Q: My mother was a cradle-to-grave Episcopalian, but I’m atheist. How do I honor her in a way that feels right to me? Who is the funeral really for, anyway?
I can tell from your question that you recognize that there are many different truths underpinning this funeral. There is the truth represented by religion, the truth represented by your atheist views, and the truth represented by the death of your mother. It’s great that you want to address each of these truths.
But I see you going in and immediately throwing up a road block by saying, “I’m an atheist.” The truth is, honoring your mother and her beliefs doesn’t diminish your views. Your mother’s religious beliefs might make you uncomfortable, but one of the truths here is that you are representing the life of the person who has died. It’s not really one or the other.
I’m guessing that if you died, as an atheist, you probably wouldn’t want a Bible and faith-based liturgy at your funeral. The people around you would feel the disconnect between that service and the truth of your life and your strongly held views. That’s fair.
So, how can you embrace all of these truths? You can ask for help. I encourage you to share these opinions with those who can help organize the funeral. You can say, “I love my mother, but I’m atheist. Mom wanted to be buried in her faith but I don’t know much about it.” Seek counsel, seek guidance, ask questions. Explain that you want to be comfortable too.
Most people of faith would be delighted by the opportunity to welcome someone new into a service that honors their traditions. And the faith leaders I know would work hard to make that service meaningful for everyone. Make sure you find a priest who has this level of openness.
Even for people of profound faith, funerals aren’t always so traditional anymore. Our relationship with faith has evolved. There are so many ways now that you can honor your mother and not feel totally uncomfortable.
I recently went to a coworker’s funeral and it was a full celebration of a real person. There were songs, music and preaching, but there were also people standing up who said let me tell you some things about the other side of this person. It got real. It was gritty and truthful.
Think about the way your mother lived her life. What was important to her, and what things did she do that showed she loved you? How did she speak of her life? Make sure those elements are represented. Clearly you love your mother, and her belief system is part of that.
Planning your mother’s funeral around these elements, you will instinctively insert your own views as you make decisions about the ceremony and burial. As you make choices to honor your mother, and your relationship, the ceremony will likely become less about atheist vs christian, and more about her life and your love for her.
Then, this service can become an opportunity that you can embrace.
I would encourage you to not worry much about public opinion as you plan. Bear in mind that a funeral is a public event, but it’s not a concert. It’s more like the dinner table, where you invite certain people to share a personal family moment.
And don’t focus too much on your discomfort, because ultimately, this is a funeral we are talking about. All funerals have varying degrees of comfortable and uncomfortable for everyone, and no amount of planning will change that.