Exploiting Death: A Christian Funeral


Yesterday I attended the funeral for my aunt. She had made it to 90 years of age, with the last 10 or so of those arduous. She had survived a home break in, quadruple by-pass, and assorted ailments. She was like the Energizer bunny until a combo of a broken hip and heart attack was finally too much. With her strength sapped and in great pain she waved off the feeding tube. Never one to burden anyone and always thinking of others, she held out just long enough for her kids to leave her room to go so they wouldn’t have to witness her actual passing.

My aunt was the strong matriarch of the family. My mother was the last of nine children, and her mother died before my mother turned 15. My aunt became everybody’s mom, housing several of her sisters at various times, my mother included. On Sundays, the family dinner was held there for many years before one by one each sibling started families of their own. She sadly lost her husband while her four kids were still very young, but without missing a beat she went out in the world, found a job and supported herself and her kids without asking anybody for help. In fact, it was often her helping others, despite her situation, as it was always known that at any time her home was open to all.

When my mother and I moved here to Philadelphia when I was 9, we lived with her for a couple of years. She was the grandmother I never had, and one I greatly respected. It was from her that I learned many things. She read the paper, cover to cover, each day and seemed like she knew everything. She’d asked me my opinions on things and subtly ask probing questions that made me think and form better opinions. She may not have known everything, but she gave the impression that she did, and, in sharp contrast to my mother, was completely steadfast and unshakable when faced with adversity. Smart, calm, strong, stubborn and warmly generous and capable of setting you at ease. She was quite a lady, one that deserved a great deal of respect.

It is that last point that brings me to the funeral, because for some two hours I endured shameless exploitation of my aunt in the name of advancing religious belief. Not one but two pastors spouted a stereophonic cacophony of christian bullshit and propaganda that made me ill, with brief intermissions for a mediocre singer running down the christian death hits like Amazing Grace, which I had no idea had so many verses. Now for the record I should say that my family is very religious and my aunt was a regular at church. There were two pastors because the first was hers for some 40 years and the second was hers of the last 10 or so after she was forced to move to the suburbs by her kids after she had her incident fending off burglars in her home in South West Philly. The newer one was younger, very energetic, and on a mission to use this event to spread the fucking good news quoting scripture after scripture of not just the guarantees of salvation after death but of how if you don’t accept the J man, you’re doomed. But of course, a large part of these things is to bring comfort to people by blowing hot air into that fantasy balloon of the great afterlife awaiting us all. In fact, the term he used for the service to kick off his sermon was that this was a “resurrection celebration” and later a “graduation ceremony”. There was plenty of nonsense about the joys awaiting us and how we should be so happy for her now but first and foremost was always pushing the importance of “giving yourself up” to Jesus, “serving” Jesus, “being faithful” to Jesus, and of course how the only way to god is through the J man.

The older pastor was much more pragmatic, yet still, in the end, knew not to squander such a golden opportunity to both reinforce faith and perhaps instill faith in anyone who still hadn’t “accepted” the J man. He sang some little tune about a kid promising his mother he’d believe so he’d “be there” in heaven one day to see her and went on about how he knows he’ll “be there” and hoped we all would “be there” too and we could if we accepted the J man. To his credit he spoke at great length about the quality of the character of my aunt and once even I had to chuckle because he made what I thought was a tactical error. He said that she was the way she was due to the strength of her character and not because of any religious obligation. It took all my strength not to stand up and shout “amen!”. Yes, my aunt was a woman of outstanding character, but that wasn’t due to her religious belief but rather what she brought to the table. He said that although not participating in the choir or teaching Sunday school, she still had a tremendous impact on the church by merely being such a powerful example of how to be, which of course he had to pervert to mean how to be a good and faithful christian. Yes, there was much that people could walk away with from experiencing my aunt, but all of that came from my aunt, not from some book of fairy tales and no matter how much time you spend with your nose in that book, it’s not going to make you a carbon copy of my aunt. Much like the rest of religion, thinking that book holds the key to being a great person like her is a false hope.

A particularly frightening element of this experience was the importance understood by all of getting this nonsense into the minds of children. The old pastor even said something about needing to repeatedly get the message across to them, since, in his own words, “it doesn’t always take the first time”. I believe he even used the word “indoctrination”. At one point my cousin, my aunt’s granddaughter, spoke about explaining to her son about where Nana is. Of course she said she was in heaven and had to explain that no, she’s not coming back. She admitted she was stumped when he asked, “who’s going to make her breakfast there?” but was thankful that he solved his question himself. He exclaimed, “I know! God will make her breakfast” and hearing this there were many sighs and “amen”s and the voice of someone in the back saying, “oh he’s a sharp one”. I think it was the last comment that made a shiver shoot right down my spine. I thought about this at the cemetery and at the luncheon afterwards looking at pregnant bellies and the couples who have children waiting at home thinking this poison will be repeatedly spoon fed to them like those sick stories of Munchausen syndrome where mothers poison their children a little to keep them perpetually sick. Afterall, “it doesn’t always take the first time” and as everyone knows, especially in times of trouble like death, some extra spoonfuls need to be shoved down the collective masses’ throat to insure the nonsense takes and faith withstands the challenge.

Hearing the reassurances of how she’s in a better place and how we’ll all be reunited again I admit our tremendously powerful platitudes that will always be difficult to overcome. How can a rational, atheist position compete with sugarplum fantasies like that? Be that as it may, if all these two pastors were there for was to dispense this morphine to everyone to get them through this event, so be it. It’s not what I feel is best, but people are free to deal with grief however they need to but the fact that these vultures saw this as an opportunity to exploit infuriates me to no end. Make no mistake, this is all insidious cult mentality, where ALWAYS the most important thing is to get this message spread and flushed through everyone’s systems again and again and again. Naturally I’m saddened by the loss of my aunt, but I’m saddened at the sight of my family fully deluded, I’m saddened at the thought of future generations poisoned and indoctrinated, I’m saddened that my aunt’s passing was preyed upon and exploited by vultures, and I’m saddened that most people’s reactions to the funeral was that “it was beautiful”.

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16 Responses to “Exploiting Death: A Christian Funeral”

  1. My condolences for your painful loss.

    Unfortunately, funerals are ideal venues for proselytizing. After all, death is humankind’s great fear and people are extremely vulnerable when they are grieving.

    The deacon’s grandmother died last summer, just as I was beginning to work through my deconversion. It was my first experience of dealing with death from an explicitly atheistic perspective. Her funeral was primarily a celebration of her life and many of the remarks were recollections of how Nana had influenced people’s lives, but there were, of course, some evangelistic comments thrown in occasionally.

    Believers really do find great comfort in their beliefs in a heavenly afterlife. The idea of a reunion with loved ones is probably the most comforting thought of all.

    In the place of such comfort, you can look back appreciatively on a lifetime of memories and treasure the heritage your aunt passed down to you in the form of a strong, honest character. And you can continue to pass that heritage along to others. That’s not a shabby substitute for false hope.

  2. My condolences, Philly.

    Since religions are largely about death, it’s impossible for those who make their living feeding off the gullible to resist an opportunity to further their own agenda.

    I had a matriarch great-aunt who outlived most of the people in her family. At her little funeral service, the rabbi insisted on mispronouncing her last name while singing her praises. He mentioned her six or seven times, and each time he did I couldn’t resist laughing at what a hypocritical bastard the guy was, extolling a woman whose name he didn’t know. After the service was over, I spoke to him privately, and … ahem … pointed out the error of his ways.

  3. There was another interesting bit from the older pastor. Apparently he did a mafia funeral recently. He commented on how it’s hard to have integrity speaking on behalf of someone like that. He said how rewarding it is for ministers to preside over funerals for people like my aunt, people who were actually good people and he knew was going to heaven. He even said sarcastically, “nowadays everybody gets to go to heaven it seems” with a sad look, no doubt missing the good ol’ days when you could delight in publicly acknowledging someone’s roasting in hell.

    The more I think back on the whole thing, the more disgusted and creeped out I get. So this old bastard basically said he’ll lie if he has to, no doubt if the pay is good (and I’m sure the mob pays well). I’m sure he can rationalize it in his mind by telling himself he’ll be spreading the word to those who need it or some shit like that, whatever it takes to overcome the lack of integrity required to preside over some funerals.

    Thank you both. Chaplain, what I meant by it being hard to overcome those false hopes that religion provides is not to comfort you or I but to those who still believe. As Nietzsche said, it takes a strong will to face that, to face reality and let go of childish fantasy. It’s a difficult thing to convince people to trade such lavish fantasy for reality. Everything you said I agree with, but it’s still a hard sell to those still believing.

  4. My condolences, as well.

    My grandmother who was 96 years old when she died had a similar funeral. Only there were four pastors at hers and 4 singers. Seeing as how I’m the black sheep of the family, and knew what the funeral was going to be like, I opted not to go. I said goodbye to Grandma in my own way. From my sister’s account not one thing was really mentioned about Grandma. It was all preaching.

    Funerals are supposed to be the celebration of a person’s life, not a Jesus-fest.

    I’m sorry you had to go through such a funeral, Philly.

    On a lighter note, at Grandma’s funeral they had a photo board of all the grandchildren, and under my picture was the verse, “Pray without ceasing.” My sister was pissed and gathered the other siblings to shield her while she tore off the “offending” verse.

  5. I play bugle for military funerals and have played harp for several.

    My harp teacher is of Sicilian extraction, and a couple of years ago she called me up and asked me if I had the words and music to “Santa Lucia”. A lady had died and she had been a very kind, good woman who had really only ever asked for one thing: that the song “Santa Lucia” be sung at her funeral. Anyway, could I get the music (which I had) down to the funeral home ASAP so the organist and vocalist who would lead the singing could go over it before the next day which was the funeral.

    I got it down to them, and expressed my surprise that NO ONE in the Italian-American community had a copy of that song of all songs. I mean, they had to get it from a guy of Celtic/German ancestry who was an atheist! Fie! Fie and Shame! I told them.

    They were shocked. Then they broke out laughing and said it was perfect, that they would relate it during the funeral. She was a lady who delighted in irony and absurdities and this was a great thing to include in her memory. And they did it, too!

    I have written about this before, but the relatives I’m closest to is a cousin and his wife. We’ve always been friends, and what with our gay cousin we have also been regarded as oddballs. He is also an atheist, lost a leg in Viet Nam, was a combat medic and wounded rescueing one of his people which cost him his leg and gave him several other problems.

    His wife, also a person I’m proud to claim and be claimed as a friend, is still turning heads at age 63. Cuz REALLY was lucky there. She is also, and became one after they were married, a practicing methodist minister.

    A couple of years ago they came up to stay with us while we all attended the funeral of an uncle. This uncle was a fundie, he was one of the “inner church” where they worshipped, and during the eulogies it seemed we were mistaken about him.

    Seemed that the son he’d treated like dirt and insulted every day found him to be a “gentle soul”. His wife, who he abused, loved him with all her heart. He was a “good man” and generous. Being as Cuz and I could look at some of the people in the pews and claim kinship although it would embarrass dome folk, we knew he was generous with SOME things.

    I’m guessing that laying in a coffin automaticly takes away your nasty meanness, small mindedness and general surly, unpleasant, rude, arrogant, selfish personna. People were hoping to meet him in heaven.

    Cuz and I were trying to stifle chuckles, wasn’t OUR uncle they were talking about. If there was a god that hated lying, it was feeling merciful that day. Our wives were somewhat mortified, gave us shots to the ankles and ribs to shut us up. Most others thought we were sobbing. Lucky for us.

    We stopped to eat on the way back to town here, and our wives took us to task, expressed opprobrium and disappointment with our behavior. Cuz’s wife pronounced it as “disrespectful”. Cuz just got an alligator grin and said, “Oh, reallY?” and his wife sort of shrivelled and blushed. He said, “What about you, Miss Perfect?” She squirmed and giggled.

    He then observed that she hadn’t worn a clerical collar in over twenty years, ripped their house apart trying to find one, actually RAN down the street to borrow one from a Lutheren colleague, and wore it to the funeral of a man who felt that no woman should do anything in church but listen and clean the place, and think themselves privileged for that, let alone what he thought of female clergy. And she wore it in HIS church to HIS funeral. Respect for the dead, huh? Hmmm.

    She said, “But I didn’t snicker.” I hadn’t laughed that hard in a long time.

  6. Well, the common perception, at least among the people I attend funerals with, is that the funeral is for the living, not the dead. So whenever someone says to me “So and so would not have wanted that, or would not have liked that”, I think, who cares? She’s dead. She certainly doesn’t.

    The priests and ministers know this, I think. They know that they can’t change anything for the recently deceased, but all those people in the pews are ripe targets. And not only ripe, but susceptible, being in a vulnerable state of grief.

    I mentioned this elsewhere (also) but when my mother was in the hospital with her last illness (She died from ALS)a local priest showed up, and pulled me out into the hallway and asked me what he could do to bring me back to the church, as he felt my mother would really like that before she died. I think he was hoping to get me when I was weakest, but instead, it just pissed me off and pushed me further from religion. I didn’t think of myself as an atheist at that time, but I was certainly anti-religious, and more so after our conversation.

    Philly, I’m sorry about your Aunt. It sounds like you got to her enjoy her for a considerable amount of your life, and she clearly had a positive impact on you. That’s really all that needs to be said about her. We only live on after death in the memories of the people we touch.

  7. Damn Babs, that’s cold. I think my god stance is so far an unknown in the family though, so maybe I’d have one of those comments under a photo too. Still, that’s crappy. I was almost hoping I’d get someone to ask me something since being in the funeral procession it had to be seen that I had two fish on my car, and they don’t belong to Jesus. I have the Darwin fish and the Pagan fish, the latter just to be cheeky. I suppose I should trade them in for Evolution and Infidel fishes. My wife, not to upset people too much, has the Sushi and Fish ‘n Chips fishes.

    There are good and bad people in my family, like all families, but it seems the kids and grandkids from my aunt who died are the ones that turned out the best, although some in the family would question that since one of her sons is gay. Once again, I think it’s due to the character of the woman, a certain something that was unique to her that her siblings didn’t possess, and that wasn’t a result of some god and if it was, 1 for 9 is not a good result for Mr. omni-everything. One of the things I dread about any family get together is being grouped at a table with cousins getting liquored up and complaining about how terrible their mothers are and their childhoods. I’m talking about women in their 60s complaining! Of course who has kids in jail, with drug problems, unemployed, knocked up girlfriends, emotional problems, indulgence abuses (alcohol and of course food), marital infidelities, and whatever else. I look at them as stereotypes of the kind of people who generally turn to religion as a crutch, because their miserable people whose lives suck.

    I rarely see these people. In fact, I’ve seen more of them in the past couple of years than in the last 15 combined probably because now, sadly, aunts and uncles are starting to pass. I go to each somewhat tense and ready for a fight. I figure at any given moment someone could say something and then it’s going to be on. Of course part of that for me is to try to always appear exemplary. Although I can’t boast the one thing that the family puts too much emphasis on, having lots of money, I can boast not having problems like the rest of them, I can boast being successful on my terms, I can boast having the best wife (who, btw is the only one in an Italian family who does or maybe even knows how to make her own pasta, and she’s Japanese), and not complaining endlessly about my mother. It sounds silly, but I even went to buy a whole new suit. Because of the way most of them are, I try to present myself as perfectly as possible.

    When that day comes when the word gets out that I don’t buy into this god nonsense, I can only hope that one of them takes a moment and thinks about what kind of person I am, someone who some family members have told me they wish their kids were more like, and realize that all that god crap isn’t necessary, and that one could do quite well without it. Of course I also wish someone would see perhaps, by my example, that you can do better without it, but I’m know that’s unlikely.

    No doubt my personal stress to be perfect before my family is irrational, but I do think, in this day and age, it does serve us all well to be exemplary people. There are too many elements today trying to vilify atheists as immoral, troubled people and yes, we can argue how that’s bullshit but the best argument, in my opinion, is to be a living testament to how that’s untrue. Be kind and decent and intelligent and generous and helpful. Be a person like my aunt and be an example to others. I’m lucky that those of you who regularly visit and comment seem to me to be those kinds of people, and I believe that together, by example at least, we can change people’s thinking.

  8. My sympathy is with you, for both in the loss of your aunt and in your experience of what sounds to be an awful funeral.

    I have had a similar experience in death recently, although lacking the manipulative evangelical proselytizing that was so abundant at the funeral you attended. The service lauded and respected the man’s life and achievements, and although it was certainly Christian I had no overall complaints.

    However, one of the speakers, who was one of the sons of the man who had died, made a point in commenting on how a couple years before he had more or less persuaded his father to accept Jesus has his personal lord and savior. The man was 95 when he died and despite a life a clear benevolence and honesty, was still considered by his son in need of Jesus when he died.

    This I found disgusting. I wish they would have stopped hypothesizing about how he was in heaven now so we could all spend eternity with him. Funerals are much better spent considering the beauty of a person, and venerating their life. Such nonsense is embarrassing in my opinion.

    Once again, my condolences are with you in your loss.

  9. It sucks when people die and I’m very sorry for your loss.

    Poor funeral arrangements are no great surprise, clergy live with their own beliefs and they just can’t put them aside. Sadly, a funeral is not really the place to convert people, not even to atheism.

  10. Phillychief,

    I saw your post several days ago, but it’s been a busy period and I just got around to sitting down and reading it. I’m very sorry about your loss, but I’m glad you got so much from your relationship with a great woman who lived a long life.

    You asked, near the end of the post, “How can a rational, atheist position compete with sugarplum fantasies like that?”

    We can’t, and we can. Obviously some things can never be completely overcome. But the obvious need that religion feels to jump in at moments like this to bolster the troops means that there is vulnerability. People DO leave religion for “reason”. So our best hope is that we can move as many as possible in this direction, knowing that we will never have unanimity.

    Another thing that we rationalists deal with all the time is the divisions that humans seem to have a need to make – every time we create in-groups and out-groups. In Kenya today, hundreds are dying in riots over the recent election. The main point of antagonism? An ethnic difference between the ruling group and the opposition. They are ALL black Africans! But they have figured out a way to differentiate into in-group and out-group and kill over it.

    We can never TOTALLY overcome this any more than we can silly superstitious beliefs. So it comes down to changing as many hearts and minds as possible.

    Have a great 2008, friend.

  11. So sorry for your loss. I shall have a similiar experience on Thursday. My uncle passed away from a drug overdose and the family (Italian from Philly, so you can take a guess)..is having a big Catholic funeral with the Mass and all the goodies that come with it.

  12. Sorry to hear about your loss. Congrats on keeping your temper with the theists.

  13. I’m sorry to hear about your loss. She sounds like she really was a great lady.

    I know how you feel about funerals. I can hardly stomach them. When my niece died I became very bitter about Christianity directly due to the funeral. I think I worked through those issues and I know that most people just want comfort. But it’s sickening to listen to a preacher talk about the death of a 14 year old in glowing terms. It’s a tragedy and it wasn’t meant to happen. There is nothing that can bring meaning to it except the meaning each individual finds.

    Since my family is so religious it makes me cringe to think about what my funeral will be like. I know I won’t know or care, but I care now thinking about it. I told my husband that I don’t want a religious funeral, but I don’t want to put the burden on him when my family rolls in. I’m sure that’s the last thing he’d want to deal with. Hopefully I’ll live long enough that I won’t have to worry about it though. :)

    I just hate the thought of my death being used as an excuse for proselytizing. I want to be remembered for who I was, not some nice things a stranger thinks up to say.

  14. I’ve had two thoughts from this experience of the future. The first is I’ll probably have to throw one of these shitty things for when my mother goes. Second, I feel like having for my own funeral a big one hour extravaganza where speakers talk at length about how there’s no good reason to believe in a god, religion is a dangerous delusion of the mind, how important it is to free children of such indoctrination and about how none of us will see each other again when we die so make sure you treat people right now. I would also call for readings from Nietzsche and Ingersoll and perhaps have some songs sung like Lennon’s Imagine.

  15. OG:

    Why not make a will, stipulating exactly what kind of death arrangements you’d like. Your family might be pissed to know that you’ve forbidden them to pray publicly for your “soul,” but what will they be able to do to you?

  16. Ex: Yeah, I’ve been thinking of doing that for some time now, but I haven’t actually done it yet.

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