Atheist Funerals December 2, 2007

Atheist Funerals

Blog reader Jodie was filling out life insurance forms at work and realized that she had never been to an atheist funeral.

She says she wouldn’t want her own service to be in a church, but she’s not sure where it would be held. (Would it even matter, since she’d be gone?)

Also, since most atheist funerals (that I’ve heard of, anyway) are less about mourning the person’s death and more about celebrating the person’s life, how do you raise that issue with the person’s family?

… it is pretty harsh to request one of your mourners to throw a big party in their homes while they mourn.

Jodie has this question as well:

If funerals are for the mourners, is it somehow mean to challenge their beliefs at this time? At that time I really won’t be in a position to care what’s going on.

Your suggestions are welcome.

[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

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  • karun

    This is a really good question. I do not want to have a ceremony (religious or otherwise ) at my funeral – but I do realize that this is more for my family than me – I am gone and dont really have any skin in the game…

    So does it lead to a paradox with an atheist / non atheist couple where the atheist would have a religious ceremony and the religious partner would have no ceremony at their respective deaths ?


  • Mriana

    I don’t know. I just told my sons I want a Humanist Funeral Celebration when I die and why. My older son said he’d like that and my younger son said, “Whatever.” I never brought it up with my mother. I figure she will be long gone when I die, esp if it goes like it should.

    Even so, it wasn’t too difficult with my sons- the two primary people who will have to deal with the arrangements.

    If funerals are for the mourners, is it somehow mean to challenge their beliefs at this time?

    I don’t consider it a challenge. I explained it to them it was a celebration of the person’s life. They are cool with that. Plus they know I usually like everything secular, not one sided, so not to offend anyone. Simply put, if my older son remains a Buddhist and my younger son stays in the camp of “I make my own rules and beliefs for myself” then my request should keep from stepping on anyone’s toes, because it does not dedicate to any group- not even Christians.

  • My aunt held a “celebration of life” in her backyard when my uncle died in October. Everyone that attended was invited to come up and share fun, uplifting, or inspirational stories about him. There was also a slide show of pictures ranging from funny to sweet, and a pot luck (one of his favorite things).

    Aside from the occasional religious reference (we all stood and recited the Lord’s Prayer, for example), it was a really great event, and I think it’s a model that everyone can and should follow. It was a nice mix of mourning and remembrance.

  • My instructions for when I die are simple: give me the cheapest funeral legally available, so as to minimize any financial hardship that may befall those family members who survive me. Beyond that, I don’t care what you do. In fact, once I’m dead, if y’all decide to break the bank on a big, glitzy, church funeral, I’m pretty sure I won’t notice.

  • I want to be cremated. It will be a nice dress rehearsal for burning in hell for all eternity 😉

    It is, though, important to make arrangements for your own eventual death. Otherwise the grief stricken might make some unnecessary expensive decisions.

  • I want every scrap of my body that’s re-usable donated to medicine. The rest… ah whatever, they can feed it to some dogs or turn it into fertilizer or something useful on that matter. Well, not to come off as completely cynical I don’t expect a funeral because I expect there to be no body to bury/stand around and gawk at.

    In that manner while I certainly care what they do to my body after I die (donate it to medicine), I honestly don’t want to lay down guidelines of how my friends are going to celebrate/remember my life – that’s for them to do in how they see fit.

  • It isn’t harsh at all to ask your mourners to party, atheist or no. I cite two examples:

    Jim Henson, for his funeral, requested that nobody wear black, and that the band play “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

    My great-grandmother specifically requested that, after her funeral, the family have a pizza party.

  • Richard Wade

    My uncle was unchurched and basically an atheist. He lived to be 89 and I made sure he was able to spend his last days in his home. Following his wishes I had his body cremated and the ashes scattered in the sea. I held a memorial gathering for his family and friends in his home with food and music amidst his beloved books and art. So much was there to represent his long wonderful life of generous charity, travel and life-long learning. People were able if they wished to take turns talking about him and how he had touched their lives. A few had religious things to say according to their own beliefs, but they were brief and appropriate. Others spoke about how they wanted to keep him alive in a sense by emulating his best qualities. It was all positive and upbeat, a fitting conclusion to a life that made the world a tiny bit better for all and a lot better for several.

  • When I pass, I would like a tree planted on me. An apple tree, to be precise.

    A la “the Fountain.”

  • It’s funny. Back in my woo days, I used to say that I didn’t care what happened at my funeral, since I wouldn’t be sticking around to see what it was like and what was being said about me. Until it occurred to me that, if there were a life after death, I am exactly the kind of person who would stick around for a little while to see what her funeral was like and what was being said about her. 🙂

    Now, I actually do care. My funeral and my burial are the last things I’ll do on this earth, and I want them to express who I am.

    Fortunately, my family are all godless heathens too, so I don’t have to worry about their religious sensibilities being offended by my atheist funeral. But even if that weren’t true, I think it’s still worth holding out for an atheist/secular funeral. One of the biggest charges leveled against us is that we don’t have any comfort to offer in the face of death; I think it’s important to show that that’s not true. And after all, if someone from a religious family left their religion to convert to another, it would be generally expected that their funeral would be in the religion they’d chosen, not the one they were brought up with. Why shouldn’t that principle apply for atheists?

    And I think it does make sense to give at least some guidelines as to what you want. I agree that a funeral is mostly for the survivors (it’s for the dead person only to the degree that planning it may give them some comfort while they’re alive). But in my experience, having guidelines from the guest of honor helps the survivors, gives them a feeling of honoring the person in death as well as in life.

    Lately, I’m leaning towards a green burial: cemeteries that act like nature preserves, with your body acting as fertilizer, instead of the modified golf courses that are so prevalent.

    As to the funeral/ memorial location, I think I’d like it in some public place that has some meaning for me. A bookstore; one of the places where the queer contra dances happen; the Center for Sex and Culture, maybe.

    Plus, of course, I want somebody to read “Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God.”

    And I’m not sure I personally go for the “celebrating a life, not mourning a death” vibe. Mourning is important. When the people in my life die, I don’t effing well want to celebrate. Yes, I want to hear about how their life touched people and made the world a better place; but I also think a funeral should be one place where you’re allowed to be publicly sad, and to share your sadness with others.

    Wow. Sorry to run on. Didn’t realize I had quite so much to say about this. I guess I should post about this on my own blog, huh?

  • My dad routinely instructs my brother and myself to just let the morgue dispose of his left-overs. Or, if we’d prefer, to cremate him. “Frankly, I won’t be around to care, so I don’t see why it matters.”

    Well, if I die at all, it won’t be of natural causes. I intend to live forever. A lofty goal, perhaps, but hey. Gotta have dreams. So when I eventually die prematurely, I’d like my body to be used for scientific research. I dunno how useful my corpse will be at that point in time… probably not very… but it’s the least I can do.

    As an aspiring game programmer, I doubt I’ll ever contribute much to the world. Helping out some aspiring surgeon is the least I can do. Heck, let the body be donated to some lonely necrophile for all I care. Just as long as I’m not wasting space or my loved ones’ money. =)

  • Wow! I really appreciated reading the above comments. Death/funeral is such a personal thing; and here we are, sharing our thoughts with strangers…

    I’ve always told my family that I don’t really have a preference as to the type of service. I just want it to be as cheap as possible. I don’t like large amounts of money spent on me, especially when I’m dead. Have you checked into how much coffins cost lately? It’s ridiculous. Burlap sack is fine by me, I say.. 🙂 Or cremation, whatever is cheaper.

    When I die, I want everyone I know and love to use it as an excuse to get together, eat, laugh, cry, and party like there’s no tomorrow. Even if it’s just for one day, I want them to truly “LIVE” … and love… with reckless abandon.

  • I’m thinking that My Chemical Romance’s “Welcome to the Black Parade” (not just the song, but the whole album) would make a good soundtrack for mine. My atheist friends would get the irony. Anyway, I have been giving some thought to my own funeral lately and found very few resources about atheist funerals, and no website devoted specifically to them, so I launched a site of my own devoted to this very subject.

  • Mriana

    Well, my soul desire for my decendents is not have to put up with dealing with anymore emotional disruption. My mother and aunt requested that their minister preach on the “Path to Salvation” at my grandmother’s funeral. 🙄 They did this again at my step-cousin’s funeral, which we could not attend, but we heard about it.

    My sons and I not only do not have any concept of this idea, but we found it insulting. No telling what others may have felt- insult, guilt, fear, who knows. That has never been my way, thus why I want a Humanist Funeral Celebration. I do not want anyone to be insulted, feel guilty about anything or fear anything as they grieve and celebrate my life nor do I want any attempt at converting or scarying anyone because they don’t have the same beliefs.

    I feel a secular funeral is the best route to go and frees people to grieve in their own way, while having the opportunity to remember me (in Diana Ross’s terms in the song “Remember Me”) as a good thing- or in this case, hopefully, a good person. I want people to truly have religious freedom- of and from it- during that time. People cannot truly have freedom of religion unless they have freedom FROM religion.

    If my wishes are honoured, people will be free of the fear, guilty, shame etc that religion can sometimes give. I want them to be free of hellfire and damnation, as well as other guilt and fear traps that other religions may have. I see it as my last gift to my friends and relatives. It’s not for me, but rather for others, so they can be free from religious trappings that cause disputes between people.

    That and I too wish to be cremated, have my ashes spread in a rose garden on a sunny day, full of laughter, and if they wish a glass of wine in my honour. 🙂

    So, my desire is not for my own benefit, but for my descendents- who will probably be a variety of beliefs, as already seen in my sons, and none should take dominance over the other, esp during a funeral.

  • Arlen

    I would be remiss if I passed up such an excellent comic opportunity to mention that the problem with having an atheist funeral is that one is all dressed up with no place to go.

    I’m a theist and I still want to have a very cheap, very simple ceremony. I think there is room for equal parts grieving and celebrating and that both are important. My personal experience has been that ceremonies entirely focused on “celebrating the life” of a person leave me feeling hollow. I think that the best time to celebrate someone’s life is while they are alive to celebrate it with you!

  • Luther Weeks

    I am atheist with a Roman Catholic wife, and pleased to report two atheist adult children:

    1) My family know my belief. It would of course be a lie for me to have a religious ceremony. However, if my family and friends did not know I was atheist then part of my life would be a lie.

    2) My wife would believe it sacreligious if I were to have a religious funeral.

    3) Recall Pat Tillman. Was his family wrong to speak out when the government tried to imply he was religious?

  • I think that the best time to celebrate someone’s life is while they are alive to celebrate it with you!

    That reminded me of a movie I saw while back (the name of which escapes my memory) wherein someone who knew they were dying had a big farewell pre-death funeral type of a thing…

  • Stephanie

    Well, my family has always gone in for humor as defense against sadness. So it’s been long written that should they choose to have a visitation, I’d better be in my pyjamas because if I’m going to be lounging around for that long of a time I don’t want to be stuck in some stuffy outfit. There will be no religious service because I am not religious- there’s nothing worse than trying to mourn someone and going to a service which has nothing to do with that person’s life. I have threatened but not written in to request “Goodbye Stranger” by Supertramp be played at the conclusion of any secular services my spouse or others may want.
    I have planned for cremation and a boat trip a few months out when the shock is blunted and people can have proper closure without so much pain. If the company is still solvent when I go, I’m planning on going up in pyrotechnics over the ocean.

  • ash

    my soul desire for my decendents


    If funerals are for the mourners, is it somehow mean to challenge their beliefs at this time? At that time I really won’t be in a position to care what’s going on.

    not at all; i wouldn’t disrespect my religious relatives by insisting their funerals were divulgent of all god references (although i wouldn’t feel the need to join in rituals that are meaningless to me – prayers, hymns etc.), and i would expect the same courtesy back…a funeral is about remembering and honouring a person as they were, not a chance to impose your particular beliefs/lack of on a grieving assembly.

  • a funeral is about remembering and honouring a person as they were, not a chance to impose your particular beliefs/lack of on a grieving assembly.

    I used to believe that. But now I’m not sure.

    My new thought: The person who is dead does not really care what takes place in their name. It does not affect them one bit. The funeral is, in essence, for the surviving loved ones. So I should hope the main objective would be what would best console them. For instance, if I were an atheist (which I’m not) and my husband were a devout Catholic (which he’s not), I would have no problem with a traditional Catholic funeral service to make him feel better about my passing.

    Because I would already be in a tropical paradise sipping margaritas with 50 virgin Chip-N-Dales… or in an eternal abyss/nothingness… whatever… 🙂

  • Betsy

    My husband and I joined the Neptune Society. This company takes your body away, cremates it provides the death certificate and brings the ashes back to the relatives. Then it is up to them whether to have a memorial gathering or not. I think this is a neat and tidy way of doing things and avoids funerals which I hate with a passion!

  • ash

    My new thought: The person who is dead does not really care what takes place in their name. It does not affect them one bit. The funeral is, in essence, for the surviving loved ones. So I should hope the main objective would be what would best console them.For instance, if I were an atheist (which I’m not) and my husband were a devout Catholic (which he’s not), I would have no problem with a traditional Catholic funeral service to make him feel better about my passing.

    i see your point, but i would contend that i hope i’d’ve worked out my husband’s complete lack of respect for my opinions a while before i died…i’d also hope he might invite my friends/other family members, who he would then upset by making them realise that he either never knew me that well, or that he’s a selfish git who had no real love for me.. given most social groups (including relatives + friends) include people of varying faiths, degrees between amount of faith of believers, and non-believers, it just makes more sense to go with the ideals of the one being mourned, and left to individuals to make good their own private religious/non convictions.

  • How about using the Quaker ritual, “celebration of one’s life”? You simply invite people to a gathering where they can spontaneously express their feelings and memories of you. The event is arranged a few weeks after your death for word to get around, a suitable place found, etc. Whatever grief people feel can be got off their chests.

    You open with silence or an explanation of what is happening. Then close with silence (think of it as a means of settling the crowd). Whoever is running it signals the end by shaking hands.

  • Quaker ritual, “celebration of one’s life”

    That sounds lovely. I would add music in the beginning and end, though. Something cheerful. Maybe Vivaldi…

    My husband and I joined the Neptune Society.

    I checked out their website, but their service is only available in a few states. I like the concept though.

    A friend of mine once went to a funeral where the guy who was dying of cancer made a video tape to be the “MC” of his own funeral service. She said it was the most moving service she’d been to. I think it would be nice to have that opportunity. Then I can really be brutally honest with what I think and feel about everyone and everything. (good and bad) Hmmm…

    Is it morbid to fantasize about one’s own funeral? I have to admit that I secretly enjoy it…

  • Rob Linford

    My wife understands that as an athiest I really dont care what she does once I’m dead since I will have no idea what she is up to. I have suggested that she send me to a taxidermist and mount me over the fire place but she thinks thats gross. In seriousness she is a low key Christian and would find comfort in her pastor saying a few comforting things at a service. Personally I think when your dead your dead, she thinks the spirit lives on. It makes me sad to think of intentionally putting her in a situation where she has to bury me in a way that forces her to confront the fact that I am really and completely gone. I find the idea of a spirint living on to be totally crazy, she finds it comforting. I love her and would rather she be comforted by something nutty than driven into depression by somethign she cant cope with. Not everyone is mentally equipped to deal with the idea of death being the end of everything – it is something athiests need to be sensitive to in my humble opinion and be a little flexible with the people they love.

  • Randall

    My thinking is that, while the funeral is for the mourners, it’s about the deceased. What does it say about their relationship with you if they ignore what you believed?

  • Caitlin

    My dad died a few weeks ago of cancer, so he knew that he was going to go sooner rather than later. He identified as an agnostic and didn’t like a lot of things about the Catholic church in general (his and mom’s sides of the family are both Catholic), but he was still a spiritual guy. He had three three things to say about his funeral: that it not be religious, that he be cremated, and that his best friend give the eulogy. So when he died, my mom, myself, and the extended family cremated the body before the funeral, which we had at the funeral home who handled the cremation arrangements, and then we passed the word on. The funeral itself was just the eulogy and some stories from his siblings, with a picture of him, my brother, and I, and the American flag (he was an Army veteran) in lieu of a casket. Afterwards, we went to a swanky country club for the reception, catered with all the works, because it’d be more my dad’s style to have a party. Everyone told stories about dad and caught up with each other. It was a lot of fun, a good way to celebrate his life, and it didn’t offend anyone. The only surprise from any super-Catholic members of the family was the lack of hotdish.

    So, my advice in short: don’t make a big deal about the atheism, and it won’t challenge anyone’s beliefs.

  • Andrew Kersey

    I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s posts — so many thoughtful ways of looking at the issue. Especially the last couple.

    I’m a journalist doing a story on atheist funerals. I’d be interested in talking with anyone who plans on having or has organized for someone else one of these services. Any help is much appreciated.

    I write for a Columbia University wire service which is distributed by the New York Times.

    I can be emailed at

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