An Atheist at a Believer’s Funeral

James Lee Griffith
My longtime bridge partner, the wonderful James Griffith, died on January 2nd after major problem with his lungs. He was 77, about to turn 78 this month. I loved this terrific man (and his darling wife Sherry), and will miss him a lot. I will continue to see Sherry as we keep rooting the Ohio State basketball team on to victory as the three of us did in the past.

The funeral service was held in the Methodist church where Jim and Sherry have long been cherished parishioners. Jim was a believer, but he knew I was an atheist and that never bothered him. It was a subject about which he could joke ("I sure hope I’m right and you’re wrong.") He read my atheist thriller novel "Imaginary Friend," and professed to like it, being particularly startled by the ending.

The church setting was beautiful, hymns were sung, and there was a moving sermon by the minister, who clearly knew Jim well, and spoke with humor and compassion about this much-loved person.

For an atheist attendance at a religious ceremony is always somewhat awkward. At a funeral particularly is atheism an unwanted guest. Consider the very comforting Biblical verse the minister read.

John 14:
My Father's house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.
You know the way to the place where I am going.

Since everyone knows an atheist doesn’t believe this, it’s a good time to keep quiet and look noncommittal. During the hymns that is also the right attitude, but what’s one to do when the minister asks everyone to join in a public prayer (printed in the program), with frequent crowd responses of "We give Thee thanks, O God" expected after intonations such as "For the dear friends and kindred of our homes whose faces we see know more, but whose love is with us forever, . . . and for members of our household of faith who worship Thee now is heaven"? I remained silent rather than be a hypocrite, but found myself hoping no one would notice my nonparticipation. No one did, or at least no one commented upon it to me.

What would I say, I asked myself, if someone questioned my failure to make the suggested praise to their god? I decided that when a family and group of friends is grieving in a house of worship where I have voluntarily entered, it’s their religion that rightly sets the tone, and it would be wrong to mention atheism in any way. Doing so would impliedly announce, "You’re all wrong. Dead is dead." That would be a most unpopular and stupid response, and focus the event away from the true purpose of the gathering. Instead I settled on a statement I was, happily, not required to use: "My religious views are private and I would prefer not to discuss them." If pushed ("Aren’t you an atheist?") I would repeat it and change the subject ("This is a beautiful church, do you know how old it is?").

Along with another of his friends and both of his surviving children, I was called upon to say a few words about Jim, so I told some humorous stories about our adventures at the bridge table before concluding with:
Whether it happens suddenly or is prolonged, it’s always a surprise when someone we love dies, but the loss of Jim is startlingly unreal. He was such a vibrant, in-the-moment person, that it seems unbelievable that this wonderful man is no longer with us.

I join his family and friends in paying tribute to him today.

Jim and Me at the Bridge Table

But even atheists must admit that a belief in an afterlife is of great comfort for the bereaved survivors on the death of someone dear to them. The quote from John 14, above, with its assurance that Jim is still "living" is some sense, makes it much easier to go on without his continued physical participation, and to "talk" to him as if he were still listening.

I don’t, of course, think that believing in some supernatural and fantastical place, without evidence of any kind, is the sort of decision I could ever make, but its appeal in this setting is obvious. My take on death has been explained at length in other posts [see particularly "When Atheists Die" in Related Posts below]. I won’t repeat that, but here’s the link:

James Griffith lived a life anyone would have been proud of, and he leaves behind him a loving family and a large number of true friends. The pain of his departure is hard, but it’s also part of the life cycle for all inhabitants of the planet. I will miss him very much.
Jim’s son Tom set a nice tone for the ceremony when he read a poem by Emily Dickinson, and I think I’ll close this post with her moving words.
After great pain a formal feeling comes--
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions--was it He that bore?
And yesterday--or centuries before?

The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
Regardless grown,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow--
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.


Related Posts:
"How To Become an Atheist," May 16, 2010
"Imaginary Friend," June 22, 2010
"When Atheists Die," October 17, 2010
"An Atheist Interviews God," May 20, 2011
"Atheists, Christmas, and Public Prayers," December 9, 2011
"The End of the World: Mayans, Jesus, and Others," December 17, 2012
"A Guide to the Best of My Blog," April 29, 2013


  1. Hi Doug,

    I'm sorry to hear of your friend's passing. One of the nice things about the Bible, as I'm sure you know, is the variety of Truths within it. Ecclesiastes gives a good existentialist view as well:

    For the living know that they will die,
    but the dead know nothing;
    they have no further reward,
    and even their name is forgotten.

    This passage ends on a real downer, but I'm sure that with some creativity (which you have in spades) this could be turned into something comforting:

    I have seen something else under the sun:

    The race is not to the swift
    or the battle to the strong,
    nor does food come to the wise
    or wealth to the brilliant
    or favor to the learned;
    but time and chance happen to them all.

    Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come:

    As fish are caught in a cruel net,
    or birds are taken in a snare,
    so people are trapped by evil times
    that fall unexpectedly upon them.


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