Three Funerals and an Atheist
By Harry Willson
FEBRUARY 28, 2000:
Funeral No. 1
For 45 minutes the preacher talked about Marcos -- what a wonderful Christian he was, how he prayed every morning in front of a wall of photographs of his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, guiding them onto the right path for that day.
When he finally finished, the pastor asked members of the family to stand and say how they wanted their father or grandfather or great-grandfather to be remembered. No one spoke. The preacher cajoled and pleaded. Finally a grandson said Marcos made good tortillas. After more cajoling another grandson said that Marcos used to play with him. No more. Nothing more.
Marcos' pious ways were undeniable, but his behavior, especially toward his family, was questionable. And maybe they didn't like the preacher's story about Marcos praying in front of the photographs. If anything at all can be affected, or effected, by praying in front of photographs, that would be the grossest kind of manipulation, taking the place but not constituting any improvement over the beatings of an earlier time. It would be spiritual interference, and spiritual abuse. It would be a last ditch attempt to remain in control. No wonder sons and daughters remained silent.
I try to imagine what might have happened, if the preacher at my father's funeral had asked us to stand and speak. He didn't, so we didn't. Would I have mentioned that I had only just discovered in the previous 14 days that my father's Christian posturing was all a fraud? Probably not, although I clearly remember thinking it throughout the service.
My father didn't believe that stuff. But he pretended to, and because he postured so well, it cost me half a lifetime of trying and testing and finally proving that there is nothing to it, no God there, no beloved community, nothing. I was startled to learn that in the end he hadn't believed a word of it. I don't think I would have said that to the assembled funeral group, out of courtesy -- even though it would have made for a remarkably dramatic moment.
I could have told them of how my father came to oppose the Vietnam War so strongly, as unconstitutional and immoral and unChristian and wicked, that he changed his political registration. After being a Republican for more than 50 years, he switched to Democrat, solely so that he could vote for Pennsylvania Senator Joseph Clark in the primary election. Clark consistently opposed the war in every way he could. Some in that funeral audience would not have liked that testimonial, either.
I remember the last funeral at which I officiated, after I had already resigned and applied for "permission to demit the ministry." She was a 16-year-old victim of leukemia, who accepted her death better than any of the rest of us. I was simply furious. "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord."
And then, "Surely Thou art a God that hidest Thyself." Indeed! At that point I had not yet figured out that he's not simply hiding. There's no God there, at all.
My thoughts go back to the preacher at Marcos' funeral. I wonder where he went to seminary. Doesn't he know what the Bible says? What ever became of the sovereignty of God? Isn't that what the Hebrew/Christian funeral message is supposed to be about?
To wit: "God made the world. It is his. He runs it. Everything that happens in it is somehow his doing. All our problems come from ego -- the mistaken notion that we matter, that we're in charge. We do not, and we are not. Our mortality proves it. No matter how powerful and influential we seem to be for brief moments, we die anyway. God does not die. ... " That should be the funeral message, if one believes that stuff at all.
But God did die, or he never was, except in man's imagination. So, then, what should be, or could be, a correct, clear funeral message?
"Matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Individual centers of consciousness are precious, while they exist. Nothing is wasted. All is preserved. (It takes a kind of faith to believe this, but you don't need a 'God' to have that kind of faith.) There is One. It is all One. The One is inscrutable, and inexorable. Let's see your courage, at this moment."
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