31 May 2011

Religion (2): Funeral

Sara writes:

My Grandma’s funeral was today. We met at her church, talked for a while beforehand.  She was right there — her body — with the casket open. (This is a very odd thing.  I see why some people would be comforted by the final image of a loved one at rest, but I couldn’t stop thinking of the technical aspects: the hidden stitches, the chemical fillers.)

She was wearing a black blouse covered in silver sparkles, which gave the eerie effect of movement.  She looked like she was breathing. Turns out Grandma had bought the shirt for herself, fairly recently. (When she was at least 90.) I’d love to be buying old-lady-glamorous pieces for myself when I’m 90.

My reaction to the service was mixed. The good: It was exactly the service Grandma would have wanted. It’s her funeral, after all. That’s exactly what it should be. Also, it was illustrative of who she was, and we don’t always get such a transparent window into the way someone thinks. For my grandma, her church was a gigantic part of her life, so to see that church in its workings was to understand her better.

The bad: Grandma and her pastor and prayer partners are pretty convinced (why do I say “pretty”? They’re completely convinced) that my dad and most of the rest of us are going to hell. I say “most of the rest of us,” but unfortunately they did focus on my dad, and that really brought him down. He was ready to be so happy for Grandma to be with Jesus and Grandpa, but now he sees that what is essentially a disagreement over policy brought a great deal of heartache and anxiety to her in her final days.  She was certain that once she died, she’d never see him again. Amazing.

The pastor actually opened the whole service by talking about how Grandma always prayed for her children, that they would be saved. She was very concerned that they wouldn’t be going to heaven with her. We started to laugh (as we do), thinking this was light-hearted, but through the ceremony the pastor drove home again and again that this was nothing to laugh about. That Margie was tortured by the idea of never seeing her loved ones again. (“If any of you want to talk to us after the service, we’ll be here.” For Christ’s sake.)

To focus on this with a person grieving the loss of his mother is just heartless.

After the service, we asked my seven-year-old nephew what he thought about it.  “I think that pastor just wanted more people to come to his church. It was all about Jesus and the church, not Grandma.” Astute kid.

Turns out that the pastor never even talked to my family about what they wanted from the service. Sure, he knew Grandma well, but it’s bad form for the family not to be counseled. Of course, we’re all headed to hell anyway.  Our counsel probably isn’t worth much.

Their faith is an interesting mix of openness and exclusivity. “It’s not about religion; it’s about relationships. Your relationship with Christ.” That sounds fine; disregard the trappings of religion, and focus on your spiritual connection with the higher power. I can get behind that. But with that pithy saying out of the way, what they really believe is that “The Lord Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior, and only by accepting him as my salvation from sin shall I reach God and Heaven.”

The ONLY is very operative. And my dad saying that he believes in Jesus, and that his curiosity about other religions and how other people find God doesn’t negate his Christianity… That doesn’t hold water with them. If he’s open to other paths to God, then he isn’t on THE TRUE PATH. All other paths, no matter how paved with love, kindness, and generosity of spirit, evidently lead to eternal damnation.  Thoughtful consideration = doom.

This isn’t news, you know.  You know.  But this day has taken my abstract ideas about the harm that exclusive viewpoint can cause, and painted them in stark contrast on the people I love more than anything in the world.  Those ideas have led a very loving, sweet, thoughtful, faithful woman to have anxiety attacks on her death bed.  Those ideas have thrown a cloud of fury and recriminations over what would have otherwise been a celebration of a life well-lived.

Rob writes:

“Religion. It’s given people hope in a world torn apart by religion.” -Jon Stewart

Deep breath.

My antipathy toward religion is well-documented. In the last month I’ve had several...mmm...let’s call them “spirited” conversations with my Born Again father on the subject, and at this point, Pavs, I’m just about done. Here’s the thing: I’ll never duck an open discussion on a topic I know something about, but in the case of religion, discussions are almost invariably frustrating because I don’t feel I’m operating on the same plane of reality as my interlocutor (but really vice-versa, if you catch my drift). Religious people don’t necessarily lack the faculty of reason, but it never ceases to amaze me how they allow themselves to lapse into non-reason simply because they imagine that faith serves as a sturdy surrogate.

It doesn’t. Faith---religious faith, anyway---isn’t reason. It’s the assiduous exercise of one's imagination. Which is fine. Believe in all the fairy tales you want. Believe in Santa Claus if it makes you feel good. The argument from utility (belief provides comfort, etc.) is as old as religion itself. But please let’s separate unsubstantiated belief from the kind of scientific, progressive thinking that allows society to move forward.

Couple things about the funeral. First, I’d never advocate removing people’s right to have a service of the sort described above. Of course I wouldn’t. I may not like it, but I can stay away. If the deceased was a Jesus Freak---as was the case with my own grandmother, whose funeral I attended a few years back---then by all means, have a Jesus-freaky funeral. That’s your right (this is America after all, blah blah blah).

Course, whenever I hear stories like the one you've related, Pavs, I'm compelled to exercise my right to hold forth on what I see as a foolish fixation on the part of the religious: the notion that they will survive their own deaths by propitiating the right divine father figure, and in just the right manner (which, incidentally, is different for everyone). That difference is one of the reasons believers meet up each week: so they can get on-message. So they can calibrate their brains to lock on to the same pre-conceived “truth.” No new information. No critical thought. Just computers downloading the same program over and over and over. Did I mention I think this is a bad idea?

Alas, just when I start to feel fired up, I find I lose steam. Everything’s already been said. Besides, I’m speaking to the choir, so there’s not a whole lot to hook into. I find it peculiar (read: fucking absurd) that we even have to have these discussions in 2011, and especially at the national level, in the contest for the White House. I listen to the mindless and unconstitutional Jesus speak from the likes of Palin and Bachmann (and sadly, Obama, though to a much lesser degree), and I just think, fucking hell, this is like having presidential candidates who are Dungeons and Dragons enthusiasts and really, truly believe we can solve our country's problems with a twelve-sided die. It’s full-on, batshit lunacy to me, and the older I get, the harder it is for me to laugh at it.


  1. On Saturday, I attended the funeral of my uncle. He was my Dad's last living brother, and was a big part of my childhood.

    The service was going well, with remembrances from family members and just a general atmosphere of sadness, but relief that he was no longer suffering.

    Then the pastor started in on the God stuff. As you said, I would never take that away from anyone, but I found myself mentally rolling my eyes. Among the gems: The Bible is a book of love. I wanted to raise my hand and say, "You mean except for the slavery part? Or the genocide part? Or the part where God kills almost everyone because he didn't like the way they were acting? Or the stoning part? Or the part where God says you can't come to him unless you forsake all your family...like my Uncle Burt lying right there behind you? Or the part where God tells Abraham to kill his son?"

    Then there was this: That my uncle gave all of us hope. Because my uncle was a believer (and he was), he gave us hope that we'd see him again. The pastor said that he can't imagine doing a service for a non-believer, because how can they have any hope?

    Again, I wanted to raise my hand and say, "Actually, I DO have hope. I hope that we can eradicate disease, or at least make it so that not so many people die from it. I hope that we can learn to live in peace. I hope that we can keep people from starving, both in our own country and abroad. I hope that we can stop ourselves from destroying our planet. But mostly I hope that we can treat each other decently and stop condemning people to whatever version of hell you happen to believe in, simply because their religious beliefs--or lack thereof--differ from yours. But yeah. I've got hope out the wazoo."

    It really does strike me as just so much bullshit now. Amazingly so. I said goodbye to my uncle on Saturday. I will miss him, just like I miss my Dad. I know I won't see him again, but I'm okay with that. We had a lot of good years together and a lot of fun. That's enough for me.

  2. Hear, hear, Beth. Not being believers frees us up to focus our full attention on the here and now, and do everything we can to make this a worthwhile life. :)