In Her Time of Dying

Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist - Epicurus

This day a year ago my mother was cremated. It was a hot June day so different from my father’s cremation on a cold January morning eight years earlier. Then Tommy McKearney had said to me that a cremation had much more dignity than a burial. People, including the very old and the very young could be brought together in a warm room rather than feel obligated to stand in a damp field called a cemetery. Besides, leaving the land to the living seems a sound idea. The dead have no use for it.

My mother was carried out of the world by the four sons she had carried into it, the same four that had also carried my father from it. Her funeral was in keeping with how she conducted her life, private and totally lacking in ostentation. Despite her illness she planned her funeral with fine tuned precision. Apart from her family she wanted no mourners, priests, masses, flowers, mass cards, religious trappings, or sympathy notices. At the crematorium there was some music of her choice, including a haunting rendition of Danny Boy by the late Eva Cassidy. There was no service. Family members said a few words or read poems, whatever they felt comfortable with. It was a simple secular ceremony, a dignified occasion with no clowns in gowns shaking incense and chanting mumbo jumbo.

My mother was no die hard atheist ‘biblically’ thumping the latest outpouring by Richard Dawkins. But she did, at her own request, have chapters of his God Delusion read to her by her youngest daughter in her closing days. I suspect it fortified her as the end approached. Despite a fervent religious conviction for much of her life, she had progressively abandoned it as her incredulity grew in the face of mounting challenges to its credibility. Much of the erosion lay in the behaviour of clergy. She could dismiss the antics of individual priests as the failings of men but the church’s collective cover-up for those failings she considered an institutional malaise for which there could be no explanation that resembled anything to do with the love of god. But then the church is about power and influence, not love and maybe not even god. I often wonder if any of the cardinals and bishops believe in god. If they do I strongly suspect it is not a belief that extends to the angels and saints nonsense. Even they could not buy into those fairytales. Those, they manufacture themselves as a sideshow to keep the flock happy. One thing is assured: if, in the morning, the red hat gang were to discover conclusively that god did not exist they would withhold their discovery from the rest of us.

There are many people in the world who draw no consolation from religion, going through their lives without it. They are guilty of nothing but declining to negate their own human essence by finding some mythical vacuum which, in Augustinian language, a deity alone can fill. They do not find their existence so devoid of purpose that they are abandoned to a sea of meaninglessness in which they flail around, clutching desperately for the first supernatural float to be cast their way. They achieve fulfilling lives and behave decently towards their fellow human beings. And when their life expires, it does so in their sure knowledge that there is no other to follow. That is a source of reassurance rather than dread. Humanists are quite comfortable with it, effortlessly accepting that life, good or bad, is its own return. They avoid the end described by Sean Kearney: ‘many who choose to believe in some mythical paradise or demonic hell, must experience great apprehension and terror, based on the fear of God’s wrath.’

Mean and vindictive old tyrant. Best just to ignore him.

11 June 2008


  1. A family member was a practicing Catholic for most of his life, yet in his late 70s he lost his faith, for good reason in my view. He never spoke of it, simply shut the door on the church, yet he seemed to change, less angry.

    A couple of days before he died his daughter asked him if he wanted to see a priest and he firmly declined her offer. As a non believer I always supposed people gained comfort from their religion, indeed for me it is the only logical reason for people to believe such fairy tales, but now I'm not so sure.

    Such is life I suppose.

  2. Grand articles, lads. I, too, grew up in a home where Catholicsm was the preferred religion, although we were Socialists, and our views on religion were tempered by that. It seemed to me that my family spent a lot of time trying to reconcile Christianity and Socialism. Probably a waste of effort, for if indeed the man known as Jesus actually existed, as I think he did, he was certainly a "morning star" of socialism. It is sad that his message has been hijacked and perverted by so many over so many centuries.
    I will not comment on my own feelings about the existence of god further than to quote a great man, Clarence Kailin, a lifelong Communist, a veteran of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, and a man whose lifelong selfless work for Peace and Justice should be emmulated by every "Christian". At a commemoration for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade a few years ago he said: " We Communinsts do not worry about paradise after death, we try our best to create it here on earth. If there is one after death, then we will take it as a bonus!"
    Seoirse MacDomhnaill
    Madison, Wisconsin USA