Atheists would turn in their graves. Musings on epitaphs 2

Almost all epitaphs avoid discussing the finality of death, though occasionally they didactically indulge in spelling out its inevitability:
• ‘As I am now, so must you be. Prepare for death and follow me.’
• ‘Death is a debt to nature due which I have paid and so must you.’
• ‘Though not till ninety some retire, yet monuments around declare,
how vast the numbers who expire while youth and beauty promise fair.’
Some allow themselves ambiguity:
• ‘Frail as the leaves that quiver on the spray, like them man flourishes, like them decays.’
• ‘Here in the silent grave I lie. No more the scenes of life to try.’ (but who or what, exactly, is lying…?)
• ‘We only know that thou has gone, and that the same relentless tide which bore thee from us, still glides on.’ (the agnostic position)
And this one from Rajneesh is interesting for its paradoxical implications:
• ‘Never born. Never died. Only visited this planet earth 1931-1990’ (Though unfortunately, in my view, he compromised the finality of this statement by other things he said leading up to his death which suggested that he would still be contactable after death.)
But I had to look long and hard for any examples where the finality of death was expressed. Here are the only two I found:
• ‘Here lies an atheist. All dressed up, and no place to go.’ Which manages to say it, but only as a joke.
And this one, presumably from a family grave:
• ‘We are not boxed and blinded by religions.’ Though even this, despite being unequivocal in its condemnation of religion, doesn’t quite spell out the finality of death.
So it is clear that atheist views almost never find expression in epitaphs. Presumably this is either at the instigation of the living or in deference to them. You might wonder of course why this matters – the only people who might be offended are the atheists themselves and they are, by their own admission, no longer around to take offence.
It does matter, I think, for three main reasons:
Firstly, and perhaps least importantly, the fudges that appear on the gravestones of atheists run roughshod over their belief systems and do not follow the defined intention of an epitaph’s as being ‘a short text honoring a deceased person.’ They are disrespectful of the dead.
Secondly, by selecting against atheist epithets an impression is inadvertently conveyed by survivors that atheists are a tiny minority of the population. This is in fact far from the case. Apparently atheists (defined in the broadest sense) now number about a billion people worldwide (15%) and growing. This puts them in third place after the Christians (32% and falling) and Muslims (19% and growing). see:
The final reason is the most important however. The references on our gravestones to eternal sleep, eternal rest, joined together in perpetuity, going over to the other side, falling asleep, etc. etc. are presented as matters of fact and keep us infantalised in our relationship with death. One can easily understand why many parents want to gloss over the question of mortality to protect their children from unnecessary extra heart ache – (‘he’s gone to heaven and you’ll meet him there’). But what is problematic with this is that the euphemism is presented as fact and the accumulative effect of doing this is that we are all drip fed from an early age a fairy tale that can continue into adulthood without challenge.
In some ways the process is a bit like the Father Christmas story: all conspire together to perpetrate a delightful and happiness inducing myth. What distinguishes it however is that the Father Christmas story is eventually exposed as fiction, whereas the stories on our gravestones are part of the very fabric of our culture and parlance. For example it is considered by many to be ‘bad faith’ to refer to someone as having died – we should say instead that they ‘passed on’ or ‘went over the other side’ or some other euphemism.
I’m sure that most religious people have a much subtler and complex belief system around death than the one conveyed by our gravestones. But although the ideas from our graveyards have mostly been transcended, they remain carved in granite. And the fact that most of us continue to pay lip service to the myths provides a brittle undercurrent to conversations around death, discouraging the full expression of other theories and beliefs and mitigating against comparing ideas with any intellectual rigor. We are embarrassed to talk about what happens when we die for fear of causing offence. We don’t want to undermine another’s comfort giving myth. But this also means that we are denied the opportunity to share more complex adult feelings in relation to death and the uncertainty around it. The subject becomes taboo, the more sophisticated religious ideas fail to get expressed and atheists would turn in their graves if they could see what had been written above them.
If they were able to that is!


14 thoughts on “Atheists would turn in their graves. Musings on epitaphs 2

  1. Perhaps the reason that you found only two epitaphs which admit the finality of death and the belief that there is nothing beyond death is because many agnostics (your parents for example) opted for cremation as a cleaner form of burial. This solution works well with the belief that when life is over it is OVER. I also suspect that the epitaph, which is a form of prolonging a person’s impact on the world, is only compatible with the belief that there is something beyond death. The person who believes that there is nothing sees no need to influence the world after they have departed because they know that they won’t be anywhere to care. Your research on the numbers of people in the various belief systems is interesting but I challenge that many agnostics turn to religion at or near death thus skewing the statistics and influencing the use of the epitaph, and why not if this gives comfort as they approach its finality? By the way harping back to one of our previous discussions you wrote something about ‘if you had a terminal illness” then your thought process might be different. I warn you that you HAVE a terminal illness already – it is called LIFE. Let’s put those glasses back on and enjoy it! Love, Jane

  2. Thanks Jane, good point especially that we all have terminal illness. I thought that Mum was actuallly C of E and Dad was atheist, not agnostic? Personally as an agnostic (NOT atheist) I am opting for burial because I dont want to be accidentally burnt alive and I want to have an epitaph even though i think it highly likely I wont be around to see it. Mad reasoning I know but there you go.

  3. Interesting thoughts on a subject I never really considered; what to write on an atheist’s grave? I put forth a few questions to add to the mix:

    Is it right to give an atheist an epitaph that implies eternal life? Such a question implies there is a right and wrong. But if, as the athiest professes, the universe is merely an accident and we are but fleeting bags of carbon and water, there is no right and wrong. The question devours itself.

    Even if an afterlife is merely a myth, which inspires mankind to be better: the idea that we will someday answer for all our actions, or the idea that nothing we do matters?

    Why does every culture have such a myth? Why are there so many parallels across different mythologies? Could it be possible that, just as the story of Father Christmas evolved from the true story of St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra, each great fairy tale evolved from the same tiny grain of truth?

    The atheist would claim reason as his primary ally. But can he prove reason exists? We cannot taste or touch or see it. Perhaps it is only a myth we tell ourselves.

  4. Thanks Stephanie for this thoughtful comment.
    Not believing in a creator, or an afterlife, doesnt mean life is pointless. We can make our own meaning and our own morals. The motivation to be moral and live creatively doesnt have to come from ‘God’ – it can come internally.
    The argument that because every culture believes in simlilar myths adds weight to there being a kernal of truth within the myths is also interesting. Correct me if I am wrong but I suspect there was a time when every culture believed the earth was flat or that the sun went round the earth. Just the fact that so many people believe something doesn’t, in my view, contribute to proof. It could be a case of the emperor’s clothes.
    I think your last paragraph is particularly accurate however: atheism, like religion is a belief system. And why should we confer sacredness on any belief system? That’s why I choose to be agnostic.

    • Actually there are a few Bible verses that indicate some of the prophets may have understood the earth as a sphere – “He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth” (Isaiah 40) and “He suspends the earth over nothing” (Job 26). Still open to interpretation, but even then, I’m not sure it’s a fair comparison. Mankind got the idea of a flat earth because it LOOKED flat. So where did we get the idea of an invisible being that governs creation?
      If we all make our own meaning and our own morals, then everything is relative and there is no real right and wrong. Hitler believed massacring millions of Jews was “right” – that didn’t mean it was. So why isn’t it? Because most people would disagree? So is right and wrong just decided by the majority? So what if the majority believes genocide is right?
      If everything is relative, there are no absolutes. But “there are no absolutes” is in itself an absolute statement. Logic says it cannot be true.
      There must be at least one absolute. There must be at least one truth. Part of our job is to find it.

      • Thanks for this Stephanie. I am glad to receive your comment because I like to debate, particularly on issues like this one because I think it is important.
        If people make their own morality that does not mean that they become like Hitler. There are plenty of examples of philanthropic atheists and humanists. And Buddhism devised a basis for morality that isn’t based on a belief in God – with buddhist countries often being amongst the most peaceful. Conversely religious ‘morality’ has frequently resulted in widespread bloodshed with more people being killed in the name of christianity than any other religion. It seems that righteous certainty can often find justification for the most atrocious actions and the majority aren’t necessarily ‘ right ‘.
        Hitler of course did not commit his actions as an atheist. Indeed he used religion to justify them. He himself was raised by catholic parents; after childhood he supported the Deutch Christen church which rejected the Hebrew origins of the gospel. In his book and in public speeches he often made statements that affirmed a belief in Christianity.
        What is clear is that the basis for right and wrong is debatable with many different religions and belief systems arguing differently and many people – such as Hitler – thinking they are absolutely right. In a world full of such people, having independent minded people who are prepared to challenge the prevailing ethos of any particular age is an important antidote to the predisposition of religions to think they have access to absolute truth and become arrogant and violent in defence of this.
        Your last argument is subtle. You argue that if we all make our own meaning and morals that there is no real right and wrong and everything is relative. And that the statement ‘everything is relative’ is absolute which sets up an irresolvable paradox through being absolute itself. Good point and I have no simple answer for that. However I would counter this with two arguments:
        First the fact that something is paradoxical doesn’t mean it is wrong. Indeed I think truth often resides in paradox. It’s just that our minds find it hard to grapple with this. The assertion that there is an ultimate creator who defines morality can also be reduced to a paradox – who created the creator? From what and on what basis? And who created them etc.? In postulating an ultimate being/morality we set up the difficulty of explaining how this came about. But The fact that this is also a paradox doesn’t mean that it is a false assertion – just that it is at the edge of what we can understand with that side of our brains. Truth and morality, in my view, are ultimately not accessible using conventional logic.
        Secondly in postulating that the basis for right and wrong can be found internally I am not suggesting that every possible derivation on this basis is equally valid and that we inhabit a kind of moral flatland. Quite the opposite. Some people will use their internal process to justify awful selfishness, others will use it to reach new levels of compassion. There are non-religions ways of devising a hierarchy of morality (and I refer you to the very erudite thinking of Ken Wilber on this). I also personally believe that departing from a dependence on unquestioning belief in a particular moral system (such as a religion) is an important step along the road of deepening our morality – though of course it is still fraught with many potential pitfalls.

  5. Thank you for this chance to debate, Wyon. It’s an interesting topic.
    I did not mean to imply that Hitler was an Atheist (although I will point at that it was the principles of Social Darwinism, not Christianity, that led him to attempt genocide, and that he killed many Christians as well as Jews); I meant that his example proves you cannot only use human hearts and minds to determine right and wrong. I think you will agree they are flawed tools, both individually and collectively. I wasn’t trying to be subtle there. I thought I was being rather direct.
    And, yes, Atheists have done wonderful things and so-called Christians have done terrible things, but as C.S. Lewis (a staunch Atheist who reluctantly came to Christianity through logic) would point out, when choosing a belief system, the ultimate question is not which religion is better for society – it’s which one is actually true.
    Which brings us back to the debate about absolutes. I agree it’s hard for our minds to fathom an uncreated creator, but logic itself does not insist that a creator must himself have been created. Logic does, however, insist that there must be absolute truth. To allow such “paradoxes” as “there are no absolutes,” is to abandon logic altogether. And as logic is the only tool for debate, I’m afraid ours is over.
    But let’s end by agreeing on what you’ve already stated – it’s vital to question your beliefs – to question all beliefs. That’s the only way we can learn to understand each other and find the truth.
    Thanks again, Wyon.

  6. Hello Stephanie,
    Thanks for your measured response. I hope it doesn’t mean you have closed down the debate.
    It is obviously important for both of us not to generalise up from specific examples by way of attempting to add weight to our arguments (this would be to depart from the logic that we both think is important – though unlike you I don’t ascribe it ultimate status). Hitler did not commit his atrocities because he was Christian, or because he believed in Social Darwinism. Rather he used both belief systems to justify and rationalise what he wanted to do. Similarly C S Lewis may be an example of someone reluctantly coming around to Christianity because of logic but there are plenty of examples of people who have reluctantly abandoned religion citing logic as a reason.
    So in my view logic itself is a belief system which can also be used differently by different people to justify different conclusions. For example I would respond to your two statements:
    Logic itself does not insist that a creator must himself have been created. and
    Logic does, however, insist that there must be absolute truth
    With the question: Why? It seems to me that thinking that there is an absolute truth is also a belief system, and believing that it isn’t illogical for something to self-create out of nothing is the same, a belief. There is nothing intrinsic to ‘logic’ that justifies those conclusions.
    But my main point is that ‘logic’ itself is not ultimate, it is also a belief system and can be used to justify different conclusions. You think it is logical to believe in an ultimate creator. I think it is logical not to. Perhaps we are both wrong to try and justify our belief using logic, which after all, is only a way of thinking that this small and very limited animal (us) has devised for trying to interpret the cosmos. So I do accept our common ground in thinking it is important to question our beliefs. I would just include logic within the category of belief.
    My own view is that it is all a great mystery in the best possible sense. There may or may not be an ultimate truth or creator. But whatever current belief system we adopt there are still some fundamental questions in respect to the Universe that no one yet (in my view) has an adequate answer for. I also think it is possible that we may not be sufficiently intelligent to ever comprehend everything properly (though that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attempt it). Whatever the ultimate answers though one thing is clear to my viewpoint: the universe is grand, awesome and superbly beautiful.

  7. Certainly, people use faulty logic – but you sound like you are dismissing logic altogether. No, you can’t be, because you admit it is important to you.
    Let us agree on this: there is good logic, and there is faulty logic. We are imperfect creatures, who can BELIEVE our logic makes sense when, really, we don’t know all the facts, or are mistaken about some of the facts, or our jagged reasoning adds one and one to make three.
    But the whole point of debate is that two people challenge each other’s logic and expose any fallacies.
    Now, I am not going to try to convert you to what I acknowledge are my beliefs in God, etc., etc. I am only making one simply statement – which doesn’t require checking any facts except for the definitions of the words within it. “There are no absolutes” is itself an absolute and therefore disproves itself. You already said you could find no problem with that logic. So could I be right? Could there be at least one absolute?
    Or is your one belief this: “we cannot possibly know anything for sure”? Would you deny good logic to defend that belief?

  8. Hello Stephanie, once again. I am glad you are still debating.
    I am comfortable with your acknowledgement that your belief in God is, just that, a belief and not a logically derived conclusion and I respect you for that admission.
    Logic is an important tool so I am not dismissing it altogether or I wouldn’t be attempting to use it in this exchange. I believe however that it is a faulty non-absolute tool. So it isn’t just, as you point out, that we don’t always know all the facts it is also that the tool itself cannot be relied on to discern between competing theories about those facts that we do know. Logic only affords us a partial and faulty glimpse of ‘reality’, not an absolute or ‘right’ one. It is also, sadly, as we both agree, prone to mis-use and error. In particular things that seem self-evident to one individual can sometimes come to be regarded by them as therefore ‘logical’.
    It is almost like we are two spiders who have always lived in one corner of a disused garden shed. We are trying to make sense of the shed’s existence and to understand it in perspective. You for example might speculate that the beauty and order of the shed’s construction suggests that it must have been created by an ultimate being, I might speculate that it doesn’t. We might use some agreed conventions (logic) around how we discuss our disparate theories. But our conventions are limited in themselves and worse: from our limited perspective of being in the corner of the room no matter how carefully we discuss the matter we would not be able to take into account information from outside of the room – of which we are not even aware. For instance if the shed isn’t used by people – and we have never seen people – we would not be able to speculate that it might have been made by people. Or, alternatively, if a person came into the shed one or the other of us might then think it logical to deduce that they were not only the shed’s creator but the ultimate being. Our conventions about discussing the room won’t help us to sort all this out, because there is so much that we are unaware of. Try as we might I don’t think we can prove or disprove God’s existence using logic and it sounds like you acknowledge this. As such we remain in the realm of belief not unassailable fact.
    Coming on to the detail of your comment you say “There are no absolutes” is itself an absolute and therefore disproves itself. And that I already said that I could find no problem with that logic. However I think you misquote me there (I can’t see that I said that anywhere). What I said was that I had no simple arguments to counter it. I then went on to give you two arguments which from my perspective you have still to address – in particular that paradox doesn’t have to imply invalidity.

  9. I didn’t say my belief in God was not a logical conclusion (I would say that logic strongly supports my belief in God), but that I wasn’t going to try to convert you. : )

    As to your arguments against my absolute statement, I did address them. We’ve been over this. A couple of times now. It seems we are going to have to agree to disagree. You allow a paradox, believing that if we only knew more about this universe, we would understand how “there are no absolutes” could actually be true. I concede that there are many things we don’t understand because of our incomplete knowledge of the universe, but I maintain that “there is at least one absolute” is self evident. There is nothing we can learn about the universe that will disprove that.

    If we can’t agree on that, we can’t continue the debate. No argument either of us makes will mean anything if every fallacy can be explained away by a paradox of ignorance.

    So this has been fun, Wyon; I truly find your point of view interesting (and enlightening in my understanding of agnostics) but I think it’s time to shake hands and call it quits.

    I do hope to continue seeing you around the blogosphere!

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