A few days ago, my father died. I am deeply saddened, and miss him dearly. I was with him on his last two days; he knew he was dying. Although most of our conversations were heartbreaking, I will treasure them forever: our talks were loving, honest and sometimes even funny. I’m thankful and happy that we had this last opportunity to be together. There are no words left unspoken between us, no unresolved quarrels, nor secrets that remain untold. For that, too, I’m immensely thankful and happy.
My father was very religious. His funeral service was beautiful and deeply personal. The priest knew my father, and during his eulogy recalled many of the details that made me proud to be his son. As atheist, attending church service is a strange affair: on one hand you get to sit with a group of nice people who talk about being kind and generous. This usually elates and uplifts me. But, every single time, they manage to point out that they act kindly for spectacularly wrong reasons. That part drives me nuts. Kind people, really bad reasoning. I usually get through a religious service by setting my mind adrift, letting it meander through thoughtscapes filled with silly religious arguments that engage in shouting matches with ethical reasoning. It always puts a smile on my face.
Attending my father’s funeral, however, was different. Grief-stricken as I was, I was unable to let my mind wander, unable to dwell on the many things that I loved about him: the involuntary twitch of his left arm when he was about to say something embarrassing; his astonishingly blue eyes that could twinkle like few others, or the way he ducked his head ever so slightly before he made an ironic comment. Instead, my attention was riveted to the priest and his eulogy. At first, when he talked about my father’s life, I was grateful, nodding, and wiped away my tears.
But then, he told us how my father was now in paradise, describing how cherubs were singing around him, and how my father was singing with then, praising God. Make no mistake: the priest was trying to be profoundly kind, to assuage our fears, and to honor my father – and for that I’m thankful.
Yet, unbidden, from the bottom of my grieving heart rose a single thought:
How can people even want to believe something as silly and, well, pedestrian as cherubs singing and praising god? I’ve commented before on how downright boring all descriptions of heaven and paradise are. Even I, atheistic unbeliever that I am, wished that my father was in a better place than that uninspired, drab setting. Theologically, I couldn’t help but noting that the priest was presupposing that my father had gone to heaven. Of course I, too, wish that this was true. But how would the priest know? The priest neither knows what happens in heaven, nor if my father had gone there – yet confidently stated both in the lamest imaginable terms. Hadn’t the immense sadness of my loss weighed me down, I would have laughed out loud.
My father was a great man – at least he was to me. I will always miss him. And yet, today I feel content. Although he’s gone, I’ll remember his kindness and the hand he had in forming me. My sorrow has turned into pride. My friends helped me with that. It is the people dear to me who help me building his memory. It’s their kindness that fills the void left by my father. It’s their unwavering support that lifts my spirits. I’m healing.
Unexpectedly, though, the thought that my father is singing with cherubs also brings a smile to my face: my father was a terrible singer. Just imagine the faces these poor cherubs would try not to make.
So, yeah, I guess religion can help consoling atheists. Just not the way believers say it does.
Thanks, Dad – I miss you.
In loving memory of my father, Ove Franz