Offering What Solace We Can
John J. Dunphy
(Originally published in the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Fall 2011)
Thanks to a line of popular books, some television programs and the efforts of local tourism boosters, my hometown of Alton, Illinois is considered a ghost-hunter’s paradise. Several organizations now compete for the bucks of the gullible by offering tours of sites that are supposedly haunted. Ghost-hunters, sometimes from as far away as the United Kingdom and Japan, occasionally make their way to my Second Reading Book Shop and inquire whether I’ve seen any entities. I reply that, while I haven’t seen anything particularly eerie here, some of the people entering the bar next door look pretty scary.
The ghost hunters are motivated by the quest for novelty and excitement, but also by the need to discover assurance of personal immortality. They want proof that death doesn’t mean “game-over” for themselves and others. Some of them have lost loved ones, and they desperately want to believe that they’ll someday be reunited with parents, siblings, friends and — most heartbreakingly of all — their deceased children. Personally, I find this perfectly understandable. Does anyone really enjoy telling such a person that any notion of reunion with someone he/she dearly loved and misses is a sham and delusion? I try to comfort the grieving, not kick them when they’re down.
So, when I’m asked whether I believe that they’ll see a loved one in heaven, I reply that I’m an agnostic and simply don’t know — and let it go at that. These people are in pain, and I have no desire whatsoever to give them even more pain. I try to make compassion the primary value in my relationships with others. I try to offer comfort to those who are suffering the heartbreak of losing a loved one. Telling them, in so many words, that the notion of personal immortality is just BS, so get over your loss and get on with your life ain’t exactly compassionate, folks.
My late mother knew that her only child thought any kind of personal immortality is extremely improbable. She believed in life after death, however, and fervently looked forward to a celestial reunion with my late father and other deceased relatives. Did I dig in my heels and get blue in the face by trying to argue her out of this hope? No. What would have been the point — to demonstrate that I have a sadistic streak a mile wide and get off on hurting my mother?
When humanists, agnostics and non-theists accuse me of compromising my values, I reply that ample precedent exists for taking such a position. I cite two addressed delivered by Robert Ingersoll. Consider this passage from the Great Agnostic’s address at the funeral of his brother, Ebon C. Ingersoll, on June 2, 1879.
“We strive in vain to look beyond the heights. We cry aloud, and the only answer is the echo of our wailing cry. From the voiceless lips of the unreplying dead there comes no word; but in the night of death hope sees a star, and listening love can hear the rustle of a wing. He who sleeps here, when dying, mistaking the approach of death for the return of health, whispered with his latest breath, ‘I am better now.’ Let us believe, in spite of doubts, dogmas and tears and fears that these dear words are true of all the countless dead.”
Do we somehow survive death? In language that rivals the works of Shakespeare, Ingersoll here rejects the absolutism of partisans on both sides of this question. Genuine agnosticism, after all, is the absence of certainty in such matters. The Great Agnostic reached an even greater level of eloquence when delivering an extemporaneous address at the burial of a child.
Harry Miller, a victim of diphtheria, was about to be lowered into his grave in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC and Ingersoll, a friend of their Millers, was in attendance. When asked by the funeral director to speak, Ingersoll at first refused. He then inquired, “Does Mrs. Miller desire it?” and, upon being told that the sobbing mother indeed desired some words from him, he spoke. His address that day is a masterpiece and should be required reading for those any religion as well as for those of no religion. It includes this passage:
“We do not know whether the grave is the end of this life or the door to another, or whether the night here is not somewhere else a dawn. Neither can we tell which is the more fortunate, the child dying in its mother’s arms before its lips have formed a word, or he who journeys all the length of life’s uneven road, painfully taking the last slow steps with staff and crutch. Every cradle asks us, ‘Whence?’ and every coffin ‘Whither?’ The poor barbarian weeping above his dead can answer the question as intelligently and satisfactorily as the robed priest of the most authentic creed.”
Ingersoll did not offer the heartbroken couple any assurance of an afterlife for their young son — but neither did he deny the possibility. He was true to his agnosticism, which allowed him to offer what comfort he could to the Millers without engaging in intellectual dishonesty. For my part, I will continue to offer this degree of comfort to those mourning the death of a loved one. If my goal is to live a life of compassion, how can I not extend whatever consolation I possibly can to these people in pain?
John J. Dunphy is the author of “Lewis and Clark’s Illinois Volunteers,” “Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois” and “From Christmas to Twelfth Night in Southern Illinois.”