A Secular Memorial

September 23, 2009

A Secular Memorial

James R. Underdown

1932 - 2009

My father died on August 24th, 2009, of some combination of throat cancer and heart failure. He would have been 77 next month.

I won't write a tribute here. The content of his life, with all its successes and struggles, is not the purpose of this entry. I write this to remind my fellow freethinkers that it is not only possible, but well within all our ability to mourn, pay tribute, and bury our secular dead in a way befitting their philosophy.

Dealing with the logistics of my father's death was a lot easier than the Catholic tradition my mother's family usually follows. The church method means quickly picking a casket, locating a funeral home, organizing a wake, buying a plot and a tombstone, and finding a priest to conduct a service at a wake and a mass - before yet another ceremony at a grave site. All that must happen within a few days after the death - which if sudden, may catch the loved ones quite unprepared.

Fortunately, my father was an atheist, or more accurately, a secular humanist. He let it be known well before his last breath that he wanted cremation and a secular ceremony.

And so, this is what we did...

He was cremated after his doctor signed the death certificate, and the ashes were brought to my mother's house. We placed a notice of his death in the Chicago Tribune that week, and included the fact that a private memorial would be held in the near future.

My mother and I found a place to hold a memorial luncheon a month after my father's death. The month would give family and friends from out of town time to make arrangements to attend if they were able. It would also give our immediate family a bit of time to mourn, catch our breaths, and think about what the tribute might look and sound like.

After the initial plans were made, some family took his ashes up to a wooded area in northeast Wisconsin over Labor Day weekend and spread them near a newly-planted sapling. The ceremony I wrote for that occasion is below.

Last Sunday the memorial itself took place. I gave a brief narrative of my father's life interspersed with friends and family each giving remembrances and perspectives of their time around him. We had on display the photos, memorabilia, and even music that gave flavor to his years among us. Then, anyone present had the opportunity to say a few words to the crowd.

During the post-memorial party at my mother's house, the crowd watched the Chicago Bears beat the Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers with a last minute field goal. My father was a die-hard Bear fan, and would have enjoyed the game. Coincidentally, the VCR drawer below the TV popped out -- on its own -- immediately after the Bear's winning kick sailed through the uprights. It was fun even for me to imagine for a second that my father had somehow influenced that drawer and maybe even that kick.

I hope this piece will serve as a reminder to the reason-based community that we too can celebrate life, mourn our dead, and be remembered without losing touch with reality.

Ash-Spreading Ceremony

We are gathered here today to bring James Richard Underdown to his final resting place. It is fitting for a few reasons that we bring his remains here to these woods instead of to a grave in a cemetery or a crypt in a mausoleum.

The first reason is that he loved Door County and looked forward to his trips here. By spreading his ashes here among these trees we deliver him to the landscape he so enjoyed. Over time, he will become one with the trees, the other plants, the animals that eat the plants, and so on. By consigning him to these woods today, we are forever making him a part of the beautiful landscape he sought so many times.

It is fitting that his loved ones are participating in this ceremony. He valued his family, both immediate and extended, and never hesitated to open his home to others as a gathering place for holidays and celebrations. He would thank you all for being a part of this ceremony.

It is also fitting that this ceremony is unusual, untraditional, and created specifically for him. Jim was a man who walked to the beat of his own drummer. And so we are here in nature unfettered by any man's blueprint of where he should be from now on.

Finally, it is fitting that because it is illegal to deposit human remains on private property without a permit, his last act as an individual (in more or less one piece) is to break a stupid law. He would have enjoyed knowing that would happen.

I now ask each of you present to scoop up some ash one at a time and place it in a spot to your liking nearby.

If anyone would like to say a few words, please come forward and do so now.

Though we bid him goodbye, we may take comfort in the fact that he will always live on in our hearts, our memories, and as a part of these woods. Thank you for being here.