What Would a Humanist Do? Airing Grievances at a Funeral

Today we bring you our latest installment of “What Would a Humanist Do?”—offering multiple AHA staff opinions on the same question. As with our long-running “Humanist Dilemma” column by Joan Reisman-Brill, readers often ask what qualifies as a humanist problem. Our answer: humanists are committed to being good without a God, but sometimes they need a little advice on how to pull it off.


Angelina and Bob (pseudonyms) are a retired couple recently married and living in a small town in the United States. Angelina immigrated to the US from South America several decades ago, is a former teacher and ex-Catholic, and is now an atheist. Bob is a humanist and former scientist. Angelina has a friendly disposition but also a temper. Bob is much more laid back.

They recently went to the memorial service of a friend who Angelina met at a fitness group and who Bob had also known professionally. We’ll call him Sam. During the service the minister asked attendees if they had any memories of Sam to share. A number of people mentioned Sam’s pleasant disposition in the fitness group. Angelina also spoke, mentioning the support Sam had given her when she she’d hurt by racially disparaging comments (which she recounted) from other members of the group. Many of these people were present at the service. Bob was disturbed to the point that he felt Angelina might be threatened by possible retaliation, but he also wasn’t entirely sure if the racial comments were made as Angelina claimed.

Bob later apologized to the exercise group leader. When Angelina heard about the apology, she was enraged. Should Bob have kept his mouth shut? Should Angelina have apologized?

—What Would a Humanist Do?


There are a few overlapping (and contradicting) layers to consider here. The first overarching piece is that everyone should be allowed to mourn in whatever way they need to. In expressing her grief, Angelina wanted to share a moment of support that recently deceased Bob had given to her. That is Angelina’s story and Angelina’s alone. Bob should not be policing someone else’s expression—especially that of his wife at a memorial service.

But, Angelina… as wrong as it was for Bob to apologize on your behalf, you might want to think about the appropriateness of your comments. Consider the setting: a memorial service in which everyone in attendance is hoping to pay positive homage to the friend they’ve lost. Is this really the correct time to air grievances with your fellow mourners? Speaking at a memorial service is not a platform for justice–it’s a platform for elevating memory. Of course, no one should be backtracking on your behalf, but you must also recognize what should (and should not) be said at a funeral.

—Peter Bjork

Grieving is complicated, and memorial services are often times of conflicting and unexpected emotions. Eulogies can be as equally surprising to the person uttering the words as they are to the audience. I say this not to absolve wrongdoing from any party, but simply to suggest that reactions to the situation should be tempered with that acknowledgement.

It is always upsetting to hear about racially disparaging comments, and such comments should absolutely be addressed. But a memorial service is not the appropriate place. Angelina shared a story of a time she felt supported by her friend, honoring his memory. Unfortunately, by recounting the details of the comments, Angelina shifted the focus from uplifting Sam’s memory to herself and others in the audience. Angelina should have found a different time to speak with the people who made the comments directly.

Bob, on the other hand, was out of line apologizing on behalf of his wife. (It is also concerning that Bob was questioning the validity of his own wife’s experiences with racism, but that is a separate issue). Angelina should be able to manage her own relationships with the exercise group as she sees fit. Bob should apologize to Angelina, and Angelina should consider apologizing to Sam’s family. Finally, the minister should reconsider allowing an open mic at the next memorial service.

—Brody Armstrong

For humanist advice from multiple perspectives on all manner of situations, please send your question to wwhd@americanhumanist.com.