There’s any number of reasons why one might think about death. Since I tend to use myself as an example, I could be thinking about it right now because I have a birthday coming up, or because I recently came across a Friendly Atheist video about what atheists should do with their bodies after they die, but I’d bet that the biggest reason is because a close relative of mine was recently involved in an incident that put him in the hospital, and which could easily have resulted in his death (in respect to his privacy, I’ll leave out his name and the details of the incident).
As a species, humanity is really weird about death. A great many of us don’t actually like addressing the topic, though because we recognize its inevitability, we can’t hardly stop thinking about it. I’d argue that most of humanity thinks about it in a roundabout way, specifically through the opaque lens of their religious tradition, which allows people to think about death without actually thinking about death, if you know what I mean. Taking Christianity as the example, the whole goal of the enterprise is to honor their God in such a manner as to be allowed into Heaven after death, or to at least avoid being sent to Hell (I suppose this is where Purgatory comes into play). So everything that’s done in one’s life where their religion is taken into consideration, in some indirect way if not directly, has to do ultimately with one’s death.
Thinking about it in this way, it’s ironic that Christianity is one of the world’s more ingenious ways of trying to convince ourselves that death is an illusion. It’s like it’s some sort of holy catch-22.
I’ll be 34 on Monday. I’m still very much a young man, but I find that I become much more morose this time of year as my mind casually drifts to thoughts of mortality and the idea that I haven’t done enough with my life so far. I try not to do this, and even when I fail, I try to deny my morose demeanor, but that’s not very honest now is it? (This is part of the reason why I’m writing about it right now; I have difficulty being dishonest to the keyboard. There are few better ways to know thyself than to exercise writing.) In years past, I’ve spent a little bit of time thinking about what it is that I’d want for my own last rites, so to speak. There’s no sense in reinventing the wheel, so I imagine I’d still have a funeral, but I also know for certain that I would not have one like those I’ve attended at my family’s church over the years.
The way I see funerals, they ought to be a celebration of the life of those lost, and a lamentation that those celebrated couldn’t be there to enjoy the festivities. Compare that with just about every funeral I’ve ever been to in my life; it’s a 45-minute advertisement for the church where the ceremony is being held, complete with a myriad of praises for Jesus and his dad, bookmarked by a total of roughly 15 minutes devoted to the dearly departed whose remains are actually present and who is the actual reason why everyone showed up. It’s insulting. It’s depressing. It’s degrading (to everyone involved). And if that’s not enough, it’s a waste of time. Jesus gets this treatment every Sunday; how about giving it a rest for one hour so we can actually spend some time thinking about the person we’re never going to see again?
I think Walter Sobchak in “The Big Lebowski” said it best: “Just because we’re bereaved doesn’t make us saps!” The religious traditions over the years, whether purposefully or not, have found that making their sales pitch during the times when people are the most vulnerable is a great way to rope in adherents. I would imagine that there are at least a few people reading this who take offense to the way that I’m characterizing religious funerals, but I propose a challenge. Next time you’re at a funeral in a church, specifically one where the family has not explicitly asked for a simple secular ceremony, try to imagine what the proceedings would sound like to someone who is there only to respect their lost loved one. Unless I miss my guess, I’d suspect that you’ll taste at least a small amount of bile after about 20 minutes of bland scripture reading that has nothing to do the person in the casket.
To read about what I would expect for my future funeral, stay tuned for part II.