You’d think dying would be harder for the nonreligious. For us, death is the end, as final as turning off the television—and throwing it in the lake. However false-ly, believers can look forward to eternal bliss or, if not bliss, at least justice; resolution, all the same. Picturing a deity’s hand upon the cosmic helm, believers can hope for all accounts to be settled and each injustice compensated, with every life set firmly into meaning’s great template.
How strange, then, that, despite the comfort and support their beliefs are said to bring, most religious people appear to fear dying and dread death no less fiercely than any secular humanist. Maybe it’s the animal in each of us, snarling at the dying of the light, no matter what mind and heart believe about eternity. Or maybe, when it comes to the capital E End, some believers feel less certain of what lies beyond the grave than they had hoped they would.
For those who view life as a prelude and those who view it as all there is, dying and death constitute the ultimate crucible. In so many ways, we reshape ourselves in our responses to the dyings and the deaths of those we love. Soon enough, each of us will face a dying, a death all our own. For some, the dying process will be transformative, the summation of a life well authored. Others will be denied that opportunity but spared also the suffering that may come with it.
Free Inquiry’s last cover feature on death and dying was “Dying without Religion,” in the Summer 1990 issue. To reopen the subject is overdue.
Early in 2006, Free Inquiry began to solicit essays from atheists and humanists, activists and everyday folks, open skeptics and closet doubters. What had they experienced of death and dying? How had they responded? What had they seen of funerals or memorials, traditional or alternative? Were they grappling with issues surrounding the ends of their own lives? What choices were they making? What resulted was a remarkable selection of essays, some from humanist stalwarts, some from first-time writers, expressing a vast diversity of perspectives. (In fact, we received more excellent essays than would fit in this physical issue; view the “bonus articles” online at www.secularhumanism.org/fi/dealing-with-dying/.)
There is also “expert” commentary. Paul Kurtz makes a plea for evocative, explicitly humanist memorial ceremonies, and describes some in which he has participated. Ronald A. Lindsay, legal director of the Center for Inquiry/Office of Public Policy, runs down the options available for today’s humanists to enforce their wishes regarding the disposition of their assets and their bodies; I suspect it may become our most-clipped article of the decade. And I offer a word in support of those who feel that ceremonial belongs right alongside hopes for eternal life in secular humanists’ cognitive ashcans. What do you think? We welcome your responses at Letters, P.O. Box 664, Amherst, NY 14226-0664, or e-mail email@example.com.