Douglas Whaley: Atheist Minister/Officiant/Celebrant

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At a meeting of the Freethinkers Book Club last summer Nathan Weller, its president, mentioned that he and his fiance were looking for a nonreligious officiant at their upcoming wedding.  I casually said I’d been thinking about doing that sort of thing, and within the blink of an eye it was a done deal!  I applied online to the Universal Life Church to become one of their ministers (which costs $25 and included a handsome certificate).  Their "Ministry" has only two tenets: (1) “Do only that which is right,” and (2) “All should be free to worship as they see fit.”  I had no problem agreeing with those precepts.  Next I had to register with the State of Ohio ($10), and then was ready to go.  Nathan and his bride, Karla Norquist, wrote the ceremony with some minor input from me, and the wedding was held on a Monday afternoon, October 17th at a country venue on the north side of Columbus. Everything went off splendidly, and the happy, handsome couple and their guests had a lovely wedding and reception. 

David Vargo, my husband, thought it wonderfully funny that his atheist husband is a minister, and he began clowning around claiming (in a mock southern drawl) that he is now a “minister’s wife”!  Doubling down on that, I commissioned our friend Kat Stout to cross-stitch a sampler which I had framed and presented to him as a birthday gift this past December.  Here it is:

I’d assumed this would be a one-off event, an amusing and interesting episode in my life, but I was wrong.  Under advice from others I registered as an officiant with the Humanist Community of Central Ohio (of which I am a member), which is a chapter of The American Humanist Association.  HCCO’s mission is to provide a supportive local community for humanists and other nontheists in the Central Ohio area, having monthly meetings, social events, outreach activities, and much more.  As readers of this blog may know I am the author of an atheist thriller (“Imaginary Friend”) and I’ve given bookreadings from it at HCCO and gave a speech there once when they gave me an award.  Among the services HCCO provides is a list of officiants who will conduct weddings or preside at memorial services.

When I joined this list I was told that there were standard rules for Humanists who are officiants, and so I met with the two other local men who are registered and we had a couple of fascinating meetings.  They were very helpful in guiding me to websites and other sources for officiants in the atheist community.  Among other things I was advised that if I was not going to charge for my services (which I don’t) I probably should suggest to those who asked for them to make a contribution to HCCO in the usual amount.  They pointed out that they needed the income, and even if I didn’t it was unfair to siphon off their business.  This is of course true, so I resolved to do as they suggested if it ever came up that I was needed again.  The usual fee for a wedding, they mentioned, is $200 to $250.

Turns out I should have asked about memorial services since that’s what happened next.

About three weeks ago a woman contacted HCCO in search of someone who could conduct a non-religious memorial service for her sister-in-law who had recently died.  The woman and almost all of her family and friends were non-believers so a traditional minister would set entirely the wrong tone.

The other officiants on HCCO’s list all were busy on the named date so it fell to my lot to reply to this woman and volunteer to help.  She explained that her husband, the brother of the deceased, was having problems dealing with his sister’s death, and she was doing most of the work in setting up the service, to be held in Marion, Ohio (50 minutes north of Columbus by car), on Saturday, March 25th.  I arranged to meet with the two of them at Starbucks the next day.

At that meeting I introduced myself to the handsome couple when they arrived and we talked for over an hour.  The husband explained that his sister was only 45 years old, but that she’d died mysteriously in her own bedroom during the night in mid February.  Her mother, with whom she lived as a caregiver, found her body lifeless on the floor beside the bed.  The sister had a history of depression and additions, and the cause of her death was still unclear.  An autopsy had been done, but the results wouldn’t be available until April.

Compounding this tragedy was the fact that during most of her life the sister was a very intelligent, personable, vibrant woman, and she had many friends and relatives who adored her.  The sister was working on a biology degree from Ohio State, was a lover of animals, a major singer, great cook, and always the life of the party. 

Her brother, looking very haggard, turned to me on the edge of tears, and confessed that he wasn’t doing so well.  His sister was four years older than he was and  since their mother worked multiple jobs when he was young his sister had been the primary caretaker during his early years.  They were very close.  Her name was not Alice, but let’s call her that for purposes of this post.

Suddenly, as I sat there listening, what had begun as a lark the previous summer jumped to a new and scarier level.  My respect for trained ministers soared as I contemplated what next to say to this grieving couple.  Certainly I have no experience or expertise at handling the delicate task of tending to those in need of comfort.  Weddings, happy events that they are, are one thing.  This death, which may have been a suicide, of a woman who was the same age as my own son, was another.  I’d given no thought to being an officiant at a memorial service, but if I had I would have assumed that my services would be needed for an atheist who died of old age, a much easier task than this tragedy.  

What to do?

Well, I’m 73 years old and, perforce, I’ve seen many deaths.  Moreover, as this blog attests, I’ve nearly died myself on at least three occasions.  Life has given me some preparation for handling trouble of many kinds.  So I took a deep breath and began the work.

When the husband said he didn’t know how to deal with his grief, which was overwhelming him, I looked him in the eye and asked if he’d thought about asking the one person who could give him the best advice on what to do.  What did I mean, he responded, puzzled.  “Why Alice, of course,” I replied.  “If she were here now what would she say to you?”

He looked startled, blinked twice, and then his eyes widened.  His face cleared and he almost smiled.  “Oh,” he said in a firmer voice, “that helps.”  I had the impression he was mentally hearing Alice talking sternly to him about manning up and handling the situation.

Keeping the focus on Alice I asked for stories about her, and to hear her history.  The love both of them had for Alice poured out, and as they told of her adventures  there was even some laughter at these memories.  We then moved on to planning what I was to say.  They had thought of a collage of pictures (it eventually turned into a fascinating slide show), and I suggested that a large picture of Alice be displayed.  I asked them to have Alice’s friends and family (and particularly her mother, who I was told was not a shy, quiet person) send me recollections of Alice.  It was important that I have her biography and know the key players in her life.

At the memorial services I’ve attended through the years, I’ve always been annoyed when the minister begins by saying that he/she didn’t know the deceased and then has nothing but platitudes about death to offer.  That sets the wrong tone.  On some level a memorial service has something in common with theater, about which I know quite a bit.  It should have a good beginning, be interesting throughout, deliver its message, and have a satisfying finish.  As I prepared my remarks I kept all of that in mind.  It was always planned for this ceremony to have a segment in which those who wished to do so could come forward and speak about Alice.  Good.  I began counting on that to put meat on the bones of what could be planned ahead of time.

Many emails were thereafter solicited and forwarded to me about Alice.  Her mother wrote two long ones and they were the most helpful of all.  Lots of Alice’s relatives and friends sent in contributions and the one thing prevalent in all of them was that Alice had been very much loved.  Everyone was shocked by her early death.  They truly needed a memorial service to process that awful truth.  But the shared memories were about all the happy things in her life: how she took in every stray animal she ever met, how her terrific voice made glorious music, how she collected books that ranged from major scientific tomes to the complete works of Steven King, how she cooked major meals that even included making her own croutons, etc.  One of her mother’s comments I read in its entirety at the service:

She was a liberal, a feminist, and believed strongly in equality for all people. She was not afraid to speak her mind about her hatred of racism, bigotry, misogyny, animal cruelty, the right for all people to love and be with whomever they loved.  She was an atheist.  She didn't like religion as she saw too much hatred, wars, and atrocities being committed in the name of religion (of all types) throughout history, up to the present.

These emails also allowed me to say this early in the actual memorial service:

This is, of course, a very sad day, but I think we need to ask ourselves how Alice herself would have wanted us to remember her.  All of the shared memories that have been pouring in say, over and over again, what a joy she brought to everything she did, how she could light up a room.  Here are some other quotes: “She was always two steps ahead of the rest of us with a laugh and a smile.” “No matter what, she was always, always REAL.”  Her mother said, “Many people, including myself, thought she had the talent of a standup comedian.”  Or, as her sister-in-law said to me in a text last night, “Alice was LOTS OF FUN!!!”

Last Saturday David and I drove to the rental hall where the service was to be held and we began meeting the assembling mourners.  I particularly went over and thanked Alice’s mother, whose emails had given me much helpful information for my remarks.  Finally there were about 40 people assembled.  As Alice had had her bisexual side one of the guests, standing alone and looking out of place, was obviously a lesbian.  I went over to her, began talking to her, came out, asked her relationship with Alice (they had dated after meeting in recovery), and then introduced her to my husband, who was sitting alone.  They hit it off fine and then both had someone to talk to before the proceedings began.

The sister-in-law, who had borne the heavy lifting for the creation of this event, welcomed everyone and made a few comments before introducing me.  I began by explaining that I was an officiant with the Humanist Community of Central Ohio, and described its mission.  Next was the substance of the service.  At no point did I mention that I’d never met Alice—I let them wonder about that.  But my remarks included a number of items I’d found online that were relevant, including my opening quotation: “Many people walk in and out of your life, but only true friends leave footprints on your heart.”  Eleanor Roosevelt said that.

I then highlighted events in the life of Alice, cobbled together from what I’d been told, focusing on upbeat things.  Some humor was involved, but most of it was somber.  When I mentioned her addiction to Steven King I frowned and looked disapproving as I noted he was not known for being of high literary quality—before confessing that I too had read most of what he’s written, and even corresponded with him years ago.

When it came time for others to speak I reminded them of how much fun Alice could be, and asked that their stories contain as much humor as they could remember.  Around ten people or so spoke, and most of them did tell funny stories about Alice—how she foisted “the worst cat in the world on me,” and how she “introduced me to all the angry chick music and taught me how to sing it,” and “how as five years olds led by her we broken into empty apartments and found a treasure of six pennies!”

Most telling was the long and heartfelt eulogy given by her brother, who’d been worried he’d be unable to say a word, in which he memorialized all of the wonderful things he felt about this woman he so clearly adored.  He finished by saying that death is hard for atheists, but that he and Alice had often talked about it, and though it was difficult, it was something he could accept.  He finished with a quote from ­­­Epicurus (the Greek whose philosophy was to find a tranquil life free from fear), who said about dying, “Death, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”

Death of a known atheist is very different from the death of a believer in an afterlife.  The reason is obvious.  With a religion in the mix mourners can at least console themselves with the thought that the deceased still exists on some ethereal plane, and there is the possibility of joining him/her after one’s own death.  For atheists that not available.  Death is death.  That makes things harder, but reality is reality.  Life is not easy, nor is death, particularly when it comes as soon as it did to Alice.

Yes, theists get some comfort in believing in an afterlife, easing the path to one’s death.  But surely most theists also worry (even if they never articulate the thought) that their beliefs are possibly wrong and maybe there’s really nothing after death, and their “comfort” is muddied  by that frightening possibility.  If this were not so why wouldn’t death always be an event to celebrate?  Why would believers “mourn” for loved ones now in a “better place”?

When the speakers were finished with their part of Alice’s ceremony, I summed up before inviting everyone to the supper that followed.  First I said:

Memorial services like this are not for the person who has died, but, of course, are for the living.  They are a way of coming to grips with her passing, and for exchanging the memories of this beloved woman, thus making sure she continues to live in our thoughts.  But remember my admonition to view this service and take it as Alice herself would have wanted it viewed.

I ended by reading a poem by David Harkins entitled “She Is Gone”:

You can shed tears that she is gone
Or you can smile because she has lived
You can close your eyes and pray that she will come back
Or you can open your eyes and see all that she has left
Your heart can be empty because you can’t see her
Or you can be full of the love that you shared
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday
Or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday
You can remember her and only that she is gone
Or you can cherish her memory and let it live on
You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back
Or you can do what she would want: smile, open your eyes, love and go on.

I think everything went well, and all those I talked to kindly said so.  Alice’s mother told me that it was useful to get away from dealing with Alice’s recent death and instead be reminded of the treasure she’d been when alive.  Alice’s brother and sister-in-law also thanked me and added they’d be sending a donation to the Humanist Community of Central Ohio in Alice’s name.

Would I do this again?  Hmm.  Yes, I think so, but next time I’m needed for a memorial service at least I won’t be the neophyte that I was this past month.  I’ve certainly learned that the word “minister” requires one to actually minister to the needs of others, and that’s no small task.  It is a sober responsibility that requires treading very carefully for each step taken take and each word said.  Perhaps the next one will be easier.

Related Posts:

“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013;

“The Happy Atheist,: December 22, 2105;

“Atheists Visit the Creation Museum,” October 4, 2012;
“An Atheist’s Christmas Card,” December 23, 2011;
“When Atheists Die,” October 17, 2010;
“An Atheist Interviews God,” May 20, 2010;

“How To Become an Atheist,” May 16, 2010;

“Why Even Believers Should Read My Atheist Thriller ‘Imaginary Friend’,” October 29, 2013;


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