Before Baptist minister Steve Holmes‘ grandmother died, she made a simple request: She didn’t want a religious funeral. Holmes led the service and respected her wishes, but he had a difficult time finding the right material:
Inevitably, I looked around for help; I’ve done enough liturgical work to know that there are always riches from which to borrow. That said, the Humanist material I discovered surprised me — although on reflection the problem was predictable. Like most contemporary ‘humanism’, it all failed rather badly to be nonreligious. I looked at half-a-dozen or more published patterns for a humanist funeral; every one borrowed central Christian texts, deleted the obvious references to God, and then used the filleted remains to shape the service… This of course reflects the reality — and the tedious banality — of too much contemporary Western atheism: take a philosophically-rich account of things; delete surface references to the divine; and assume that what is left will be meaningful or coherent or interesting. Nietzsche, the world hath need of thee…
Then, I thought he was going about this all wrong: He was trying to conduct a Christian funeral service — we know what those are like — without religious material, and that’s just not going to work. A lot of Humanist funerals aren’t just watered-down versions of a Christian event. They’re different beasts altogether. They’re celebrations. They focus on the life that was lived, not the afterlife that’s just beginning. So what Holmes was doing was trying to put a square peg through a round hole when he really should have been looking at a different board altogether.
But that’s all speculation.
I asked Rebecca Hensler, the founder of Grief Beyond Belief, what she thought of Holmes’ dilemma and she said this (via email):
Steve Holmes writes that he “looked around” for help in officiating a funeral without religion. But in reading his blog post, I can only come up with two possibilities:
The first is that he simply did not look very far. If, as he writes, “[He] looked at half-a-dozen or more published patterns for a humanist funeral; every one borrowed central Christian texts, deleted the obvious references to God, and then used the filleted remains to shape the service,” he somehow managed to miss the writing not only of modern secular authors such as Greta Christina and Hank Fox, but also the beautiful words of Robert G. Ingersoll, who wrote:
I had rather think of those I have loved, and lost, as having returned to earth, as having become a part of the elemental wealth of the world — I would rather think of them as unconscious dust, I would rather dream of them as gurgling in the streams, floating in the clouds, bursting in the foam of light upon the shores of worlds, I would rather think of them as the lost visions of a forgotten night, than to have even the faintest fear that their naked souls have been clutched by an orthodox god.
I will leave my dead where nature leaves them…
The other possibility is less flattering to Holmes: he simply set up his projection of Humanist funeral readings as a straw man to knock down with blather about the “defiant, rebellious joy of a Christian funeral.” He didn’t try to find any of the awesome nonreligious writings that have become familiar to those of us who serve grieving nonbelievers, such as Aaron Freeman’s oft-requested, “You want a physicist to speak at your funeral…” (actual title: “Planning Ahead Can Make a Difference in the End“) or Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Dirge Without Music.”
The thing is, we nonbelievers could play the same trick regarding religious funerals. Were I to describe religious funerals I have attended, I could choose the Baptist funeral of an Oakland drag queen, full of music and love and passion, or the Baptist funeral where the eulogy had nothing to do with the deceased and everything to do with Jesus, But I am not interested in playing that game; each funeral, secular or religious, is different. Or should be.
If her latter point is true, I don’t think Holmes did that consciously. But I don’t think it’s that hard to find good secular material for traditionally religious occasions. When I got married, the hardest part about putting together the ceremony script wasn’t the lack of options but choosing our favorite bits from the vast amount of material that was out there.