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"And suppose, after all, that death does end all" - Ingersoll

Margaret Downey

In July 2000, doctors informed Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia (FSGP) Founding Member Ted Swart that he had lymphatic cancer. He took the news with good grace, and began researching ways to battle the disease. He was confident that medical technology would offer a way to overcome his terminal condition. Doctors told Ted that he would live for another two years--at the most. Scientific advancement, therefore, was Ted's only hope. He vigorously pursued trial studies and new treatment options.

Just prior to entering an innovative program at the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, Ted's spleen ruptured. The incident made him ineligible to participate in this research program. Even with painful aggressive chemotherapy and the Sloan Kettering setback, Ted remained optimistic and courageous. The application of courage was a familiar response for Ted. There were many times in his life when he was forced to endure great hardships. He told me all about those difficult times when he telephoned to inform me of his diagnosis.

I was heartbroken to learn of Ted's condition, and I offered him my friendship and assistance. I suggested that he allow me to inform other members of FSGP about his condition so that he would have a circle of friends who could help him with his research, treatment, and care. Ted thought about this suggestion for several days, but rejected the idea saying that he was a private person. He did not want to burden anyone else with his plight--another display of courage.

I accepted Ted's decision even though I knew that many Freethinkers would have been eager to offer assistance, friendship, and encouragement. I knew this because when I was ill I received support, sympathy, and assistance from the Freethought community. I reminded Ted about his own volunteer work and much needed help during my recovery in 1997. Ted insisted that he felt more comfortable relying on the loving relationship of his longtime companion Inez Starr and a few close friends such as me.

Throughout his illness Ted did not call on me to help, but he frequently called just to talk. I cherish the poignant conversations I had with Ted during his struggle for life. Ted's positive attitude was worthy of emulation and I learned much from our discussions. When I disclosed that I had completed a Secular Ceremonies training course at the Center for Inquiry and was officially recognized as a Secular Humanist Celebrant, Ted was very pleased. He told me that he wanted me to conduct his funeral.

On March 1, 2002 Inez called to tell me that Ted had asked for me. He was in the hospital awaiting death and wanted to discuss his funeral. Ted's request would be the first time I would be called upon to handle funeral arrangements as a Secular Humanist Celebrant. I was anxious, sad, and honored. What would I do and how would I do it?

I arrived at the hospital within a few hours of the call. I brought with me Robert Green Ingersoll's book of poems and prose, and a notepad. I remember thinking that, if anything, an Atheist would want to hear the glorious words of Ingersoll during a time of need. I knew that Ted would appreciate my presence, but the writings of Ingersoll would also be comforting.

After a loving greeting and exchange of concerns, Inez left the room to get something to eat and a few minutes of rest. Ted and I began to talk about his funeral arrangements. He made it clear that he knew he was going to die. He wanted others to know that he was facing death without fear and that he was not reaching out to a mythical God or hoping for an afterlife.

Ted also outlined exactly what he wanted to occur at his funeral. I took notes and told him that he could count on me to make sure his instructions were followed. This brought peace and comfort to Ted. After he was sure that I had noted all of his concerns and requests, he asked the nurse for an increase in morphine.

As Ted slowly slipped into a drug-induced sleep, I held his hand and read aloud from the Ingersoll book. Ted stirred occasionally saying that he found the words of Ingersoll very soothing and consoling. It seems that I made the right decision to have brought the Ingersoll book with me. Ingersoll's words made my job less painful--similar to those who use the Bible for comfort and solace.

Inez called early the next morning to tell me that Ted had died. I was honored when she requested my help in making funeral arrangements. Ted's three adult children, who live in other parts of the country, had arrived and wanted to meet me. Inez informed them about Ted's desire to have a purely secular funeral and they said that they would cooperate. Ted had warned me, however, that his children might try to impose their religious beliefs on the funeral service. He had me promise that I would represent his position with the utmost diligence and commitment. I was determined to do so.

After meeting the immediate family at the hospital, Inez and I set about to select a place for the cremation and life-recognition ceremony. Fortunately, I had done some research of local funeral services and was prepared to offer a few suggestions. Since Ted's death, I have created a funeral-services reference-binder. My goal is to serve the Freethought community just as a priest serves the Catholic community. Like the religious, nonreligious people want closure and a thoughtful acknowledgment of a loved one's life.

Inez bravely made difficult decisions, all the while thinking of only what she thought Ted would like. Her thoughtfulness exemplified her love and respect.

Inez and I could visualize exactly what would take place at Ted's funeral when we visited the D'Anjolell Memorial Home in Frazer, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, we knew that we would not be able to fulfill one of Ted's requests: to have a copy of the Council for Secular Humanists 2000 Humanist Manifesto projected on a giant screen. Because the Manifesto is eighteen pages long, projecting the document on a screen was impossible. We decided that each person attending the funeral would receive a copy of the Manifesto and additional copies would be placed on a table next to a poster-size facsimile of the Manifesto's cover page, which included an impressive list of people who endorsed the document. But the room was the perfect size to implement Ted's other request: to have a huge banner of his sentiments regarding religion displayed for all to see.

That night I sat down to write Ted's tribute and to create the ten-foot-long banner. The banner was easy, but I struggled to convey just how special Ted was. There were so many wonderful things to say about him.

Ted was born in Indonesia, the son of Dutch parents. After World War II, he attended the Middelt are Technische School in Harlen, Holland, where he earned a degree in naval architecture. He was also an inventor. His designs include the first single-lever faucet, several sailboats, and a revolutionary design for double-hulled barges.

Ted became a citizen of the United States in the 1970s. He was proud to be a Secular Humanist and a member of FSGP. I decided to begin the tribute with a song that exemplified Ted's thoughts: "Imagine" by John Lennon. Following is what I said at Ted's funeral:

Those of you who know Ted well know that he was a principled and committed Atheist. His philosophical life stance was so important to him that he called me to his bedside on Thursday night to discuss plans for his funeral. It was a sad night, but I was honored to have Ted's trust and I promised to fulfill his requests. Tonight you will hear his last words of wisdom through me.

Ted's first request was for the display of a banner. The words you see at the front of the room on the ten-foot banner are original and will forever be attributed to Ted.

Ted said he loved America and the freedoms he enjoyed as a citizen. This love of freedom becomes even more poignant when we know that there was a time in Ted's life when he had no freedoms whatsoever. During World War II, the Japanese rounded up Dutch families living in Asia and sent them to internment camps. Ted was only fourteen years old. His youth was taken from him as he suffered through tortuous work and horrible living conditions.

His internment was in stark contrast to his pleasant preadolescent years. Ted related many happy childhood memories in a book he wrote for his children. In that book, Ted told interesting and entertaining stories about his life in Indonesia. He also described the horrors of war, the inhuman conditions he was forced to endure, and the reasons he became an Atheist. It is an amazing story of survival and personal growth, a true inspiration for the power of human endurance.

Ted wanted everyone attending his funeral to receive a copy of the Humanist Manifesto 2000. This, he said, would be his statement of principle. The Manifesto defined him and that is why it was so important to him that it be shared with his friends and family. When you take home the Manifesto you are taking home a bit of Ted.

The Manifesto was endorsed and signed by Nobel Laureates, scientists, and honored philosophers. Ted's mind certainly kept great company. He relished honest dialog and craved for others to share his enthusiasm for freedom of thought. Ted's love for the Humanist Manifesto originated from his quest for intellectual honesty. With every word of the document, his hope for a world free from religious strife was reinforced.

I am well aware that there are people of various faiths among us. It would be a tribute to Ted for us to find common ground with which we can mourn his death. Let us honor Ted's steadfast commitment to the natural world and his disbelief in any supernatural entities, prayers, and miracles. After all, we are one human family seeking love, fairness, and freedom. This is all we need to enjoy peace on earth.

If we can bridge the philosophical differences we have with our love for peace, unity, and the appreciation of diversity, there is hope for the rest of the world. Let the goal tonight be for us to set a good example for people living in war-torn Ireland, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Israel.

The fact is that Atheists simply add one more "o" to their belief system. They believe in "good." Throughout Ted's life he tried to do good things--not just for himself, but for those around him.

We can all visualize Ted helping Inez at work and at home. We see him building easels for children, mentoring an ex-convict with reentry job training, volunteering his labor at the public high school, and volunteering his time for the advancement of Freethought. Ted's love for Inez, his children, and family members was evident to me during the ten years that I was his friend. I'm sure it was evident to you as well.

Ted did not fear death nor did he yearn for reassurance that there was another life or another place beyond the here and the now. He knew that his afterlife would be the legacy he left behind. Ted thought, as most Atheists do, that being remembered and talked about brings a person back to life.

I ask you to remain silent for a moment or two, so you can each remember Ted in your own way. Those of you with religious faith may like to use these moments for your own private prayer.

After the moment of silence, I opened the microphone for anyone who wanted to eulogize Ted. Several family members stepped forward to share special memories they had of Ted.

Just as Ted predicted, his daughter used the funeral as an opportunity to promote her religious views. She even credited Ted's Atheism for bringing her closer to God. She said it was "God's will" that Ted was her father. Her statements were intended to proselytize and convince others that her father's philosophical lifestance was lacking and her religion was the better way to live.

In my opinion, the arrogant homily of Ted's daughter dishonored her father's memory. Her religious views apparently meant more to her than showing respect for her father--so much for her faith's Fifth Commandment. I pitied her hypocrisy, and felt glad that I had stood up for Ted's principles and last wishes.

Published:
  2003-01-10

Categories:
  Humanism

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