Last week, an old college friend of mine died. He was only 32 years old. When I met him, he was a Christian and over the course of our friendship, he became a Secular Humanist. He also came out of the closet as a gay man. His family is still really religious and I have been in contact with his super religious brother who is putting together the funeral arrangements. My friend was open about his lack of belief in a deity and his sexual orientation, but I have a feeling that his family is going to have a religious funeral for him and push his sexual orientation under the carpet. If this does happen, should I call attention to these facts about my friend? And if so, to what degree?
Looking forward to your advice,
– Missing my friend
A funeral should be about people feeling their sorrow, comforting each other, and taking from it some memory of the best of the deceased, something about him to apply to their own lives, to put into practice, to keep his positive influence alive in them, so that his legacy consists of several people who are somehow better for having known him, and in turn, others will somehow be better for having known them.
A funeral is for the living, and usually several of them are hurting badly. The dead don’t care. If some of your friend’s family members want to say things to each other that are not accurate about him, and they want to avoid saying things to each other that are accurate about him, they’re doing that to take care of their own feelings. Not everyone there will necessarily be entirely like his super religious brother, with whatever are his motives. Rather than being focused on telling or hiding accurate things about your friend, they probably will simply be focused on their grief.
I can feel only empathy for their grief, and my instinct is to leave them alone with their illusions. If they’re uncomfortable thinking about some of the things their religion implies about him, the funeral is not the time to rub their noses in it, nor the place to debate the rightness of their position. There are more appropriate forums for that. Let people who are in pain have their meager comforts, even if those comforts are nothing but the whispers of wishes.
You might be thinking that if your friend’s family launders the truth about his beliefs and his sexuality, that that will be a dishonor to him. Perhaps it is in some intellectual sense, but as I said, he doesn’t care. The indignation would be yours to feel, not his, and perhaps you have something more important to do, more worthy to do:
He was a secular humanist, presumably with humanist values. This is your opportunity to make his humanism the part of him that you decide to keep alive in yourself. To practice the best of his humanism in that situation, practice compassion for everyone in the room, rather than correcting the hypocrisy of a few.
You knew him, and you cared about him, and you accepted him just as he was, every step of the way as he went through the upheaval of losing his faith and gaining his clarity. Then you were there for him again as he came out, taking the daunting steps of losing his learned shame and gaining his natural dignity. You have already stood up for him, because you stood by him when he was alive.
If you want to talk about him at the funeral, talk about the gifts from him that you will take with you. Mention his beliefs and his sexuality if they are part of the story about his admirable qualities, rather than turning them into a public disagreement or denouncement of his family’s beliefs.
If you want to speak more frankly about him, perhaps you could organize an informal gathering of his other friends at some place that he would have enjoyed. Let his gay friends, his secular humanist friends, his simply open and accepting friends, and even his more open and accepting relatives meet to share their grief, to comfort each other, to take something of him to make their own, and to keep it alive by the way they live.
Please accept my condolences for your sadness in losing your friend. I think he was very fortunate in life to have had a thoughtful, considerate, and caring friend like you.
You may send your questions for Richard to . Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.