Lifeism in the midst of death
tl;dr: My grandpa died, and I gave a eulogy with a mildly anti-deathist message, in a Catholic funeral service that was mostly pretty disagreeable.
I’m a little uncomfortable writing this post, because it’s very personal, and I’m not exactly a regular with friends here. But I need to get it out, and I don’t know any other place to put it.
My grandfather (one of two) died last week, and there was a funeral mass (Catholic) today. Although a ‘pro-life’ organisation, the Roman Catholic Church has a very deathist funeral liturgy. It wasn’t just ‘Stanley has gone on to a better place’, and all that; the priest had the gall to say that Grandpa had probably done everything that he wanted to do in life, so it was OK for him to die now. I know from discussions with my mother and my aunt that Grandpa did not want to die now; although his life and health were not what they used to be, he was happy to live. Yes, he had gone to his great-granddaughter’s second birthday party, but he wanted to go to her third, and that will never happen.
There are four of us grandchildren, two (not including me) with spouses. At first, it was suggested that each of us six say one of the Prayers of the Faithful (which are flexible). Mom thought that I might find one that I was willing to recite, so I looked them up online. It wasn’t so bad that they end with ‘We pray to the Lord.’ recited by the congregation; I would normally remain silent during that, but I decided that I could say it, and even lead others in saying it, pro forma. And I could endorse the content of some (at least #6 from that list) with some moderate edits. But overall, the whole thing was very disturbing to me. (I had to read HPMoR 45 afterwards to get rid of the bad taste.) I told Mom ‘This is a part of the Mass where I would normally remain in respectful silence.’, and she apologised for ‘put[ting] [me] in an uncomfortable position’ (to quote from our text messages). In the end, the two grandchildren-in-law were assigned to say these prayers.
But we grandchildren still had a place in the programme; we would give eulogies. So I had to think about what to say. I was never close to Grandpa; I loved him well enough, but we didn’t have much in common. I tried to think about what I remembered about him and what I would want to tell people about him. It was a little overwhelming; in the end, I read my sibling’s notes and decided to discuss only what she did not plan to discuss, and that narrowed it down enough. So then I knew what I wanted to say about Grandpa.
But I wanted to say something more. I wanted to say something to counter the idea that Grandpa’s death was OK. I didn’t yet know how appalling the priest’s sermon would be, but I knew that there would be a lot of excuses made for death. I wanted to preach ‘Grandpa should not have died.’ and go on from there, but I knew that this would be disturbing to people who wanted comfort from their grief, and a lecture on death would not really be a eulogy. Still, I wanted to say something.
(I also didn’t want to say anything that could be interpreted as critical of the decision to remove life support. I wasn’t consulted on that decision, but under the circumstances, I agree with it. As far as I’m concerned, he was killed on Monday, even though he didn’t finally die until Wednesday. In the same conversation in which Mom and I talked about how Grandpa wanted to live, we talked about how he didn’t want to live under the circumstances under which he was living on Tuesday, conditions which his doctors expected would never improve. Pulling the plug was the best option available in a bad situation.)
Enough background; here is my eulogy. Some of this is paraphrase, since my written notes were only an outline.
When I was young, we would visit my grandparents every year, for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Grandma and Grandpa would greet us at the door with hugs and kisses. The first thing that I remember about their place was the candy. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, they didn’t eat it; it was there as a gift for us kids.
Later I noticed the books that they had, on all topics: religion, history, humour, science fiction, technical material. Most of it was older than I was used to reading, and I found it fascinating. All of this was open to me, and sometimes I would ask Grandpa about some of it; but mostly I just read his books, and to a large extent, this was his influence on me.
Grandpa was a chemical engineer, although he was retired by the time I was able to appreciate that, and this explains the technical material, and to some extent the science fiction. Even that science fiction mostly took death for granted; but Grandpa was with us as long as he was because of the chemists and other people who studied medicine and the arts of healing. They helped him to stay healthy and happy until the heart attack that ended his life.
So, I thank them for what they did for Grandpa, and I wish them success in their future work, to help other people live longer and better, until we never have to go through this again.
I was working on this until the ceremony began, and I even edited it a little in the pew. I wasn’t sure until I got up to the podium how strong to make the ending. Ultimately, I said something that could be interpreted as a reference to the Second Coming, but Catholics are not big on that, and my family knows that I don’t believe in it. So I don’t know how the church officials and Grandpa’s personal friends interpreted it, but it could only mean transhumanism to my family.
Nobody said anything, positive or negative, afterwards. Well, a couple of people said that my eulogy was well done; but without specifics, it sounded like they were just trying to make me feel good, to comfort my grief. After my speech, the other three grandchildren went, and then the priest said more pleasant falsehoods, and then it was over.
Goodbye, Grandpa. I wish that you were alive and happy in Heaven, but at least you were alive and happy here on Earth for a while. I’ll miss you.
[Edit: Fix my cousin’s age.]