Funeral Etiquette: or How to Remain Tolerant in the Face of Intolerance.

    A friend of mine died recently, a Catholic friend, someone with whom I had shared many theological discussions with. He had no trouble listening to me babble on about my views and would even chuckle in the face of me bashing his God, or more appropriately, the "pushers of the poison". You must understand, I'm a jerk sometimes. So last Monday I took off work and attended his funeral to pay my respects. Now, I might point out here that I had a fairly strict Catholic upbringing myself, (my stepfather was a Deacon, albeit an oft intoxicated one) and in the subsequent eighteen years - give or take - since my complete rejection of all things ridiculous and just plain wrong about Catholicism, I've set foot in a Catholic church two maybe three times (weddings and the like). Well on this most recent return, I resigned myself to being as respectful as possible, without actually participating in any of the archaic rituals that went on during the service. Funny side note: Catholic funerals are remarkably similar to regular old Catholic mass, there just happens to be a casket in front of the altar. 

   Anyhow, I couldn't help but feeling as though I were at a funeral for Jesus, or God, or the entire Holy Trinity for that matter, it's hard to keep those three cats straight. Another friend that was next to me, who is basically a non-practicing Christian, and had never been to a Catholic service of any kind, expressed the same sentiment. So here I sit, hoping to at least listen to some fond words in remembrance of my friend, and I get a sermon. And another droll reading of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 To everything there is a season blah blah blah. . .

    Being at this service made me think back to my father-in-law's funeral last May. His service was held in a funeral home. The funeral director was amazing to my wife's family. he was soft spoken, respected each of their wishes to the letter, and was in general just a damn nice guy. My wife and her brother had spoken with him about the fact that her dad was an atheist, that we were atheists, and a lot of the family who were there were also. He said no problem, and that a non-denominational minister would be driving in to do the service. The minister agreed to leave God out of it. On the day of, the minister had an emergency of some kind and cancelled. At the last minute, the funeral director found and brought in an evangelical preacher (unbeknownst to us at the time). When he showed up, the funeral director repeated my wife's wishes to the preacher, and he agreed: easy on the God-speak. When taking the podium, however, the preacher took up his mission with a smile on his face, calling out all non-believers to hear Jesus or be damned. Most of his sermon/speech/mouth ejaculation or whatever it was focused on the conversion or recruitment of atheists. He mentioned my father-in law's name twice. Once at the start of his tirade, and once when he finished by calling him a child of Christ. I stayed silently angered the same as my wife, being that we felt it was not the time and place for a riot and whatnot. My brother-in-law was turning red and made a move to stand up and confront him, but my mother-in-law grabbed hold of his arm and put a stop to it (recovering Catholic). Perhaps it was a good thing my wife's dad wasn't around to see his own funeral. He would have been a wee bit pissed.

    I suppose I'll get on to my point then. What is acceptable etiquette for atheists at funeral services? Should we have stood up for him in front of the grieving masses? I had no problem holding my tongue and showing respect at my friend's service even though it was all the same nonsense I had openly opposed hundreds of times over. It wasn't my house, if I wanted to start a debate, I'd have gone to a forum for such things. Where is the line? I know the one I won't cross.    


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Comment by Rosemary LYNDALL WEMM on August 11, 2011 at 1:41am

It is a pity that the U.S. does not have a respectable bunch of "civil celebrants" who can be hired for a modest fee to help celebrate the human rites-of-passage in a secular non-religionist way.  In Australia this is becoming increasingly usual.

Comment by Rosemary LYNDALL WEMM on August 11, 2011 at 1:43am

Or it was at the time I left, a decade ago.  There's been a Bush-loving semi-theocracy for most of years so it would not surprise me if things have changed.

Comment by ernie garcia on August 11, 2011 at 2:16am

i would have asked to say a few words about the deceased and then politely intimated that the point of the funeral was to honor the one who died and not testify to the wonder working miracle power of santa jeebus.  i would have also pointed out that the deceased was a non believer and that he would not have appreciated somebody evangelizing on his behalf.    


then i would have asked the guy in the dress to leave.

Comment by Breanne on August 11, 2011 at 12:56pm

I really like what Ernie said to do. It's respectful in a way that still gets your point across. 

Comment by Tex on August 11, 2011 at 2:06pm

I'm afraid I wouldn't have been so polite to the rather in-polite preacher. I would have found it offensive that he didn't respect the wishes of the family and flat out disrespected the dead's held beliefs.

How tolerant would he have been if you stood up at a funeral for a Christian and told them to give up the fairytale and all the GOD crap, my guess is you would have been carried out.

I don't really care what anyone believes, I just get tired of getting it shoved down my throat whenever they feel the urge. I probably would have lost my cool and shown him the door.

If not in this case, when do we stand up for what we "don't" believe?

Comment by Patrick D. Mahoney on August 11, 2011 at 3:31pm

My usual stance on funerals is to stay silent if the person being mourned was religious.  I don't pretend to mouth the prayers or get up for communion (as my agnostic brother did recently at our grandmother's funeral mass), however.  Both non-actions get me enough looks from my deeply religious (I have an uncle who is an archbishop and an aunt who is a nun) Catholic family.

That being said, I would have found it hard not to hit the guy if it was my father's funeral.

He should have respected your wishes.

As for the funeral director, I think it would have been appropriate for him to say something to the preacher, as he is the one who caused this mess.

Comment by Captain Husky on August 11, 2011 at 8:41pm

    Well, I appreciate the input, people (especially the Santa Jeebus part). I did feel that it was not my place at the time to stand up and say anything. If it were my father, as opposed to my father-in-law, things would have assuredly turned out very differently. As I said, my brother-in-law did make a move to interject, but my mother-in-law intercepted his attempt. Ultimately, I suppose I feel it was her place, more than anyone's to dissent at that moment. And given the fact that she seemed complacent in what was taking place, we really had no alternative. I guess the thing that really puzzles me is the issue of respect. I don't by any means wish to lump every Christian in with the likes of. . oh let's say the Westboro bunch, but I do feel as though in cases such as this, that respect is very often one sided. I am very vocal about my atheism. But I'm not an idiot. I understand that however faulty and damaging someone's beliefs may be, they still have every right to them, provided they aren't harming anyone on account of said beliefs. A man should pick his battles and understand that in certain situations, stoic, respectful, uncooperative silence is best. I'm not saying that should have been the course of action, or in this case inaction, at my father-in-law's service, but at my friend's service, I can confidently say that quiet rebuke was the right thing to do. Most all atheists/humanists/agnostics that I know, and most likely the ones who I don't, would take this same courteous approach to similar situations. I have to say that at least some creationists, from my experience, do not.

Comment by James on August 11, 2011 at 11:17pm

In the first example, staying silent and respectful was the proper course of action.


But in the last example... Someone should have stopped that shortly after it started. Funerals are about the deceased, not what the presenter/preacher is selling. I can guarantee that in that situation he would have been stopped and escorted out, not to mention he wouldn't be getting paid. I can understand that the preacher believes what he believes, but that was not the place for it. Heck, our officiant at our wedding was Christian, but he respected our wishes to keep our wedding god-free and never even remotely tried to slip god in.

Comment by Kairan Nierde on August 12, 2011 at 1:10am

I think the etiquette for attending funerals, holiday celebrations, weddings, etc. of another religion is to follow their lead, if both parties welcome your participation, or to observe respectfully if not.  Redecorating, critiquing the cooking, and/or rewriting the memorial service are big mother-trucking faux pas.  I'd have ripped him a new one, in honor of my'd have been cathartic for his nuclear family and much more true to the deceased, especially if it evokes memories of the deceased's antics.

Comment by STEVIE NICHOLL on August 12, 2011 at 11:47am
@Captain Husky ''I can confidently say that quiet rebuke was the right thing to do.'' Forgive me for being very picky here, but didn't you just answer the very question you came on here to be answered?!


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