“Death is not an event in life. We do not live to experience death,” Ludwig Wittgenstein declared in the Tractatus, echoing Epicurus’s line “when I am there, death is not; when death is there, I am not.” They’re both surely right. Those of us who don’t die suddenly or in our sleep will experience dying, but won’t exist beyond the final breath except as a corpse. It’s not that a soul leaves the body; rather death is the complete and permanent extinction of consciousness. We are animals, albeit remarkable ones, but nothing more than physical beings. When the body shuts down, that’s it for us as experiencers. Game over. We won’t be haunting heaven, limbo, or hell. We won’t be prey to little devils with pitchforks; nor will we sit at God’s right hand. Our loved ones won’t reappear miraculously restored to look their best, nor will we be offered 72 virgins (female or male). We won’t be at all, though we’ll leave some traces and live on for a while in others’ memories. Then these too will go. This much is obvious to most atheists. It’s this truth about the human condition – that we are part of nature, and like everything else will decay and cease to be, and be forgotten – that religions take such pains to deny.
Funerals, but no afterlife
There is, then, something peculiarly repulsive about a sermon about the afterlife preached over an atheist’s body, though in the past that was the norm for non-believers. What was once commonplace when religions monopolized funerals, though, is now inexcusable, a kind of betrayal of a non-believer’s beliefs. Secular ceremonies, such as are provided by the British Humanist Association to more than 10,000 people a year in the UK, allow families and friends to bury or cremate their dead without the irrelevance of religious trimmings. Often improvised within a simple structure, drawing on favorite music, anecdotes and poetry, they celebrate the essence of a life. They offer consolation to the bereaved who know that they are doing what the dead person would have wanted.
Christian burials are about resurrection, salvation, and the presumed continuing conscious existence of the dead person. They are filled with consoling yet misguided hope expressed in prayers for a soul as it departs on a one-way journey. At their best they draw on many centuries of ritual and poetry of the highest order, poetry that moves swiftly from the particular death to general meditations on mortality, God, and our place in the cosmos. Atheist funerals, in contrast, celebrate a dead person’s past. They are memorials. That’s because the individual has no personal future now, is simply the sum of his or her actions and relationships and the traces these have left on others. He or she is not ‘departed’ or ‘gone before us’ on some mysterious ethereal journey, but is, rather, irreversibly non-existent as a sentient being: is dead, in other words.
The power of ritual repetition
Yet – and it feels like heresy to write this – secular funerals, for all their sincerity, individuality, and mixture of celebration and mourning, lack something. Not spirituality of course, nor hope for the future: in this context realism should prevail over comforting illusion. What is missing is the power of ritual repetition. For whatever reason, this is something that most secularists have shunned. The emphasis on unique events tailored to reflect individual lives comes at a price. For those who believe, hearing the words of Thomas has a cumulative effect over a lifetime. Lines such as these resonate with greater profundity on each hearing:
‘MAN that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.’ / ‘In the midst of life we are in death.’ / ‘…earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust’
These lines are at the heart of a ritual. Ritual may or may not involve superstition, but it touches something deep in our psyches and it shouldn’t be the exclusive preserve of the religious. We do not have the secular equivalent of the ‘Burial of the Dead’ with those phrases that increase their power on each occasion they are read out. Where is the non-religious reflection on death’s meaning and significance that could stand up to Cranmer’s service and replace it? Someone should write it – preferably in time for my funeral. They might even steal a line or two from Cranmer who is long out of copyright. It would take a poet, or philosopher, or a combination of the two, to do this well. But surely there is someone who is up to the task. Not that anyone – even in death – should have a form of words forced upon them; but it would be wonderful to have a secular option that could compete with the best that religion can provide.