In a few minutes I will depart my home for a funeral home where I will conduct a service for a recently departed surgeon. I spoke with his adult children at length in preparation for the service of this man I never met in life, but have come to know in death. After our talk, the adult children mulled things over for a day or two and after much deliberation called to request that I “scratch the Jesus and God stuff” from the funeral service because they had decided that he was an atheist after all.


I have no problem with atheists. I simply replaced the reading of  the 23rd psalm with one of John Muir’s writings about a grove of giant redwoods forming a cathedral the likes of which he had never seen or felt in church. But one of the daughters wrote a eulogy for her father that was riddles with references and questions about “angels” and “mystery” and “what lies beyond.”

I find such thoughts and questions at the occasion of death to be profoundly religious. As a matter of fact, one of the most profound questions one can ask is, “Why?” ~ closely followed by “Why me?”  and “Why now?” and “Why not me?” and “Why not now?”

But we still have the problem with reconciling the atheist surgeon, referred to by many as a “healer”, who could not heal himself. And we have the problem of the surgeon who added years to the life of others, but was powerless to add a single moment to his own. And so who is the great surgeon, the great healer and the great physician behind the one now in a casket?

I find funerals, particularly the funerals of atheists, to be profoundly spiritual and, dare I say, religious. The bottom line, for me, is… and perhaps always shall be… whether or not the departed left the world in slightly better shape that it was in when she or he entered it.

Let’s keep it simple: Leaving a trail of beliefs behind you is akin to leaving a trail of bread crumbs in the woods to find your way back. But leaving a trail of good deeds and honored relationships is a legacy that will live eternally, no matter where you may be headed once the lid of the coffin is closed.

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