This last weekend I attended my first non-Christian funeral. It was for a kid in his 20's that died in a tragic accident. I had never met him, but was an acquaintance of his mother. Even though I didn't know the person it was a horrible loss and it did affect me emotionally. I can be slightly emotional and being a parent has accentuated that. At another level though I was curious how non-religious people would conduct the ceremony.
The ceremony turned out to be not that exotic. There were lots of wiccans involved, so I had imagined more ritual and pageantry. One thing I did find very nice was all the time spent telling stories. Stories about how one life impacts and brings happiness to another. In that sense it was a celebration of the person that was gone. I thought there was a lot of emphasis on how the happy memories could help deal with the crushing loss felt by those who knew him. There was grief and laughter. It was sad and funny. It felt therapeutic.
For me this was a contract to a lot of Christian services that I've attended. True there are often segments of sharing and memories, and rarely totally drab and dreary affairs. However, there is a element of denial at Christian funeral. The hollow reassurances that 'this is not the end' and 'he's going to a better place'. This doesn't seem healthy in working through the process of grief. There is also something darker. An unspoken implications that you had better appease the sky daddy so that you too can go to that better place. Rather than celebrate the a life and a memory, you leave burdened with guilt, fearing death and more firmly in religion's grip. Just the way it was designed to work.
While I was working through my thoughts on the topic of death this beautiful essay on death and the soul was posted by Danio over at pharyngula. I remember the fear of death was the hardest thing for me to deal with when I was coming to terms with my atheism. I already knew I didn't believe in any gods, but I didn't like what that left me with. There is so much I want to learn to see to experience to express. Life seems too short. Eventually I reached a level of acceptance, expressed well in this quote by Mark Twain:
"I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it."
What's more, the idea of immortality may seem neat on the surface, but it doesn't hold up to further scrutiny. Eternity is a long time. It is appealing to think about having time to explore all your interests, but really eventually the boredom would drive you insane. What will you do after you've skied every mountain in the universe a billion times, or had sex with every other life form a couple or trillion times? What will you do after you've experienced every possible thing so many times that you'd rather die than do any of them again, but you can't because you have eternal life? Not so appealing when you think about it that way.
So, I've come to accept that life is short and we are lucky just to be alive considering all the possible people that never did live. I do not really fear my own death other than the possibility of suffering, but I do fear the death of those who are close to me. My family and friends. I don't want to lose them. Unfortunately that is a fact of life, but it sure is better than eternal hell.