What are your funeral options if you don’t believe in God?

In secular Ireland, public buildings are needed to celebrate life without church ritual

Peter Gunning: For some of us to be buried by the church would not only prove ambivalent but also downright hypocritical. That said I would still like a funeral where my life can be celebrated.

Peter Gunning: For some of us to be buried by the church would not only prove ambivalent but also downright hypocritical. That said I would still like a funeral where my life can be celebrated.

 

There are two questions that all oncologists are asked after breaking The News. Am I going to die? How much time?

I was spared the asking as Dr Bird cleverly read my mind. When it comes to oncological psychology, this guy was way out there.

First, the preamble that there are two types of lymphatic cancer, aggressive (shit that’s bad) and indolent (I hope that means slow-moving).

Long pause as he wins my eye contact.

Here it comes.

The News.

Luckily for you, Mr Gunning (we were still at the formal Mr/Dr phase), your cancer is indolent (please let that mean slow-moving), so I don’t expect to be treating you for at least two years.

Then I stopped listening and let my wife hear all about the remarkable new lymphoma chemotherapy drugs that come in so many different flavours and which you can now have with hundreds and thousands and a flake.

Morose thoughts and questions of death and funerals lurk, usually in the dark before the dawn. One question constantly haunts my dreams. What will they do with the body?

No, I am not going to die.

At least two years before treatment?

Result? I’ll take it!

Now I call him Brian and he calls me Pete and we meet for a pint every few months.Well, not that type of a pint. I bring it from the pathology lab in five phials and he checks it for white cells and other little lymphatic things the names of which I should know by now but once I hear that my bloods are “good” that’s all I actually want to know. Which was fine for three years, until that day last month when they were not as good.

The subsequent CT scan showed that the lymphomas had grown. It is time to start chemotherapy. The indolence of my cancer had given me a lot of time to think. Also, having recently recovered from a stroke (clinically unrelated to my lymphoma but sharing the blood supply probably makes it a first cousin), the thinking invariably focuses my own demise

Overall, I remain optimistic, mindful of the present and seeing the future as the present continuing to unfold. That said, inevitably pessimism sometimes leapfrogs this unfolding present tense. Morose thoughts and questions of death and funerals lurk, usually in the dark before the dawn. One question constantly haunts my dreams. What will they do with the body?

I think of my funeral with some logical difficulty. As a non-believer in God, it is not easy to funeralise in Ireland.

The church has the monopoly on dealing with dying. It does good funerals, it owns the template and when it comes to rituals it wrote the book

While recent statistics show a marked decline in the number of church weddings with more and more couples celebrating their vows secularly, coffins continue to follow a one-way route up the church centre aisle. Randomly read through the death notices on any morning newspaper. I just checked today’s Irish Times and all 14 deaths listed have church funerals.

Simply put, the church has the monopoly on dealing with dying. It does good funerals, it owns the template and when it comes to rituals it wrote the book.

Church ritualisation is difficult to outdo. The traditional wake, rosary, removal, Mass, burial or cremation will release that coffined soul to an eternal reward in a kingdom of heaven with God and all the saints. En route, the dead are eulogised in prayer, hymns and tributes. To the mantra of sorrowful mysteries over three to four days, the living mourn their dear departed but also celebrate the joyful mystery of a life ever after. A picture perfect template where sorrow meets joy. Amen.

Which is fine if you believe it. So how about those of us who do not? What happens for those of us who do not believe in God?

For some of us to be buried by the church would not only prove ambivalent but also downright hypocritical. That said I would still like a funeral where my life can be celebrated. But how will that happen? And where will it happen?

I want my family and friends to get a chance to say goodbye and to celebrate my life. I want funny stories, poignant moments and the odd ironic black tie 

I heard a lady on the radio talking about this recently. Her partner had died suddenly. She struggled as she tried to arrange a secular funeral and had to make do with a celebration of her partner’s life at the crematorium. Many close friends missed the poetry, eulogies and songs due to the limited space inside the crematorium as they were forced to stand outside. As Leonard Cohen might aptly and ironically have croaked, Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye.

As Ireland continues its path towards secularisation, public buildings need to be used to accommodate those of us who want no part of our funeralising to be linked to a church.

Being vain and not believing in God are not mutually exclusive. When I die (many years from now!), I want my family and friends to get a chance to say goodbye and to celebrate my life. I would like my three wonderful children to argue as to who would get to do the eulogy. (You were all my favourites. Share it!) I want funny stories, poignant moments and the odd ironic black tie. Poetry is a must as will be my favourite music including Shine on You Crazy Diamond. I want my colleagues and friends to sip champagne as they peer into my coffin and tell my wife how well I look.

Told you I was vain.

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