Our local interfaith council referred a family to me. They were looking for someone to lead a memorial service for their father who just passed away at 100 years old. They said “Ted,” a well-known designer, wasn’t really religious but loved nature and considered himself “eco-spiritual.” I explained that I am not religious either, that I am also nature-oriented, and I have led many memorials. The family was happy to find someone like me.
Here is what a Memorial can be like without God:
-About 20 family and friends gathered in the family home designed by Ted.
-I stood with my back to the large window overlooking the sunny yard with green grass, oaks and the hills beyond. Everyone could enjoy the view of Ted’s “sanctuary.”
-We took some deep breaths as I gently explained we were there to “celebrate one life: Ted’s life. . .and LIFE itself–our lives.” I said that the day was good because life was good, even with the grief that shouldn’t be denied or avoided–it was ok to cry. I said we throw too many words at the mysteries of life, especially death, when we really don’t know what to say. This was one reason the memorial was brief. They could all tell more stories over the meal later.
-I asked the circle to close their eyes and whisper the name they called “Ted.” Then to open their eyes and speak that name (dad, grandpa, etc) looking at others. A sweet moment.
-I quoted a line from Ted where he spoke of his drawing board. We smiled to consider Life’s drawing boards. I spoke of his “eco-spirituality.” Since he was an architectural designer I said “eco” was an ancient word for “house or home.” People were pleasantly surprised by that.
-I quoted a line from John Muir (who died about the time Ted was born 100 years ago). Muir spoke of nature being a part and parent of us and that Beauty was the best word for God. People really seemed to like that.
-I invited anyone to say a few words or tell a story (why call it “eulogies”?). This was of course the heart of our time together. Many laughs, smiles and tears.
-I encouraged everyone to hold on to the special name they called Ted, and to hold on to the stories and lessons of his life. “You will learn from him for a very long time. . .maybe 100 years!”
-We ended with my reading the last lines of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” with the famous line, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world” and “I stop somewhere waiting for you.” Many smiles at the reference to homes and roofs–Ted’s drawing board.
-They played a piece of music “Ted” enjoyed. That brought many to tears.
Everyone thanked me very much afterward with handshakes and hugs. The daughter gave me a bag of fresh vegetables from the garden. The son handed me a check for more than I asked for. There was great appreciation.
It is not only possible to hold a memorial without religion. We need to actively offer these as “live options” for families. No Gods. . .but lots of Good.
But let me also say, no doubt there were people of faith in the room. Among the family and friends there were surely a few who were believers. They were welcome. They could have offered a brief scripture or prayer or mention of God. But none did that. They were respecting the wishes of Ted and his widow “Beth” to have a non-religious ceremony.
That’s the nice thing about Secular Ceremonies. They are inclusive in a way religious ceremonies can never be. The moment you call upon One God from One Tradition, you exclude everyone else. No matter how much a leader intends to be inclusive, that can’t really be possible in these deeply meaningful and emotional times. And most importantly: families are usually pretty diverse in beliefs, so why not simply guide them through a close experience of death by “celebrating life” allowing each one to handle their grief with whatever beliefs they choose? As with Marriage Ceremonies, why inject specified religious beliefs into the celebration (also a Celebration of Life!). God is not necessary to celebrate the Good. Religion is simply not necessary to create relevant, meaningful gatherings.
This is why I think we need more Secular Ceremonies to truly honor the diversity of our contemporary communities. I have seen for myself how very much appreciated this approach can be.
On last thing. Near the end of the gathering, Ted’s widow Beth told us how Ted would sometimes look up at the trees and the hills beyond and say, “That’s my prayer and I know it will be answered.” A very natural expression of his hopes, rooted to the land where he lived, and the family he loved.
Thank you for the gift of your life, Ted.