The Wrong Person to Perform an Atheist’s Funeral April 21, 2010

The Wrong Person to Perform an Atheist’s Funeral

There’s a public radio show in Canada, hosted by Jonathan Goldstein, called WireTap.

In a recent episode, Adam Davidson (of NPR’s Planet Money podcast) told a story about how his atheist family hired a Baptist minister for his atheist grandmother’s funeral. They told him the family was not religious.

You can guess what happened next…

There was essentially a fire-and-brimstone service in which he said the grandmother would be going to hell.

During the episode, Goldstein and Davidson call that minister up to ask why he did that. You get to hear the entire conversation.

Afterwards, they share their conclusions. Perhaps not the same conclusions you thought you would hear…

You can download the episode by clicking here and searching for “How to Say Goodbye.” Or you can directly download the MP3.

(Thanks to Duncan for the link!)

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  • Wow, that is harsh. Thanks for sharing!

  • Jamie

    Sick. Something similar recently with my mother’s funeral, which was family only. She was a lifelong devout Baptist, but ALWAYS taught us to be tolerant and accepting of the choices of others. She may have believed in an afterlife, but let her children choose for themselves what we believe. The family is filled with believers of ALL kinds of faiths, as well as apathetic, atheistic and GDIs.

    We made quick plans because family had come to be with her on her last day of life. On the recom from someone in her church, a minister was arranged. After he tried to witness to me on the phone, I told him in no uncertain terms what my mother stood for, and that this service was in her honor.

    He gave a sermon that was laughable and REALLY inappropriate in which he told a graphic story about a dog that mauls an innocent kitten to death, and described the possibility that the kids’ grandma could come back for them if they believed in Jesus. My kids just looked at me like he was crazy, which he was!

    Two good things came from this: it brought home just how rare my mother was among hardcore fundamentalists. It also broke up the spiral of grief during the ceremony and helped us all find comfort together in making fun of the guy.

    Not what he wanted, but that’s what you get when you venture into the strange waters of diversity!

  • Eliza

    Is the atheist family so far removed from religion they forgot the negative reputation of Baptists? They couldn’t find a UU minister or relaxed Presbytarian pastor, maybe? Why have any religious official at funerary services? Of course the Baptist couldn’t be counted on to soothe a grieving family but to take the opportunity to condemn and castigate. As the old adage goes, Morality is doing what is right no matter what you are told. Religion is doing what you are told no matter what is right.

  • I’m puzzled as to why they got a minister at all.

  • Deiloh

    My non-religious grandmother’s funeral was pretty bad thanks to my nutty uncle’s choice in ministers… but it wasn’t THAT bad.

  • Karmakin

    Different forms of language, but that sort of service is basically my standard funeral experience.

    The only exception is that they’ll make out very casual religious folks to be the most committed religious person in the world.

  • codemenkey

    it was a bad decision. that’s all.

  • For anyone who’s interested, you can also grab the podcast through iTunes at

  • This makes me even more happy to live in predominantly atheist state, where there are special funeral domes deducated to say last goodbyes during a gathering for which you can easily get professional atheist funeral speaker… It is also quite a good business, I am surprised that you don’t have this choice in US. Next time try to check some Czech/Bohemian/Moravian descendants’ area instead of baptists.

  • This minister doesn’t seem to think very highly of people.

    ::keeps listening:: Oh FFS, Pascal’s Wager.

    In general, I think that if you are going to ask for services from clergy, you probably ought to expect some sermonizing. I agree with Adam that the guy basically did his job; we just think his job is obnoxious.

  • Nakor

    Perhaps it was a poor show on behalf of the minister, but it was a much poorer choice by the family. If it were truly impossible to find someone who could handle the funeral in a truly secular fashion, they could at least have chosen a minister who was moderate and would be willing to handle the funeral in a relatively secular fashion.

    While I would prefer an atheist funeral (far, far down the road please!), had I no choice but to choose a minister, the one from my former church would be fine. He always made it more about the family and the person themselves than religion. He’s retired now, though.

  • grazatt

    I can’t listen to the audio now, can someone tell me why they got that minister in the first place? Why not a Unitarian minister?

  • jtradke

    In the midst of grief, you’re not at your ideal decision-making status. That’s probably why they didn’t think to get a Unitarian minister. They maybe just used the first suggestion anybody had, or whatever the funeral home recommended.

    This is why people should think about these things ahead of time, both for themselves and their loved ones.

  • NewEnglandBob

    This is incredibly stupid. Davidson and his family were idiotic in their actions and the preacher is a disgusting piece of garbage for what he spewed.

  • Houndies

    i dont understand why an atheist family would even want to hire a minister for a funeral. what the heck were they thinking?

  • muggle

    Why on Earth would you hire a Baptist minister?

  • Noophy

    You guys do realize this is a radio show right? It has writers, producers, etc. I have not listened to this one yet, but love wiretap and it’s a comedy show.

    On a side note, always felt sorry for Americans and their not having a CBC or BBC. Your public radio always has those annoying pledge drives…

  • David D.G.

    I’m guessing that the family hired a minister to speak at the funeral because:

    (1) Ministers are trained at public speaking. (It’s not as easy as it sounds, believe me, especially for a half an hour or so.)

    (2) That’s the sort of person who usually handles funeral speaking, and thus has experience at it.

    The problem is that we don’t yet have a widely recognizable group of people (in the U.S., anyway) who can be expected to do this sort of thing who aren’t ministers. And believe it or not, a lot of people want a sermon at their loved one’s funeral (or even at their own, as my fundie late companion did), so a minister may have had little negative feedback from his funerary experience; if his style has worked before, he would be inclined to continue giving the same kind of service.

    Also, the very “calling” of ministers often runs counter to doing what this minister was asked to do: laud someone whose beliefs clashed with his own. However, that doesn’t excuse his actions in the slightest; if he had a problem with giving a properly respectful memorial service, no matter what he thought personally of the deceased, he should have declined to take the gig.

    ~David D.G.

  • Greg

    Er… if people don’t understand why they had a minister, they could always listen to the half hour clip linked in the post.

    Just a thought.

    ::whistles innocently::


    When my grandfather died, we had what we called a celebration of his life – where we did things with strong links to him – he was a keen musician for example -, some of us gave speeches – his two children, my father and my aunt, led the ‘service’, and there wasn’t a religious part to it at all. This worked well, but this was in Ireland, and in the main, being an atheist doesn’t raise an eyelid. Plus we were all English, so whoever would have ostracised us for it, had already…

    Even in Ireland, we were marked out as being odd by this ceremony, and many of the people who attended (friends of his) said that they felt they were trespassing upon a very personal family event. (Reading between the lines, some didn’t think it was a ‘proper’ funeral ;))

    So although they were planning on something similar, I can well understand why they decided to go for the religious service.

    I have to say, I wasn’t surprised by the talk at the end of the interview – it was a year and a half after the event, plus my cynical part remembers that people generally want to appear empathic, thoughtful, forgiving, and reasonable in public.

  • nankay

    The grandma lived in a very small town (options were limited). One of the uncles nixed the idea of having people just gather and share stories. Thought it would get tongues wagging and really didn’t want to be known as “the son who gave his mother that weird funeral”. The minister seemed cool and accepting at 1st meeting, but let it rip at the funeral.

  • Siamang

    I’d like to ask the guy if I could be allowed to run the service at his grandmother’s funeral… and what he’d like me to say, versus what I might say as an atheist.

    I’d also ask the guy why he didn’t let us know UP FRONT that this would be a fire and brimstone service.

    I’d probably let him know that, for being a major jerk to me, I might just show up at HIS funeral and introduce myself as his longtime gay partner “Chad”.

  • ursulamajor

    My mother was an atheist and I gave her eulogy at the funeral. It was a nice refection on her life and the on lives she touched. At the end I simply stated that though she wasn’t religious, I knew some attending were, so I asked for a moment of reflection. Then my son sang her favorite love song. Simple. She would have approved.

  • I honestly can’t believe no-one confronted the minister at this funeral. I don’t think any amount of proprietary could stop me shouting this madman of hellfire down.

  • baiskeptic

    I guess this is a lesson then. I wonder if this could be a solution:

    Ministers are likely to believe that they are good people and might be unlikely to lie if you ask a direct question. I wonder what would have happened if they had asked up front if this guy would do a funeral without such imagery. I would guess most decent people would admit it if they could not comply.

    Of course, grief makes it more difficult to think of such questions.

  • I’m at a loss to understand how anyone claiming to be rational could be angry with or blame the preacher.
    This funeral scenario is analogous to rubbing oneself down with a pork chop, going for a swim in shark infested waters and then once being attacked by sharks, indignantly proclaiming what bastards sharks are.
    These people see life through a completely different set of lenses than you or I do. To expect someone who is irrational, illogical and deluded to behave in a rational manner is itself irrational, illogical and deluded.
    The guy was set up to fail. How fair was that?

  • plutosdad

    Actually according to the interview the pastor never said she would go to hell, the guy says he “wondered” if the pastor was thinking it, but didn’t say “hey you atheists are damned.” Even in the interview the pastor refuses to say either way.

    Secondly, he says he is atheist but he tells the pastor he is Jewish, and says they are “diverse.” So even when confronting the pastor he still was not completely honest, so who knows what they said during the initial interview and if they made their requests known.

    Just listen to the pastor when he says he cannot even conceive of living without a sense of “the divine.” Totally different lense. If they were not specific and said “we want you to do this specifically” he could have said no upfront or suggested a different pastor who would.
    I am not sure that conversation ever happened.

  • plutosdad

    hmm i think it might have been the interviewer who said he was jewish 🙂

  • Parse

    I can understand being upset, and rightfully so. On the other hand, they did invite a Baptist minister to do the service, and they got exactly what was on the box.

    I would argue that the polite thing for the minister to do would have been to inform the people who contacted him the sort of sermon he’d give. If you know the family or at least the person who contacted you, you’d expect them to know what you’d deliver. But being contacted out of the blue, he should have given them some sort of advanced warning.

  • Xena

    To cover for the possibility of just such a disaster at my funeral, I’ve instructed my next of kin about my wishes. There will be a full drag show, with the best female impersonators on the continent. NO BLACK UNIFORMS. Reds, golds and electric everything on the colour scale. Tucking is to be fully optional. Singing will be mandatory. No pastors allowed. But if a recognized religious official is a legal requirement at a funeral, I may consent to allow a pagan priestess to howl at Artemis or Hern for me. I mean, If my loved ones are to be pressured into allowing the irrational into their goodbyes anyway, there are pagan deities that are so much cooler than any stodgy impotent late comer sky father 😉

  • Lorien

    No ceremony when I stop. I would like a party instead!

    Love that call centre skit at the end…..

  • gerryfromktown

    Umm … this is a comedy radio show. I think you have all been had.

    Try listening to the next episode on the same show, where Jonathon talks to his friends “friendship representative” (an outsourced friendship service offered by a call center in India).

  • I wonder if the sermon at the funeral was like this scene from the movie Cold Comfort Farm?

    Good old fashioned hell fire preaching!

  • Slickninja

    Oy, listening to this reminds me of personal story about a preacher at the death of my dad’s good friend directing religious messages at my atheist family. While its hard from the interview to piece it all together, it does happen.

    Just a quick summery of my story:

    The priest, We’ll call him, Matt Fox, which MAY or may not be his real name, the days before the funeral, collected stories about Bruce. Matt sat, laid back, listening to my Dad. My dad is a talky guy and Bruce being our neighbor for years, and my dad’s coworker and fishing buddy knew Bruce extremely well. Being a small town, and having a son my brother’s age, Matt Fox knew my family wasn’t religious.

    When it came to the sermon, he made jabs at my family, “Its not how good of a fishing buddy or how many toilets he fixed (referencing a story where my dad was out of town and fixed an exploding toilet for my mom), it’s that he accepted God”.

    There were several veiled insults and low blow jabs at my dad, and one other co-worker/friend of Bruce. Probably for the better, I attended a wedding and missed the sermon, as I’d had a few choice words for him.

  • idioteque

    Waitaminute… the family is atheist, and the now deceased grandmother was atheist. But they got a Christian minister to speak at the funeral? And a Baptist minister at that. Not too bright, that. What did the family expect the minister to do?

  • It makes me furious that the officiator at a funeral would do this. One did the same at my mother’s funeral and it still makes me angry. In my case the officiator we wanted wasn’t available but that shouldn’t matter. It is their job to find out what kind of service is wanted by the family and then to deliver it. It isn’t an excuse to preach or seek converts. That’s just rude. What is it about their religious beliefs that mean they can deliberately fail to respect my wishes or the wishes of the dead?

    My advice is to make sure you get a humanist officiator rather than just going along with the funeral home, hospice or hospital’s recommendations. It isn’t a good time for anyone and people tend to go along the easiest path without question. I know I did. This is the big send off though so you want to make sure it is done right and people are given a sense of relief rather than anger.

  • Pascal’s Wager XD

  • Tobytwo

    I listened to this program when it aired. I was disappointed in how the atheist guest conducted himself. He basically admitted he was weak, which is part of the reason they decided to get a minister for his atheist mother’s funeral in the first place (they didn’t want to be seen by others as the family who didn’t hold a church funeral for their mother).

    Then, despite being really angry about the fire-and-brimstone sermon, he avoided potential conflict by not confronting the minister about it after the funeral.

    Now, a year and a half later, he calls up the minister on a national radio show and fails yet again to actually confront the issue. He barely hints at his concern, and after the conversation he says something like, “I actually kind of like the guy.”

  • Jeff B.

    What, was Fred Phelps not available?

  • Xena

    @gerryfromktown, you are so right.

    How does Goldstein make somebody furious? He’s like Seinfeld spoofing Kafka. Surreal, neurotic secular Jewish irony. If anybody can find his schtick on global warming starring Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble, please post it. It’s a classic.

    Has he ever done a show where he tried to have phone sex and turned into a giant insect instead?

  • To those suggesting UU ministers as the obvious alternative, a word of caution: My father-in-law was an avowed non-believer. (He called himself an agnostic, but in the philosophical sense (ie like Bertrand Russell), not in the fence-sitter sense.) When he died, my husband and I, though Christians at the time, were determined to give him a godless funeral. We arranged with the local Unitarian fellowship to provide an officiant, however, his task was pretty much just to run the skeleton of the service – we selected all the readings and put together the music etc. We also told him in no uncertain terms that there should be no god talk and no prayers. Most of it went very well, until the very end, when we were very unpleasantly surprised to hear him ask the gathering to bow our heads for a closing prayer.

  • JSug

    I want a speaker for the dead at my funeral.

  • MattK

    Although several commenters have pointed out that wiretap is at least a mostly fictional show, I suspect that the funeral segment was true. I think this because the guest is from American public radio (i.e., not a recurring character and not advancing character developement) and because the style of the segment doesn’t fit with the rest of the show.

  • BlueRidgeLady

    I don’t think half the people who commented actually listened to the interview. It was explained very clearly why a pastor was chosen, and the guy also said it was a huge mistake.

    It should have been made very clear how the service was going to be.

    And what happened to class, tact, and “love thy neighbor” and all that? This guy isn’t a good example for Christians and if “heaven” is full of people like that then count me out.

  • 1984

    Judgmental Christians… how surprising 🙂

  • JustSayin’

    Well, having grown up attending a Baptist church, and years later having frequented a Pentecostal one, I’m sad to report that this is usually how a funeral goes. (Hence the Southern phrase, “He really preached my funeral,” meaning that someone was really made to know how very much in the wrong he or she has been.) The funny thing is, having been raised up in this culture, the realization of how strange it must seem to the rest of the world didn’t hit me until I was in my late teens. As I got older and began to question my own religious beliefs (and later, belief in general), I became really annoyed by the fact that fundamentalists not only preach at funerals, but very often have altar calls at them! They’ll ask nonbelievers to give their hearts to Jesus and come forward, just as if it were Sunday night church. It’s so obviously inappropriate, but to their minds, there could be no better opportunity: a pretty-much captive audience forced to confront their own mortality head-on. They see it as a win-win scenario for witnessing for Jesus.

    On another note, I second what Tobytwo wrote above. Although he and his family really shouldn’t have been surprised by the minister’s behavior (after all, it’s just what they do), the guy on the program led us to think he was going to confront the good Rev over the phone, but he just wimped out once the call was made. I find it hard to believe this guy’s a serious journalist, if he’s that milquetoast in every aspect of his life. Perhaps he should have had his admittedly confrontational, in-your-face atheist father make the call. Might’ve made for a much more interesting segment!

  • Alma

    Does anyone have a suggestion for a speaker at a funeral? My husband is not in good health, and I don’t know how long he will last. Within the past 2 years, I have deconverted from Christianity, so I no longer have a church. One of the things I worry about is who I would ask to speak at his funeral. I realize friends often say something nice, but to count on someone to be the main speaker is not reasonable. I don’t have much “funeral experience.” Can one hire a speaker? Does anyone have a suggestion? I live in the Kansas City area.

  • weddrev

    I came across this site looking for help for a friend who has been asked to perform a funeral service for an atheist.

    I am glad so many here realize that the fault lays partially with the family. Telling this minister that he was to speak to a group of ‘non-believers’ was like dangling fresh meat in front of a hungry bear.

    I am an independent, non-denominational minister specializing in clerical rites. I perform these rites according to the specs of the couple/individual/family. My beliefs are part of what makes me who I am, but you will choose me as your officiant because you like & trust me. The majority of my ceremonies/services are civil/secular in nature. I have yet to hit anyone over the head with a Bible. 😉

    For those of you in need of someone to perform your marriage or funeral, please go online & search in your area for such a person. Meet with that person so you know what you’re getting.
    We are out there.

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