Eulogy for a Humanist

The difference between life and non-life is so slight, isn’t it? Even now, as our friend reclines in this casket, he is barely distinguishable from a week ago when he was merely sleeping. He looks so similar to the irrepressible, playful man we all love that I half-expect him to wink at me during this speech when he thinks nobody is looking.

In fact, every molecule in his body is still more perfect than the most flawless diamond ever found, and absolutely identical to the like-named molecules in each of us. Even the arrangement of those molecules that gave him his unique appearance is pretty much intact.

And yet, it turns out that this means very little. He is right here, a few feet from us, but we all miss him terribly.

Why is that? It’s because what we miss is the invisible part of him: his way of thinking, the things he would say, the way he reacted to situations — what we call his personality. This is what has disappeared.

It’s hard to believe. Has our friend really been sealed in the mausoleum that we call The Past? Do the very Laws of Physics that our friend so enjoyed getting to know now stand as implacable guardians of his tomb, insisting that Time is a one-way path and that we, in the bereaved Present and Future, shall never enjoy his company again?

No!

I say to you that far from being entombed, our friend’s thoughts, his personality, everything that made him who he was, live and grow still! As we who love him meditate on his life, as we admire what he did and recall what he said to each of us, that invisible part of him will live on. To borrow Daniel Dennett’s memorable phrase, he will be thinking with our brains. Even beyond that, each time we think as he would, the physical structure of our neuroplastic brains will become a little more like his.

In that very real sense, he will always be with us. I hope that’s a comforting thought for you as it is for me.

With that in mind, I have a few words to say to our friend. If what I say reflects your feelings, I hope you will join me.

Dearest friend, life always amazed and amused you, and I think that’s how you would feel about today’s proceedings.

You were a humble man, so you might be amazed that so many of us have taken the time to gather in your memory. But we love you and count it a joy to come together for your sake.

“For your sake”? That phrase amuses you, doesn’t it? I see that wry smile flickering across your face as you observe that it’s just a few days too late for us to do anything for your sake. Doesn’t everyone agree that services like this one are for the benefit of those left behind, rather than for those who have passed away?

No, my friend. We have a surprise for you. Your life has one more plot-twist. We are not here to say goodbye to you, but to welcome you.

Now that you are no longer bound by a physical body, we can all, simultaneously, invite you to be our guest. You will have a permanent home in our minds and hearts, the invisible part of you communing with the invisible part of us. You will think with us, speak through us, and act with us as long as we live, for we will never forget you.

While you are our guest, please don’t be shy. We want you to come to mind frequently. There is so much we admire about you and we welcome your presence.

With your influence, we will be a little more faithful to keep the cycle of kindness going, using the love-engergy others have invested in us to invest love in others.

With you on our minds, we will remain curious about life, relishing curiosity and eschewing dogma.

When a kernel of truth struggles through the centuries-wide tar-pit of superstition; when, nearly exhausted, it manages to swim across the swift currents of our cognitive biases; when it finally comes to us laden with all the suffering that usually attends the truth, we will follow your lead and love it. We will love it whether it is pleasant or unpleasant, whether it is comforting or terrifying, whether it confirms our deepest convictions or upends them completely.

But like you and with you, we will remember not to be serious all the time. Life cracks a lot of jokes, doesn’t it? So much of it is unexpected, perverse, twisted, ironic, or just plain funny. With your help, we can see the joke even if it is on us. Help us to laugh, or, if we can’t laugh, to detach ourselves from suffering until the next occasion for laughter.

You were always so grateful for the gift of being alive. We are, too, O most welcome guest. We hope you enjoy your stay.

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