Last Friday morning I went to my grandmothers funeral. I wasn’t close to her in her last years, I’m not close to any of my extended family. But I admired her as a great role model, ahead of her time in many ways, extremely talented, strong willed and very giving. Hearing more about her in the last few days, I find myself wondering what she believed?
This photo is my favourite, from her wedding day. She made her own dress as she was a tailor. She made dresses and coats for a lot of people, and I learned recently that she had a tendency to give them away for free if she felt the person didn’t have the money. Not everyone had those flowing white wedding dresses those days, but mostly she gave away the jackets she made to less well off children.
I have two dresses and a jacket from my childhood that she made for me, a flower girls dress, a communion dress and a jacket for my confirmation. It’s strange to me, as an atheist, to look back and see what a truly catholic upbringing I had. But my grandmother raised six atheists in that catholic culture, and while I believed in the religious superstitions of my community as a child, my brothers and I grew out of God in the same way that we grew out of Santa and the tooth fairy.
I’m thinking of religion not only because of the ritual clothes I have to remember my grandmother by, but because her funeral was catholic and felt surreal to me. After the beautiful humanist ceremony we had for my husband, it felt really cold and impersonal.
It was in her local church in the area my grandmother hated. But the location was a small issue compared to the eulogy. My grandmother was a quiet and giving woman, but she was well known as someone who stood up against cruelty and the hypocrisy of the church.
When she was still raising her own children, she took in a 15 year old neighbour girl who had gotten pregnant. Everyone had turned against the girl, and when her own mother died, she was blamed because getting pregnant caused the mother stress. My grandmother stood up for her and took care of her until the child was born. The girl would have been in a home, her child taken off her and sold, or dead, if my grandmother hadn’t stepped in.
This was just one story that stuck with me, but although the priest giving the eulogy made a vague mention that she wasn’t a woman to be ‘cowed’ by religion, he didn’t make any mention of the pregnant youth or any of her more radical side.
At one point in the eulogy, I remember thinking, ‘wow, for a catholic funeral, there’s an awful lot of talk about atheism here.’ I noticed my mother moving around in agitation and she raised her hand. I waved her down and tried to encourage her to be patient, but now that I was paying more attention, I realised that the priest was using my grandmothers funeral as a platform to berate her mostly atheist family!
My mother managed to restrain herself from jumping out of her chair and waited to slip behind the people doing the prayers instead. She stood up and very respectfully announced that she just wanted to ad something. That her own mother was always very respectful of others, whether or not they were Christian, or another religion, or non religious. That’s pretty much all she said, though far more elegantly, and I’ve never been so proud.
She was cheered and people were patting her on the back for the rest of the day, though it was clear that some family members didn’t get it, and others took offence. Her sister, who is often at odds with her, said that it was just like something their mother would have done. It was a perfect moment to me.