales and primitive-shepherd silliness that inform most of Judaism, to insist that nothing in their holy Torah really happened.  Again, nah.  Challenging people’s most sacred beliefs usually leads them to cling to and defend those beliefs, however fallacious, even more strongly.

Or maybe I should get up there and chide them on the bigotry they had just shown me, then segue from that into an account of Mother’s bigotry during my formative years (she has since mellowed out). 

That would be quite a eulogy.  Mostly, when it comes to ostracism, exclusion, and fear of The Other, Jews, even lukewarm ones, can equal the most rabid redneck, WASP, or Muslim.  A minority are liberal and tolerant of intermarriage.

Clearly, a lot more prep is called for.

I am not a militant, angry atheist.  I do not welcome confrontation, unless very basic principles are involved.  I do not want to argue with people or cause any disruption, especially at a funeral.

Surely other A/N heretics and apostates have been in the same position.  How have you handled it?


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Comment by Daniel W on January 10, 2013 at 9:36pm

Alan, You're welcome.  I hope it makes a difference.  Even if we can't think of every possibility, I think planning helps.

Comment by Alan Perlman on January 10, 2013 at 11:49am

To S/B: Thanks so much for all the helpful input.   I was formally affilliated with Humanistic Judaism for 12 years (still am, sort of), and one of things I liked best was the ability to create new rituals for modern, secular people. 

Unfortunately, the closer you get to Orthodoxy, the less room for creativity.  Mom's service will be traditional, with lots of praying and reciting of Kaddish.  I have no influence on that.

Thank you for this: "If you are not OF your community any longer, it is not up to you to make them feel comfortable.  She's your mom, not theirs.  You are the one who has to live with your loss."  If they won't let me in their holy room without the appropriate vestments and behavior, then waiting in the lobby seems like an alternative that will make everyone happy.  If I can solve that problem, the eulogy will be a piece of cake. 


Comment by Alan Perlman on January 10, 2013 at 11:39am

Valerie...Thanks for your thoughtful comments.  I would have much less trouble being a bystander, as you were in hospice.  But your last sentence captures my situation exactly: I am a principal family member and will be expected to participate -- actively.  Thanks for wishing me good luck -- I'll need it.

Comment by txcrickett on January 10, 2013 at 9:13am

As a hospice nurse I have been to many funerals of many different faiths for the sake of respecting the family and giving myself closure with the relationship that I had developed with the deceased through the period of the dying process. I attend, and do not believe in all these different ways, but I accept that it is their ritual of comfort and that I am their for my purpose and to show respect for the deceased and acknowledge the family's loss of a loved one. And to acknowledge that this person however short the duration of the relationship touched my life.  They are not really interested in what my beliefs are. My discomfort or the meaninglessness of their rituals to me is not the point. Sometimes, there are times that my beliefs or lack of are not the point. I can chose to allow their methods of comfort to be okay even if it is for a few hours without feeling imposed upon or having to make a political statement about the difference.  If I go to a service that requires I have to wear a dress because I am a woman, than I wear a dress. It doesn't mean that I don't think it is totally subversive and BS, but it is their service. It is more a respect issue than my feeling that I have surrendered to being in agreement to the subservience of inequality of women. My father is an atheist and I have been trying for years to figure out his service when all his family is Christians. Now at this late date, most have died off. But some still linger. If they want to offer a prayer because it comforts them, than so be it. It truly really isn't going to make one big difference to my Dad, but he would agree if it comforts the living that, Oh, well, I guess they can go ahead and do. Sometimes as atheists are tolerance button can get really pushed, especially when we don't feel we have much say, and it is such an emotionally charged scenario with family.  Good luck.

Comment by Daniel W on January 9, 2013 at 11:41pm

Alan, you know your community best, so you probably know how they will react.  

For me, my parents' funerals gave closure.  I would have felt judged and guilty if I wasn't there.  

Not living in their town since I was 17, I explored a little, and tried to think if there was meaning to being in this place where I grew up.  To look at it, lovely town.  Big trees, green as can be, neat yards and lawns.  But my memories were of ostracism, isolation, ridicule, and ultimately, of escape.  Most likely, I felt, now I was done with the many visits to provide and coordinate care.  The funerals were completion, and letting go.  

If you are not OF your community any longer, it is not up to you to make them feel comfortable.  She's your mom, not theirs.  You are the one who has to live with your loss.

I took some liberties and did a little bit of web research.  Maybe you have done that already.  Here's what I found.   "A good funeral helps the mourners understand the significance of the life of the deceased. It can be comforting or challenging, and should acknowledge the grief of the mourners as well as their gratitude for having known the deceased. A funeral can include poetry and other readings, responsive or group readings, music, and eulogies, both planned and spontaneous."  

There can be no greater mitzvah than caring for the dying, assisting them to achieve a dignified death, and then celebrating their life with a meaningful ceremony of tribute.

This is also a time when the ethics of words is particularly precious to us. As Humanistic Jews we choose language for our funeral and memorial services that avoids euphemisms, platitudes, and messages of false comfort. Instead we speak honestly of our loss and pain. We talk of the goodness and good deeds of our deceased loved ones, but we don’t shy away from acknowledging blemishes and rough edges that made them human. Rabbi Schweitzer will help you create a funeral or memorial service in which family members and close friends can join him in sharing their reflections.

While I'm not Jewish, the bolded part was what I tried to do as well.  I helped me process their dying and their deaths.  I also viewed their corpses.  I debated whether I should do that, but in the end I did.  It gave me a sense of finality, and I think I needed to do it.

As for limited admiration for your mom, and about how your mom lived her life - I think you could, as stated above, speak honestly about your loss and pain, and in the end she was a human being with good parts, and flaws and blemishes, and she had a long life and you hope you provided some happiness and comfort to her.  

I  think it's OK for you to step out of the room for religious hocus pocus, and be in the room for eulogy.  If that's possible.  If people ask why, tell them, you don't believe in god, but you are still your mother's son, and you promised her you would be there, and she agreed that you could be bare headed as long as you were there.  SO you are keeping your promise to her.

I hope that helps a little, or at least knowing that others have been through their own version of the process.

Comment by Alan Perlman on January 9, 2013 at 11:58am

S/B's eulogies -- short, eloquent, and true -- sound like a good solution to a problem I didn't mention but do have: what to say when one has limited admiration for the deceased and the way he/she lived his/her life.  I like your idea of natural burials as an alternative.

To Steph, James, S/B: The problem is not what to do at a funeral - Jews and other believers have that nailed down to the last detail.  But what does the nonbeliever do?  If funerals are for the comfort of the living, what about MY comfort?  Do any of the other attendees care that, with MY Mother dead, I'm supposed to fake it to make THEM comfortable?

Comment by Daniel W on January 8, 2013 at 8:10pm

I gave eulogies at both of my parents' funerals.  I said about the same thing at both - I would miss them, but I was fortunate to have two parents who wanted the best for their sons and each other; that they had long lives with few illnesses until near the end, and they lived in the place where they wanted to be.  Overall they were fortunate, and I was happy for that.

James Kz, there are natural burials for those so inclined.  Or is it for those so reclined?  That's what I've asked for myself.  No chemicals, biodegradable renewable resource shroud, humans digging the grave.  Main issue is transportation since natural cemeteries are few and far between.

Maybe you should start one in Nebraska.  Buy a few hundred acres, restore prairie grass, add some bison, and have a natural cemetery there.

Comment by Steph S. on January 8, 2013 at 6:38pm

James makes some very valid points.

I remember Data asking about funerals in Star Trek NG and the answer was that funerals were for the living to honor the deceased.

Comment by James Kz on January 8, 2013 at 6:29pm

I would note a couple things:

First, funerals are not for the dead. They are to comfort the living. As the lion's share of folk in the world are in fact religious, they get comfort from their faith, and clerics are those positioned to offer comfort.

Second, standing in opposition to interment are other things: cremation (which uses horrid amounts of energy and pumps massive amount of carbon into the atmosphere), burial-at-sea (same issue of carbon-based fuels to ship a body to a port from the centre of North America), and other such forms.

Of such methods, interment is actually the most energy-efficient method, and therefore the least polluting. Cemeteries of course use lots of land, but I would posit that the Interstate Highway System uses far more.


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