While our Officiant Program has mostly been on hold due to our inability to perform legal marriages, we are still able to perform other ceremonies for the non-religious.
As an example, last weekend I gave the following memorial for a woman who recently died a thorough atheist at 93. A spiritual celebrant had been recommended, but prayers to the spirit of life would not have been in keeping with the deceased’s worldview. I’ve changed the names and anonymized a few details. Much of it was borrowed from other resources, particularly Funerals Without God from the British Humanist Association (I can’t recommend this resource enough for aspiring Humanist Officiants).
We have gathered here this morning to mark the death and honour to the character of Jane Doe who died on June 5th at the age of 93. In keeping with Jane’s view of life, I have been invited here as an Officiant of the British Columbia Humanist Association to speak for the human community for which she was part.
Thoughts on Life and Death
Death is a very personal matter for those who know it in someone close to them. But we are all concerned, directly or indirectly, with the death of any individual, for we are all members of one human community, and no one of us is independent and separate. Though some of the links are strong and some are tenuous, each of us is joined to all others by links of kinship, love, friendship, or by living in the same neighbourhood or town or country, or simply by our own common humanity.
No one should be afraid of death itself: it is as natural as life. Only nature is permanent. All that has life has its beginning and its end…and life exists in the time span between birth and death. For those of us who do not have a religious faith, and who believe that death brings the end of individual existence, life’s significance lies in the experiences and the satisfactions we achieve in that span of time; its permanence lies in the memories of those who knew us, and any influence we have left behind.
The atoms that made up Jane’s body were forged in the furnaces of stars millions and billions of years ago. Today we release those atoms back to the universe to fuel new lives and new stories. Jane’s life has come to an end but she continues on, less orderly than before. Her life is given meaning by our memories and the never ending cycle of nature.
So we should be daring enough to remember Jane with happiness. Jane cared passionately about others, loving her late brother most of all. She often went out of her way to help those in need. She empathized strongly with animals, demonstrating her deep personal connection to the natural world. Let us remember her compassion, her empathy, her art, and her love.
I ask that we take a moment to reflect – and for those who choose to offer a silent prayer – on one of Jane’s favourite poems, The Nature of Things, by the Roman poet and Epicurean philosopher Lucretius.
No single thing abides; but all things flow.
Fragment to fragment clings-the things thus grow
Until we know and name them. By degrees
They melt, and are no more the things we know.
Globed from the atoms falling slow or swift
I see the suns, I see the systems lift
Their forms; and even the systems and the suns
Shall go back slowly to the eternal drift.
You too, oh earth-your empires, lands, and seas –
Least with your stars, of all the galaxies,
Globed from the drift like these, like these you too
Shalt go. You are going, hour by hour, like these.
Nothing abides. The seas in delicate haze
Go off; those mooned sands forsake their place;
And where they are, shall other seas in turn
Mow with their scythes of whiteness other bays.
The seeds that once were we take flight and fly,
Winnowed to earth, or whirled along the sky,
Not lost but disunited. Life lives on.
It is the lives, the lives, the lives, that die.
They go beyond recapture and recall,
Lost in the all-indissoluble All:-
Gone like the rainbow from the fountain’s foam,
Gone like the spindrift shuddering down the squall.
Flakes of the water, on the waters cease!
Soul of the body, melt and sleep like these.
Atoms to atoms-weariness to rest –
Ashes to ashes-hopes and fears to peace!
O Science, lift aloud your voice that stills
The pulse of fear, and through the conscience thrills –
Thrills through the conscience with the news of peace –
How beautiful your feet are on the hills!
[Minute of silence]
I’ve omitted the Tribute, which is the personal reflection on the deceased’s life, including stories from loved ones and what she will be remembered for.
I want to thank you all for allowing me to share this moment with you. It saddens me to have not had the chance to meet Jane during her life, only getting to know her through stories told to me second hand from her friends. It is through these stories though that Jane will live on. Take her with you on your journeys through life.
In sadness for her death but with appreciation for her life, we choose to remember Jane and her talent for art and her passion for life. Finally, as we leave to continue our own voyage of discovery in the world, let us remember the following passages of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam as a reminder of our own mortality and to make the most of what time we have.
The bird of life is singing in the sun,
Short is his song, nor only just begun,—
A call, a trill, a rapture, then—so soon!—
A silence, and the song is done—is done.
Would you be happy! hearken, then, the way:
Heed not To-morrow, heed not Yesterday;
The magic words of life are Here and Now—
O fools, that after some to-morrow stray!
To all of us the thought of heaven is dear—
Why not be sure of it and make it here?
No doubt there is a heaven yonder too,
But ’tis so far away—and you are near.
Look not above, there is no answer there;
Pray not, for no one listens to your prayer;
Near is as near to God as any Far,
And Here is just the same deceit as There.
Ah, make the most of what we may yet spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie;
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and – sans End!
For some we loved, the loveliest and best
That from His rolling vintage Time has pressed,
Have drunk their glass a round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to rest.