Mobile Menu

Freethought Today · Vol. 23 No. 1 January/February 2006

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Bible-Belt Obits

Heavens Above! Catherine Fahringer

By Catherine Fahringer

Believers in heaven are riding in a train with the blinds down.

I suppose it's natural at my time of life to turn to the obituary section of the paper every morning just to see now many of my acquaintances have shuffled off their mortal coil. Since I have prudently developed younger and younger friends as I have grown older, I don't find many familiar names because my contemporaries started deserting me at earlier ages, which both saddened and astonished me in that I hadn't begun to think of our age group as being in imminent danger of death.

In obit language, the expression "passed on" is used frequently as is "passed away," and "passed from this life," or "called by the Lord." Another favorite is "entered rest," or "entered eternal rest." I desperately want some Christian to explain to me how someone can "enter rest," and "pass on to be with the Lord," both presumably being in that same place called heaven: Surely the Lord expects some sort of communication with the passer, but eternal or perpetual rest presupposes a state of non-interaction, doesn't it? I know that these terms do not exclude heaven, because further along in the obit will be mention of the passers' strong faith in God or their personal relationship with Jesus. But--the mystery deepens.

A woman, 71, "has been called by the Lord to sing forever with his Choir of Angels.'' No eternal rest there for that poor woman, and certainly no communication with the Lord.

"Today, Dec. 27, 2004, I, _________, 30, started a new journey of my life, leaving my parents, my brothers, maternal grandmother, several aunts, uncles and cousins, extended family members and friends. I will see everyone later. In my next chapter of my life, I bring with me my knowledge of Auto Mechanics, a course I completed in 1993 at the Eastside Skills Center. Along with that, my favorite hobby, bowling. I am transferring from the ABCD League to God's Bowling Squad."

Okay. So we have one person singing forever in God's Choir of Angels, and one bowling forever on God's Bowling Squad, and who, between games, will repair heaven's vehicles, so they can cruise down those golden streets.

"Major General _________, an Air Force pilot of 30 years, took his last flight on Aug. 16, 2005, to be with his Lord and Savior."

Okay, now we have someone to handle air travel in heaven.

As for those streets of gold mentioned earlier in the San Antonio Express-News (9/20/05), Billy Graham assured his readers that the bible indeed said that "the great street of the city (city?; heaven is just one big city and no countryside? Some people won't like that) was of pure gold like transparent glass (Revelation 21:21)." Well, no potholes for sure for those well-maintained automobiles.

An obit I read over ten years earlier in the Express-News was a chilling jolt: "S. G. S_________, born Feb. 2, 1954 in Madisonville, Texas, passed into eternity on Sept. 20, 1994. She apparently died without Christ and therefore without hope and without eternal life. God says that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And again he says that that there is none righteous, not even one. What are you holding onto that will send you into eternity without Christ and without hope? Give it up and come to Christ. Are you trying to go to heaven your way? Give it up. Come to Christ. Do not enter eternity without Christ, without hope and without eternal life. If you desire help in this decision write to:____.'' I was stunned that the paper would print this.

The next day a column appeared on the obit page, complete with picture of the 40-year-old woman who had died without hope of salvation. It began, "S. G. S_________ worked with disabled children for almost 20 years." In the column one friend commented on S.G.'s warm, giving nature. Further on was mentioned a clothing exchange she had established at an elementary school, her practice of baking goodies for the children on their birthdays, tending her African violets, spending time with her cat. What a thoroughly delightful human being!

So what was the problem with the obit? We can only presume that S.G. was an atheist and her family wrote it. Nice family. But if there is something about Christians, it is that many of them draw from their religion the exclusive right to judge others with sheer cruelty and meanness. Fortunately, S.G.'s friends and fellow teachers came up with a tribute to her after her heartless family had so viciously attacked her and used her name and "fate" to proselytize (in large print, yet). Their column was kind and sweet and long. Still, the obit did say that S.G. passed into eternity, so what does that mean? An eternity of what? Being dead?

So here you have several views of what heaven is. It can be a choir, a bowling alley or eternal rest, apparently, although why people resting eternally need golden streets has not been clarified. Looking for more information from perhaps a more knowledgeable source, I turned to my collection of columns by Billy Graham. "We Will All Get Brand-New Bodies In Heaven" proclaimed one headline. New bodies? I thought the soul left the body and that it alone went to heaven. Not so, says Reverend Billy.

"No, we won't be just spirits without any form or substance. Someday God will unite our spirits with our new bodies--bodies that will never become sick or grow old. These bodies will be far more glorious than we can ever imagine right now.''

I once read there will be recognition in heaven, but with glorious new bodies, how will this be possible? And what age will these bodies approximate? A baby dies at birth; its mother lives to be 80. How does that work? How would it work if they had the same bodies they died in? If the baby is a newborn, does the mother rear it in heaven and face years of heavenly PTA? Does she even recognize the kid after all those years?

"Glorious Experience Awaits Us In Heaven." Bowling? Singing in a choir? No mention of either. "One truth about heaven is that it will be more glorious than anything we could ever imagine," states Billy. He goes on to say that arty buildings or trees (trees! Nature lovers, take note) will be far more wonderful than anything we know here." But what we will do, other than sit and drink in the glory of God in whose presence we presumably sit, is not mentioned here.

One reader wrote to inquire about boredom in heaven. "We will have work to do in heaven,'' replies Billy, "not work that will tire us, but work that will bless us and fill us with joy." (Automotive work?) Billy soon drops this theme, about which he knows nothing, and proceeds to proselytize the readers of his column.

In all of my research, heaven was always spelled with a lower case aitch, although the dictionary confers on it an upper case one. If it's a place, shouldn't it be capitalized?

I find all these ideas of heaven funny, and yet very sad. The obits were written by grieving people (except for the vindictive one). Who could say the writers weren't suffering and trying to come to grips with loss? But they described the beginning of the eternal life as incredibly monotonous and boring.

The exciting trip of life for them had been comparable to riding in a train with the blinds down. And the chance is that the essence of life had escaped their dear departed also. Billy Graham repeatedly said that everything in heaven would be more glorious than we can imagine here. But what could be more stunning than Nature's infinite variety? And what more beautiful and fascinating than what we encounter in life, from glorious sunsets to a solitary petal of a rose?

Catherine Fahringer is an officer of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who lives in San Antonio, Texas.

Catherine gives thanks to Marge Mignacca for the inspirational obits from Syracuse.