My maternal grandfather, Claude Vipond, died peacefully last Tuesday. His life was long – he reached 95 years. Claude was a doctor and a World War II veteran, but I knew him entirely as a grandfather – an often larger-than-life figure at family gatherings, delivering corny jokes with an enthusiasm that made them hilarious. At large Christmas gatherings he would read to the grandchildren, not some sentimental Victorian Christmas story but Stephen Leacock‘s marvelously tongue-in-cheek Caroline’s Christmas.
The irreverence of Leacock’s self-subverting story left a strong impression on me as a boy – much like the movie The Princess Bride, which came out when I was the age of its child narratee. In a different way from my father, “Caroline’s Christmas” helped teach me the pleasures of being an outsider, with an ironic detachment expressed in humour – in ways perhaps more profound than I realized at the time. In many ways I think that story really sums up my grandfather’s spirit.
Claude was raised in a conservative Methodist household but slowly became a committed atheist, which he would remain for the rest of his days. He – and his children and grandchildren after him – continued to celebrate Christmas, and never saw anything odd about doing so. Some of this may have been because my grandmother remained Christian, but she died before I was born, and as far as I know, Christmas was still celebrated in all the Vipond family houses after that.
Leacock’s story was a perfect fit for Claude. The story’s themes in some ways mirror those of his life, which in their turn mirror the themes of Western modernity. For it tells both of a scientifically minded man who is not quite sure what to do with the gaps left by Christianity (he reads from “the Good Book”, Euclid’s Elements), and of “the old homestead” left behind by city people – all with a wink and a nod. Claude’s life was not only a transition from Christianity to atheism, but one from the simple rural agricultural life that characterized most human beings for thousands of years to the modern technological urban life in which I – and probably you – now live. For Claude that rural life was mired in the poverty of the Depression, which left him with the lifelong frugality characteristic of a 1930s boy. To arrive, armed with a medical degree, after World War II at a large comfortable suburban home on Brookside Drive in the then-burgeoning auto-manufacturing suburb of Oshawa – this must have seemed a journey from darkness into light.
So he tended to greet it with bewilderment when his children and grandchildren embraced various aspects of the life he had left behind, whether it was my youngest uncle’s lifelong love for agriculture, the various New Age trends embraced by my baby-boomer uncles and aunts at various points in their lives, or my cousin’s eventual conversion to Anglicanism. Surely we were done with all of that stuff. This too seems characteristic of the story of Western modernity – the confident and self-satisfied modernism of the 1950s coming into question in the latter half of the twentieth century.
I don’t think Claude ever knew of my becoming a Buddhist and am not sure how he would have reacted – it might have depended on whether he had read Sam Harris. I didn’t talk to him about it, in part because by that point – very near the end of his life – he had largely disengaged from interaction with other people, having gone mostly deaf (and not learned sign language or other alternatives).
Those last years of his life seemed sad for him as well as his loved ones. But I am told of something that inspires me. In what would be Claude’s last days, his doctors saw a problem with his lungs that they wanted to treat aggressively, and he refused the treatment. We suspect he had decided it was time to go. For he had lived a long and flourishing life before this; he had done what he needed and wanted to do in life. His atheism left him no belief in a “sanctity of life” that would leave him in unnecessary agony. And so he had a literal eu-thanasia: a good death.
When an atheist dies, one can take no comfort in the hope of meeting him again in an afterlife, whether in heaven or in another terrestrial birth. But there is another kind of comfort that comes in putting away such hopes: what remains of Claude Vipond is the people, and perhaps the things, that he loved. We know that that is all there is, and we can embrace it. I don’t think he would want his descendants to weep for him. I think he would want us to embrace each other and live lives together as full and rich as his. Our family and his friends keep his memory alive, we live on and live well, and that makes for a fine atheist afterlife.