In general, I find that humanists of all types do funerals and memorials really well, which might sound surprising, since we don’t promote a belief in a personal afterlife (although, as Julia Sweeney pointed out in her one-woman show Letting Go of God, not everyone wants to spend eternity with their family).
Rather, we have two shared understandings about death.
One is physical: We are made of elements that have existed since the Big Bang—“star stuff,” as the remake of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey has recently reminded us. After our death, all those elements will return to the earth, whether as flesh or ashes, to be broken down and mixed up with other elements and eventually recycled into new life in a variety of ways.
Our second shared understanding about death is personal: We live on through the influence that our personality and our deeds have made in the life of humanity. We live in memories, in art and music, in discoveries, in physical objects and spaces we created, in the ideas and emotions we inspired. And all those things will continue to be developed in turn by other people.
Given these views on death, what does a humanist memorial look like? There are usually some short readings and music that were meaningful to the deceased, but the primary purpose of humanist memorials is to tell stories — the life stories of people who have died and stories about their relationships with those they have left behind.
I think that’s what we all want to do when faced with loss.
We want to grieve together, to remember and celebrate the person: to express as best we can how he was important to us, how he changed our lives; why her life mattered, why her death matters. I have found that even those who believe in an afterlife need to tell and hear personal stories and are frustrated by traditional rituals that seem impersonal, no matter the promises of heaven.
Because humanists’ only certainty is in the lessons that a person’s life leaves behind, sometimes we tell uncomfortable truths at our memorials, with the permission of the family, of course. For instance, if a person has committed suicide, and the issues of suicide and mental health can be talked about openly at the memorial, it may be the deceased person’s last gift to save someone else’s life.
Overall, I think the humanist attitude toward death is summed up in these words by Algernon Black, an Ethical Society Leader in New York in the mid-twentieth century (he wrote it for a man, but clearly it could be adapted for anyone):
We must ask in all honesty, “How does a person live on after he dies?” The many different religions have offered answers to this question. But apart from all the differences of belief, there is one reality that we all share.
When someone lives with us in a family or works with us day by day through the years, something happens to us that would not have happened if he had not lived or if we had not known him. His unique personality lives in the way he touched our lives.
Because of his intelligence and power to think, we are more alert and more able to deal with our problems. Because he worked productively, we understand better what it means to be productive. Because of his sense of humor, his joy of life, his laughter, we are better able to see things in perspective and to laugh and enjoy life. And because he is kind and compassionate, generous and loving, then we value more these qualities in life. He has helped us grow.
And the wonderful fact is that when he dies, we don’t lose what he gave us, what he brought forth in us. We are better people because he lived. The world is a better place because he lived. He gave us a great gift: his life, his influence, and his presence. We will treasure his image in our conscience and in our consciousness. In darkness, we will always see more clearly because he lived. And when we remember him, it will be as if he were present, and we will think more clearly and show more integrity and know more of what it means to love.
Lovelady has served as Leader of the Ethical Society of St. Louis in Ladue since 2005 and also serves on the national level with the American Ethical Union. She grew up in New York City and attended Northwestern University outside Chicago and thinks St. Louis is the best-kept secret in America. Kate also enjoys playing music and native gardening. She and her partner, musician Billy Dechand, own a home in Dogtown.