Being an Atheist at a Christian Funeral

My grandpa died last year. He had had a fairly long life. Unfortunately his mind had already deteriorated significantly in his last few years. The rural community where he lived was very familiar to me. I had spent summers running around on my cousins’ farm and some winters skating on the backyard rink that grandpa made for us. Grandpa was a minister for many years. He and grandma had also been missionaries overseas.

So I spent two days in this town again to attend the funeral. The close-knit community was overwhelmingly Christian and evangelical. As expected, the visitation, funeral and all of the family time in between revolved around religion. Grandpa dedicated his life to his god and lived and breathed the church everyday. But even if religion hadn’t been his profession, the religious focus would have been the same. Religion is deeply woven into grandpa’s family and friends. And this religion anchored every public expression of grief, sadness and celebration of grandpa’s life.

Since grandma had died about ten years earlier, it was hard not to remember her funeral and compare my experiences. When grandma died I was much younger. In fact, now that I think about it, these two funerals pretty well bookended my entire young adulthood (and thus also my apostasy). At the time grandma was by far the closest person to me to have died. She hadn’t really attained “a ripe old age” yet, and I guess her death was a good test of my ability to deal with death as an adult. As a devout Christian at the time, I would pray at night that God would comfort grandma in heaven and be with her while she waited many years for other family members to join her. I looked forward to the day when I could hug her again in heaven.

When grandpa died last year it was much different. I was already comfortable not being a Christian anymore, at least in private. I had hardly told anyone about my Atheism at that point. I never really decided if or how I might talk about my Atheism at the funeral or at any of the family meals before and after. Although during my flight on the way there I decided that maybe I should think it through ahead of time rather than just “winging it”.

On the one hand, I thought I should find a way to gently bring up the topic. Everyone always says that funerals aren’t about the deceased they’re really for the ones they leave behind. So this family time at the funeral was for me to grieve and remember grandpa just like anyone else that was there. I thought that maybe I should just tell everyone that I’m an Atheist. This would help my family to know me better and might have helped me to grieve.

But grandpa left behind many more people than just me. And I knew that many of them genuinely (and some I suspected only tacitly) were using religion as their main source of comfort in their grief. This was important for me to acknowledge because it was important to give people space to deal with things in their own way. For this reason I did not want to use the funeral as an opportunity to actively promote Atheism – or even to seem like I was formally announcing something about myself. All of the mourners shared with me a love and respect for my grandpa, and I wanted us all to get the most that we could from this important time together.

This leads to the only point on which I was completely certain: I had absolutely no obligation to shelter religious people from knowing about my irreligion. That would be akin to asking a person to never identify themselves accurately because other people have difficulty dealing with that person’s identity. This is something that we do not ask of any invisible minority in society (the examples that come to mind are: homosexuals, intersex people and people with mental disabilities). Besides, if knowing that I’m an Atheist causes religious people to lose their ability to take comfort in their god, then they can’t have a very strong relationship with their god. I was sure that my family would not want me to have felt isolated by being closeted.

On the other hand, I thought that maybe I should just put this issue on the back-burner as much as possible. It wouldn’t have been that difficult for me to just drift along in the unending religious metaphors and talk of eternal salvation for a few days. Also, I felt that if I were to (even unintentionally) “rock the boat” at all I might make the people who planned the funeral (my parents, aunt and uncle) feel very stressed out and uncomfortable. And I really did not want to feel responsible for that. Remember, like everyone else, I was still dealing with grandpa’s death.

And on that note I started to think less about talking about me being an Atheist and spent more time thinking about how I was dealing with death as an Atheist. How was grandpa’s funeral going to be different for me than grandma’s funeral?

Obviously, I understood death to be a bit different than my Christian family members. They kept talking about grandpa celebrating Christmas in heaven and finally being with grandma again. Unfortunately my Atheist outlook felt a little bit less comforting to me. I’m pretty sure that grandpa was just dead in the ground, with all of his thoughts, memories and his entire consciousness completely non-existent anymore. Just as the recent years of dementia lessened his ability to experience the world, his death finally ended all of his experiences forever. I wasn’t completely sure about this, and I’m still not, but it is the most reasonable understanding of what death is. And even if I was wrong and there was an afterlife, there’s no compelling reason to think that the Christian heaven is where grandpa is now. As far as I know he’d be just as likely to be crossing the river Styx and telling Charon about an old tractor that he once had. I laughed out loud at the thought.

Compared to being certain that grandpa is spending an eternity in heaven, my Atheist perspective seemed a bit more cold and frightening. Many Atheists say that not believing in an afterlife makes your time in this life all the more enjoyable. I’m not sure that I agreed with that. And definitely in the context of my grandpa’s death it was not a very comforting thought. This was probably because my grandpa undoubtedly believed that he was glory bound, and would see his wife again in heaven. It made me sad to think that he was probably wrong and had already seen the last of grandma many years ago. The only consolation from that sad thought for me was reminding myself that there was nothing left of grandpa to experience that disappointment.

And in this way I found a point of agreement between the Christian view of death and my own: grandpa was released from his Earthly suffering. He wasn’t going to feel pain again. In his last years he must have had moments of lucidity in which he realized the extent of his deterioration, but he wouldn’t have those anymore.

So having found at least one point of common understanding with the immersive Christian narrative around me, I tried to focus on what I had in common with everyone else around me: we loved grandpa, we missed him and it’s good to be around family at times like this.

And I never did talk about my Atheism to anyone. In none of my many conversations during my trip did anyone actually talk to me individually (as opposed to in a group conversation) about religion at all. In retrospect this seemed odd given how Christian the environment was. In any case, it never seemed appropriate or necessary for me to mention my Atheism so I never did.