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My sister wanted a godless funeral. But still invited God

Thanks to Kim Z for the link.

A royal wedding in a register office – that's the sort of validation those of us who want to live and die as non-believers need

My sister Rosemary died of cancer in March, aged 61. As her next-of-kin, it fell to me to organise her funeral. The undertaker's office, I soon discovered, is no place for the bereaved. You can't afford to be dazed or vulnerable, otherwise you will weakly agree to all the standard things, which was not what my sister wanted.

I fought against a wooden coffin and a hearse – securing, after some negotiation, a final journey in a cardboard coffin in the back of a Volvo estate. (Don't worry. It was black.) Then the undertaker asked what religion my sister was. "Atheist," I replied. That, of course, was a nonsense. Atheism is – doh! – not a religion. In that case, he asked, who was going to conduct the funeral? If the Volvo was the unconventional substitute for the hearse, who was the unconventional substitute for the vicar?

Happily – I insist on that word – it was me. Told before Christmas that she had months to live, my sister had the inclination and the courage to prescribe the kind of service she wanted and ask me to conduct it. What she wanted, in a word, was a godless funeral. How easy was that to achieve?

In many ways, the planning of a godless funeral was a liberation. For our mother's cremation we had, via that secular miracle the internet, procured the services of a rabbi. (Oh yes, my sister's non-religion was, in fact, "Jewish atheist".) He recited the prayers with commendable gusto. But he was much like the vicar so familiar from Church of England funerals – he didn't know the deceased; he couldn't eulogise her, except to say he'd heard nice things about her from her family. How many times have you shifted in your pew with embarrassment, as a vicar tries to celebrate a member of his flock who, it's soon apparent, is a bit of a mystery sheep? I knew my elder sister for all but the first four years of her life. In celebrating her, I had infinitely more knowledge and authority than a religious intermediary only doing his or her job.
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