I attended a memorial service recently that saddened me. A friend had died and was given a very religious memorial service by the pastor in our retirement community. But my friend was not religious. I was offended that her rights were trampled on. I feel sure her husband, who's quite ill, would not have arranged this service because he respected her totally. Her brother believes as she did and likewise would not have advocated such a service. It's possible someone else decided they knew what was right for her. One friend told me she understood why a religious service was held because no one wants the deceased "to go to hell." But my friend didn't believe in hell. Some people I spoke to with no connection to the situation felt that Christians have every right to conduct such a service even if the deceased didn't have a deathbed conversion. What is it with this disrespect of others' private and personal religious beliefs?
- S., via e-mail
One of the important developments in medical ethics has been the living will. This document indicates explicitly the wishes of the person regarding end-of-life care. I also believe living wills should include directions to the surviving family about what kind of funeral the person wants, and whether they want a religious service. Had your friend made her wishes known, the hypocrisy you witnessed would not have occurred. However, she didn't, so it did.
There are a couple of issues that count against your view. If, for example, your friend had a deathbed conversion you were not aware of, then the service was proper, and there's no way for you to probe this matter further. Also, I would remind you that religious funeral services are as much for the living as for the dead. If close family members felt the service met their needs in their time of grief, then it was appropriate.
I've buried many people whom I knew were not religiously Jewish. At those funerals, I never pretended the deceased was religious, but rather spoke about the person's moral virtues. I would urge you to understand that a religious service is not an insult, and I don't think you should take it that way, though I understand your irritation. A religious service is simply a loving remembrance, that when done lovingly, gives us all hope that death is not the end of us.
The worst thing I see at funerals is not when nonreligious people are sent off with prayers, but when a person who was really not a good person is eulogized as if he or she ought to be mentioned right alongside Mother Teresa or Gandhi. In those cases, I wish the preacher would use the old Jewish joke about the rabbi who had to bury a really evil man. Troubled by the challenge, he got up and said, "What shall I tell you about Morris? Well, I can tell you that his brother was worse!"
I'm curious about people who consider themselves adherents of a particular faith, yet break the rules (not expectations) of that faith. The Catholic faith, for example, condemns birth control, abortion and same-sex relationships. Why would someone who rejects those beliefs remain a Catholic? Why not switch to a faith that accepts those practices?
- L., via e-mail
Every religion has core beliefs and laws derived from those beliefs. Those who don't embrace the core beliefs should, indeed, find another religion. However, the laws and customs that have been established based on those beliefs are another matter and should not force someone to flee their faith.
I've done academic work on the ethics of assisted reproductive technologies and have seen a change in Catholic teaching that's given more freedom to infertile couples to conceive using modern techniques like GIFT (gamete intrafallopian transfer), which still conform to Catholic values.
Don't forget that just because someone disagrees with the teachings of the Church doesn't mean that they are right. Over time, someone may come to understand the wisdom of teachings they didn't initially accept. Core Christian beliefs about the nature of Jesus as the Christ, and the role of the sacraments in personal salvation, are another matter. Such tenets are what give a religion its heart, soul and identity.