Should This Atheist Partake in the Obligatory Prayer at a Funeral? May 4, 2009

Should This Atheist Partake in the Obligatory Prayer at a Funeral?

Reader Andrew had a relative pass away and he was unsure of what to do during one part of the funeral.

Maybe you can offer some advice:

My grandmother died recently and her funeral is this Friday. I wasn’t especially close to her, but I am (of course) upset. I have a bit of a dilemma, though. She and most of my family on her side are extremely religious — part of the Church of Scotland.

There will be a moment when we are asked to pray for her soul. I’m a fairly strong atheist, so I’m not wanting to pray, but I also don’t want to cause a scene and thereby disrupt the service. This is likely to happen if I don’t pray.

I could just pretend (drop the head, clasp the hands, etc) but that seems a bit disrespectful.

Am I being silly? Should I just play along?

I’m not sure what good would come from Andrew taking a stance for atheism here. The funeral is about the deceased, not about him. Personally, I would just go through the motions without praying.

What would you suggest?

Let me add in one twist: What would your advice be in this situation if Andrew were told to lead a prayer? Or give a reading from the Bible?

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Gavrilo

    I personnally don’t find it disrespectful if you simply stand with the others, but not praying.

    What would be disrespectful would be to signal your refusal to pray, by explicitely looking upwards, humming, or whatever. I thing as long as you remain quiet, there is no disrespect involved.

    And then again, one should ask himself how many of the people there are actually praying, and what proportion thinks about his taxes, next holidays, or simply about the person of your grandmother.

  • Richard

    Just go through the motions. I recently did a reading at a Catholic wedding service, and was happy to do it. I had to end with “this is the word of the Lord”, which felt a bit weird, but the bride and groom are extremely dear friends of mine and they were both really happy with the reading, which made me happy too.

  • I would drop the head, clasp the hands, etc. I don’t find that disrespectful – in fact, I think it’s probably the most respectful thing you can do. You’re not disrupting the service or flaunting your atheism, but you’re also not putting up too much of a religious show. This is generally what I’ll do when I’m in family situations with prayer. Even those who know I’m an atheist don’t mind – they know I’m just being polite.

    If I was asked to lead the prayer or give a reading from the Bible…I would just say I wasn’t comfortable doing it and to please ask someone else. They don’t need to know *why* you don’t want to do it. Maybe they’ll think you’re just so shook up from the death that you don’t want to speak at the service in front of a big group of people.

  • Kate

    Keep in mind that everyone who’s actually praying has their head down and their eyes closed…so no one will notice if you just stand quietly. Which is being respectful.

    If asked to lead something, just say that while you’re touched they would offer, say that it makes you uncomfortable. They can attribute your discomfort to public speaking.

  • skinman

    I just sit there quietly until the ordeal is over. I used to drop my head, but that always felt like a copout to me. It made me feel that my beliefs are less important than those of the group. So I say sit quietly but don’t go through the motions.

    And if asked to lead the prayer, just say no thank you.

  • I agree with the other comments — this is not the time to take a stance. No good will come of it — not only will all those in attendance hate you if you make a fuss, but the “atheist image” will also be tarnished (and who thought it could sink any lower?)

    When in a situation like this, I clasp my hands in front of me, but I don’t look down. I look around, and try to spot others who are also looking around. I’ve made contact with more than a few other non-believers this way!

  • Craig Hansen

    I would do the reading, whether at a funeral or a wedding or a baptism, etc.

    Reading the bible does not mean you believe – it means you can read. Ideally, the family should ask a Christian to do the reading, but as an atheist, I would read it aloud. It’s not like someone is going to dump a vat of holy water on your head while you’re reading the bible. They don’t want to get the good copy wet, you see.

    What they don’t want to do, is ask me to read a passage of my choice. I wouldn’t do this at a solemn event like a funeral, but at any other time, some choice passages from Leviticus might make a rare appearance in church.

    I tend not to bow my head for prayers. If a Christian spots me not bowing, why the hell is he or she not bowing their head in prayer? Only the busybodies scan for heathens, and if they report you for not bowing, you can report them.

  • Infinite Monkey

    I agree, bowing your head would be appropriate. Instead of praying, you can remember the good times you had with the grandmother. If asked to lead a prayer, or something else, pass the buck to someone who was “closer” to her, or something like that. Not trying to skip out on something like that, but try to put the focus on the people who knew her best, next of kin, best friends, etc.

  • misterjustin

    I would likewise drop my head and clasp my hands. I don’t believe that deciding not to participate would benefit anyone. A funeral is a time for the family and friends to find solace in each other. Offering even token participation will likely make those who share beliefs feel better.

    In a similar situation I found folks I knew did not share the religious beliefs of the family in question and we went out for drinks. There we spent our time drinking and remembering the deceased in our own way.

    If I were asked to lead a prayer – and I will likely be when my own grandmother passes – I would try to find a passage that meant something to her and her other family. My only function would be to provide some ease to those gathered.

  • I was asked to read several short bible readings at my grandfather’s funeral a few years ago and I did it. Recently at a friend’s grandfather’s funeral, I stood quietly during prayers, and I did not kneel to pray and I did not take communion, which was not disruptive as it was a catholic service and several protestants didn’t take communion either.

    The funeral isn’t about me and my atheist beliefs, so I tend to play along. Unfortunately, most funerals are religious — I have never seen a secular version — so I would have to avoid them all together if I couldn’t reign it in for an hour. It is not the time and place for me to make a scene, IMHO.

  • Desert Son

    Nothing wrong with quiet dignity. If everyone else has their eyes closed anyway, who’s going to notice if you don’t. Standing at attention by members of the military at a funeral is one of the most dignified expressions of posture and composure I can imagine, and it’s eyes open, and hands at the sides (unless saluting, obviously). The attendee may not be military, nor the deceased, but there’s no reason you can’t stand in quiet, solemn composure, hands at sides or clasped fore or behind (not in prayer).

    Besides, is there an official rule book on how to pray (maybe there is)? If not, how does anyone know whether eyes open or closed, hands clasped or held respectfully behind or at the side, is “more” or “less” “effective?” You don’t have to get into it, either. If someone brings it up later, just say you were being respectful in the best manner you know how.

    The thing that’s always tough about funerals is that, ostensibly, they’re to remember the deceased, but too often, they become about the living who are present. You can score a lot of points, I think, if you keep the focus on the deceased and the memories associated therein. If someone asks “were you praying?” or comments, “You didn’t look like you were in prayer,” it sounds like they weren’t thinking about the deceased, but were instead on “protocol patrol.” I’d respond with a happy anecdote or memory of the deceased, refocus the conversation.

    If asked to pray or read, I would either politely refuse and request someone else do it (especially in the case of someone that knew the deceased better than I did), or offer to say a few words in remembrance, but not in a religious context. Put the ball back in the funeral organizer’s court.

    No kings,


  • alice

    I had an unfortunate even occur at a funeral last year. A co-worker of mine passed, and she was very religious. My husband and I sat though the whole thing, and felt like outcasts. At the end the pastor passed a plate for donations, because that’s what Ms. X would have wanted. *shiver*

    The best thing to do is to be as respectful as possible. Sit quietly during the prayer, and think about your loved one. If asked to lead a prayer just say no quietly, you may also want to point out someone who’d be better at the job. (This usually means pointing to the most religious relative with in a ten foot distance)

    Good luck. I hope all goes well for you.

  • «bønez_brigade»

    As Kate & Craig have mentioned, bowing your head certainly isn’t necessary since nobody will even notice. (I wouldn’t do it even if they would notice, b/c it isn’t part of my system of belief/non-belief.) If you’ll be asked to pray aloud, arrange something beforehand with your hand-clasping neighbors to where one will pick up immediately after the other, thus skipping you. (A hand squeeze could be used to signal a “your turn”.)

  • I would clasp my hands, remain quite, respectful, still, and kind-of slightly bow my head, but not too much. I would keep my eyes open and watch the other folks. If anyone sees me with my eyes open, its only because they are doing the same thing as me. They would probably just think that I am checking them out to make sure they have their eyes closed. Anyway, that is what I do whenever I go to church with my wife.

    If asked to read something, I would do it but only if I could choose the passage.

  • Aj

    Don’t demean yourself by going in disguise if you don’t want to, placating the intolerant of atheists shouldn’t be automatic.

  • numsix

    As others have said, I would bow my head and sit in quiet contemplation. I have gone to funerals of people I have never met because of friendships with a relative of the deceased. I go to show support for the living. You do not support them with conflict.

    As for reading a passage or leading a prayer; my stage fright is so bad I would be unable to do this. All my friends and family know this so I am off the hook. I have been a pal bearer (Is that the correct spelling?) Usher at weddings etc. If asked to read or lead, (unlikely as that may be) I would decline politely “Thank you but I do not think I can do this” If pressed I would say because I do not share your faith and pretending to would be dishonest and I have no desire to be dishonest.

    Just one person’s opinion.

  • Devysciple

    The funeral is about the deceased

    That is rather new to me. Since the deceased is, well, dead, he or she won’t bother much about what is happening. The funeral is for the bereaved, and if that means that you have to pretend to be praying (always provided you are willing and capable to do so), then for skydaddy’s sake, do so.

    You’ll be morally supporting your family (given that they don’t know or at least ignore your atheism), and that is the right thing to do, imho. It’s a little white lie told to make other people feel better. And if they feel only a little better, it might also just help yourself. Being too honest can be hurting, as I am sure many here will know from personal experience.

  • AJ

    I bow my head and stand quietly, sometimes with my eyes closed. Christians, themselves, will quite frequently tell you that going through the motions does not make one a Christian.

    Likewise, bowing your head with or without eyes closed doesn’t really mean anything, except that you are showing respect.

    I once went to the funeral of an irreligious friend of mine. The entire time, two girls standing near me talked about how he wasn’t saved and hadn’t gone to Heaven. While that was quite outspoken, it still made me realize that while they were being honest, they weren’t being respectful.

  • AJ

    Haha, Devysciple, had not left their comment when I was writing mine. Yes, a little too much honesty can be hurtful.

  • I went to a funeral last week (the patriarch of a largish local family, several of whose grown children we are friends with, and who cover a fair range of religiosity). Segments of the service were fairly religious — I hummed the harmony parts to the hymns, and during the prayers I just stood quietly with my hands clasped behind my back. A funeral is about the deceased and the family and I’m just there to say “I know you’re sad; I haven’t forgotten you”. Whatever they do is their business, not mine.

    About finding oneself in a “public prayer” situation: I stand quietly, with my head up and eyes open. I’m respecting the believers that much, but I’m not going to bow my head and show any respect for the practice itself. In any large group, there are generally lots of others doing the same.

  • Todd

    You’d be surprised how many devout Christians do not bow their heads and close their eyes during a prayer. When I attend events with prayers (weddings, funerals, large family gatherings where grace is said before meals), I’m always amused to look around and see how many of the pious are doing the exact same thing I am, which is looking around to see how people pray.

    As for the Church of Scotland, I assume this is an offshoot of CoE, which requires kneeling during some prayers. That’s where the atheist really sticks out. I felt very self conscious sitting quietly, while everyone else knelt at my MiL’s funeral.

    Normally, I’d have no problems sticking out like a sore thumb, but funerals are one of those times when making waves is incredibly bad manners.

  • If your family knows you’re an atheist, like mine, you might be able to get away with just being quiet like I do. I just stand there (or sit if that’s what’s required of the situation) looking straight ahead in front of me, and let them do their thing.

  • Tom

    Hemant, no, the funeral is NOT about the deceased, it is about the living. As atheists we believe a dead person is a dead body that we put in the ground to fertilize the flowers, remember? They’re not there to monitor what sort of service we have for them. So, all the ceremony is for the living to help console themselves.

    At my grandmother’s funeral, when we were asked to pray, I chose to take the moment to reflect silently on what a beautiful day it was, how much she would have loved to be there to go for a nice walk, how delighted she would have been to see her whole family there looking healthy and successful, and how terribly I would miss her. I did not clasp my hands. I did not bow my head. I looked up at the clear blue sky and felt the gentle wind on my face and I cried.

    If Andrew chooses to be respectful of his family’s feelings on the day of the funeral by remaining quiet while they pray, common decency calls for them to be respectful of his by not prying too deeply into the question of what he’s up to when they’re praying – anyway, if they’re supposed to have hands clasped and heads bowed, anyone looking at him to make an accusation is obviously not following their rules themselves.

    If any family member notices and makes a stink about it, it is they, not Andrew, who is responsible for making a scene at grandmother’s funeral. Andrew would be well within the constraints of good manners to burst into tears, point accusingly at them, and scream “how dare you make a scene at grandmother’s funeral!” and refuse to discuss anything further on the grounds of being too upset by the death of his grandmother and his relative’s horrifying behavior.

    If Andrew is called upon to LEAD a prayer, he may simply say that he is too distraught, and no one may politely question that. If he’s not comfortable with the small lie, he can simply look like he’s going to cry and say “please let someone else do that today.” Again, if anyone gets pushy about it, Andrew may point at them accusingly, burst into tears, and loudly tell them “leave me alone! Can’t you see I’m mourning?” and it’s their problem, not his.

    If Andrew is called on to give a reading, he should choose something he feels is comforting and read it, or say honestly that he doesn’t feel up to the task (or that he can’t find a piece he feels is appropriate at the moment) and ask for someone else to do it please. It’s just a book full of words. If he can find something in it he feels is beautiful and appropriate, there is no harm in reading the passage. An atheist can read from a book just as well as anyone else. If he can’t find a part he feels like reading that day, it’s neither dishonest nor disrespectful to say so.

    Andrew, remember that at the funeral, you are officially one of the bereaved, and as such nearly any behavior on your part short of tap dancing with the deceased must be quietly accepted on the part of those with good manners. You must be permitted to mourn in your own way, and if anyone in your family tries to push you to mourn in their way or criticize you for the way you choose to mourn, you are well within your rights to call them an insensitive clod and tell them to go away, and good manners calls for the rest of your family to support you. If they don’t, they are responsible for all consequences.

  • Nothing more to say but that I completely agree with Tom

  • I agree with the others, the service is about the deceased, not yourself.

    Bowing your head and being quiet is respecting the wishes for the deceased. Respectful.

    However, if the deceased HAD been an atheist themself, and the funeral was being held by people ignoring her wishes for their own, then I would do what I could to respect what the deceased would have prefered, screw what the ignorant people want to “force” on them.

    My opinion.

  • Cafeeine

    In my opinion, bowing the head in contemplation is not necessarily that religious to begin with.

    It is part of the ceremony, to be sure, and I don’t think it would be out of place in a secular service.

    As for the appropriate stance, I would say it matters what your relationship is with the deceased. When my grandmother died, whom I had lived with for nearly a decade, I spent the service with my head bowed but that was mostly because I was tearing up too much. However I wasn’t praying at all and this was back when I was a nominal believer.

    If you are called on to say some Bible verses, you can ask to be excused, but even if you do have to make a reading, you may find things in the Bible that you agree with and are pertinent. For example 1st Peter 1:24 “For all flesh is as grass”, life ends, and is therefore precious. You may also prepare a reading of other appropriate verses you may like, that aren’t going to offend.

    My point is, a funeral is not a religious event, its a social one, albeit hijacked by religion. If you yourself have a personal need of closure, try to get it. If not, you can support the rest of the people. Going through the motions in this case really is no more disrespectful than doing so at the company picnic.

  • Todd

    What if the deceased is someone close to you? What if the funeral is for a religious person you were close to, but knew you are an atheist and respected your lack of belief? What do you do then? Being mindful of other people’s right to grieve as they see fit doesn’t preclude your own right.

  • This is not the time to make a show of your atheism. Allowing others to pray is not a betrayal of your own atheism — it is showing an appropriate level of respect for other people who have chosen to live their lives differently than you. You would want similar respect from them if the situation were reversed.

  • The ceremony is about consoling the living and I think it would be best to simply stand quietly. Eyes open or closed. Maybe not hands clasped in the style of prayer, but not nonchalantly in your pockets either. Clasping your hands loosely in front or behind you would be fine.

    If he were closer I would also suggest adding a humanist flair if possible. Not overtly saying it was to make the ceremony non-religious, just to make it more personal. A bit of her favorite music, or poetry suited to her. That way he could give his own tribute in a way that is non-religious but also non-aggressive towards those who are religious.

    As for leading a prayer, I would hope that such things get consulted beforehand. If so I would gently refuse, saying that it would be highly disrespectful of other’s religious beliefs for me to lead a prayer when I don’t believe in it. If he’s in the closet then I think vague evasion would be best. The worst of course is if they spring it on him mid-ceremony. In that case I guess I’d just grit my teeth and do it, since refusing would only add distress to others, and I’d rather take it myself.

  • Aaron

    I have a friend, which found himself in this very upsetting situation: in Catholic service, there`s a couple of moments during mass when you have to knee while giving respect. when everybody did that, but my atheist friend….. the priest halt the service approach to him and said outloud: ” knee!, you are in the presence of a God representative…!! knee before mee!”…. long story short he refuse to knee…he just remain in silence….

    now..what would you do in a situation like that one…?

  • williamk

    I do the stand, open eyes, no bow thing and thats worked pretty well for me. I’m certainly not going to do anything disruptive but at the same time I’m not going to bow to an imaginary figure.

    I’d have a hard time reading a bible verse but I dont think it would be an issue to speak about the person who has died, a more appropriate tribute in my opinion anyway. Its not like the dead person asked you to read the verse so you arent disrespecting them by not wanting to do it.

  • When people pray, I just try to look down on the ground. Then I try to forget about how awkward I look and feel, and focus on the subject of the prayer. After all, prayer is simply an expression of feelings and desires under the guise of a talk with God.

    Of course, I usually fail, and just start thinking, “Damn, I look awkward! I’m glad most people close their eyes or look down when they pray.”

  • The funeral isn’t about you so bow your head, clasp hands or not, think of memories of your grandmother. It’s a day to console the living who are grieving so not upsetting people further is a good idea.

  • I don’t think it’s necessary to do the whole thing, closing your eyes, looking down, with your hands clasped. Different people pray differently, even among Christians, and your family should be able to accept that. Different people grieve differently too. Personally, I don’t think you should even feel obligated to attend the funeral at all if it does not help you grieve.

    If you are asked to lead prayer, it is entirely acceptable to decline.

  • To those who are arguing the “funeral is for the deceased” thing.

    What I meant by that is that I’ve seen a lot of examples where the deceased has specific requests for a funeral and hopefully the family obliges those last requests.

    If I were to die, I would hope not to have a religious funeral and that my loved ones would honor that request. In that sense, it is about the deceased.

  • JB

    I have conducted a funeral as the officiant, and had to devise “prayers” that would suit the diverse mourners who attended. Those present professed a number of different religious beliefs (Roman Catholic, Evangelical, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, and others–rather eclectic considering it was just family) that needed to be accommodated, but the guests of honor (the deceased) were atheists and would have preferred no ceremony at all.
    The words I spoke were carefully chosen so that those who thought we were praying heard them as prayers, and those who knew my beliefs heard comforting words, respectful concern for those who were grieving, and a fond farewell to those we had loved.

    So even if you are asked to speak, I am sure you can find something meaningful to say just as you could if you were asked to present a toast at a wedding.

    During the prayers of others, just as it would be during the National Anthem for another country, you should take a respectful posture, and by so doing show your regard for them as people even if you don’t agree with what they believe. Then look inside yourself for fond memories of those who are no longer with you, and take comfort in the knowledge that so long as you remember them, they haven’t totally ceased to exist.

  • Jonas

    My (very religious) grandmother died recently. During the prayer at the funeral, I simply bowed my head and put my right hand over my left, and both over my stomach. This is the most respectful pose I know, far more then any prayer position.

  • I think that it makes a very small difference. I faced a similar dilemma when my grandfather passed away last year. I grow up in a religious family – nothing extreme, but religious non the less. My grandfather was the most religious one; reading the Bible over and over again and reciting quotes for us each day. I knew he wanted a “complete” burial, including psalms and prayers.

    For me, it was less about how the relatives would react as it was as how he wanted it to be. I seriously dislike taking religious words into my mouth, and I am also aware that he would never notice, as he has returned to the same state of peaceful non-existence as he has been contained in for millions of years prior to his birth. But still – it would have been one of his last wishes. I did, however, put a lot of thought into it, but finally I chose to pray along with the others, as the words mean nothing to me – but they would have meant something for him.

    Much like when I speak in Arabic and use words of which there is no equivalent and have to say something like “God willing”, “Praise to God”, “Gods peace” et cetera. I don’t think the words themselves are any cause for concern; as long as your beliefs (or lack thereof) stays the same, and obviously this funeral will not change that.

    In the end, it’s of course up to you to make the judgment. Anyways, sorry to hear for your loss and I hope you will come to a decision shortly.

  • franz dibbler

    I’m in the odd position of attending church weekly despite being an atheist. I make a point of looking around, particularly to the teens, just to let them know that there are adults present who don’t buy into this stuff.

    For the funeral, just look down. Nobody will know what your really thinking.

  • Erp

    I would bow my head. Readings I would only do if I felt the reading to be something I would feel comfortable saying.

    (To Todd, the Church of Scotland is not related to the Church of England except that both are Christian and both the ‘national’ churches of their respective countries. The Church of Scotland is Presbyterian and the Church of England is Episcopal [has bishops] and part of the Anglican Communion. The branch of the Anglican Communion in Scotland is The Scottish Episcopal Church.)

  • TXatheist

    Having attended a catholic funderal I simply sat quietly and since almost everyone else was head down and eyes closed they didn’t notice me. However, I made a youtube video about this because the “father” went on to say how agnostics don’t have the benefit of going to heaven after they die. After the funeral and discreetly I shook the “father’s” hand and said, not all agnostics are bad guys.

  • Brian

    If you choose to attend a religious service, you should go through the motions. No amount of bowing your head or clasping your hands, or even saying a prayer is going to change your beliefs, right?

    You don’t go into an Italian restaurant and then refuse to eat what you’re served because you hate Italian food.

  • I’ve had to deal with this quite a bit with my and my girlfriend’s families. They both pray at every occasion, every meal, and everything they can think of. I’ve just had to deal with it and go along with the motions. When they ask me to lead I just try avoid it or give a very generic prayer if I can’t dodge it.

  • Revyloution

    I would disagree that the event is for the deceased. They are dead, and no longer have any wishes at all.

    Funerals are for the living, to help bring closure, to remind us of how short our lives are.

    The religions of the world like to use these events as reminders that we all have to die, and that you better be on the right team at the end.

    At funerals and weddings, I always choose to keep my head up, and be respectfully silent. I have never had anyone challenge me in any way for choosing to respect the dead in my own way. This is just my way of reminding people that this life is the only one we have, and that we should make the most of it, and that is best done by cooperating and respecting, not forcing a rigid set of rules on everyone.

  • Soulless

    I’ve always thought that the Biblical god wasn’t interested in sincerity, but compliance instead. Now that I know that there is no god, it’s the followers who don’t care about sincerity but compliance.

  • The last time I went to church, I went along with the basic proceedings, as long as nothing I did signified (to me) assent with what was being said. I stood when the congregation stood, sat when they sat, held hands when they held hands. But I didn’t say or do anything that would have signaled agreement. I didn’t bow my head, I stayed silent during the prayers and songs, I didn’t put money in the collection plate. However, I didn’t do any of that in a disruptive or conspicuous way.

    I think it’s a little different at a funeral, where emotions are high, and at a funeral I might go along a step more with the proceedings if not doing so would be disruptive or conspicuous or upset people. But as long as you balance it with basic respect for others, I think you have to be true to yourself.

  • helen

    I agree with Tom.
    Being respectful doesn’t mean you have to pretend you’re religious or praying, etc., it’s enough to wait quietly for the others to finish their praying (I find the “national anthem” advice very adequate). Especially if you’re one of the bereaved. – My father was very religious and we had a catholic funeral. I didn’t object to it (out of respect for him and the family), but eventually the experience was very distressing, since my mourning kept being interrupted by the religious nonsense the priest was telling.
    So no, while this is not the moment for coming out, it is neither a moment for you to pretend.
    If you’re afraid you have to “pray”, just say something personal, or recite a poem.

  • Frank

    It’s difficult to know what I would do in a situation until I was in it, but I would at least give serious consideration to the option of simply not attending. As has been pointed out, a funeral is not about the deceased, as he/she is not there. A funeral is about the living, and in particular about the religious living, and I am not a member of that group. I don’t let ministers tell me what to do on Sundays or what to think about abortion or how do deal with a crisis or how to talk about god, why should I let a minister tell me how to grieve? Those religious people who truly respect me would understand my decision not to attend, and as for those who don’t, why should I care what they think anyway? Would my attendance at a funeral really make the death less painful for others?

    Again, I don’t know for sure what I would do in any situation I haven’t been in yet, but I think these are good questions to ask. Ultimately, as in any situation where an atheist is in a religious context, there is no one right answer, every option that has been suggested here is acceptable.

  • Big freaking deal. Stand their quietly and let people around you pray if they want to. Look forward or at your feet. (I usually just look forward because I don’t want feel like I am pretending to pray.)

    If asked to lead a prayer, you could always read a poem about keeping the memory of those who are gone close to your heart or something else in that vein.

  • Larry Huffman

    No…I think the disrespectful thing would be to make a scene because of your beliefs. This funeral is not about you…it is about your grandmother. If your grandmother was religious, then respect her by bowing your head while they pray. You do know you do not actually have to pray, right?

    I am very atheist…but I ‘participate’ in prayers from time to time. If I am celebrating a holiday at a relative’s house, for instance, I will respectfully bow my head when they offer grace. At weddings and funerals…etc. And I do not believe for one minute that a freethinking atheist gets offended by this, though many claim to. There is no offense. It would be different if they are wanting to pray for you directly…or want you to actually say a prayer…but to go along with a prayer of someone else’s…about or for someone else…that they will all say whether you protest or not…well, it just does not carry any real offense.

    We may be atheist, but we should not try to assert our non-belief at all times. Doing so will only give atheists a worse reputation…sort of like living up to the low expectations that the religious have for us as a group. And…being respectful and even reverent for other’s religious practices does not make you less of an atheist. It is the other side that wants to keep score like that, not us.

    This changes altogether if your grandmother was not religious at all. You could then stand firm and say ‘Grandma would not have prayed, and neither am I’…because you would be preventing them from disrespecting her views…if that is a battle you want to fight.

    And…I am sorry for your loss. Losing a grandma hurts.

  • Larry Huffman

    And…while the funeral is not FOR your grandmother…as people have stated…it IS about her. So…again…if she was religious, it should be as such.

    If I was responsible for arranging the funeral for my grandmother (which I was not), I would have found someone to offer a prayer…as everyone else (regardless of my belief) would ahve been expecting it…and I know my grandma would have expected a prayer at any funeral she attended.

    I did speak at my grandfather’s funeral, and when I did so, I related his favorite bible verse…not because I believed it, but because he did.

  • non-theist

    As a mere member of the party I would likely bow my head etc. However if asked to read the Bible, I would substitute another more appropriate text, or decline.
    After all, if in my will I asked that all mourners shouted “there is no God!” would any do that? How many would read Robert Ingersoll over my body?

  • The funeral is about the deceased, not about him.

    I disagree. The funeral is about the family and friends of the deceased seeking peace and closure and saying goodbye. As atheists we know that prayer does nothing more than bring comfort people who pray. Stand aside and allow them to do so. If you’re unwilling to concede this point then don’t attend the funeral.

  • Geoff

    I attended a Church of Scotland funeral today and did exactly what you suggest here, going through the motions of silent prayer. I felt no disrespect was involved, rather the opposite.

    I don’t know what I would do if I were ever asked to lead a public prayer as I’ve never been put in that position.
    Is there problem in reading out bible verses? They mean something to some of the hearers and non believers can think of it as literature.

  • stephanie

    I’ve been through a lot of funerals, so I just sit quietly through the religious bit if there is one. It’s not my service, the praying is not for my comfort and I do no one any good by disrupting.
    If anyone asks for a reading from the Bible, they will do so before the service, which is plenty of time to scan the verse if you think you might wish to read it or to decline on the basis of your own beliefs.

  • Wendy

    I would just drop my head, and use that time to reflect on Grandma’s life. If everybody else thinks you’re praying, no harm, no foul. It would be must more disruptive to refuse outright.

  • Wendy – took the words right out, as it were.

    I was just thinking of my own Grandmother’s funeral a couple of years ago when I did more or less the same thing during the prayers – dropped my head as a sign of respect, thought about dear G’ma and wondered how my mother was coping. There’s really no need to ‘pretend’ in situations like this – noone’s going to check if you’re praying.

    Funerals are held to honour and reflect upon a person’s life – that’s what you should do. No more and no less.

  • I will admit to being what would be considered totally disrespectful. It began 20 years ago with the death of my great-grandmother. The pastor, who did not actually know her but was called upon to present the eulogy, spoke my great-grandmother’s name once at the beginning of the service and once at the end. The rest of the time was all about Jesus. Nothing about how wonderful and caring my great-grandmother was. Nothing about how we’ll miss her. Nothing about her sister who, also a wonderful woman, had lived with her all her life. Nothing about the children she had raised. The grandchildren she had helped to raise. The great-grandchildren. Nothing about her at all.

    I was thoroughly disgusted and have never attended another funeral service. When another of my relatives die, I retreat out of the chapel when the eulogy is about to begin. When the funeral home broadcasts the service into the waiting rooms, I retreat to the parking lot.

    Certainly, I do this for myself but I also do this for my family. I am not a good actor and I have no doubt that as the pastor goes on about his god and completely ignores my family, my revulsion would surely be on my face. Better to be absent, I think, than to inflict that on my family members. Batter also not to lie to my family by pretending to be devotional or penitent.

  • Twin-Skies

    Personally, I would find it to be more disrespectful to the deceased if I pretended to be something I was not, even it’s for “family’s sake.”

    They certainly wouldn’t have wanted me lying even when they were alive – why start now?

  • Red

    I am at many a events that ask folks to bow their head in prayer. I opt not to. I just stay silent but do not bow made head as it is not my custom to pray. Simple as that. If someone ever asks me why I don’t bow my head in prayer, then I will offer them my explanation.

  • I went through the same experience at the funeral of a friend a couple of weeks ago, my first since realising I am atheist. As I didn’t want to show disrespect to those present, I bowed my head slightly (eyes open), clasped my hands, spoke the words expected of us, sang the hymns, but didn’t speak the prayers.

    I did this because the realisation hit me that the ceremony is about the memory of the person who’s died with regards to those who are grieving, not about my own beliefs or lack of. I still think that way: I’m a-theist, not anti-theist. My absence of belief means it doesn’t matter in this context. It’s different to not wishing to legitimise superstition in other contexts — I would suggest that a funeral is not the time to start this kind of debate.

    Hope that helps, and I’m sorry for your loss.

  • Sean

    I’m sorry for your loss, Andrew.

    You already know that the funeral will be religious, because that is how your grandmother believed and it is how the majority of your family will find comfort from their grief. Lowering your head during a prayer doesn’t mean you are praying, but it does show respect for the customs of the deceased and the rest of your family. Someone else’s funeral is not the place to “take a stand” about your disagreements with others’ beliefs.

    As for the “twist” … most readings are set up before the service begins. The preacher or whoever will approach individuals, so it’s a one-on-one thing. If Andrew is uncomfortable with doing a reading or leading a prayer, he should refuse. Many people are too emotional and grief stricken to get up and do a reading or lead a prayer; that’s why it is set up before the services, so that no-one is put on the spot & there’s no chance of disrupting the service. If a reason is demanded, I would go with “it would be too painful and I wouldn’t do justice to my grandmother’s memory”. Because again, this really isn’t the time or place (in my opinion) for a discussion on personal beliefs (or the lack thereof).

    (Of course, he might want to see what the reading is, first. There are bible verses that are not, in and of themselves, overtly religious yet express emotions and feelings very well. He might also do some independent research to see if he can find such verses on his own. That way, if he is asked to do a reading, he could ask if he could do one he’s already chosen. It would be something he is comfortable with because it’s not explicitly religious & expresses his feelings, but at the same time would be acceptable to the rest of his family. That way he could participate if he so desired.)

  • Evinfuilt

    When told to pray at some event, do what they’re really doing. Talk to yourself (in your head of course.)

    At my spouses grandmother’s funeral I bowed my head and thought of the wonderful memories she had left me. That I looked up with a tear in my eyes just confirmed to me how much she still mattered to me.

    A moment with ones self is worthwhile, even in a religious setting.

  • I would bow your head as at least a sign of respect for the passing of a relative. You can certainly be silent through the other religious activities and as long as you are not being overtly disrespectful I do not think anyone will question your silence. Remember everyone else there is going through tough emotions and certainly are not out to get you when there is the possibility of offending the deceased’s family.

  • Martin Cauvin

    I am a Christian minister (conservative) and upon reading most of these posts (there are quite a few) this is what I think.

    The ideas and actions presented all show great respect. I would have no problems with an atheist not participating and would respect them declining to read a scripture.

    On a side note: In one sermon at a funeral I specifically noted that there may be (I know there always are but they seldom admit it… too bad) those present who do not believe as I do nor perhaps believe at all. I added that I would be speaking from a Christian perspective. After the service I was surprised and pleased to receive a compliment from an atheist about acknowledging the presence of people with different views.


  • Krystal

    I don’t think it really matters, he could just drop his head and even if he was asked to lead a prayer or read from the bible, it isn’t going to muck his beliefs or burn his tongue off, it’s a funeral, c’mon people.

  • atomjack

    Been there, done that. Eerie, actually, as it was a funeral for my mother-in-law’s sister. We were never close, but I went to support my MiL. Eerie? It was the same church I married my wife in 28 years ago. Now, as a non-believer, I was respectful, but no kneeling, praying, head bowing, etc. Like some earlier said, thought about what little I knew of the gal, day-dreamed, whatever. Nobody gave me any grief, even though I hadn’t admitted atheism at that time and wasn’t acting like a good little catlicker.

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