The horrible Schiavo case teaches us a lot of things, most obviously how important it is to write a living will and make sure that people know of your desires if something like this should ever happen to you. For atheists, however, there’s an extra lesson. The dispute between Mr. Schiavo and his in-laws over what sort of funeral arrangements are appropriate suggests to me that one of the big points of contention here is whether Mrs. Schiavo was really as devoutly Catholic as her parents claim. And this should teach us how important it is to tell people that we are not religious.
You know what I mean. Many people out there don’t believe in a religion, but are afraid to admit it because atheism is the Last Closet. It’s okay to be just about anything—but not an atheist. We come up with clever ways of avoiding the issue or rationalizing things, or we just stay quiet, because it would upset the family and scare away friends if you admitted that you’re an atheist. You call yourself an agnostic or a deist or a freethinker—anything but the A word. You keep going to church. You say all the right words. The family can go on politely thinking you’re still in the fold.
You might not think this is a problem, because, as Master Epicurus says, death is nothing to us, and if our survivors want to have a full-blown Catholic funeral for you, you won’t be around to complain. But funerals are for the living, not the dead, and some of your survivors might be quite upset if your funeral arrangements are transformed into some religious free for all. When my grandfather died some years ago, his funeral was arranged by a neighbor who happened to be a Lutheran pastor. Although my grandfather was not religious, and my grandmother specifically asked that the pastor not conduct a religious ceremony, the man’s training and habits just wouldn’t let him avoid it, and sure enough, in the middle of his talk, there was God and all His Heavenly Fooferah. (I was asked to speak second. I recall making an ill-tempered extemporaneous remark about the Good Father’s rudeness....) If you don’t want such a scene happening at your funeral, it is important to make sure that you let people know. Staying in the closet has its costs.