Vonnegut: I hope it’s fun being dead

I find that I don’t actually know what ‘R.I.P.’ means. It’s splashed everywhere today before or after Kurt Vonnegut’s name — along with enough lazily glib trottings-out of ‘So it goes’ to dull the senses. But what do people actually mean when they say ‘Rest in Peace’, other than that it’s the appropriate part of the clunky Lego construction set that constitutes an idiolect for most people?

Vonnegut is dead. He’s not ‘resting’. He’s dead. He’s not ‘in peace’. He has ceased to exist. We really don’t seem to be able to stop ourselves clinging linguistically — even if not cognitively, though the two usually go together — to some wishfully cosy image of death. The dead are ‘sleeping’, or ‘resting’; they’ve ‘passed’, or ‘crossed over’, with the implicit or explicit suggestion that there’s something cool on the other side, so we shouldn’t feel too bad. We cling to some notion that they in some way feel better for having died.

This is all well and good — comfort objects have their uses after all, and who might need comfort more than the bereaved — but it stands out in extremely sharp contrast when the subject is someone who was as acidly dismissive of cheap sentimentality, and who clearly did not believe that death was anything other than the end. To mark someone’s death with language that they themselves would have regarded as nonsensical strikes me as at best a bit silly, and at worst unthinkingly disrespectful — in the same sense (if not degree) as conducting a religious funeral for someone openly atheistic. Cling to your own comfort as much as you like, but consider with eyes wide open how the subject would react.

The suicide last month of comedian Richard Jeni was the occasion of a bizarre juxtaposition amongst the tributes. Elayne Boosler’s piece at the Huffington Post, Remembering Comedian Richard Jeni, interpolates a number of Jeni’s lines, the first of which is:

On religious wars, “You’re basically killing each other to see who’s got the better imaginary friend.”

Now, that’s not especially funny, but it would seem to unambiguously set out Jeni’s feelings concerning theism. A post later the same day at the Huffington Post by Martin Lewis, Richard Jeni – RIP [of course], refers and links to Boosler’s ‘beautiful eulogy’, then concludes with the line:

Rest In Peace Richard… Make God laugh.

Pause a moment to take in the layers of inappropriateness there. Lewis could be saying a number of things: that he himself hopes that something Jeni found ridiculous is in fact true; that he doesn’t think that Jeni actually believed what he openly professed; that Jeni would thank him for words which contradict his own beliefs; or, perhaps most likely, that — despite explicitly linking to Boosler’s piece — espousal of theism in the face of death is such a strong default position that Jeni’s own words went in one of Lewis’s ears and out the other, and a safe triteness kicked in. It’s hard to argue that Lewis isn’t wishing Jeni well, but the method is a slap in the face.

The situation here is that religiosity in the context of death is pretty much never seen as inappropriate, even when its subject was overtly non-religious. The subtext is something like: ‘I want to wish you well, but in order to do that it’s necessary for me to assume out loud that you were mistaken.’

A few years ago, in the final months of a friend’s battle against cancer, I found myself wanting to shore up her own theism — not that it really needed much shoring up. I wasn’t in the position of being able to say that I hoped I was wrong — nor would she have believed me if I had said that. What I could (and did) say, however, was that it didn’t matter what I believed, and of course that’s exactly true. The important matter, at that time, seemed to be to respect her feelings. It was, pretty much literally, the least I could do. To soften (but not disregard) my own views like that was my business, and in my control. In contrast, hopes that Vonnegut ‘rest in peace’, and that Jeni ‘make God laugh’, seem at best to presumptuously soften their views, and, at worst, to deny them altogether. The apparent feeling that this is least inappropriate immediately after their deaths seems to me entirely backward. An atheist’s eulogy for a theist would not be considered remotely well-meaning which ended:

Rest in peace. Oh, that god you’ve believed in all these years? I hope you were wrong.


  • I really don’t mean this quite so facetiously as it sounds, but. . .
    If death is merely the end, and if nothing of the living succeeds beyond death, and if that is what you believe in your heart of hearts, then isn’t an essay about “respecting” the dead, let alone one that considers how the dead might “feel” about what is said at their funerals, at best an odd non sequitur? At worst, might it reasonably be thought to betray the slightest chink in your confidence in your own atheistic worldview?
    (I’m not speaking about the dying, as I think the rationale and approach you described were not only right, but even noble.)

  • No, it’s not facetious. It’s a good question, which got me thinking.

    I don’t think it betrays some sort of belief in something after death – but then I would say that. There might be something in the argument that we’re just not very good as a species at accepting that a person might actually be gone. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we believe on a conscious level that they’re still around somewhere; it’s just a kind of emotional blind spot. A bit like an optical illusion, which we know is impossible, but which our perceptual equipment can’t help but perceive the way it does. I think the language we tend to use about death is the way it is only partly because it’s comforting. I think it’s also that our brains just find it hard to process that someone we cared about isn’t there any more.

    I think on some level we process time as just another dimension in space. So if this person actually existed at that time – even if they don’t exist any more – it doesn’t seem so very different to our brains from them just being in the next room.

    Anyhow, enough doodling. I think the point you make collapses to two questions. The first question is whether it actually matters what one says about the dead, if they’re really dead. To them, obviously not. The question probably elides the fact that most activities relative to the dead are actually for the people left behind: the building of graves, the holding of memorials, and such. We don’t organise a wake for the benefit of the deceased; we do it to make ourselves feel better, to remember their life, and maybe to make the process of grieving a bit faster and easier.

    The second question, which I think is more relevant here, is: if one wants to be respectful of the dead – whether one believes that they’re angel or worm-food – what’s the most appropriate way to be respectful. I think the argument I was stumbling towards in this piece is that a good heuristic for measuring how respectful one is being towards the dead is how they would react if they could see/hear what’s being said or done. Or maybe, more practically, how they would have reacted if you’d told them while they were still alive what you planned to do. What would Vonnegut have said if you told him you were going to hope that he would ‘Rest in Peace’? What would Jeni have said if you told him that you were going to wish that he ‘Make God laugh’? If they’d have thought it was a pretty stupid idea while they were alive, it’s probably not especially respectful once they’re dead.

  • Because I’m an articulate and social person, I’m often expected to say or write words upon a friend’s death.
    As an atheist, I’m so uncomfortable with RIP – Rest in Peace.
    How do other atheists handle this dilemma? What do others do? I usually just say:
    “May you be remembered well, in the manner you wished”.
    What do others say? Short and sweet, preferably?

  • I’ve given atheist eulogies. You basically talk about what they meant to the living, how their memories will continue, the impact they had on peoples lives, and how much they will be missed.

    There is a great inscription on a Canadian war memorial that does not mention god in any way that I’m having trouble finding. Not sure what war it was commemerating (WWI or WWII) but said something about those lying beneath the stones whose young lives ended tragically short. I was quite impressed.
    Finally, in regards to Vonnegut, he gave a eulogy for Isaac Asimov where he said, “He’s with God now” which he said was a great laugh line. I agree with you that any time we can remove superstitious language from everyday usage, it is a plus.

    I cringe at every “God bless you” when I sneeze and often reply, “No thanks. Atheist.” though friends have said their is no god connotation to “bless you” without the “god” but even then it is ‘iffy’, such as the usage for “spirituality” or “faith.”

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