Funerals are a strange beast. Particularly as someone who is now non-religious. I’ve been to probably half a dozen now. The first one, maybe two, I’d say I believed in a god. Or something anyway – although I was raised Church of Scotland I never really bought in to it. Looking back I’d now call myself a deist at the time, although I was too young to fully appreciate what that meant.

It changed when my father died. Not instantly; in fact the day of his death I prayed probably more than I have at any time before and certainly any time since. It wasn’t a sudden loss of faith. It was a more gradual realisation that not only did I not believe in any kind of nurturing or interventionist god, something I had already decided upon long before, but that belief in any kind of god brought me no comfort. Before then, whenever I was in church I would still pray. Probably out of a sense of fear or protocol than anything else but still with a belief that there was something out there that while not likely to act, might still be listening. Now the sense of protocol is still there. I still go through the motions, sing the songs, bow my head at the appropriate points, but the fear is gone. And without that the rituals themselves provide much more comfort than they ever did before.

I’m not long back from a funeral today, which is why I’m pondering these things. It was nice, or at least as nice as these things can be. As usual I went through the motions, and as usual the minister’s words came over as empty and meaningless. Until he actually started talking instead of preaching. Talking about the life of the loved one I’d come to mourn. About her family and friends and what they meant to her and in turn what she meant to them. That is where the value and substance was, and it wasn’t tinged with the usual platitudes that religion tries to put forward. There is no afterlife, in the religious sense. I’m as certain as I can be in that without the evidence that is impossible to obtain, and honestly I’m fine with that. Better than fine – I much prefer the thought that this isn’t all just a test, that life has an intrinsic meaning and value of its own. Otherwise I’d be tempted to do what I’ve occasionally done for tests and cram in the last few days in order to pass, without actually gaining any long-term value or experience. Instead the afterlife is here with the people left behind. In their thoughts and feelings and memories. That has value. That has comfort.

I should say that if you do believe in a higher power or an afterlife then as long as that brings you comfort that’s great. But I don’t and I’m personally better off for it. I’ll still go to the services, sing the songs and bow my head for the prayers, but I do that for the ritual. I found myself today instinctively mouthing the words to the Lord’s Prayer even though I don’t believe the words or the meaning behind them. It was the ritual; a sense of shared experience as family and friends mourned together. To me that’s infinitely more comforting at this time.

Does that make me a fraud? I’ll occasionally have twinges of guilt about that. That I’m an intruder in the church. A fox in the hen house. I don’t think it does though. I think being able to share in that grief and in those memories is important, so I will still turn up and go through the usual rituals.

Because it brings me comfort.

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