My dad died on December 22, 2016 after a year long fight with cancer. I only wanted two things for my father’s death: to comfort him as he died and to have no mention of religious ideas at his funeral (this was his wish as well and I was determined to give it to him).
The funeral home ended up working with us. I was initially disappointed that the “secular” officiant they gave us was clearly a theist. He acted like he had no idea how to comfort people without talking about an afterlife or “seeing them again.” He didn’t seem confused that we wanted no mention of gods but he really seemed stymied by the idea of no afterlife. I was annoyed. I ended up giving them readings (I’ll add one below) and I did the eulogy. His part was basically MCing and he read some memories from family members who didn’t feel they could get up and talk. It ended up being a beautiful, god-free, afterlife-mythology-free service. It was only at the grave site for the full military honors (a wish of my dad as he fought at 19 years old in Vietnam) that religious mythology came into play. Apparently the US government has zero precedent for having a god-free military funeral. How is this possible in a secular country? It made me want to pull my hair out after all my careful work to see my dad’s completely secular wishes carried out to have the “god and country” ruin it. Ick.
When my dad was still alive but we knew he was terminal I started writing the Eulogy I promised him I’d write. I googled “atheist eulogy” and wasn’t happy with the responses. For example, Aaron Freeman’s eulogy from a physicist (which I did like as I’m also a physicist) and this eulogy from an atheist to his grandma. What I didn’t like about these is that they both focus on comparing the atheist worldview with a religious world view. For example, in the physicist eulogy he talks about “need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith” and the other is written for a deceased that was highly religious.
I wanted to avoid talking about the religious viewpoint at all. First, I didn’t want to offend anyone who was also grieving my dad’s death. I knew the funeral wasn’t ONLY about me and my mom and sister. Dad had sisters, his mother is still alive, and many friends from “back in the day” that I didn’t intend to insult by saying “your faith is asinine and your mythology is infantile.” Even if that’s what I thought. But, more importantly that trying not to offend, I wanted to show that atheism has valuable comfort for death just like (I’d say, even more so) than religious mythologies. I wanted to prove without saying so overtly that atheists and atheism does offer comfort. The “no atheists in fox holes” idea is silly, erroneous, and simply religious ignorance about science-based world views. I knew that atheism gave me comfort when my dad was dying and now that he’s gone and I want to SHOW that without SAYING that.
More importantly I wanted to give my eulogy for my dad. I’m a writer and public speaker and the action of giving the eulogy myself was a gift I wanted to give my dad posthumously and give my grieving mother. I’m happy to say that through tears and shaking hands I was able to give the following eulogy. It was beautiful. It was cathartic to write and deliver. I hope it gave solace to dad’s loved ones like it did me. I hope, if you are seeking a secular, doesn’t-even-mention-religion eulogy I hope this can help and I’m very sorry for you loss. I’m adding links to my dad’s favorite music.
When I was seven years old I decided to run away from home. I don’t remember why I wanted to run away but I do remember how I was going to go about it and that was to pack a small doll-sized wicker suitcase full of socks. This task was made more difficult by my sister taking socks OUT of the basket as quickly as I could put them in. Eventually, I guess, I had what I thought was an adequate number of socks for life in the big wide world and I set out.
When my dad got home from work a few hours later I was defiantly marching around the perimeter of the yard (because I wasn’t allowed outside the yard!). He saw me and gave me a questioning look which I turned my nose up at and continued my epic journey. He went in the house. He didn’t yell at me or demand I come inside. He did something much more maniacal (and genius I can now see as a parent). He turned his stereo up enough to make the windows shake and played Heat of the Moment by Asia.
What could I do? I was back inside and dancing by the first chorus. I couldn’t miss that guitar solo.
My dad gave me music. He’d take off work early so that Alice Cooper’s Schools Out for Summer was blaring on the stereo when we got off the school bus on the last day of school. He’d put headphones on us and have Mandi and I close our eyes so we could hear the soaring sounds of Pink Floyd’s Learning to Fly and we’d feel just like we were floating through air.
He didn’t just play the music we talked about it. I learned about mercy from Nils Lofgrin (and never could watch boxing again) and about the genocide of Native Americans from Elton John. I learned about homelessness from Jethro Tull and that I should do what my daddy tells me from Johnny Rivers (or my hands would never come clean).
My dad gave me the stars. Through his telescope in our little backyard he showed us the rings of Saturn (this is one of Mandi’s very first memories) and the galaxy in Orion’s Belt. He had a special apparatus for viewing the Sun and I saw the boiling surface of a star before I was old enough to drive. And he taught us that we are small in the scheme of the universe and important in our impact. He was very compassionate and loved animals and always taught us how to treat this beautiful planet on which we take our cosmic ride through the Solar System.
My dad gave me humor. Our house was always, ALWAYS full of laughter. And dad liked to find humor in small things. Like he’d take an obscure movie quote and say it so often it was like another language we shared only with us. “Wanger down”, “Lookie here what I brung you” and that’s just from the movie The Right Stuff. He also liked to mispronounce words. In my family we say Beaker Full before someone leaves because that was his hilarious way of pronouncing “be careful”. Most recently, even when he was sick, he started saying “He’s got” from some show called Barnwood Builders that I’ve never even seen for myself. But “he’s got” will become part of my speech for the rest of my life. He had that way to make life fun.
And now he’s gone. And I have three little humans looking to me for understanding about how life and death works. What happens when someone we love gets sick and dies? How do we cope? How do you go on when you’ll never hear their voice again or hold them in a hug?
And this hurts so bad. Like right here in the chest is this hole. This empty, gaping wound where my dad used to be. These are the words we use to describe the pain: loss, empty, wound.
And I get why we use these words. The pain is physical and can be overwhelming. It’s actually scary to notice it so we distract ourselves from it.
But if we are really brave and can sit with that pain and stare into the hole…
But I find the hole isn’t empty at all. It’s filled with music and stars and humor. It’s filled with memories and laughter and tears. It’s filled with dad. I haven’t lost him. He isn’t gone. He isn’t in that box of ashes. He is right here [in my heart]. There is no emptiness. There is fullness. Here, in my chest, in that pain, is pure love. So much love it is bursting at the seams. And when the love is too much it pours out from my eyes as tears.
The fact is. The fact I want my kids to know is that grief – this word we use for sadnesses of loss – is just a symptom of love. When you cry and even scream at this pain it isn’t really grief we are feeling. It is love.
So I’m going to cherish this aching hole. Treat it as a precious gift. It was worth it. He was worth it. It was an honor to know him, to learn at his knee, to argue politics with him, to share music, to share the love of my kids. To share our brief time on this rock together laughing and loving.
This is what he was showing me in the music, and the stars, and the laughter. Life is hard and so so beautiful.
Thank you dad.
And here is the reading from Margaret Meade.
To the living, I am gone.
To the sorrowful, I will never return.
To the angry, I was cheated,
But to the happy, I am at peace,
And to the faithful, I have never left.
I cannot be seen, but I can be heard.
So as you stand upon a shore, gazing at a beautiful sea — remember me.
As you look in awe at a mighty forest and its grand majesty — remember me.
As you look upon a flower and admire its simplicity — remember me.
Remember me in your heart, your thoughts, your memories of the times we loved,
the times we cried, the times we fought, the times we laughed.
For if you always think of me, I will never be gone.
My dad’s death is hard to accept. Writing this when it hasn’t even been one month since he’s been gone makes me bawl. It is good to cry. It is necessary. But I am comforted by my knowledge of how life works and it couldn’t work without death. Life is change. As Natalie Babbitt said,
Everything’s a wheel, turning and turning, never stopping. The frogs is part of it, and the bugs, and the fish, and the wood thrush, too. And people. But never the same ones. Always coming in new, always growing and changing, and always moving on. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. That’s the way it is… But dying’s part of the wheel, right there next to being born. You can’t pick out the pieces you like and leave the rest. Being part of the whole thing, that’s the blessing.
May you LIVE. Peace.