I have nothing but compassion for the many ways humans have devised to deal with the fundamentally unacceptable fact of death. But Christians, having elaborately contrived to solve the puzzle, seem then to balk in the moment of truth. What am I missing?

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Fifteen years ago today, Reverend Jerry Falwell, Sr. went to his reward. Many of those who did not like Falwell were happy that he got this reward, while those who loved him were very, very sad.

This is strange.

At the time, many of his fellow religious believers shook stern fingers at the rest of us: If the rest of us could not join them in being devastated by his transformation into a glorious eternal being, we were expected at minimum to not speak ill of Falwell—at least for a while.

My first experience of the weird immunity we grant the recently deceased was at my dad’s funeral. I was 13. I loved my dad, but still, the eulogies offered by his friends and colleagues struck me as…weird.

“Dave didn’t have an enemy in the world,” said one of his coworkers. “He was always thinking of others, never a thought for himself,” said another. “Everyone loved him.” “He loved his family more than any man I’ve ever known.”

Okay. I guess.

It was my first conscious experience of the socially-mandated canonization of the newly dead. Although my dad was funny and smart and hardworking and endlessly curious, he also lost his temper frequently and even sprained his thumb once. While beating me, I left that part out. I had been a shit to my younger brother, again, and Dad had come off another 60-hour week, and he couldn’t find it in himself to not sprain his thumb on me.

And he wrote poetry and read Cyrano de Bergerac and smoked like a chimney and ate like a bison. He taught me everything he knew about astronomy, and he yelled at my mom. A lot. And he sang with her. A lot. A mixed bag.

Why can’t we acknowledge that mess? It would have helped his son, who to this day goes useless and numb at outbursts of anger, to hear that honest accounting. Why the need to pretend someone who has died was a perfect saint? And why the particular need to deny the mixed bag when someone is recently dead?

Some habits die hard

Purgatory. The reason is, or was, Purgatory.

The practice of putting in a good word for the recently dead extends well before the Christian church, with known examples in ancient Greek and Jewish practice. Later, Eastern Orthodoxy would urge prayer for “such souls as have departed with faith, but without having had time to bring forth fruits worthy of repentance.”

As someone who lived through Falwell’s Moral Majority, I wouldn’t be surprised if his worthy fruit count at the moment of death was a few bushels short of salvation. In the medieval Christian church, that meant a stop in Purgatory before being dispatched to heaven or hell. During this layover, incoming prayers were tallied up and the person’s life assessed. Even marginally bad thoughts might tip the balance southward. So if you had anything bad to say, it was crucial to hold your tongue while all the hanging chads were counted. If you can’t say anything nice, keep it inside where God can’t hear it.

Like saying “bless you” after a sneeze, the post-mortem immunity from criticism is a habit rooted in antique superstitions. Even though many modern denominations have quietly erased Purgatory from the maps, the habit lingers: Don’t speak ill of the dead.

But that’s not what interests me most.

Fifteen years after Falwell Sr.’s body stopped working, it’s that happy/sad difference that still catches my attention. It seems that the wrong people are sad.

Which brings us to the missing dancers.

Smiling through tears, at least

President Bush issued a statement of condolence at the time: “Laura and I are deeply saddened by the death of Jerry Falwell, a man who cherished faith, family, and freedom.” Various religious leaders “mourned” Falwell’s passing or “grieved” his loss. Great rivers of tears were loosed at Falwell’s funeral.

According to the stated beliefs of Jerry Falwell, Sr. and nearly every person who was mourning what happened to him, he had shed his earthly vessel and become a glorified being in the very presence of the Living Lord. He was in Heaven. This was the radiant confirmation of all his cherished hopes, the fulfillment of the promises of the scriptures to which he devoted his life, a happiness beyond anything mere words can hope to express.

And the proper response was to be “deeply saddened.”

According to the stated beliefs of Jerry Falwell, Sr, he had shed his earthly vessel and become a glorified being in the very presence of the Living Lord. And the proper response was to be “deeply saddened.”

The happy/sad conundrum hit me for the first time not at my dad’s funeral, but at one I attended for the mother of a friend one year earlier. The distraught sobs of the congregation and the soothing promises of the minister that she was “with Jesus, smiling down upon us, happy and free of pain” provided such a stark contrast that it suddenly occurred me:

They don’t believe it!

I know I shouldn’t say that. How do I know? Having been informed that I really do believe in God, way down deep, I hate to make claims about what other people believe. I only suggest this out of real bafflement. What other credible explanation for the day-and-night contrast between what Christians say happens at death and how they behave upon hearing someone has died? They pray intensely that a wretchedly ill person’s glorious transfiguration will be delayed, then weep and gnash their teeth when the person finally attains it.

So I’m stuck with one hypothesis—that they wish with all their hearts to believe it, and maybe actually believe that they believe it, but they do not believe it. If they did, wouldn’t they be singing and dancing and shouting praise-choruses to the sky?

The funerals of children should be occasions for particular celebration—Little Suzy’s passed up the whole vale of tears and gone straight to glory! Instead, the loss of a child is seen as the greatest of all tragedies. Why? Where are the dancers? Shouldn’t the phrase “I’m glad Falwell’s dead” have drawn something other than shocked outrage? Shouldn’t a true believer who really loved him and wanted the best for him say, “I’m glad he’s dead, too!”—not as a mumbled coda, that’s common enough, but as a statement of certain joy?

I’ve heard it said that funereal tears are for the survivors, not for the departed person, and of course that’s a part of it. But why then, when a believer hears of a death — especially an untimely one—do they gasp and say things like, “Oh, that poor, poor girl”? Shouldn’t it at least be seriously mixed? Isn’t that the point of the abrogation of death that lies at the center of the Christian story?

Shouldn’t a true believer who really loved him and wanted the best for him say, “I’m glad he’s dead!”—not as a mumbled coda, but as a statement of certain joy?

Imagine, for example, a Tutsi mother in Rwanda at the time of the genocide. The UN is pulling back as machete-wielding Hutus approach the village. After much tearful pleading, a UN peacekeeper agrees to take the woman’s four-year-old child to safety in another country. She is unlikely to ever see him again. If she survives, she will miss him terribly. But her tears would be undeniably mixed with profound joy that her son has a chance at happiness and safety. You can picture a relieved smile beaming through her tear-streaked face as the truck pulls away.

If I truly believed in heaven as advertised, that would have to describe my face at the funeral of a loved one: smiling through tears. He’s gone, and I will miss him, but he made it out to happiness and safety.

Next time you’re at a religious funeral, see if you can spot even one such face.

Coming to grips with mortality is the greatest challenge for a conscious being. It’s a life’s work. When someone asks how on Earth I can bear the idea that my death will be the end, I want to look the person in the eyes and say, “It’s really hard, isn’t it.” In my fantasy, they burst into tears and we hug it out. I’ve never tried that, but I dream of doing that just right, just once, and connecting with the honest knowledge of mortality we all carry inside ourselves.

I’m not one of those seculars who claim that our mortality is no big deal. It’s a very big deal. We are evolved to resent and deny it. But I can handle it better for never having bought into that denial, leaving no illusions of immortality to abandon. And the older I get, the more my body and mind accrue the insults conferred by my time awake, the more my eventual annihilation seems not only acceptable but maybe, just maybe, worth dancing about.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.