The only atheist in the family: Nanna’s Funeral and other Christian Rituals

When my Nanna passed away, a guy from the church she attended was the only non-family member to be with my Granddad when we gathered around him, in his sheltered accommodation home he’d shared with Nanna to tell him she’d gone. I forget the guy’s name, but he was obviously a close friend of my various aunties and uncles and cousins who all attended the same church as Nanna. He read out some words, which were obviously very comforting to my Granddad and after a while he left us to our private grief.

I never once felt awkward standing in a prayer circle around my distraught elder, who’d just found out his wife of over 60 years had died, even though I was probably the only person standing there who wasn’t dedicating my private thoughts about her, in that moment, to Yahweh or any other god.

Later that week, however, at the funeral, I began to feel a rising anger at the way in which the pastor, obeying his training, though with no intentional malice, began to hijack the high emotion surrounding the loss of a woman who meant so much to so many people. The Church was packed.

Nanna survived the second world war by scrubbing the concrete steps in front of mansion houses and worked in service, before marrying Bart, raising six children, each of whom had at least two children of their own, each of those, myself included, giving her at least one great grandchild.

I remember consciously repeating to myself, during the prayers and hymnals, not to say ANYTHING to ANYONE after the service about how I wanted to interrupt just about everything the pastor was saying with, “Are you fucking serious?” or “Where’s your proof?!”. You can imagine how pleased I was with myself for getting all the way through the day without saying a word, and how furious I was that it was at this very point, just before the finishing line, some tea-making volunteer from the church asked me if I would like to come again next Sunday and “see what it’s all about”.

She so nearly got both barrels I’m certain to this day it was only the fact that I stumbled my opening remarks on a ball of anger in my throat that she escaped unharmed, as she asked me to repeat what I’d said, in time for my mother to shove another cup of coffee in my hand – which snapped me back into the room and back from the edge of where I’d promised myself I wouldn’t go.

How dare she proselytise at me after I’d just watched the oldest, kindest person I’ll ever know, vanish into a hole in the ground, while my Grandfather wept “Goodnight, darling” – one last time? What the hell kind of sick trip are these people on that they not only think it’s OK to presume someone might be actually impressed by the pseudo-compassion they can turn on like a tap, during a funeral gig, so much so that they would want to find out more about such a place; a group of wilfilly blinkered holier-than-though gossips, who encourage others to behave the same, “In Jesus name”. I mean, thanks for the coffee and everything lady, but don’t inflate your role!

How was I supposed to react? What do other atheists do when confronted with what Richard Dawkins refers to as social Christianity; like ‘peace be with you’ handshakes at Christmas, or “May the souls of the faithful departed, rest in peace”, enchantments. Do we echo “Amen”, at the appropriate call and response time in this prayer? If so why? Out of respect for those in the room, who think it makes a difference, or out of respect for the life of the corpse in the coffin, who couldn’t possibly be less concerned with such protocol any longer?

How about Christenings? Weddings?! CHRIST! Don’t get me started on that one. I have to go to a Catholic wedding between two atheists who are only doing “the church thing” for her terminally religious parents, in a few weeks time. THAT is going to be DOOZY!!

Feedback please!


17 comments on “The only atheist in the family: Nanna’s Funeral and other Christian Rituals

  1. At my Gran’s funeral it annoyed me a bit that 20% of the service was about her, 80% was about God. Regardless of how religious she was, it does feel massively pointless to congregate into a small room and be told pointless fairytales, almost missing the whole point of the funeral, to say goodbye to someone.

  2. Once again babe – you’ve hit the nail on the head. There was nothing in the entire ceremony which was remotely about her life, apart from the parts of it which touched on her role in the church.

  3. There’s no need for them to hijack the ceremony like they do, it’s like they take any opportunity to stuff their beliefs down our throats.

    My funeral is going to be 100% unreligious. Even though i’ll be dead and gone, pretending that my life was in anyway related to God would just be an insult to my memory.

  4. When forced to take part in something like that, I usually hang back and say “I’m not observant.” If called on it, I say something like “I’m not a believer, I’m here out of respect for the Bride/Groom /Stiff. Would you want me to fake it?”

  5. Recently when I share a meal, I will say the blessing without much thought to the hypocrisy of it. The main reason I’m sharing a meal with them is to be with them and share time together, not make a statement about religion. And since there’s no afterlife, I’d rather spend the time I have with them pleasant and positive.

    Likewise, I suppose, when I am attending a funeral, I try to keep the emphasis on the person who has passed. I go out of my way to share stories, look at pictures, meet relatives and console with listening ears and the warmth of hugs and holding hands. I reemphasize the happy times, because even believers feel a sense of bullshit about the empty promise of ‘i hope i’ll see them again in heaven’. Even believers know deep down its bullshit, because why else are you crying? This moment, however, is not the time to be philosophical. The grieving have enough on their plate losing a loved one; they don’t need “by the way, you’ve been duped by religion and you absolutely are NEVER going to see this person again” really isn’t comforting.

    Now, on weddings: can’t you just go down to the courthouse and get it performed there, and make a big deal out of the reception/party? Perhaps that would be the better function to request that all invitees come naked!

  6. it appears i used xhtml incorrectly… i was trying to quote Jim’s question of ‘what do atheists do in these situations and why’, but instead i seemd to have quotationed my own paragraphs. pardon!

  7. I forgot to include this one, but I’ll add it here. At my Granddad’s funeral (not the one above, my Mum’s Dad) the service was in the same Catholic church where I’d received my first communion, first confession, my confirmation and every other sacrament they knock out.

    My Mum, quite innocently (because she just can’t get her head around the simple concept of a-theism) said, when it came to the bit where they all line up for a wafer of nun-made bread (which tastes like shit by the way), “You can just go up for a blessing, if you like” – which for some very subtle reasons I thought was hilariously brilliant.

    It was as if she was thinking that I must have been feeling “left out” of the complete ceremony, by not having made my confession in so many years and therefore excluded from eating of His flesh, but being touched on the head by a man in a green dress would somehow make up for it. I love my Mum, but that’ll always stick in my mind as a great example of how the virus of faith will always try to reach out from people who are infected with it, at every available opportunity and attempt to infect other people – even at deeply inappropriate times.

  8. Hi Jim,

    Thanks for visiting our blog over at FreeThought Fort Wayne. Much appreciated.

    I faced a similar experience when I lost a good friend last October, blogged about it here. I think people should be allowed to own their own lives and deaths, and it’s disheartening when the religious try to hijack your real sentiments to “win souls for Jesus.”

    Nice post, sir.


  9. This isn’t so much about the church service, as it is about the religious views I had when I lost my Grandmother:

    Five years ago my Grandmother passed away. I was still religious and firmly believed I would see her again in heaven. In fact, I was counting on it, because the mortician had done an awful job of preparing her body… my Grandmother had fair Norweigan skin and blonde hair with the slightest hints of red tones in them. At the wake, she had olive skin with firetruck red hair. I wanted to see her again just to wipe the awful makeup image of her from my mind.

    There had been discussion, while she was alive, of her coming to visit us from the afterlife. Many of my aunts and uncles told her (including my mom) to NOT — they would be too spooked out by it. I told her to come and visit as much as she liked. Ghost or not, it was my Grandmother and I loved her.

    Since I missed her so horribly, and since I had already set myself up psychologically, I began having dreams of her shortly after she died. They contained such vivid details I knew it must have been a supernatural experience. The first one she had brought me to our old church to sing in the Choir with hundreds of people so brilliant they were composed of entire light. I woke up with my arms around my chest and a warm, flooding feeling all throughout my body. I shared the story with family and I felt like I had really done some good by telling them of this beautiful vision I had had.

    I had an additional two or three dreams, all vibrantly detailed. Some of the details were not even ones I could explain, but when I shared them with family, I was told they represented things THEY knew, things about the family I wouldn’t know as they happened before I was born, and some things were things very private just between Grandma and I, things that I needed her love and acceptance about, and she gave it to me freely.

    One day, about a year ago, I remember very clearly… talking to my boyfriend about how psychics were shams and the whole afterlife was also a sham… and then I remembered my dreams with my Grandma. It took a minute, but slowly the realization dawned on me, that they were in fact, just dreams.

    I was quite upset about this for days, because I had always considered those dreams as real contact with her… to find out it had been my imagination, made me feel hollow. The questions she had answered, the love she had given, had all been me talking to myself. I also felt awful, that I had peddled my ‘imagination’ as proof of the afterlife to my grieving parents, aunts, and uncles.

    It was one of the few times in my buddhist-deist-pantheist-atheist adventure where I felt knowing the truth was almost too hard to bare. I missed my grandmother horribly and didn’t know what to think of the dreams that I, not the afterlife, had created. My boyfriend consoled me, and told me how wonderful it was that my mind had created these peaceful, beautiful dreams to put me at ease, that my relationship was so strong with her that I was even ABLE to put together dreams reliving childhood memories, images of her from her youth, and conversations that were representative of what she WOULD have really said. It didn’t matter that I had imagined them. What mattered was that I had actually known her well enough that I COULD imagine what she would say, and how she would always love me. He reminded me that her life was always about unconditionally loving her grandchildren, and if she were alive today, she would still unconditionally love me.

    If I was looking for a miracle, it was that I had ever known such a wonderful woman, and had been so lucky to have been loved by her.

  10. I always feel bad about not being able to reply to amazing writing like this with anything that appropriately adds something – so I hope you don’t take the blank reply to be ignorance, it’s just very touching that you should take the time to share your experiences like that – thanks x

  11. I wonder if, with the passage of time, a more balanced view might have come over the author of this piece. Was it really reasonable to go the the funeral of a Christian lady, as “the only atheist in the family” and expect a humanist service?

    I can’t really imagine that anyone will expect that a Christian who goes one day to Christopher Hitchen’s or Richard Dawkin’s funeral and then get upset that it wasn’t explicitly Christian, or want to interrupt an atheistic sermon with “Where’s your effing proof?”.

  12. The point is, Bob K, I wouldn’t go up to someone at a funeral and start talking about the principal of maximum entropy and the second law of thermodynamics. That these descriptions of physical events we can measure, test and falsify better explain what is actually happening to the carbon based matter in the box, than any fanciful ideas about the soul, heaven or, indeed, hell, doesn’t make them any more appropriate matters to talk about, despite that they are true.

    Why, then, should something entirely objective and unfalsifiable be seen as appropriate conversation, just because death is traditionally viewed as something one has a “religious”, or “spiritual” view of? Why should it be that what can be proven to be true is a taboo subject, but what can not be proven to be true acceptable, or even “polite” conversation at a time of bereavement? Does religion have such little confidence in its truth-claims that the only time it can pounce on people is when they are at their weakest and most susceptible to emotive gobbledegook?

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