Atheist at a Funeral: A Contemplation in Four Hymns

Heaven1. “Be Thou My Vision”

During the first hymn, which I′d never heard before, I practiced sight-reading, trying to anticipate each rise and fall in pitch as I studied the hymnal. It was an absorbing mental game, a relief from thinking about the last time I saw Helen, when she had been twisted and slumped and barely responsive. Up a third, down a third, down a third, crap. Focus! By the second verse I gave up and sang by ear, following the pianist and the well-practiced congregation of Presbyterians. By the fourth verse, I had it.

High King of Heaven, my victory won,
may I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
still be my vision, O Ruler of all.

As we rustled back down into our seats, adjusting skirts and suit jackets, I realized I had no idea whether Helen would have sung such a hymn sincerely, to God, or whether she would have sung for the pleasure of it, as I had. I had known Helen all my life and yet I did not know whether she was a believer.

She did celebrate Christmas; I could vouch for that. Christmas Eve at her house was a treasured ornament of my (Jewish) childhood: we kids sitting on the carpet by the pretty little tree in the parlor, the grownups settled around us on sofas and chairs. We each got a Bible passage to read, and I was terrified I’d have to read the word “Selah,” which I sort of knew how to pronounce but could never make sound natural, like I meant it. Christmas at Helen’s made you want to mean it. The presents were modest, the decorations more loving than lavish, and when we sat down in the dining room to eat, the candlelight gave her laughing eyes an extra sparkle.

2. “On Eagle’s Wings”

The next hymn sounded familiar, especially the chorus, which had the push and swell of a diva pop song. I bided time through the verses for a chance to sing at full voice.

And he will raise you up on eagle’s wings,
bear you on the breath of dawn,
make you to shine like the sun,
and hold you in the palm of his hand.

It wasn’t just Christmas. I always thought of Helen and her husband Jim as the best of Christians—kind, loving, learned. This church we were in—their church—was known for its good works, and Helen was an active member. But did she believe the Bible was the Word of God or a work of literature, like her beloved Faulkner only maybe not as good? Did she believe in God? In Heaven? Did she think, as she took her last breaths a couple of weeks before, that she would soon be seeing Jim again?

I could ask one of her daughters, couldn’t I? Maybe not the one I knew to be a practicing Christian—the one who had chosen the hymns—but the one I knew best, who’d stayed in my hometown. I looked among the mourners and found Karis’s face. But she was weeping and I had to look away.

3.  “We Shall Overcome”

I could not sing the next hymn. I kept trying, but my voice kept breaking into ugly pieces. This one I knew, of course; it had already worn a groove in my hopeful liberal heart. It also reminded me of Helen. The first political discussions I remember hearing were between Helen and my father, two progressive Democrats who managed to find plenty of room for debate. Just a couple of years ago, bed-moored in a facility, she still read the Washington Post religiously and lit up at the chance to gripe about House Republicans. That was my husband’s gift to her, on our infrequent visits. Better by far than flowers.

We are not afraid;
we are not afraid;
we are not afraid today.

I gave up trying to sing; I cried instead. I cried because she was gone and because, though I had loved her, I hadn’t really known her. I cried because it didn’t occur to me until she died that she taught me—without ever lecturing me—what a woman could be. She was an intellectual, a reader, an activist, a traveller. She was radiant. She made a lovely home, liked a stiff drink, relished a good argument. And boy, could she tell a story.

Helen had been 88 and ill, her dying past due. But still, how was it possible that she no longer existed? I looked around the light-filled church, and cried for everybody in it. For all of us humans, burdened with the knowledge of death, doing everything we can to bear that burden more easily. Trying for millennia to make it make sense. Trying—with giant contraptions of mythology adorned with poetry and rules and songs—to make death not permanent, not true.

Religion is beautiful and touching, when you think of it that way: a massive, communal labor of invention.

4. “Amazing Grace”

For the last hymn, I pulled myself together. I loved this tune, and when did I ever get to sing it for real? I could do that now. I could add to this fragile fiction for a few minutes. I could lend my voice to this heart-breaking, age-old attempt to make the end not be the end.

And when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil
A life of joy and peace.

As the song came to a close, the pianist dug into a crescendo. He hadn’t done that before, and it surprised me. But my voice followed joyously, and I was, for a moment, consoled.


  1. That was beautiful. Made me think of my grandmother’s funeral, also at a Presbyterian church, where we sang “Day by Day” and then one of her friends sang “I’ll be seeing you.” That song always makes me tear up now.

    1. My son is in the Capital District Youth Chorale, and they sing this spiritual that always chokes me up: “Soon I Will Be Done”:

      Soon I will be done with the troubles of the world,
      troubles of the world,
      troubles of the world.
      Soon I will be done with the troubles of the world
      Goin’ home to live with God

      I want to meet my mother
      I want to meet my mother
      I want to meet my mother
      I’m goin’ home to live with God

      We just want to see our loved ones again, don’t we? I did love what Eef said about how it comforted him to think of his mom as a literary character. That’s probably what’s going to happen to my parents . . .

  2. What a powerful post… beautifully written and so evocative. As someone who is a believer, someone whose life and work are centered largely around church and God, I am always interested in the viewpoints and experiences of others.

    Each of those songs came to me as you wrote about them, although in my church we would not have sung We Shall Overcome… that said, I can see how that would be the tear inducer.

    I’m sorry for the passing of your friend, but grateful to read your reflection.

    Thanks for this post!

  3. Lovely, Kate. As George Carlin said, “The only thing good that ever came out of religion is the music.” Great music, any kind, takes us out of our mortal bodies and into an emotional and spiritual realm for a little while. Along with true love and deep friendship, it takes us to a place where there is no time and where our brief existence feels like an eternity.

  4. The music does take you to the heart of it. I’m glad she was such a great person. Now she gets to touch all of us a little through you. xo

  5. Dear Kate;

    I finally got to read through the whole blog and it is so beautifully written. I especially loved the the last 3 paragraphs of the “We Shall Overcome” section. I have those feelings about my parents who are long gone and there was a Helen in my life that sounds a like like yours. Do you ever really “know them/” After they are gone you realize that there was a lot left to be said.

    My husband, Norman, also loves your blogs. Keep on writing and sharing.

    Sandy Dovberg

  6. When I was in college, I commented to a friend of mine that poetry wasn’t art. Another friend of his, a girl named Amy Jones, practically hit the roof — and spent the next year or so trying to show me I was wrong; and though I didn’t change my mind over the time I knew her, I was.

    My statement now would be that art is a skill, and in today’s terminology, it is the skill of communication. But the poetry I had been exposed to, either wasn’t skillfully communicated, or I didn’t have the skill to understand the literary tools.

    Sometime, take a look at “Mending wall”; it uses almost every standard literary tool taught in English class, and to great advantage.

    But our literary tools are not the literary tools of other cultures; and if you try to read a work without understanding the culture, you lose the meaning. Can you hope to understand Iambic Pentameter without having raced a chariot?

    From your description of your Bat Mitzvah, you knew only the most basic Hebrew; and little enough of the culture to understand what was written.

    So it is little surprise to me that you should consider the Bible to be written without skill.

    Yet consider that Isaiah 1-6 is a play that far exceeds shakespeare for skill, and yet if you read it without understanding, it will completely pass you by.

    And if you miss the meaning, you miss the truth as well; and then it is nothing more than a cultural event for the unappreciative.

    Let none of this take away from the truth that is there: I do believe it, as well. Yet if all that was written is nothing more than a babble to you, then I do not expect you would take anything much away from it.

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