On Sunday, I will be attending the funeral of a Christian friend. Sylvia had been seriously ill with a variety of conditions for close to a decade. Nevertheless, she usually exhibited a positive attitude and continued to enjoy her life, family and friends right up until her last medical crisis. She also believed that she would one day pass from her earthly life to a better one in heaven. Sylvia’s husband, Ted, frequently preached about the glories of heaven and encouraged believers to look forward to their eternal rewards. Now that Sylvia has died, her family is finding comfort in the belief that she has passed from this world into a better place. I understand how Ted and his children feel. I felt the same way when my father died 25 years ago, after losing a battle with cancer. I was glad that he was not suffering any more, that he had gone to his eternal home and that our family would one day be reunited with him. I mourned for him and missed him, but I was hopeful about his eternal destiny.
As I contemplate Sylvia’s life, faith and death, I’m also mindful of a gentleman I know who may undergo surgery in a week or so. His general health is not good and his doctors, as well as he and his wife, are not overly optimistic about his chances of surviving the surgery. Nevertheless, his condition is such that the anticipated quality of his life if he forgoes the surgery is not acceptable to him. He and his wife are both devout Christians, so they are relying on their faith in God, as well as their friends and family members, to help them endure this crisis. As I write, I hope the surgery will be successful – and it may – but I know that the chances are fairly good that it will not end well.
Sylvia’s death and Frank’s current health crisis have prompted me to think about life and death from a non-believer’s perspective. This is not the first time I’ve done so. Last summer, less than a week after I realized that I no longer believed in God, the deacon’s grandmother died. Her funeral focused on celebrating her long life – 91 years – rather than mourning. The pastor continued in that frame of mind at the graveside service when he said, “That’s not Anna in there. It’s simply her shell. The Anna we knew and loved is in heaven now.” As he spoke those words, I thought, “You’re wrong. All of Anna’s remains are in that box and the only parts of her that continue to exist are the memories people hold and the generations of descendants who have followed her and continue the cycle of life.” As I articulated that thought to myself, I discovered that I wasn’t distressed by it. Thus, very early in my deconversion, I realized that I didn’t fear death, notwithstanding the Christian belief that I, as a non-believer, should have been terrified by it.
My current attitude toward death is that it is sad, because the cessation of life is always sad, and that it is an inevitable necessity. It’s not something to look forward to, unless one is gravely ill and the release from suffering would be welcomed, but neither is it something to fear. If any Christians read this, they’ll likely conclude that my attitude is hopeless. What they don’t realize is that the corollary to my acceptance of death as the cessation of the one life I will be privileged to live is a greatly enhanced appreciation for life. I will not waste my life preparing and hoping for a better one in the future. Instead, I will do everything within my power to make my life the best possible life I can, for it is the only one I will ever live. It is something to embrace fully, not to squander.
Am I saddened by Sylvia’s death? Of course. I will miss her funny stories, her laugh and her sunny outlook on life. Am I saddened by Frank’s illness? Of course. I have watched him deteriorate physically from a vibrant man to a near-invalid. I’ve watched his frustration as his mind continues to be sharp and his body cannot keep pace with his will. I hope his surgery goes well and his health improves, because I want him to enjoy life for as long as he possibly can. He’s lived a good life and I hope he will continue living in a way that he finds fulfilling.
As for me, I neither want nor need the false comfort and hope that come from belief in an afterlife. Rather, when I face my own death, hopefully some time long in the future, I want to look back at a life lived to the fullest degree possible. That’s all the hope and comfort I need.
– the chaplain