Ask Richard: Anticipating a Religious Funeral for a Gay Secular Humanist October 24, 2011

Ask Richard: Anticipating a Religious Funeral for a Gay Secular Humanist

Last week, an old college friend of mine died. He was only 32 years old. When I met him, he was a Christian and over the course of our friendship, he became a Secular Humanist. He also came out of the closet as a gay man. His family is still really religious and I have been in contact with his super religious brother who is putting together the funeral arrangements. My friend was open about his lack of belief in a deity and his sexual orientation, but I have a feeling that his family is going to have a religious funeral for him and push his sexual orientation under the carpet. If this does happen, should I call attention to these facts about my friend? And if so, to what degree?

Looking forward to your advice,
– Missing my friend

Dear Missing,

A funeral should be about people feeling their sorrow, comforting each other, and taking from it some memory of the best of the deceased, something about him to apply to their own lives, to put into practice, to keep his positive influence alive in them, so that his legacy consists of several people who are somehow better for having known him, and in turn, others will somehow be better for having known them.

A funeral is for the living, and usually several of them are hurting badly. The dead don’t care. If some of your friend’s family members want to say things to each other that are not accurate about him, and they want to avoid saying things to each other that are accurate about him, they’re doing that to take care of their own feelings. Not everyone there will necessarily be entirely like his super religious brother, with whatever are his motives. Rather than being focused on telling or hiding accurate things about your friend, they probably will simply be focused on their grief.

I can feel only empathy for their grief, and my instinct is to leave them alone with their illusions. If they’re uncomfortable thinking about some of the things their religion implies about him, the funeral is not the time to rub their noses in it, nor the place to debate the rightness of their position. There are more appropriate forums for that. Let people who are in pain have their meager comforts, even if those comforts are nothing but the whispers of wishes.

You might be thinking that if your friend’s family launders the truth about his beliefs and his sexuality, that that will be a dishonor to him. Perhaps it is in some intellectual sense, but as I said, he doesn’t care. The indignation would be yours to feel, not his, and perhaps you have something more important to do, more worthy to do:

He was a secular humanist, presumably with humanist values. This is your opportunity to make his humanism the part of him that you decide to keep alive in yourself. To practice the best of his humanism in that situation, practice compassion for everyone in the room, rather than correcting the hypocrisy of a few.

You knew him, and you cared about him, and you accepted him just as he was, every step of the way as he went through the upheaval of losing his faith and gaining his clarity. Then you were there for him again as he came out, taking the daunting steps of losing his learned shame and gaining his natural dignity. You have already stood up for him, because you stood by him when he was alive.

If you want to talk about him at the funeral, talk about the gifts from him that you will take with you. Mention his beliefs and his sexuality if they are part of the story about his admirable qualities, rather than turning them into a public disagreement or denouncement of his family’s beliefs.

If you want to speak more frankly about him, perhaps you could organize an informal gathering of his other friends at some place that he would have enjoyed. Let his gay friends, his secular humanist friends, his simply open and accepting friends, and even his more open and accepting relatives meet to share their grief, to comfort each other, to take something of him to make their own, and to keep it alive by the way they live.

Please accept my condolences for your sadness in losing your friend. I think he was very fortunate in life to have had a thoughtful, considerate, and caring friend like you.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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  • Ubi Dubium

    Richard, as always, you are spot on.  As I was reading the letter, the first thought I had was that it would be better to hold a separate non-religious gathering for friends some other place and time, and to let his religious family grieve in their own way.  And that’s exactly what you suggested. 

    The only real issue I could see coming up is if the religious family were to ask our writer to participate in some religious aspect of their funeral service, like a bible reading or something.

  • I disagree. Too many people pretend that people aren’t what they were. Every time some out gay person has their sexuality covered up at a funeral it makes it slightly more likely that some little boy or girl will be one of those terrible suicides. Of course if your friend was gay that should be made clear at his funeral. Funerals may be for the living but they aren’t an excuse for lies.  

    The obvious way to talk about this sort of thing in a way that both gets the truth out and respects your friend is to simply tell his life story. He no doubt how had a difficult journey. Tell that story and let people understand why it matters.

    There’s a disclaimer necessary: my ideas about funerals may  be slightly loopy given that I’ve strongly considered having a Speaker of the Dead at my funeral. (Yes, the fact that Card is a bigotted asshole is ironic in this context.) 

  • Anonymous

    Hmm I mostly agree but….

    I think part of the answer depends on who is going to this funeral. Are you one of only a few friends invited by the family? If so I would say that Richard’s advice is spot-on: funerals are for the comfort of the living, so your behavior should be non-disruptive. Is it fucking maddening that they can’t get past their bigotry even in the face of his death? Oh yeah. However try to remember that, if they really are “deeply religious”, accepting that he was an atheist gay man means accepting that he’s in Hell, which I don’t really expect they’re prepared to do, much less at his funeral.

    A somewhat less likely possibility is that his family is one of many different groups there. You don’t mention if he had a boyfriend/husband? If there are going to be a sizable group of people grieving there who accepted him for the Humanist gay man he was, they will undoubtedly notice the denial of his true identity, and this could add to their grief, especially if a former partner is there. In that particular case, assuming you are given the chance to speak, a discrete but unmistakable reference to his true identity during the course of the speech would serve as comfort to the accepting people there that at his funeral someone at least honored him for the man he really was.

  • Anonymous

    I never thought of having a Speaker of the Dead at an actual funeral. My preference is for an eco-funeral with maybe a tree planted on top of the carbon I’m not using anymore, but there’s no reason an Andrew Wiggin couldn’t be incorporated.

    Finding out that Orson Scott Card was a rabid homophobic bigot broke my heart. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to see the novels the same way again.

  • Rich Wilson

    A funeral should be about people feeling their sorrow

    Keep in mind that that might include others who are in closets.  I’m all for the funeral being for the living, not the dead.  But don’t forget to be loud enough for the people in the closets to hear you, and gain comfort in knowing that they are not alone.

  • TychaBrahe

    By the same argument, no one should care that Commander Lightoller was portrayed as a violent jerk and a hothead in Cameron’s “Titanic,” instead of the hero that he was, grimly keeping Collapsible B afloat all night.  Lightoller, after all, is dead, along with all of the men whom he saved through his bravery and determination.

    On the other hand, it’s just absolutely wrong.

  • WebHybrid

    Having been faced with a very similar situation years ago, I too must respectfully disagree with Richard.

    I had a longtime friend, a gay man who’d ‘escaped’ from a Latin American, rabidly Catholic family. At the age of 20 and speaking no English, he’d immigated all by himself to the USA and managed to lead a wonderful life filled with learning. Though quite spiritual, he remained decidedly nonreligious. As far as I knew, he hadn’t stepped foot in a Catholic church in the 23 years I knew him.

    Nonetheless his [also gay] brother arranged a Catholic cathedral funeral ceremony. Had we known the same person?

    I – another gay man – was reluctant to attend, to say the least. But I did, and I provided everyone there with beautiful photos of the deceased as a youth and a mature adult. Along the lines advocated here, though, I kept my mouth shut about the obvious falsehoods and disconnects being (pardon the wording) enshrined in this spectacle. 

    What I have to contribute now, years later, is that the regret at standing idly by while a beloved friend was so grossly misrepresented will always bother me.

    I say, tell the truth, some way/somehow. A few feathers get ruffled? Too bad. 

  • This letter should be a wake up call to atheists. Take care of the plans for your funeral now or the event may get co-opted by the religious. Who in their right mind would want to give aid and support to the religio-industrial complex by allowing such absurdity at their final goodbye?

  • MPanz

    I must also disagree.  If ” a funeral should be about people feeling their sorrow,” then a funeral should also be about people being truthful about why they are sorry.  If they are sorry their loved one is gone, and their loved one was a Secular Humanist, they should not pretend he was anything but that.  Indeed, a funeral is not to mourn the fictional versions of people, but of reflecting on the truth of those lives as best we can.

  • Brian Emond

    I think as the comments demonstrate here is that there’s a real important need for people to express to the closest friends and loved ones what their desires are regarding their funeral arrangements, especially if they hold significant cultural or religious differences to their immediate family.  In that regard, if it was your friend’s desire for his funeral to be completely secular, or for some words or stories to be told about his sexual orientation, atheism or other life choices, then you would be absolutely in your right to push for these at his funeral, even insist it. 

  • Anonymous

    I agree that funerals are for the living, but both the living and the dead are disrespected when funeral organizers tell fundamental lies about the person.    Furthermore, if you have to rewrite someone’s history to love them, then your love doesn’t count for much. 

    I’m not saying it’s worth it to disrupt the actual service when the lies begin, because it won’t comfort anyone to have the funeral disrupted. Still, unless the family is actively blocking attendance by the people who sincerely loved the entire person, there are going to be people there who would be comforted to hear what the truth actually was.  If I were “Missing,” I’d look for non-confrontational opportunities to share who his friend actually was. 

  • SJH

    Are you suggesting that a person should ruffle the feathers of others so as to avoid getting their own feathers ruffled?
    I agree with Richard. It is not the time or the place at a funeral. Let people grieve in a way that they want to grieve. There will be time in the future to bring up concerns.
    If a group of people want to remember someone in a particular way then what is the problem with that. They may have disagreed with something which that person was involved with so they do not want to remember that. None of us are perfect and we all have disagreements as to what is appropriate behavior and what is not. Perhaps my family won’t want to memorialize something about me. Perhaps you won’t want to memorialize that a member of your family was very religious. 
    Simply respect others as you would want to be respected.

  • SJH

    I agree that too many people pretend that other people are not what they were however there are also those who simply disagree with their actions. What if the people at the funeral actually believed that being gay was an inappropriate lifestyle. To them, they are not necessarily hiding the fact that he was gay but simply not mentioning it because they want to remember the things that they agreed with. I am sure when I die, my wife is not going to get up in front of everyone and say how lazy or selfish I was. She disagreed with those attributes and therefor will forgo mentioning them as to show respect for the values she holds dear even if I loved being lazy. What is wrong with that?

  • WebHybrid

    I am saying that if somebody’s feathers get ruffled by the truth, it’s their problem; an adult accepts the consequences of his own follies, denials, and delusions.

    The perpetuation of falsehoods isn’t respectful – at all.

  •  I want to thank Brother Richard for his advice. He e-mailed it to me last week so that I would have it in time for the funeral. There was some minor mention of my friend’s lack of belief which was used in an attempt to convert his friend who were there. I don’t recall any mention of him being gay during the funeral but one of his aunts came over to us afterward and she talked about his “persuasion” with us. Here is my account of what happened:

    I did push to organize a lunch afterward with his other friends and we did have a great time. Thanks Richard for the advice, it really meant a lot to me. I am usually the one giving the advice, but sometimes when one is too close to a situation it helps to get advice from others.  

  • SJH

    What if they disagree with what is a falsehood? You can respect that they have the capacity to disagree and are potentially correct given that none of us are perfect and all-knowing. Perhaps there is a nugget of truth in their opinion with which you disagree.

  • Perhaps the family is trying to sneak him into heaven past the inquisitor at the pearly gates (or Jesus on the thrown… whatever their conception). Or perhaps they find it awkward and embarrassing that a person in their family turned out gay and non-theistic… According to their belief system, they must have raised him wrong… how else would someone turn out gay or non-religious… That is what they are really grieving… Their supposed failure in raising him. Who he actually was as a person sometimes is secondary with this mindset.

    Having a second get-together for people who want to remember who he really was is a good idea. The main funeral can be for those coming to terms with the conflicts within their own belief system. The second get-together can be for friends and family who actually want to remember the person. Although, if you are asked to say some words at the main funeral, you should feel free to speak about who the person really was. If you are not asked, then no since disrupting the fantasy at the main funeral. Concentrate on the second get-together.

  • ACN

    Being lazy != being gay.

    What’s wrong is that your analogy is lazy.

  • WebHybrid

    Too much value is placed on agreement and opinions. After all, everyone has an opinion. They are worthless, more or less.

    Whether or not this individual was gay was hardly subject to anyone’s opinion – he just was. Whether or not the Catholic church is kind to homosexuals is hardly a debate or a matter of agreeing or disagreeing; it’s been condemnatory and murderous at worst for centuries, repressive and warping at best. Whether or not this friend would have liked to be “welcomed back into the fold” as was literally done at the service is not all that questionable. The whole pompous fraud was an exercise for the brother.

    I was not proposing that I might or should have reprimanded the brother at the event or in front of any other people; I do regret that I did not question him before the funeral happened.

  • I’ve considered recording a video for my funeral – to say goodbye and to make it clear that I am not in heaven.

  • Rebecca Sparks

    Who’s grief comes first?  I feel like Dr Wade had assigned priority to the family because 1) Family>friends, 2)Family is paying for the funeral, and 3) there is many family to 1 friend.   So because of the combined weight of these feelings and connections, Missing is advised to keep his feelings. 
    Dr Wade might have given different advice if Missing was the friend’s lover (and funeral planner) and he was asking about the religious feelings of a single estranged uncle.
    Part of the oppression of gay (and atheist) people is that these statuses are deemed to be inappropriate in sensitive settings (like funerals).  Even though they might have close emotional ties like family, because of things like marriage not being an option, they don’t have that family connection.  They also  are often outnumbered and forced by this as well to squelch their personal feelings.   
    But as Richard Wilson said, we don’t know for sure that there is no family (or friends) who would be encouraged by a tactful, respectful nod to his gay or atheist leanings, as well as Missing.   I think you can and should acknowledge your friends inclinations, as long as you keep your behavior and remarks focused on honoring your friend, and are respectful to let others to grieve in their own way.

  • Ben

    If his family are organising the funeral and you’re just turning up, then I don’t think it’s right to be purposefully provocative. His family have the choice to remember him in their own way according to their own beliefs, even if that involves something you don’t agree with.

    One way to get around this is to ask his family first. It’s unlikely that they were involved in that part of his life, and so don’t really have anything to say about it. They might not specifically mention his sexuality, but to them he was just their son, not their gay son. Maybe they would appreciate one or more of his close friends getting up and talking about that part of his life.If that doesn’t go down well, why not hold your own memorial service for his close friends after the funeral? Let his parents remember him in their way then remember him in your own way.

  • Anonymous

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  • Anonymous

    I am very fortunate that both of my descendants are atheist and my devout wife would never consider a religious event appropriate for a non-believer. 

    Last year an apparently atheist neighbor’s family held a great memorial event in  our clubhouse, simply sharing great things about her. Everyone knows that is what I want. 

  • In this case, the family really didn’t even know my friend. He pretty much was estranged from them. Although he did start to communicate with them more recently. The family outnumbered the friends about 3 to 1. I took Brother Richard’s advice, but the funeral was super religious and the pastor actually tried to convert us as part of the funeral.

  • i can’t get a religious funeral because i’m not a member of church of sweden

  • “Let his parents remember him in their way then remember him in your own way.”

    What’s offensive is that his parents aren’t remembering him in their way.  They’re not remembering him at all. 

    They’re erasing him, and replacing him with the son they wish they had.

    Its vile.

    Letting them have their moment isn’t something you have to do because its morally right to let them have it.  Its something you have to do because the alternative is to lower yourself to their level.

  • Jeremy Diamond

    It’s not an exact analog — we’re talking family vs. craven opportunists — but reading this letter reminded me of Richard Tillman unloading at Pat Tillman’s funeral:

  • Anonymous

    What I have to contribute now, years later, is that the regret at standing idly by while a beloved friend was so grossly misrepresented will always bother me.


    I have to say, I’m growing a little weary of the “funerals are for the living, not for the dead” line.  There is some truth in that, but when (as WebHybrid) says, the dead person is being grossly misrepresented and ONLY because the still-living people want to inject their own beliefs into the service, it’s unconscionable, imo.  It’s almost being used as a free pass by people to do whatever the hell they want at a funeral, even if the person they’re coming together to remember and honour would vehemently disapprove.  

    I’m sorry, but that’s just egregiously disrespectful.   And imo, if you don’t care that what you’re doing is egregiously disrespectful to the person who’s passed, then you probably shouldn’t be at their funeral.

    It reminds me of the instances in which some politicians use the music of people like Tom Petty as part of their campaign, despite the fact that Petty doesn’t support them……

    luckily, Petty was still alive to tap them on the shoulder and say “uh, please stop using my music to endorse your campaign, I don’t agree with your views”

  • I was very tempted to do something like that. Or pull a Tony Danza. But there were other friends there who were closer to my friend than I and I felt that it was their prerogative. 

  • Anonymous

    Too many people pretend that people aren’t what they were. Every time some out gay person has their sexuality covered up at a funeral it makes it slightly more likely that some little boy or girl will be one of those terrible suicides. Of course if your friend was gay that should be made clear at his funeral. Funerals may be for the living but they aren’t an excuse for lies. 

    Beautifully said Joshua.

  • WebHybrid

    Thanks!! Couldn’t have – and didn’t – say it better myself.

  • Dan W

    Honestly I’d rather people at a funeral know the truth about the deceased, even if they have trouble accepting it. So I guess I disagree with Richard Wade on this one.

  • Ben

    And where in the OP does it say that the parents aren’t remember him at all? All the poster admitted to was some general fear that they might want a religious ceremony and  gloss over or not mention his sexuality at all. 

    I offered some advice urging at least a little diplomacy, given that the parents most likely weren’t a part of his personal life all that much, and at most a separate service.Like it or not, if the parents are paying for the funeral it’s their show. If they want to remain in denial even after his death that’s their choice, not yours or the OPs. If the OP feels a need to remember his/her friend in their own way, they’re most welcome to have their own memorial service on their own dollar. There is no reason to hijack the funeral to do so.

  • The Pint

    I felt the same way. Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead were two of the books that really influenced me as a young adult – I definitely attribute my growth to atheism and humanism because of reading them. I was shocked when I read Card’s rants against homosexuality and women’s equality as an adult. On the one hand, it definitely makes for a radically different interpretation when I go back to re-read them, but on the other hand, it’s also darkly amusing to know that whatever Card’s abhorrent personal views are, nevertheless, many of the people I know who’ve read those books came away influenced to be skeptical of authoritarianism and blind obedience to religion.

    However, I still love the idea of having someone Speak for me at my own funeral. I don’t want people to only know the “good parts” of me if they’re my friends while I’m alive – it’s like they’d only know half a person – and I see no reason why any of that should be glossed over when I die. It encourages me to live a life in which the things that I accomplish and am proud of will hopefully outnumber the mistakes I will also make.

  • Anonymous

    It’s amazing what fundamentalism will do. I’d go to a Mass for a dead friend and even read a prayer aloud, if that’s what I thought they would have wanted. It’s certainly not much, but I think it would give me comfort to carry out such a wish.

    But these people are so far gone that they would enthusiastically shit on his memory. You say in the post that the pastor railed against your friends beliefs and lamented the “god shaped hole in his heart”. So essentially the funeral was a final rant against your friend and his identity, with the advantage that since they were ranting against a dead body and a horrified group of friends, they couldn’t lose the argument. Trying to convert you during the funeral was beyond tasteless.

    I think I have to recant my previous opinion. In the face of such jaw-dropping disrespect, I think an open declaration of his happy life as a gay humanist would have been in order. It’s clear they were there to lament someone other than your friend. I’m glad his actual friends, who loved his actual person, were able to get together afterwards to remember the man he really was.

  • Normally, I am pretty vocal and I have to tell you that I seriously struggled with keeping my mouth shut. There was a big part of me that wanted to get out of my seat and walk up to the podium and really expose the rudeness and disrespect his family had shown. But I did take Richard’s advice and I didn’t want to speak for all his friends since I really didn’t know many of them. My friend was an old college friend and within recent years we really only talked about politics online. Some of his other friends were former roommates and others were much closer to him than I was. We were all mourning and some were obviously mourning more than I. Still, it infuriates me that his family acted in such a way and I really do think they should be made aware of just how inappropriate their behavior was. I am tempted to write the pastor a letter.

  • martha M.

    Don’t worry about his family.  If you and your friends want to morn him get together and morn him.  

    My husband is very religious.  I am not. I have no idea what I would do if he goes first. Probably just have a gathering at home. If religious friends want a gathering they can do their own.

  • Themiddleme

    Is it selfish to insist on talking about things that may make a great number of people at the funeral even more upset, or is it selfish to ignore aspects of the deceased’s life that shaped or defined him as a person? If there’s no life after death, then funerals are truly for the living and part of the grieving process. Allowing folks to hold onto a fantasy isn’t vile, in some ways it’s simply compassionate. They have to come to terms with their loved one’s true identity and it’s not like someone at a funeral who insists on bringing up upsetting things will change their minds. this situation deserves 2 funerals for each group of people and their beliefs.

  • PB

    I think Richard gave good advice. Funerals are not the time to be obnoxious, right or wrong. 
    What is with the hostility against the pastor and family? Like Richard said, he’s passed. If there is no God then he’s dead, unconscious, and doesn’t care. So why worry about it? If there is a God, he would desire people to be encouraged to think about their morality.

    Perhaps the pastor was really lambasting the deceased, and if so, that is inappropriate. But there’s no reason for people to be offended at Christians talking about Christ at a funeral, or even making an appeal for people to come to Christ. While they may have a motive of manipulation or “I just have to do this ’cause I’m supposed to” attitude, it’s more probable they just care about you. When people try to convert me to something, I’m only offended if they look at me as some sort of object to put in their bag. Others think of me as a person they care about and desire happiness for. I don’t know what the pastor in this case was doing, but it just so happens funerals I’ve attended like this have had deeply compassionate preachers.

    In any  case, thinking about death and its consequences or non-consequences is a healthy human practice.

  • Sounds like an awful experience. I honestly don’t know if I could handle going to a religious funeral. Aside from the fact that I find death rituals creepy, a funeral is meant to give people comfort. I wouldn’t feel any comfort knowing that a bunch of lies were being said about the deceased.

  • LauraBeck12

    My Dad is an experienced Social worker, Secular Humanist Chaplain for a hospital and humanist Officiant. He does all sorts of ceremonies including funerals and marriages of anyone and has years and years of experience.
    I make non-religious, faith-free funeral remembrance cards and sympathy card designs.Starting by looking up  Humanist officiants is helpful.If anyone ever needs help with ideas on how to make your non-religious ceremony special we are able to help.You can contact me at:

  • bruce boryla

    I do agree that part of the purpose of a funeral is helping the loved ones cope, but this should NEVER come at the expense of it’s primary purpose, honoring the dead. 

    It is not the dead’s job to comfort the living; it’s the living’s job to honor the dead.

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