But I recently ran into a conversation where a very nice Christian pastor had been asked to speak at an atheist's memorial. Much of this person's family was religious, but the deceased and a few family members were decidedly atheist. The pastor was at a loss of what to say that wouldn't offend someone.
I sympathize with the pastor - if he is truly empathetic then he is in a difficult position. The answer is much easier to someone who lacks sympathy and rests on the black & white worldview of a devout evangelical. That person would just declare the atheist to be lost from God, and take the opportunity to evangelize to the rest of the people at the memorial.
This pastor is one of the good guys. He wanted something meaningful to say about an atheist.
An atheist usually doesn't believe in an afterlife - but there is still the very human urge toward some sort of permanence. There is still the human hope that we matter.
I think it is appropriate to celebrate our good fortune of being alive.
Richard Dawkins, in his book, "Unweaving the Rainbow", speaks of this good fortune:
“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?”I agree that this sentiment is true, but I also think it lacks feeling. It lacks that spiritual poetry that Carl Sagan was so good at creating. I also think that it lacks our own expression of how we will miss others.
Here is how I would say it.
We are here today to remember and celebrate the life of someone we love. Think of (deceased's name) life as a rock thrown into a pond. Think of the ripples and waves from that impact, and how they influence others.
Every life is like this. Every splash we make in the pond we all share creates ripples that reach out and touch other people. Each person touched by someone else's waves are influenced as their lives in turn create their own swells. It is an ever-expanding series of concentric waves that touch us all.
Each of us is influenced by these echos of the waves of past living people. We are touched by the crests and furrows of the actions of people we have never known, and will never know. We are also caught up in the breakers from those who have made a huge splash in their lives.
In this way, one life can impact many.
Our words and actions also have permanence. What is done can never be undone. This is a great benefit of our lives!
If you speak the truth, give aid to a stranger, help a friend, hug a child, kiss your lover - these words and actions happen in a point in time. And when they happen, they can not ever un-happen.
When the Earth comes to an end, when the Sun finally dies, when the entire Universe ends - that simple kiss will still have happened. It will never un-happen. That small moment in time is eternally fixed at that point.
Your friend, partner, child or parent may die. You may age, and age or disease may rob you of your memories. It doesn't matter. That moment you had with them won't un-happen.
How shall we celebrate the life of the one we loved?
We do this by remembering those permanent points in time that we shared with them. Those cherished moments that happened, that can never be undone.
We celebrate their lives by telling the stories of the one we loved. Tell the funny stories, the sad stories, the meaningful stories. Tell them all!
In sharing these stories, we are emphasizing those points in time in their lives. We are amplifying the ripples of their lives into a swelling wave, into a fun splash that is echoed among us. The influence of our loved one expands even further through our stories.
And for us who remain behind, what should we take from this? I'll tell you.
What we do matters, because it matters right now!
We should live with joyful exuberance, we should act out of compassion and sympathy and love. We should seek happiness for ourselves, and for others, because it matters. And yes, we can strive to make a huge impact in this little pond we all share, but it is better to be joyful - to joyfully throw our rocks into the pond!
Hold close those who are dear to you. Do it for yourselves. Do it in memory of the one we loved and lost. Do it to make that perfect moment that will never be undone!