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Symbols for the Dead

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The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs made news when it approved the pentagram, a symbol for Wicca, to be placed over a soldier's headstone. There are 39 other symbols that the department has approved. We were curious about Wicca and some other smaller faiths, so we asked a Wiccan Priest and Priestess, as well as a member of Baha'i, an ECKist, and a Humanist how they would eulogize a fallen soldier.

Fred Edwords of the American Humanist Association describes a Humanist service:

I'd like to explain that a Humanist memorial service, whether for a military person or for others, tends in many ways to resemble more traditional ceremonies in all the common details. It's just that there's either no reference to religious beliefs at all or there is a specific and positive reference to the lack of such belief held by the deceased.Where a significant difference can appear, however, is in the mood and tone.

The Humanist attitude is that the memorial is entirely for the survivors and thus it confers no benefit on the deceased. As a result, it is intended to serve as a poignant and memorable experience for the bereaved. It's no surprise then that Humanists were the ones who developed the term "Celebration of a Life" in reference to memorials and funerals. Today the use of this expression has reached outside Humanist circles to become current among the general population.

Given this, Humanist celebrants have conducted memorial services for military personnel just as they have performed weddings for them. One who I spoke with today, Edd Doerr, gave me a vivid description of a military funeral he performed at Arlington before the Iraq War. It involved all the usual military elements, such as the gun salute, but was otherwise a typical Humanist "celebration of the life" of the deceased.

When a person dies in combat, however, the family may want the celebrant to say something along the lines that the person being memorialized gave their life for their country without the expectation of any eternal reward. This can in appropriate instances be treated as a nobler form of sacrifice. But the family would need to approve the use of such language because, as I indicated above, the service is for the living. It is their sensibilities that matter most, not any philosophic agenda of the celebrant.


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