30 Before 30: Life at a funeral - from an atheist's viewpoint
I don’t care for dead people. Whether they’re on TV, on the news, or in the same room with me: they scare me, and I’m fine with that.
At funerals, I’ve always been a fan of the “milling around at the back of the room” crowd than peering over the actual body. Not because it’s morose, but because I always imagine the recently deceased jumping from the casket and biting the necks of family members. Or at the very least, opening their eyes and saying “Boo.”
I suppose it’s human nature, coupled with repeated watchings of zombie movies — we can’t handle the dead. When we look at them, we see them breathing — our eyes and brains can’t understand that they’re not. The stillness and sadness of a funeral home is filled with horrible jokes and gallows humor because, eventually, we’re going to be the one by the flowers who isn’t saying much.
When I attended the viewing of my boyfriend’s grandmother, I kept all this to myself. I mingled. I met many members of his considerably large family and did my best to be social and upbeat, but not too upbeat. We walked around the room, shaking hands and taking hugs. Everything smelled like aftershave and furniture polish, and the effort to be clean at a death scene seemed so ludicrous, so innately human, that I would have laughed if I had the energy.
Chris was on grief autopilot. He was hearing stories for the hundredth time because I had never heard them before. I saw grown men cracking jokes with tears in their eyes, trying not to glance at the front of the room and taking drinks when they eventually did.
We ate finger food and laughed at the coldness of the room. We had to.
During the service, I sat with the family. I was really, really uncomfortable. I felt like an impostor. I wanted to give up my space in the second pew to someone who had met this woman more than a handful of times. I didn’t feel right bowing my head and singing hymns — I never do, really — but now I felt ashamed. I wanted to apologize. I wanted to run.
Chris sat next to me quietly, blinking, trying not to cry. Something, I realized, that none of the men in my family bother to do. We don’t pretend to be strong when we aren’t.
If this were my grandma’s funeral, I wouldn’t be there. I’d be in the hospital with an eating disorder. I’d need a heroin injection every time I regained consciousness to get me to stop howling. I wouldn’t be able to dress myself, let alone make it to the church.
I loved Chris so much then, all in that moment, I welled up fiercely. I bit my lip hard to stop from crying. Now not only was I crashing a funeral, I was mocking the dead like a hired mourner. I sort of hoped the family would lynch me at the cemetery; they could hit me, and I could be hit, and then we would all feel better.
It’s a terrible thing to be an atheist at a funeral. Any feeling of hope or healing will be sucked from your side of the room. When it isn’t your relative, you feel like the literal devil, sitting in the pews among the devout and shaking your head at all the affirmations they’re trying so hard to cling onto. I held Chris’s hand, because I wasn’t here for me. I gave his sister a hug and a tissue, glad to have some kind of usefulness.
The pastor stood at the front of the room, giving a usual sort of sermon about life and death, and this particular life and this particular death. I’m not much at home in church, or most events that take place in them, so I nodded in the right places and pretended to sing, just like I did when I was 11.
Suddenly, the mood shifted. The pastor moved away from using mortal phrases such as “death,” and “passing,” and referred instead to “going home” and “moving up.” A continuation, rather than an ending. Now, I don’t believe in heaven or God or reincarnation — so I was surprised to find myself feeling uplifted.
It didn’t content me to think that my relatives would be living out other lives in heaven. It contented me that the people around me — people who loved me, people who never met me, people I had never seen or thought of while I was alive — they would be going on. Long after I’m dead, there will be new dances and languages and pop music. There would still be trees and post offices and Sundays and sledding and China. If I died — when I died — there would still be China. That made me feel better. Which I suppose is the latter half of a funeral: we need to feel better that our loved one died, but also that we will also eventually die.
I thought of my grandmother, content in her Catholicism, and my father, cursed with an anxiety disorder and terrified of death. I’d thought that only the religious have the luxury not to fear their own death, but that’s not quite true. I didn’t feel better from the promise of afterlife, but at the promise of life after. After I’d winked out, after I felt nothing and saw nothing. If I close my eyes, it doesn’t mean the world doesn’t exist. It’s scary to think about being nothing, but nothing’s not bad. It doesn’t hurt.
And I’m sure, like all the things that terrify us in the night, it won’t be half as bad as we think it is when it shows up.
When the processional started out, I fell back with the crowd, not wanting to be first in line behind the casket. I tried to shuffle myself in with the non-relatives, but Chris’s mother spotted me and took my hand. I smiled at her and squeezed it. I wasn’t here for me; I was here for somebody else.
And when I’m not, they’ll still have China.
Sarah Smallwood is a freelance writer living and working in Ann Arbor. She is currently rewriting her first novel, keeps a daily blog at The Other Shoe and hosts a podcast at Stuff with Things. She can be reached at heybeedoo at gmail dot com.