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facts & arguments

How do you plan an atheist’s funeral?

‘No God,’ Dad said. So Heather Ferguson got creative when it came time to celebrate her father’s life

Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

There was only one thing my dad told me he wanted in his funeral – no God. And in case you are thinking he said, “Know God,” let me set you straight. His actual words were, “I am an atheist and I feel very strongly about that.” These were my only marching orders when I started organizing his funeral.

We don’t normally talk about religion or death in my family, but Dad had Stage 4 cancer. The brutality of the disease and its finality still had a certain abstract quality. It was a small window of opportunity, as it turned out, so I guess he took it.

My dad was the charismatic patriarch of our family. A “guy’s guy” with a marshmallow heart, he played life like he played golf, unapologetically straight up the middle.

I don’t think he saw religion and spirituality as something that could wing you into a great new insight, but then I wouldn’t know. He never discussed it with me, except briefly, this once.

So, taking this tidbit of information as a starting point, I began to think about what a funeral for an atheist would look like.

For me, some of my most profound experiences have been led by clergy, but that’s not what Dad wanted, so this was going to be a DIY job.

I pushed aside the persistent feeling that the guy wasn’t even dead yet and here I was planning his funeral.

I had organized my uncle’s funeral and in our family, if you do something once and you don’t screw it up, it’s yours forever. You have to be careful what you wish for.

I just kept telling myself this was something I could do for my dad, something I knew how to do and I wanted it to be my best effort.

“Funerals for atheists”: The search washed up a lot of soapy stuff that just wasn’t my dad.

I began to picture him squirming in heaven (oops! No heaven – but, thankfully, no hell either).

Then I realized I didn’t truly know what an atheist was – I mean by definition – so I did another search and found fabulous references to great philosophers and poets, to humanism and the adoration of nature.

Atheism seemed to me simply a void that anyone could fill with an alternative or creative view of existence.

I sent Dad a note to say this freedom of thought was appealing to me, that maybe I was an atheist, too, but I got no response. I didn’t pursue it either.

By this point, meaningful conversation often choked at the gate. He wasn’t good with tears.

For me, the worst part about Dad’s atheism was that I didn’t know where he thought he was going.

Would he simply “snuff out,” like a toy with the switch turned off?

Say what you will about religion, there is a certainty about the afterlife. One may not fully believe the particulars, but it still gives comfort to the dying, as well as the living.

I wondered if I could turn to science to provide Dad with an acceptable answer – that is to say, provide me with an acceptable answer that would also please Dad.

I found a lovely piece written by an American science journalist about the law of conservation of energy, that no new energy is ever created but, likewise, no energy ever dies either. If we think of our souls, our bodies, everything we ever learned and all the loving we ever did – simply as energy, then it is comforting to know that our lives do not end and that we contribute our energy back to this world.

We are all still here. We are just less orderly.

I had now made my brother Bob very nervous. He was a touch point for me on this project because he and Dad are so much alike.

I made the mistake of trying to describe this vast ice rink of atheistic ideas I was skating on. It only made him more nervous. I think he envisioned funeral by poetry reading. In his mind, that would kill us all. He nixed the science journalist.

Then my mom nixed a song cousin Lisa and I had worked on.

“Too sad,” she said.

“For a funeral?” I asked.

They know me too well. I love drama, am fine with emotion. I like to go deep.

Time to scale back.

First principles for any funeral state that it is a time for the living to say goodbye.

I simply could not have Mom and Bob, our family and friends squirming in their chairs. This ritual was for them, so they could share a final tribute to my dad.

You could argue we shot Dad’s funeral straight up the middle. Everyone who spoke knew him well enough to tell a great story.

Tons of references to his passion for golf.

I sneaked in a poem or two.

The whole room sang Blue Skies with heart and soul.

Lots of people remembering him, often with fond humour and there was a great abundance, an almost overwhelming sense of love.

When I look at the great religions of the world, no matter how they get twisted, they are all based on love, a gentle sense of humour and compassion for others.

If it is true that you leave this world as you lived it, Dad may have understood that better than any of us.

Heather Ferguson lives in Victoria, B.C.

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