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Austin Cline

Forum Discussion: Religion, God, and Funeral Services

By January 16, 2013

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Most atheists will, at some point in their lives, have to attend a funeral service in a church. This is especially true in America where humanist funeral services are relatively uncommon because of the low demand for them. If you do attend a funeral service in a church, you would have to expect some religious content, but wouldn't you also expect the primary focus to be the deceased?

Apparently that's sometimes too much to expect because some pastors and ministers seem to regard funerals as good times to evangelize possible non-believers and berate the believers.

A forum member writes:

This past week I attended a memorial service for a friend that had killed herself, which was held at her family's church. While I was saddened by the loss of this friend, the service itself disturbed me. Other than the fact that it showed that her family, with the exception of her brothers, either didn't know her too well or were in serious denial about a few things, it seemed that her death was at best secondary to those presiding over the service. Yes, I knew it would be at a church and that there would be a religious context to the memorial, but it went seriously beyond that.

It gave me the impression that the glorification of their god was far more important to them than easing the grief of those who had lost a child, sister, mother (she had a 5 year old daughter) or friend. At first I figured that they were simply caught up in the fact that it was close to a big holiday for them so they were already in that mode. Another thought crossed my mind that, as crass as it would be, it might have had something to do with her death being a suicide, a big no- no in most Christian circles. I also thought that it may have been that that was how the denomination, Presbyterian, was since I had never been to one of their normal services before.

Then I realized that the same thing happened at my father's funeral this past August, which was not near a religious holiday, he died of cancer and it was a Roman Catholic service. So why was this happening? Eventually I just assumed that my bias against religion was the reason I noticed it so much in both cases. However, later in the evening a few friends that had attended the service and I got together for dinner. Over the meal the topic was, carefully, brought up by one of them. It seemed all of us had noticed the same thing and were put off by it, including the most religious of the group. As the only atheist in the group they assumed that I was bothered by it more than they were, but I pointed out that it seemed we all founded it equally troubling.

The point of this, though, is that I was wondering if anyone here had ever experienced the same thing? It may not have been at a funeral, writing this I recall a similar occurrence at a friend's wedding a few years back. Does anyone have an idea why is it that religious people seem unable or unwilling to experience something for what it is without clouding it with extraneous rituals and prayers? I know that seems a simple thing to answer, but everything I come up with just falls short to me. Maybe the answer's out of reach to me because I was never all that religious, even when I was a theist. To me it just feels counterproductive for the purposes of the ceremony nor does it appear to have any lasting effect on the religious.

I think that it is important that this person was willing to assume that their own biases were the cause for their perception, not a flaw in the relevant churches and ecclesiastical leaders. Even religious believers noticed the problem, though! If believers feel that a funeral service has been misused to promote a particular sectarian agenda, the situation must be pretty bad.

Another forum member responded:

A few years ago, I went to the funerals of a good friend's parents (within months of each other... they were in their seventies, married for fifty years or so, and the death of one almost inevitably led to the death of the other) and they were much as you describe. Both were Presbyterian funerals.

The thing that distressed me most about one of the funerals was that the minister seemed to be watching during the prayers to see who didn't have their eyes closed. Then during his sermon, he clearly directed his barbed comments to us. He talked about how atheists and other non-believers were off to hell.

I was deeply offended, not because this fool thought I was going to hell (who cares what such a person thinks?) but because he showed absolutely none of the respect for difference that my dead friend had done. The sermon was unrelated to him and his life, and was pure propaganda.

Have you had similar experiences and, if so, what did you think? How did you react? Add your thoughts to the comments here or join the ongoing discussion in the forum.

April 18, 2007 at 3:05 pm
(1) elaygee says:

Funeral services are about the living and not the dead. Memorial services are about the dead and how they affected the still living.

Religious institutions have nothing to gain in services that memorialize the deceased. They generally only take part in funeral services which are rituals for the living to obscure their grief and cloud their minds with god talk.

April 18, 2007 at 3:58 pm
(2) Tom T says:

elaygee is right – funerals are for the living – but to my mind they should be about the dead (or at least the most recently so).

To have a priest evangalise at guests instead of speaking about the dead, I would think would be highly inapropriate and offensive to the survivors of the deceased, and to be honest – I would call them on it at the time and insist they leave.

But maybe that’s just me.

January 31, 2013 at 12:44 am
(3) hock thai says:

A Christian funeral service may oversell on the church membership recruitment drive. Let the decease rest in peace.

May 27, 2013 at 6:13 am
(4) PJ says:

Non-Christians and Atheist may not be offended by the lack of respect for the dead during the funeral service as some ‘joyful’ Christians will be chatting and laughing while they socialize.

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