An Atheist’s Memorial Service April 15, 2010

An Atheist’s Memorial Service

My friend Kate Miller recently lost her older brother Matt. He died of cancer at the age of 46.

Kate’s family held a memorial service for him and they gave me permission to share the program for the service (PDF). It may be different than other funeral programs you’ve seen because Matt was a Humanist.

The program includes a lot of Matt’s writings (which had a humorous, atheist slant) and ways to remember his life. There are no prayers or Bible verses or mentions of Heaven or anything like that.

Kate also spoke at the service and her reading is below. To some religious people, it may seem cold and without the hope and optimism you tend to hear at these times. But to me, it’s realistic, honest, and beautiful:

Couple of days before Matt died.

Just off the phone with mom, who says the news is bad. The kids are in the bath, they wash their bodies with soap. The smell of the soap, their small bodies, soap over skin over muscles over bones. I wash their hair, the feeling of their hair under my fingertips, follicles growing like trees. Their eyes look up at me, their eyes connected to brains, lumps of cells interconnected a billion times, interconnected with my brain. They get out of the bath and I wrap the towels around them, warmth against the cold. Caterpillars curl up in cocoons. My hands are on the towels. They’re mother’s hands, bringers of warmth. The towel is soft. I pull clean clothes out of the dryer and Caleb jumps naked on the couch with joy. “Warm clothes from the dryer!” he shouts. Warm clothes from the dryer, his clothes, which we bring for him because we are animals that love.

Matt lies in his bed in his own bones and skin, the same as mine and yours and the children’s. His eyes open and close, open and close. His mouth makes words by pressing on the air, just like Caleb did on the couch, and that air floats to my ears, where it shakes my eardrums and lights up my brain. My tongue pushes the air around in my mouth, which shakes Matt’s eardrums in return.

I massage Matt’s foot and it feels soft in my hands. Dad’s hands are on Matt’s other foot, moving slowly. I see the veins in Dad’s hands, ferrying blood around. Chimpanzees are grooming each other somewhere. I run my knuckles up and down Matt’s instep, and his eyes are closed. The nerves run up from his feet, through the sacrum where they thread past cancer cells, to his head, where they announce the foot rub, and it feels good. Bears scratch their backs on tree trunks, and it feels good. Giedre kisses Matt’s forehead, and it feels good.

Matt’s eyes look at mine while he talks. I can see the fear. It makes my heart jump and my brain fill with empathy, and love, and anger, and despair, and irritation, and fatigue. My limbs are filled with lead, and ladybugs crawl around on the walls.

To be a humanist, to value humanity, to see us all as creatures and to revere that. To see that helping Matt in his last days with the disgusting and poetic details, that is human, that is ancient, that is bestial. To push a child out of your body is human and ancient and bestial too. To raise that child, to connect him with others, to feel the rush of love. And then to watch him wither and die, and to grieve for his body and his mind. To grieve for how he lived and thought and pushed the air around, and ran and slept and laughed and wrote computer code.

Seahorses swim upright in tall sea grasses. Octopuses fold their boneless bodies into tiny spaces. Humans love one another.

We think Matt’s death comes out of turn, out of order, but it hasn’t really. The seahorse watches its babies die, just like the lioness and the octopus and the ladybug. Baby creatures lose their parents. Creatures mourn, and struggle, and sometimes live and sometimes die. There you have it.

We’re on this rock, falling through the space that’s curved around our sun. The sun gives light, which gives life, which makes us. No one, no one, no one can say why this happens. To ask why it happens is nonsensical, it makes me laugh, it makes Matt laugh. We two mammals in a hospital room, Matt and I, raise our heads and expel air from our lungs in short vocalized bursts. Lovely neurotransmitters race through our brains, and we feel good. We are large mammals, megafauna. We are megafauna in a hospital room momentarily enjoying the absurdity of being megafauna in a hospital room.

No one, no one, no one can say that this is meaningless, that this rock — with its creatures with their vocalizing lungs and their eyes that meet – that being part of this rock isn’t worth it. Matt — that particular sac of water and chemicals – is part of it. When that sac loses its electrical impulses for the last time, we will pick him up and we will remember him, like Neanderthals, like hyenas, like octopuses, like people.

In the hospital room it is difficult to stay in this frame of mind. Matt won’t have it. He doesn’t want curved space or sea horses, he wants distraction with American Idol and trying to remember Napoleon’s campaigns. In this situation, chocolate is necessary.

Matt will die, yes, and the rest of the family will live, until the day we lie in bed with our withering bones and skin, pushing the air around and piercing the hearts of the other two-legged animals in our hospital rooms.

Matt will die, yes, but there will always be children in baths being washed by their mothers, there will always be octopuses, there will always be eardrums, there will always be warm clothes straight from the dryer. There will always be space curved around the sun and there will always be sadness and chimpanzees and absurdity and eye contact and love. That is what we have, and it is plenty.

I didn’t know Matt, but he was clearly a man close to his family and loved by so many, including his wife and two daughters. He’ll be remembered for generations to come. You can see pictures of him here.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Lisa

    Hemant, it’s too early in the morning to make me cry. That was incredibly touching, and anyone who thinks it was cold is missing the point.

  • Jennifer

    nods in agreement with Lisa

  • This is farrrrr from being cold. I would consider this close to my ideal funeral. Something that focuses on the life and accomplishments, not hoping that he gets to float in the sky and not burn in the earth

  • I have a tear in my eye.

  • Seeker

    “Be remembered with love” has been proven redundant. This is too touching to be cold.

  • Allison

    Sakura- thanks for the giggle (sorry, I think religion is funny sometimes)My funeral will hopefully be similar.

    I think it was very touching. Deep.

  • Joseph R

    To the Miller family, from a fellow human animal: I am sorry for your loss.

  • Sarah TX

    It’s beautiful. I teared up at Kate’s reading and the program as well. So much love and acceptance and, yes, hope.

    It looks like Matt was writing a book? “Facing Cancer Without God”. I’d love to read it, if it could be finished.

  • Carlie

    How can that seem cold to anyone with a heart? It made me cry.

  • Nankay

    Several years ago at my grandma’s funeral I was wrestling with my 18 month old daughter– a very happy and “chatty” toddler. I moved to the back of the room and kept shushing and trying to distract her, but eventually those around me began to smile and chuckle a bit. The minister stopped talking and said from the lectern, “No, let her go. Those happy noises are a wonderful reminder that though a life has ended, LIFE goes on!”

  • A celebration of life and of human connection, regardless of what you believe regarding afterlife, could hardly be called cold. I agree with Lisa — far too early in the morning to be this teary. Thank you (and Kate) for sharing.

  • Perfect. Every brother should have a sister like Kate.

  • Mike

    Absolutely beautiful. I am keeping this on hand to help explain humanism.

  • JulietEcho

    Reading this made me cry too. I’ve lost friends who were fellow atheists and humanists, and yes, there’s a cold feeling involved, knowing that they’re gone. But knowing that the effects of their lives are still here, and that the world they loved is still here has to be enough.

  • Ed

    Really, really, beautiful. Thanks so much for sharing this. I am reminded of Mark Strand and his book length poem Dark Harbor in which he writes:

    It is a dreadful cry that rises up,
    Hoping to be heard, that comes to you
    As you wake, so your day will be spent

    In the futile correction of a distant longing.
    All those voices calling from the depths of elsewhere,
    From the abyss of an August night, from the misery

    Of a northern winter, from a ship going down in the Baltic,
    From heartache, from wherever you wish, calling to be saved.
    And you have no choice but to follow their prompting,

    Saving something of that sound, urging the harsh syllables
    Of disaster into music. You stare out the window,
    Watching the build-up of clouds, and the wind whipping

    The branches of a willow, sending a rain of leaves
    To the ground. How do you turn pain
    Into its own memorial, how do you write it down,

    Turning it into itself as witnessed
    Through pleasure, so it can be known, even loved,
    As it lives in what it could not be

    Kate I’m sorry for your loss. I am also deeply thankful for the way you put down the beauty and pain of that loss into such a powerful memorial. We all suffer, but to see someone offer that acknowledgment and acceptance of suffering so freely and openly to others, is a great gift.

  • Very touching, tears formed.

    Then just went an read the funeral program for a relative of mine that died from Cancer a couple of weeks back, he is mentioned once…ONCE! In the whole fucking booklet, but guess who is mentioned…oh the loving caring God and Jesus. Makes me very mad.

  • Ed

    I did not get a chance to edit it into my earlier post so I am doing it here. Thanks to Matt’s family for agreeing to share the program for the service. The map and ways to remember Matt were so simple, honest, and heartfelt. Thank you for thinking of others at such a painful and deeply personal time.

  • Brian

    I hope someone reads something as wise and moving as that at my funeral.
    And oddly enough ‘Like Humans Do’ by David Byrne just came on. I’ve never heard it before, but it seems just like what I just read. Weird.

  • Amber

    It’s not even 8am and I’m already in tears. That was very beautiful.

  • Sunil D’Monte

    Thank you for sharing this Hemant, it’s beautiful. I was reminded of Ann Druyan’s moving epilogue in “Billions and Billions”, where she describes Carl Sagans death.

  • Hybrid

    To the Millers, I’m very sorry for your loss.

    “I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man’s place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.”
    -Bertrand Russell

  • Drew

    There is genius and extraordinary understanding in the author of this simple, yet profound prose.

    Show of hands if you copied/pasted. 🙂 I predict this will show up at a few funerals one day. As well it should.

  • Hieronymous

    Great. Now I’m bawling in the middle of a beautiful sunny day. I’ve always hated death. Even as a child, I never believed the promises of an afterlife. My condolences to Kate and her family.

  • Brian C Posey

    This was clearly a beautiful service.

    It is strange to feel the loss of someone you have never met.

  • Rachel

    How beautiful.

  • That was beautiful. I’m crying my eyes out. May Matt’s family take solace from the fact that the cancer can’t hurt him anymore and he will be alive and pain free in their hearts until they die.

  • JT

    Thank you Matt for my new favorite quote:
    “bullshit is probably one of the least appreciated art forms.”

  • Staceyjw

    Thanks for the post, and I am glad to see I’m not the only one in tears (which is very rare indeed).

    Its amazing how mere words can capture so much feeling.

  • Canadiannalberta

    I found this far more touching and loving than any religious funeral. I wish Matt’s family well through this.

  • muggle

    Beautiful. Simply beautiful.

    Nothing could do his life greater service.

  • Julia

    I wish I could have honoured my brother so beautifully.

  • Flail

    I hope to god (pardon the expression) that my funeral is someday as loving and amazing as this one appears to have been. Cheers to a man that obviously lived life well! Absolutely beautiful.

  • Zak

    Ultimately Matt will live on. The fact that people remember him is true eternal life. Something I wish theists could grasp.

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