Lifeism in the midst of death

by TobyBartels5 min read9th Dec 201219 comments

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tl;dr:  My grandpa died, and I gave a eulogy with a mildly anti-deathist message, in a Catholic funeral service that was mostly pretty disagreeable.

I'm a little uncomfortable writing this post, because it's very personal, and I'm not exactly a regular with friends here.  But I need to get it out, and I don't know any other place to put it.

My grandfather (one of two) died last week, and there was a funeral mass (Catholic) today.  Although a ‘pro-life’ organisation, the Roman Catholic Church has a very deathist funeral liturgy.  It wasn't just ‘Stanley has gone on to a better place’, and all that; the priest had the gall to say that Grandpa had probably done everything that he wanted to do in life, so it was OK for him to die now.  I know from discussions with my mother and my aunt that Grandpa did not want to die now; although his life and health were not what they used to be, he was happy to live.  Yes, he had gone to his great-granddaughter's second birthday party, but he wanted to go to her third, and that will never happen.

There are four of us grandchildren, two (not including me) with spouses.  At first, it was suggested that each of us six say one of the Prayers of the Faithful (which are flexible).  Mom thought that I might find one that I was willing to recite, so I looked them up online.  It wasn't so bad that they end with ‘We pray to the Lord.’ recited by the congregation; I would normally remain silent during that, but I decided that I could say it, and even lead others in saying it, pro forma.  And I could endorse the content of some (at least #6 from that list) with some moderate edits.  But overall, the whole thing was very disturbing to me.  (I had to read HPMoR 45 afterwards to get rid of the bad taste.)  I told Mom ‘This is a part of the Mass where I would normally remain in respectful silence.’, and she apologised for ‘put[ting] [me] in an uncomfortable position’ (to quote from our text messages).  In the end, the two grandchildren-in-law were assigned to say these prayers.

But we grandchildren still had a place in the programme; we would give eulogies.  So I had to think about what to say.  I was never close to Grandpa; I loved him well enough, but we didn't have much in common.  I tried to think about what I remembered about him and what I would want to tell people about him.  It was a little overwhelming; in the end, I read my sibling's notes and decided to discuss only what she did not plan to discuss, and that narrowed it down enough.  So then I knew what I wanted to say about Grandpa.

But I wanted to say something more.  I wanted to say something to counter the idea that Grandpa's death was OK.  I didn't yet know how appalling the priest's sermon would be, but I knew that there would be a lot of excuses made for death.  I wanted to preach ‘Grandpa should not have died.’ and go on from there, but I knew that this would be disturbing to people who wanted comfort from their grief, and a lecture on death would not really be a eulogy.  Still, I wanted to say something.

(I also didn't want to say anything that could be interpreted as critical of the decision to remove life support.  I wasn't consulted on that decision, but under the circumstances, I agree with it.  As far as I'm concerned, he was killed on Monday, even though he didn't finally die until Wednesday.  In the same conversation in which Mom and I talked about how Grandpa wanted to live, we talked about how he didn't want to live under the circumstances under which he was living on Tuesday, conditions which his doctors expected would never improve.  Pulling the plug was the best option available in a bad situation.)

Enough background; here is my eulogy.  Some of this is paraphrase, since my written notes were only an outline.

When I was young, we would visit my grandparents every year, for Thanksgiving or Christmas.  Grandma and Grandpa would greet us at the door with hugs and kisses.  The first thing that I remember about their place was the candy.  Although I didn't realise it at the time, they didn't eat it; it was there as a gift for us kids.

Later I noticed the books that they had, on all topics: religion, history, humour, science fiction, technical material.  Most of it was older than I was used to reading, and I found it fascinating.  All of this was open to me, and sometimes I would ask Grandpa about some of it; but mostly I just read his books, and to a large extent, this was his influence on me.

Grandpa was a chemical engineer, although he was retired by the time I was able to appreciate that, and this explains the technical material, and to some extent the science fiction.  Even that science fiction mostly took death for granted; but Grandpa was with us as long as he was because of the chemists and other people who studied medicine and the arts of healing.  They helped him to stay healthy and happy until the heart attack that ended his life.

So, I thank them for what they did for Grandpa, and I wish them success in their future work, to help other people live longer and better, until we never have to go through this again.

I was working on this until the ceremony began, and I even edited it a little in the pew.  I wasn't sure until I got up to the podium how strong to make the ending.  Ultimately, I said something that could be interpreted as a reference to the Second Coming, but Catholics are not big on that, and my family knows that I don't believe in it.  So I don't know how the church officials and Grandpa's personal friends interpreted it, but it could only mean transhumanism to my family.

Nobody said anything, positive or negative, afterwards.  Well, a couple of people said that my eulogy was well done; but without specifics, it sounded like they were just trying to make me feel good, to comfort my grief.  After my speech, the other three grandchildren went, and then the priest said more pleasant falsehoods, and then it was over.

Goodbye, Grandpa.  I wish that you were alive and happy in Heaven, but at least you were alive and happy here on Earth for a while.  I'll miss you.

[Edit:  Fix my cousin's age.]

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19 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 5:21 AM
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I'm sorry. *offers a hug* Not sure what else to say.

For what it's worth, in response to this, I just sent 20$ to each of SENS and SIAI.

Bit of a gut-punch: I was just at a catholic funeral yesterday, for a member of my partner's family, and this was the first thing on the discussion page when I looked at it today.

My thoughts, on seeing the coffin and hearing pretty but false comforts, were something along the lines of: This should not be. But I said nothing. I'm kind of glad that someone else somewhere did, if subtly.

You have my sympathies and admiration.

Death is not something I will ever embrace.
It is only a childish thing, that the human species has not yet outgrown.
And someday...
We'll get over it...
And people won't have to say goodbye any more...
...
And someday when the descendants of humanity have spread from star to star, they won't tell the children about the history of Ancient Earth until they're old enough to bear it; and when they learn they'll weep to hear that such a thing as Death had ever once existed!

EY, HPMoR, Chapter 45. Humanism, Part III

My grandma died just a few months ago, so I think I know how you feel.

For me, it kinda felt like I should've been the only person who really understood the tragedy of the situation, but then I looked around and saw that I wasn't. Everyone there knew how wrong it is that a person can just break, and they knew that that is exactly what happened. No matter what they said to console themselves, they knew that death is wrong.

The real difference between us and them is not that we articulate our resentment, but that we resolve to do something about it.

At Jewish funerals, everyone there take a shovel and throws a bit of dirt onto the coffin to help sever the bond and let go. The dead are gone; all that's left is a memory.

The only eulogy that should be worthy of our loved ones is to carry their memory to the end of the last stars and beyond. Because if we can't follow through on our promise to kill Death, then we have no right resenting those who don't try.

Very well written; congratulations on having the courage to speak on this in the middle of very religious people.

Thanks, everybody, for their responses.

I stayed up late writing this post, and when I went to bed afterwards, I found my self getting very angry at the priest (for the gall cited in the second paragraph of the post), and then I had my first really good cry about Grandpa's death.

The next day, I got a bad bout of food poisoning on the trip home (so this time the gall was literal). I don't think that there's any connection, unless perhaps lack of sleep weakened my immune system. But that's why I didn't read any of the responses until today.

I'm sorry you had to go through this. I've been to three Catholic funerals over the past two years, and found them both to be particularly painful. I actually refused requests to perform readings, and thought about doing a eulogy like this. I didn't, and I'm impressed that you had the courage to do so.

You showed more courage than I did. I wish I had come out as an atheist before my grandmother's funeral.

Christ I need to get my grandparents signed up for cryo.

I'm glad to see that you were brave enough to insert a little piece of the future into this product of the past.

At my grandmother's funeral I read Dirge Without Music by Edna St. Vincent Millay, which captured my feelings at the time fairly well. I think you can say things while reading a poem that you couldn't just say as yourself.

I think EY had a post about the death of his brother. Anyone know where that is?

On his website.

(Speaking of which, the HPMoR link here should probably be updated to point at hpmor.com, since that now seems to be the canonical source.)

Thanks! That's why I couldn't find it here - it isn't here.

Besides HPMoR 45, I reread that while working on my eulogy. And some other stuff.

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I'm sorry for your loss. You were brave to give such a eulogy. I think many of us know how you feel.

My granpa, who is more like a father to me, is not dead yet. However after he went through a heart surgery, he got delirious and they diagnosed him with a difficult case of Alzheimers. Now the situation is stabilized, but he still is like a completely different person with the same sense of humour and really bad memory. I'm not sure if I should consider him dead or alive.

I hope that when his body finally fails, I'll have the courage to give a eulogy in a similar spirit.

Jesus, I skip funerals entirely at this point. I can't imagine the things that I would do or say in that situation, but I wouldn't sit quietly by, not anymore...