The following memory of FFRF member Anne Hodge is reprinted with the author’s permission. It was first published on Daily Kos on April 7, 2013.
My mother, Anne Garner Hodge, and I began preparing for her death a couple of years before the actual event, which was five years ago today. Diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia at Thanksgiving time in 1999, Mother had been finding it increasingly difficult to carry on. A miracle drug named Gleevec did much to make the disease bearable, but it was not without serious side effects.
Periodically, she would suffer a crisis and wind up in the hospital for a few days. We jokingly referred to it as “Mother’s resort.” One of her sisters warned her, however, that “one day you go in and you don’t come out.”
Between crises she continued to work as an administrative assistant at the Environmental Protection Agency, where she was part of a special senior citizens program. In fact, when her contract ended after 10 years, Mother was 85. She loved her job and was endlessly interested in people in all their fascinating variations of culture, ethnicity and religion. She made friends with everyone, from the mailroom person to the program manager.
Three years before she died, I wrote her obituary and sent it to her to approve. She made a few changes but left most of it as it was. Then she started thinking about the music she wanted people to hear at her memorial service. We advertised on Craiglist for someone to record the selections on a CD.
A young Asian man showed up at her house with his laptop and the right software. When he learned the purpose of the recording, he refused to accept payment. People can be so kind.
Here’s the music she chose:
• Morning, Peer Gynt Suite, Suite No. 1, Grieg
• Polovstian Dances (No. 5), Prince Igor, Borodin
• Träumerei (No. 7), Scenes from Childhood, Schumann
• Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, Nabucco, Verdi
• Intermezzo, Cavalleria Rusticana, Mascagni
• Meditation, Thaïs, Massenet
• Humming Chorus, Madama Butterfly, Puccini
• Prelude to Act III of La Traviata, Verdi
• Evening Star, Tännhauser, Wagner
After the recording was completed, Mother got so carried away that she wanted to hold her memorial service while she was still alive, so she could enjoy the music and chat with people who attended. Gently, I pointed out that although most of her acquaint-ances in the Washington, D.C., area would be fine with that idea, her relatives from her native Texas would be deeply shocked or even outraged.
There were two wishes she definitely wanted carried out: She wanted a big, rollicking party, and she wanted a completely secular service.
Always back to atheism
All of her life, Mother loved to discuss religion. She investigated several: Unitarian Universalist, Baha’i, even participating in my rituals when I started a Dianic Wiccan circle. But she always returned to atheism, reveling in the works of Will Durant, Isaac Asimov and Winwood Reade.
When I was about 10, she told me of a passage she’d read in Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man. He’d recounted a story about an Arab man burying his 2-year-old daughter alive in the desert because he could no longer afford to feed her, and how he wept when she reached up to brush the sand out of his beard with her little hand. That passage haunts me to this day.
Mother belonged to the Freedom from Religion Foundation, subscribed to its publication Freethought Today and attended its conferences when they were held in our area. She also belonged to the Hemlock Society and attended its annual summer picnic.
We held her memorial service almost two weeks after her death. Some of the Texas relatives refused to fly, so we had to allow time for them to drive to Virginia.
“How can you plan a memorial service for someone who didn’t believe in anything?” my daughter asked, referring to my mother’s lack of religion. “But she did believe in something,” I replied.
As nearly as it could be put into words, my mother Anne believed in truth, justice and the American way, rather like Superman. She loved her country but hated prejudice and its root causes. No adherent of any religion could have been more compassionate than Mother — her house was open to all. One of her hobbies was writing letters to shut-ins and sending checks to people she thought needed cheering up.
We created the order of the memorial service ourselves. Although I can use word processing software sufficiently well for my own purposes, I’m completely at sea when it comes to desktop publishing. I therefore asked a fellow freelancer to create the PDF file for me. He did a beautiful job and refused to accept payment.
We held her memorial service at the Fort Myer Officers’ Club in Arlington, Va., where she had been a member for years. My nephew, who for the first 10 years of his childhood lived with his mother and grandmother in Anne’s house, arranged the catering and room rental.
Many of her EPA colleagues from the Crystal City office attended, as did her three sisters and one of her two surviving brothers (she was the second of 10 children). My daughter and her family flew in from Austin. Numerous friends and several of her nieces attended.
After people helped themselves to food and drink, the buzz of conversation quieted as the DVD with music and photos that accompanied it played on a screen. As the photos of Anne appeared, there were “oh’s” and “ah’s,” but even those died away as the speakers rose one by one to stand at the podium.
One of her friends read A.E. Housman’s poem “With Rue My Heart Is Laden.” Another read “Remember” by Christina Rossetti. My nephew read “On Grandmothers,” an excerpt from Alexander McCall Smith’s The Miracle at Speedy Motors.
My nephew told how Mother read Shakespeare to him after she tucked him into bed at night when he was little. He spoke of her adventurous life. Besides her travels in the Far East and Europe, she’d counted dolphins from a boat in Monterey, Calif., met with members of the Nez Perce tribe in Idaho to study wolves in a preserve and attended cooking school in Presque Isle, Maine.
“The Earth belongs to the living,” Mother would say, and asked us to make sure she was cremated rather than buried. Insisting that she wanted to come back as a batch of tomatoes, she even asked us to scatter her ashes on the tomato bed. We could not bring ourselves to do that, but we did bury some of her ashes at the base of the pink lilac we planted in her honor in our backyard.
A couple of years later, we held a brief ritual in the cemetery of the small Texas town where she was born, and buried some of her ashes in the family plot there.
Her legacy lives on
But in some sense, Mother is with us still. She’s present in the dill I plant every other year, not because I pickle anything, but because she did. All summer long, I pinch off a bit and inhale it when I pass the herb garden because the scent always reminds me of her.
She’s present in my husband when he patiently coaches our young Chinese friend in the use of everyday English. One of Mother’s chief joys was to coach her foreign-born friends in the use of our language.
She’s here when I visit the farmers’ market — something we did together — and when I entertain her grandchildren and great-grandchildren with festive holiday meals.
She’s present in my daughter, who lives life to the fullest and is quick to help those in need. She lives on in my elder son, who is unfailingly devoted to his family, both his original one and the one he’s about to begin.
She’s present when I visit my younger son’s house on a Saturday to find him listening to the Metropolitan Opera’s matinee broadcast. Mother, an opera lover to the end, always listened to the Saturday broadcast.
After the memorial service, I wrote to Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. After describing the memorial service that had included no mention of deity, I ended, “Mother was an atheist from the age of 21 or so. We were very proud of her.”
Diana, who lives in Virginia, adds, “Mother was a truly remarkable woman who was utterly devoid of prejudice. She rejected the fundamentalist religion that surrounded her and threw off its shackles after her marriage to my father, who described himself as ‘an unregenerate atheist.’ ”
Editor’s note: Visit ffrf.org/faq/freethought to learn more about secular funerals and memorials.