A few years ago, the wife of a dude I used to work with died. I didn’t really know him well – and his wife not at all – but word got around and a friend of mine said “are you going to the funeral?” I said “well, no probably not. I didn’t really know him that well. I feel like I would be intruding.” My friend told me “That’s really not the point. It’s not about who knows him. It’s about being there.” and he sent me a link to an essay on the Internet called ‘Always go to the funeral’. It’s an amazing essay and it changed my mind about a lot of things to do with religion.
Here’s a little snippet.
On a cold April night three years ago, my father died a quiet death from cancer. His funeral was on a Wednesday, middle of the workweek. I had been numb for days when, for some reason, during the funeral, I turned and looked back at the folks in the church. The memory of it still takes my breath away. The most human, powerful and humbling thing I’ve ever seen was a church at 3:00 on a Wednesday full of inconvenienced people who believe in going to the funeral.
Among my circle of friends, we have have adopted this rule and have a little ceremony when someone dies, that goes like this.
“Are you going to the funeral?”
“What’s the first rule of funerals?”
“Always go the funeral.”
“See you there!”
Now it’s my turn.
My Dad died last week and I am so very, very sad. We now have a big family debate about how to honour his passing. Dad fulfilled a long-standing dream to retire to Spain (actually – he always said Portugal, but Spain is right there next door) and, after decades away, my family is worried that there is no one left who remembers him to join us as we say goodbye. There’s also a bit of a debate as to whether a Christian memorial service is appropriate for a man who did not have a religious bone, vein or gristle in his body.
The Spaniards were very efficient with the cremation and there was no service. But now we want to do something with a bit more significance and the choices at hand are:
- Scatter ashes in Footscray Meadows – the scene of many a childhood memory. Dad taught me to fish there. My brother climbed a tree with me to show me eggs in a bird’s nest. Most of my early misdeeds were there. It’s the first place I ever tried to cycle across a river. I have very fond memories of Footscray Meadows.
- Memorial service at the church in Rectory Lane. It’s the only church I really know well. My Dad was married there (the first time around) and I was christened there along with my brothers and sisters. My grandmother was buried there a couple of years back.
The nub of the debate is whether it is inappropriate – disrespectful, even – to a man who was not so much an atheist as a never-really-gave-religion-any-thought-eist to give him a memorial service in a church. Here’s my response.
I am the biggest atheist I know but I think the one thing that religions do well is a funeral. Secular funerals feel kind of empty to me – like they are missing the point. I think the best kind of funeral connects you with two thousand years of western tradition and then sends you to the pub where you drink Guinness and laugh about the awful couch that your parents had in the 1970s and the good times that you shared and then you cry about the loss that you all feel. That’s a funeral. Scattering ashes in a park is not quite the same for me.
My sister Carol researched our family tree a few years back. She traced our heritage back many generations – back into the 16th century – and discovered that no one in our family moved more than two or three miles from Footscray in all those centuries. But in a generation or two we have scattered to the four winds. I have cousins all over England and Northern Ireland and in France and Australia and we made it all the way to California. My dad’s family was not from Footscray though. His family was from way, way north — about 4 or 5 miles north — in Eltham.
So, is it appropriate to give a decidedly non-Christian from Eltham a Christian memorial service in Footscray where all his children were born and christened? I can’t think of anything more appropriate.
My sister is a bit worried that it’ll be just us there in that church – four sad children remembering the life of a very special man and the very special lady who took care of him during his most vulnerable days. If it’s just us, it’ll be wonderful. But I’m willing to bet that there will be more than a handful of folks who remember us and are willing to fill the empty pews behind us. I hope you’ll read that essay and remember the edict: Always go to the funeral. I’ll buy you a Guinness if you come. You can buy me one too.
I’ll never forget the moment — at my nephews’ christening — where my sister and I had to renounce Satan and all his works and we snuck a glance at each other and my sister said something like “This is the bit where we get struck by lightning or arrested for perjury”. But I feel very grateful for the privilege of being a godfather even if neither I nor my godsons believe in God. Religious ceremonies are not about religion, they are about ceremony and tradition and the Church of England does those particularly well.
That little church in Footscray is like a Tardis for me. Sitting in those pews transports me back through my memories and even further back into the memories of so many centuries past.
I shared some of these thoughts once before in Don’t Break the Chain. I imagine a chain of tradition and mythology stretching back for a thousand years and we shouldn’t be the ones to break it. It’s too precious.