At my mother's funeral

At my mother's funeral

Unitarian Universalists are precisely the people who can't believe whatever they want.
Doug Muder


My mother’s death, everyone assured me, had been a blessing. In those last months she had been in considerable pain, and one by one her pleasures had been flickering out like used-up candles. Her vision was no longer good enough for reading. She had a hard time following a conversation or a TV show, no matter how high she raised the volume. A swallowing problem had turned meals into yet another arduous chore.

“She’s in a better place now,” Dad said. He really believed it. My father has the kind of simple faith that he and Mom had tried and failed to instill in me. As we prepared for Mom’s funeral, Dad had no doubt that he would see her again—maybe sooner, maybe later—in a place without pain or problems.

Mom’s leg (the scarred one that had been stiff at the knee since a bone infection during her adolescence) would be healed then. “She always thought it was unattractive,” he said, “but it never bothered me. She was so beautiful. I always knew that without that leg, she’d have been married long before I got there.” Dad had never seen her run, except once in a dream. “I think I was seeing how we’ll meet in heaven,” he told me.

Mom and Dad’s heaven was also a place where all questions would be answered, and that was what had always bugged me about it. I wanted my questions answered sooner, while I still had a chance to do something with the information. Even as a child, my brain just didn’t seem to be wired for the proverbial childlike faith. “How does that work?” I kept asking the grown-ups. “Why do things have to be this way? How does that make any sense?”

I hadn’t raised any of those questions in my parents’ house for many years. As they got older, I stopped hoping that I might get answers from them, and worried instead that I might infect them with my questions. Their faith worked for them. It made them more hopeful and more generous, and I never saw them abuse it to justify meanness or oppression. I didn’t see how anyone would benefit if they began to doubt.

“What could I possibly give you?” Nietzsche’s Zarathustra had asked the saint in the forest. “Better I should leave before I take something from you.” For decades now, Dad had been the one to start religious conversations, and I always did my best to close them off without lying.

In my first career I had been a mathematician. I always gave Mom and Dad copies of my research articles, and they were proud even if they didn’t pretend to understand. But when a Humanist journal printed my first religious article, I debated whether to tell them about it. For once, we might discuss my writing. But did I want to?

I decided I didn’t. Mom never saw that article (unless Dad is right and she sees everything now from heaven). Ever after that, I carefully weighed what I could show them and what I couldn’t. As I became more active as a Unitarian Universalist, I didn’t hide it, but we developed our own version of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Dad came to hear me preach once and Mom read one of my milder sermons, but we didn’t talk about it.

I didn’t have any input into the funeral. Mom designed it herself years ago, choosing the hymns and the texts. (Dad also has a funeral order of service on file somewhere.) Their minister delivered with conviction Jesus’s claim to be the Resurrection and the Life, and his promise to prepare a place where we can live with him forever. Far from metaphors, these were take-it-to-the-bank commitments: There is a place. Jesus is there. Mom is there. Someday the rest of us will be, too.

Except for me. The service did not dwell on the unbelief/damnation part of the story, but the religion I grew up in is incomplete without it. (Or maybe worrying about completeness is just me being the way I’ve always been: How does that work? How do the pieces fit together?) That’s probably why Dad keeps gently poking at the topic of the afterlife. I think he worries that he and Mom and my sister Becky will be waiting, but I will never show up. Undoubtedly the prospect of my absence mars the perfection of Dad’s vision, and I am genuinely sorry for that. But there’s not much I can do about it.

Community rituals sometimes have a boomerang effect. They can be very isolating once you start to wonder if you’re the only one not buying it.

And twist my imagination as I might, I couldn’t buy the funeral’s promises. But I wanted the event to be about Mom, not me, and I didn’t want to screw it up for others. So I sang the hymns, recited the prayers, listened respectfully to the eulogy, and stood or sat in unison with everyone else, as if we shared a single mind.

But that mind seemed very distant. Whether anyone else in the room was harboring secret doubts or not, I felt alone in facing the possibility that death is final, that I will never see my mother again, that our interrupted conversations will never be finished, and that all the things we didn’t understand about each other will never be understood.

Somewhere in the middle of those reflections, I almost laughed at myself: “Wait a minute,” I thought. “I’m the Unitarian Universalist in the room. I’m supposed to be the one who can believe whatever he wants!”

Over the years I’ve probably heard or read a dozen UU ministers’ explanations of why the old saw “Unitarian Universalists can believe whatever they want” isn’t quite right. But until that moment at Mom’s funeral, I had never grasped how exactly backwards it is.

Unitarian Universalists are precisely the people who can’t believe whatever they want.

The image of Mom in heaven—young and vibrant again, seeing everything, hearing everything, skipping gaily about on two perfect legs—how could anyone not want to believe that?

The vision of heaven itself—a perfect place where all loved ones will reunite, and all pains and doubts and disagreements will be revealed as the illusions they always were: I don’t want to reject it, I just can’t sustain it. Like a multistory house of cards, it always collapses before I can get it finished.

Unitarian Universalists like to talk about freedom, but lately I’ve been thinking that’s an old-fashioned view that looks at our faith from the wrong side. Yes, we’re free from the external discipline of a creed or a scripture or an authoritative clergy. Generations ago, that was our claim to fame. “In Boston you have to be something,” the wife of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was supposed to have explained once, “and Unitarian is as near nothing as you can get.”

But that hasn’t been true for a long time. In twenty-first-century America, you don’t have to be something. If you want to have no religion, go ahead and have no religion. Who can stop you? The lack of external religious discipline is just a fact of life now.

The old religious authorities taught (and still teach) that they were necessary. People needed someone or something to keep their beliefs in line. Otherwise they’d believe all kinds of frivolous, self-serving, and wish-fulfilling things.

But is frivolity, self-service, and wish fulfillment what Unitarian Universalism is about? Is that what I was doing at the funeral?

No, quite the opposite. Today’s Unitarian Universalists continue to be free of external discipline, but the point is to be self-disciplined, not un-disciplined. We’re the people who take responsibility for disciplining our own beliefs.

Like any other responsibility, religious responsibility is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, my beliefs feel more straightforward and authentic because I haven’t twisted them to fit some external authority’s template. But on the other, I am cut off from the comforts of frivolous, self-serving, and wish-fulfilling beliefs, because no one can authorize them for me.

This discipline brings meaning to my life, and sharpens my perception of the uniqueness and importance of the present moment. But I appreciate its challenges enough that I don’t want to impose them on anyone else. If others want to outsource the job of disciplining their beliefs, let them.

At the final ceremony in the cemetery chapel, I quieted my thoughts and tried to reach out as far as I could. There have been times when I thought I sensed something at funerals, some voice or vibration or disturbance in the Force. I don’t pretend to know whether such things come from my own unconscious or somewhere more metaphysical, but having felt them in the past, I always try to stay open.

This time I didn’t hear anything. I don’t know whether Dad or Becky did or not. We didn’t talk about it.

But I have picked up enough hints that I think I know how Dad has made peace with my unbelief: He imagines that someday I will hear something. Someday (maybe at his funeral, whenever that happens) the God of the Bible, the God he believes in, will make His presence so apparent that I will have to come around. And then Jesus’s promise will be available to me, too, and I will keep our appointment in heaven.

It is, in its way, a beautiful vision. And if it helps him deal with Mom’s absence and face the prospect of his own death with equanimity, then I am happy to let him believe it. But for myself, I will continue to watch and listen, and to believe what makes sense to me.

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