Memorial Service

By Bobbie Kirkhart


Recent­ly, I attend­ed a memo­r­i­al ser­vice for an old friend. Peg had led a long and accom­plished life before her final years of excru­ci­at­ing pain and frus­trat­ing help­less­ness, so while we mourned her loss, we were there to share the joy of hav­ing known her. Peg was a firm athe­ist, a found­ing mem­ber and gen­er­ous sup­port­er of Athe­ists Unit­ed, but most of her time was spent rid­ing the horse trails that she loved, so it didn’t sur­prise me that I was the only per­son from the freethought com­mu­ni­ty at the invi­ta­tion-only event.

Her old­est son led off with a long remem­brance, and then var­i­ous friends and fam­i­ly shared anec­dotes and enu­mer­at­ed Peg’s many con­tri­bu­tions to the com­mu­ni­ty. Peg’s involve­ment in freethought wasn’t men­tioned. It was not that peo­ple were avoid­ing con­tro­ver­sy; Peg’s col­or­ful­ly neg­a­tive opin­ion of Repub­li­cans was fond­ly recalled. Still, even in lib­er­al South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, athe­ism is a whole dif­fer­ent mea­sure of controversy.

As the talks were wind­ing down, Peg’s youngest son Dave rose to speak. I knew him bet­ter than the rest of the fam­i­ly and knew that his moth­er was proud of his athe­ist activ­i­ties. “Mom was raised Pres­by­ter­ian but became an athe­ist,” he boast­ed, “and I think that speaks well for her crit­i­cal think­ing abil­i­ty.” With the ice bro­ken, I stood to hon­or Peg’s con­tri­bu­tions to the freethought movement.

When I sat down again, a woman strode pur­pose­ful­ly to the front. Her eyes fixed on Dave and me as she said in a delib­er­ate voice, “I know Peg is watch­ing us right now. She can see us, and we will see her again.”

Reli­gious intru­sions in athe­ists’ funer­als aren’t unusu­al. I’m offend­ed when some­one inter­rupts a sec­u­lar cer­e­mo­ny with a Bible read­ing and infu­ri­at­ed when the deceased is extoled as a gen­er­ous and kind man by a speak­er who then con­cludes, “He real­ly was a good Chris­t­ian,” reflect­ing the cul­tur­al idea that virtue is an exclu­sive­ly Chris­t­ian trait.

Yet, when I imag­ine Peg’s reac­tion if she real­ly had seen her friend glar­ing at us as she deliv­ered her mes­sage of sal­va­tion, I can only be amused.

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Bob­bie Kirkhart is vice pres­i­dent of the Athe­ist Alliance of Amer­i­ca and serves on the board of Camp Quest, Inc., a sum­mer camp for chil­dren of free­think­ing fam­i­lies. She is a past pres­i­dent of the Athe­ist Alliance Inter­na­tion­al as well as a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to U.S. freethought publications.