Giving atheists religious funerals is a disservice that has been going on for some time. And now is the time for it to stop, argues Leo Igwe.
On February 9, 2013, the former Chairman of the Nigerian Humanist Movement, Eze Ebisike died after a brief illness. On March 2, he was buried in his hometown, Okpokume, Mpam, Ekwerazu Ahiazu Mbiase in Imo State. Ebisike was an ex-Catholic priest and an atheist. He was buried after a short humanist funeral ceremony in the compound. The ceremony was a historic event because it was the first time, in that part of the country that someone who was an atheist was given a non-religious funeral.
Funerals constitute a vital part of the local culture and tradition. Most people attach a lot of importance to rites marking the end of life. Some people plan for their own funerals even though they know they won’t be there to celebrate it! People devote time, energy and resources to mourning the dead and paying their last respects.
But like most other aspects of culture, funeral ceremonies have been based on religion and supernaturalism. A funeral is a ‘spiritual’ and godly exercise. Hence people think that a funeral must be conducted in line with the teachings of one of the traditional religions; Islam or Christianity. They cannot imagine a godless funeral service or a non-religious or non-theistic way of mourning the dead. This is to be expected given the ubiquity of the theistic cosmological outlook. Most people believe in a god that rewards or punishes people after death. There is a strong belief that death is not the end of life, that death is a kind of transition from this life to the ‘next life’, that there is a heaven and a hell.
But humanists do not hold to these beliefs. For humanists, death is the end of life. When people die they decompose just like all other living things. Post mortem life in heaven and hell is viewed at best as a comforting illusion. The evidence for a personal god is simply not there. There has also been no evidence produced for the existence of a soul. And the whole idea of the soul leaving the body is just wishful thinking.
So, clearly religious funeral ceremonies are not in line with humanist values. They express superstitious and irrational notions, which humanists reject. In a typical religious funeral service, there is a strong current of supernatural ideas of reality, and a dualistic idea of the world and of life. And humanists do not entertain such views. For humanists, a funeral ceremony is not a rite of passage for the deceased. A funeral is a celebration of a life lived, a life which has ended. A funeral is an opportunity for family and friends to pay tribute to the memory of someone who has died.
For humanists, when people die, they live on in the minds and memories of their loved ones, not in a heaven or a hell. They live on in the legacies they leave behind, in the good (and also the bad) which they did. They live on in their children, their descendants. Funerals are special times to remember and to relive those sweet memories, and pay our last respects to a person whom we are lucky to have shared this short life with.
Due to different ideas and attitudes to death and dying, funerals should not be religious for everyone. Funerals can be secular. Religious funerals are ceremonies in line with the values and beliefs of theistic and religious people while secular or humanist funerals are ceremonies conducted in a way that agrees with the values and beliefs of non-religious people.
But in Nigeria, many people do not acknowledge that there is a need for secular funerals. While people appreciate the need to bury a Christian in a Christian way, the Muslim in a Muslim way or the traditional religionist in a way in line with traditional religious beliefs, this is not the case for atheists, agnostics and freethinkers. Very often family and community members do not respect the wishes of their humanist members and friends to be buried in a secular way. In most cases when atheists die, family and community members impose religious funerals on them. And this should not happen. It should rather be a case of religious funerals for religious people and secular or humanist funerals for non-religious people. We need to ensure that freethinking non-religious people do not continue to live their life with the knowledge that, at the end of their life, family and community members will impose on them a funeral ceremony that is not in accordance with the outlook they upheld while alive.
A Nigerian humanist who was a columnist with one of the local newspapers died in 2011. Before he died, he made known his wish to be given a secular funeral. But he feared that the family would not respect his wishes. And the family did not. He was given a religious funeral ceremony. In another case, a religious service at a local church was also part of the funeral of a popular Nigerian humanist who died last year. My question is this: when people organise religious funerals for non-religious people, do they think they are doing the right thing? Would they want similar things done unto them – that they, being Christian, be buried in a Muslim way or vice versa? I mean do people really think that they are honouring the name and memory of their humanist friend or family member when they ‘bury them in a religious way’?
Giving atheists religious funerals is a disservice that has been going on for some time. And now is the time for it to stop. However, many non-religious persons will be indifferent to the whole idea of religious versus non-religious funerals. They simply do not care. Their argument is that since they believe that death marks the absolute end of life, they are not perturbed by what happens after they are dead or the kind of funeral they receive. For them a religious or a secular funeral does not make any difference, it does not change anything. The Dead is dead, period. But there are those who care.
Religious as well as humanist funeral ceremonies are for the living. And there are non-religious persons who would not want their memories to be insulted or corrupted by a religious funeral service. It is important that people respect the wish of their humanist friends and family members and accord them a funeral that is in line with their beliefs and outlook. For me, like Eze Ebisike, when I die, if there is a funeral, I would like to be given a secular/humanist funeral service. I would like my family members and friends to respect this wish. That I be accorded a funeral ceremony that is in line with the humanist ideas, values and beliefs that I professed and lived by during my lifetime.
Leo Igwe is founder of the Nigerian Humanist Movement and an occasional member of the IHEU delegation to the Human Rights Council in Geneva.