Life and Death in a Christian Family

My brother-in-law died recently. It was unexpected, tragic and sad. He was 51 and just dropped dead of a heart attack after feeling ill all day. His family and friends were shocked and devastated. The whole experience for me has been very disquieting. The difference between how a religious person views the world as compared to how an atheist does is never so apparent as it is when life ends. But then it would be wouldn't it?? The end is really the whole enchilada, the defining moment for the faithful.

I never knew Wayne to be religious but his wife assures me that he was. In fact, he and I never discussed religion but I always thought he'd make a hell of an atheist. He had that live your life to the fullest because you only go around once kind of attitude. I never knew him to throw those judgmental little barbs, there were no "I'll pray for you" or "it's god's plan" he never freaked out when we ate without praying, or performed that awkward little ritual of praying in the midst of a dinner party while everyone else has begun their 1st course. He didn't add his voice to the answering machine message wishing god's blessings on all callers friends and telemarketers alike, and he seemed to prefer fixing a big weekend breakfast over church attendance on Sunday morning. Those overtly religious practices were always more of his wife's forte; but still she tells me he was a god fearing man.

I am feeling bad that we didn't make the trip up last summer to visit. As an atheist I know I missed my last opportunity to spend time with a genuinely nice person and for that I am sorry. However, as the only apparent atheist in the room, I was alone in believing that this death literally marked the end of something. On the surface the other 200+ people seemed convinced that they would see him again, that "he was in a better place" that "his father had called him home". The interesting thing was that whereas I felt only sorrow, the faithful appeared to experience grief, anger and guilt, simultaneously. This confuses me. I get the grief part but the anger seemed to be directed at their god. They didn't understand why he would take Wayne from them. They questioned the motives and wisdom of their god, hence the guilt. In the first days after his death there were attorneys contacted and the groundwork laid for legal action against the clinic that examined him and sent him home in the hours before his death. To me this seemed somewhat counter intuitive. If one were to accept that this was god's will, his plan, and that Wayne was in a better place then wasn't the clinic itself an instrument of god? Were they not just fulfilling their part in this great plan helping the deceased to get to that place all chrisitians hope for? None of which I said of course; if it were up to me I'd sue the hell out of them.

The faithful that gathered for the service were in dire need of words of comfort. Something to placate them and appease their guilt. I don't think they got it, I know I didn't. The pastor who conducted the service was hell bent (no pun intended) on soul collecting rather than offering godly words of comfort. He spoke at length of the fiery pit that awaited all those who failed to accept jesus as their savior and how if Wayne could speak he would urge all those listening to do so. Anyone there that bought into his drivel must have sat there terrified wondering if Wayne had truly accepted in the way he was supposed to. Spouse, children, family, friends, imagining what awaited the departed if he hadn't been truly saved. It just pissed me off, but then I had the great displeasure of trying to converse with the pastor the day before the funeral so I was already angry.

The widow had put together a few thoughts that she wanted included in the service to personalize it. Among other things she included Wayne's lust for life, his love of music, and his great thrill at being able to jam with a blues band in his final weeks. When, at the request of Wayne's wife ( the woman who was paying the pastor), I emailed her thoughts, the pastor informed me he wouldn't include them. Knowing that I was dealing with the delusional I remained polite and patient and asked him why not. After he condescendingly advised me that he was smarter about these matters than I, apparently due to his PhD in theology, he informed me that the references to song, music and lustful living were sinful and that his purpose in speaking at the service was "to spread the word of god and bring the lost to jesus christ". (sheesh) I guess he is smarter because I thought the purpose was to say nice things about the deceased and bring comfort.... After I unclenched my jaw I did ask him about psalms 100:1 make a joyful noise unto the lord, but again I am none too bright in these matters as it apparently has nothing to do with music. I did tell him that if he would not find it in his heart to honor the widows request then I would find someone who would, and much to his red faced chagrin I did.

This entire experience has motivated me to consider my own end of life send off. I understand that I won't actually be there in any real sense, but I have a family packed with rabid born agains. There is no way that I am going to give them the opportunity to pray over me while I am in the room. So it's a green burial for me. No ritual, no prayer, no pastors. No terrifying imagery or proselytizing. Just a field, a tree and then a kick ass party with copious amounts of food and drink. I get to pick the play list and you're all invited.

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Comment by Tom Thompson on February 2, 2010 at 10:21pm
"On the surface the other 200+ people seemed convinced that they would see him again, that "he was in a better place" that "his father had called him home". The interesting thing was that whereas I felt only sorrow, the faithful appeared to experience grief, anger and guilt, simultaneously. This confuses me. I get the grief part but the anger seemed to be directed at their god. They didn't understand why he would take Wayne from them. They questioned the motives and wisdom of their god, hence the guilt."

Why don't theists see how contradictory this is? It is quite illogical to believe that a person goes to a place of perfect happiness when they die and still wish that they had not gone. Christians certainly must want to believe in heaven but their actions betray a real belief.

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