The cemetery is carved out of acres of cropland in southeastern Wisconsin, and it dates back to the first German settlement in the area. Some of the weathered, leaning stones are as much as 150 years old. They tell of women dying in childbirth, couples growing old together, and a great many children who never grew up. The second incarnation of the church, built in 1880, still stands. When we go inside to escape the heat and look around, it’s shadowy and cool, with plain white plaster walls framed in with lovingly fitted and polished wood.
We stand baking in our funeral clothes under the hot sun, watching as the Lutheran pastor takes a handful of the red-brown earth piled beside the grave and pours it on the gleaming casket. It’s a powerful bit of ritual, that symbolic burial-a little hiccup of indrawn breath runs around the gathered group, as the indisputable facts of death and decay sink home. That some people in the crowd find comfort in the pastor’s words about heaven and eternal life is clear. That I don’t is also clear to me, now.
I find myself liking Pastor Dean-he seems kind and a little gawky, and he obviously knew and liked the lady we’re burying today. He speaks of her with affection and sadness, and he speaks of his god with the same affection. The god he believes in is welcoming and loving, and there’s this sense that his god is the sort who might sit down and have a beer with you.
When my grandfather died, my unchurched grandmother scrambled for an officiant for his funeral, and landed somehow on an evangelical minister out of the phone book. The burial was in an old cemetery on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi, full of headstones bearing my own last name. We sat on the edge of our folding chairs, filling with rising anger and astonishment as the minister used the opportunity to exhort us to find Jeezus so that we might have eternal life, and spoke hardly a word about PawPaw. Now there’s a joke in my family that PawPaw’s religion was his tomatoes and the Cardinals, and it’s true that in the summer you could reliably find him either out in the garden cussing at the caterpillars, or sitting at the kitchen table with a cold beer (and a cigarette, before the emphysema that killed him was diagnosed) and the old radio tuned to the game. PawPaw wasn’t a church-going man, and none of us ever knew what his private philosophies were. All his history and his stories-his farmhouse childhood, his service in the war, his years of factory work to support his family, his delight in his grandchildren, his tomatoes-it was all irrelevant to the god-squawker in front of us. I’m still mad thinking about it.
I could never believe in a god as puny and immoral as the god-squawker’s god, and while Pastor Dean’s god seems like a nice fellow, I don’t believe in him either. Or any god, anymore, for that matter, and there are still times when I regret that. I’ve lost my faith, and most of the time I’m ok with it. But atheism is a new pair of shoes for me, and they don’t fit quite perfectly yet. I don’t need religion to feel part of something, because I’m part of the whole of life on this planet. That’s plenty, I think, and if it’s not, well, that’s a big universe out there. There’s wonder and mystery enough in it to satiate the hungriest soul. I don’t need religion to base my ethics in-anyone who does has a screw loose, in my opinion. But sometimes, I admit, I miss the comfort of believing in life after death. How can you tell someone that it’s going to be ok, when the person they loved has dissolved, faded away like melting snow?