A Christian Asks for Help in Planning a Funeral for an Atheist May 25, 2010

A Christian Asks for Help in Planning a Funeral for an Atheist

I received a very sad email from a Christian woman who could really could use some advice. I don’t know any more information that what is written below:

My daughter’s biological father committed suicide late last week and as she is next of kin but only 8 yrs. old it is up to me to settle his affairs. I’m Christian but he was an Atheist and I do not want a Christian service for him as I know he would not have wanted one. Do you have any advice on how to plan this out?

We are just going to have a graveside service and it will be less than 30 people, probably… Any thoughts/ideas would be much appreciated… the service will be some time early next week.

My immediate suggestion is to just refrain from making references to a god in the eulogy. Or perhaps she could request donations to his favorite charity/non-profit in lieu of flowers.

Any other ideas?


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  • Melody

    I don’t know where she lives, but she may be able to get a secular celebrant to perform the ceremony. You can find a list of certified secular celebrants here: http://www.centerforinquiry.net/education/find_a_secular_celebrant/

  • Hitch

    Funeral is for him, but it really is much more for everybody else. It’s your chance to say goodbye.

    When my father died, he left some sort of will. He was not opposed to a christian service, and we had one but by a very liberal inclusive church denomination and the priest discussed with us how much reference to a god was acceptable. We agreed to some short passage with that reference to be OK for the members in the audience who were theists. And positive he would have approved. It was very non-imposing.

    He wanted to be cremated, so we did that.

    He also said that he ultimately didn’t care about the specifics of it all, which is a very atheist thing to say.

    I would encourage this as meaning, do things that you think are right for the setting yet reflect his personality.

    If you have no will from him, exercise judgment what he would have liked and what you like but also what is a nice venue to say goodbye for everybody you expect to come.

    We had multiple people eulogize or read stories that had relation to him.

  • OBSirius

    Google “Atheist Funeral Service” or similar phrases. There are a lot of suggestions already out there, and a lot of readings and poems to be used in the service.

    The point of a funeral is to help the living, so if the majority of attendees will be believers, I would not dwell on his atheism (as it may make them uncomfortable), but rather on his life, his loves, and his goodness.

    Whatever you do, don’t pretend he was religious. You will regret that in time (this is the voice of experience talking).

  • Randall

    Agreed.

    Funerals are for the living to remember the dead. Do what brings those who care about him comfort.

  • Do whatever you want. He’s dead. He won’t mind.

    Funerary services are for the living, not for the dead.

  • Kenny

    Make a point of celebrating the life, love and achievements of the deceased. Share any future hopes and aspirations of the dead.

  • Holly

    When my grandmother passed we held a small service at the grave side with a eulogy offered by the local unitarian minister. He kept it simple, reminding us to always keep memories of her in our hearts and that way we’d always have her with us.

    I’d suggest asking around to find a minister willing to keep it simple and secular.

  • Canadiannalberta

    When my grandparents died, we gave them what they wanted: a party.

    “Celebrate our lives,” Gran had told my father. “Celebrate what we did right in life, eat our favorite foods, and boogie to our favorite tunes. For those old enough to drink, have a toast to honor us.”

    Perhaps you could do something similar? Not an all out party if you think that’s inappropriate, but celebrate his life, and what he did that was important – like your daughter.

  • Ubi Dubium

    I’d recommend contacting a local UU church for assistance. I am sure they deal with this kind of thing all the time. They are very good at being uplifting and comforting, while avoiding overt religious references.

  • Betsy

    My husband and I always tell one another that we want our funerals to be a celebration of our lives. We want our favorite songs to be played (we have a few specifics like Sixx A.M’s “Life is Beautiful”) and our friends and family to tell one another their favorite memories about us. It really is for the people left behind, not for the deceased and hopefully sharing memories will help those who are left.

  • Ryan

    http://ffrf.org/news/timely-topics/poetry-readings/ has a list of readings that you might find strike some chord with your memories of him.

  • Robyn

    I think it is incredibly open-minded and respectful to come here and sincerely ask for suggestions to help give this man the kind of service he would have appreciated. I know people who have used the eulogy as an opportunity to prostelytize. I totally respect you for wanting to give him an atheist service. I agree with the above comment of just leaving out references to god when you speak about him. Talk about his life and the positive things you remember about him, give your daughter a chance to speak about him. Sounds wonderful.

  • Peregrine

    This brings back some painful memories for me. My mother-in-law died almost 2 years ago with similar circumstances. She was raised Jewish, but wasn’t very religious.

    It’s not just about the spirituality – or lack thereof – of the deceased. It’s also about the spirituality of those left behind. And as much as some atheists tend to dislike the word, mourning is very much a spiritual experience.

    We mostly followed the funeral director’s lead. A good funeral director is a valuable guide at times like these, and will accommodate just about anything you need as far as striking an appropriate balance between a spiritual and secular service.

    If you do feel it necessary to involve a member of the clergy, try to find one who is liberal enough to understand and respect the deceased’s atheism, and willing to lead a prayer without being heavy-handed about it.

    You have my condolences. Please take care.

  • Ash

    I third the idea of contacting the nearest UU church. A good UU minister will be able to help construct a service that is respectful of the deceased while providing a religious tone that might comfort any attending believers.

  • My wife (a Xian) asked me the same question a couple of weeks ago.

    I gave her the answer that others have said here. “The funeral is for you, do what you like.”

    Though I would like it to be a celebration of my life – rather than a mourning of my passing. Because that’s all I’ve got.

    (Of course, then she asked me what would I do if she died – I told her I’d throw her on the compost heap. I got a slap for that.)

    I’m kind of keen on making sure I have written something to be read at the funeral. That might not be possible in this case – but maybe something that he said or wrote in happier times.

  • My atheist father-in-law died last year and we had a standard funeral, just without any mention of deities. The officiant was actually a minister whom my FIL had become friendly with through his hospice program, and he agreed to do a eulogy without any preaching. It was helpful because he was familiar with how to conduct a funeral, but he still respected the family’s wishes about not bringing religion into it.

    Mainly he and the family members who spoke talked about my FIL’s life and accomplishments, and how he’d touched other peoples’ lives. It was a very nice celebration of him as a person, rather than a sermon.

  • Funerals are for the living. They act as an opportunity to make the death formal as a ritual. The dead person neither knows nor cares that happens during the event. I would assume that his 8 year old daughter will be attending. This is a tricky age as children are realising around this age that they themselves are actually mortal and are questioning their parents’ abilities as keepers of all knowledge.

    I would make the funeral a celebration of life for no other reason than to paint the best picture of her father for the daughter. She is likely to remember it and it should therefore be free from the sort of fire and brimstone preaching I’ve heard that some religious denominations prefer.

    The funeral home should have humanist ministers available. If not then change funeral homes.

  • Luther

    I am atheist, my wife Catholic. A couple of weeks ago an atheist neighbor and great friend died. A great memorial celebration was held: All her children talked stories of the deceased and her long departed husband. Some friends talked and it was opened up to everyone who wanted to speak. Lots of food and drink, a good time and appreciation was had by all. No body, no remains, no burial event. Of course it helps to have a large cadre of loving family and friends. Personally I would not want a UU service, yet it depends on how strong an atheist the deceased was or maybe the particular UU.

    My wife and I had a talk about our funerals after this (which we have had a couple times before).

    As for me, I could not imagine a better “service”. I suggested she would need less food and drink as fewer were likely to attend. Perhaps bring the remains of the cremation and allow DNA swabs as a few more might show up to make sure I was gone.

    My wife also has requests. She has written up some aspects of her funeral, and just as I would not want Gods referenced, or ministers talking at mine, there are things she would rather not have happen at hers.

    Fortunately, we have two experienced Catholic raised, atheist adult children who are fully capable of following each of our wishes as well.

    We atheists can take responsibility to religious next of kin, to clarify our wishes and free them from guilt in worrying about how to memorialize us.

    P.S. Last year my wife and I both created and read eulogies to each other. It was fun and moving (and better than completely missing out).

  • Sue D. Nymme

    I’m an atheist, and I’m still alive. 🙂

    At my funeral, I would like photos of me and the people I love. Lots of photos, of the best times of my life, on tables, where people can walk around and remember the times we had together.

    People will feel sad that I’m gone (I hope!) but I also hope that they will feel glad for the memories.

  • Greg

    It is hard to offer advice, because atheist can be so different in the things they cherished. I can only offer my own personal experience.

    When my grandfather died, he had become quite firmly atheistic – he had no time for religion of any sort. He always used to say that he found comfort in knowing that when he died everything would end. Presumably he had no real cares for his funeral either.

    But whilst as people have said above, funerals are for the living, and the grieving, they will help little if they are not relevant to the deceased.

    We had a small ceremony, based around his life, and his likes. Different family members spoke about him; about his childhood; or, in my case, about my childhood where he was a big figure. We didn’t concentrate upon sadness – but rather concentrated on celebrating him and his life.

    Remember the things that made you love him. Rather than hymns, consider playing music he enjoyed; rather than prayers, consider sharing dear memories.

  • Kudos to her for not taking the usual Christian route. More often or not, funerals are seen as just another occasion to evangelize and remind people to “get those Heaven applications in before it’s too late!”

    Lots of good suggestions here so I’ll just sign off… 🙂

  • Sorry, but I think this is more about not traumatizing her daughter than respecting the man’s wishes. From a Christian perspective, he is going to Hell.

    Kudos to mom for not exploiting the situation to make some misguided point.

    So, as others have said, orient the service to the immediate needs of the daughter to be truly comforted and to fondly remember her father.

    Also, do not spend much.

  • Claudia

    The bulk of the atheists I’ve spoken to prefer cremation to burial. I don’t know how well you knew him (obviously he’s not your husband) but I’ve yet to meet an atheist that wants a lot of pomp frills and especially cost at their funeral.

    Funerals are for the living, the man is gone and is not hovering around to be happy or sad about his arragements. However his daughter will remember whether or not someone bothered to “say goodbye” to her father, so this is for her. I say keep it simple and if you know him well enough, keep it personal. Oh and of course no clergy, (public) prayers or religious symbols.

  • Theresa

    You don’t necessarily need an officiant or a script. At my father-in-law’s memorial, we put his cousin’s husband in charge; he was a good friend, but not likely to break down during the ceremony. He told a brief history of my FIL’s life and then asked family and friends to share brief reminiscences. Then we had a reception with food and some of his favorite music in the background. A guestbook/reminiscence book and a photocollage might be nice for your daughter to have afterwards.

    Speaking as an atheist parent, what I’d like my children to know after I die is that they will always carry a bit of me with them in their memories, and in anything they may have learned from me. In your daughter’s case, she’ll also carry on part of her biological father’s genes, and he might have liked her to know that she shares his eyes, his chin, his sense of humor, or whatever.

    Condolences and best wishes.

  • ursulamajor

    My mother was an atheist. I spoke at her funeral. I spoke about her history, her talents, her family and her friends. I spoke of the love she and my father had for 52 years. My oldest son sang her favorite song, “September Song”. At the end, I said “Even though my mother wasn’t a religious women, I know that some of you here are. Let us have a moment to either pray or simply reflect on Hanna’s life.” A few of the religious people even told me later that the funeral was lovely BECAUSE it spent more time reflecting on my mother. Too often religion and the preacher’s sermon are the emphasis, not the loved one.

  • bob42

    I lost a close friend a couple of months ago. He was an outspoken atheist and an all around good guy.

    His wife is Christian. The UU minister did a good job of respecting her beliefs as well as his at the memorial service. You can discuss this with a minister without obligation. If you’re interested, you can locate a fellowship or congregation at uua.org.

  • mkb

    Why a graveside service? I would have a low key memorial service somewhere else. Atheists know that the body isn’t important once a person has died so you don’t need to see it lowered into the ground and a graveside service might be disturbing to the daughter.

  • Justin

    This is a general idea of how I feel about death, maybe him too. In short, just don’t mention god in a eulogy. Anything else you have to decide on base don knowing him. Did he think of death as something to be lamented? Most atheists I know don’t. Here’s Epicurus on the subject:

    “Epicurus also believed (contra Aristotle) that death was not to be feared. When a man dies, he does not feel the pain of death because he no longer is and he therefore feels nothing. Therefore, as Epicurus famously said, “death is nothing to us.” When we exist death is not, and when death exists we are not. All sensation and consciousness ends with death and therefore in death there is neither pleasure nor pain. The fear of death arises from the false belief that in death there is awareness.
    I was not; I have been; I am not; I do not mind. – written on the gravestones of followers, seen on many ancient gravestones of the Roman Empire, and often used today at humanist funerals.[10]”

    From Wikipedia, I found it interesting and would probably adorn my gravestone or whatever I leave behind if anything.

  • happycynic

    A unitarian church or a humanist minister would be your best bet. There aren’t too many atheist funerals going around, but the ones that are done are done by those two groups, generally. So they’ll prolly have some experience. If the original letter-writer is reading this: my condolences; I hope the surviving family and friends heal up from this well. Everyone deserves to be happy.

  • Epistaxis

    I don’t know where she lives, but she may be able to get a secular celebrant to perform the ceremony. You can find a list of certified secular celebrants here: http://www.centerforinquiry.net/education/find_a_secular_celebrant/

    Best advice by far – this is the kind of thing that should be arranged by a professional, not the grieving family. There’s a longer list here: http://www.humanist-society.org/celebrants/celebrant.html but it’s hard to tell which ones are better or worse, so it might be best just to ask the local humanist group for a recommendation.

  • Bob

    Doesn’t the funeral home have staff who are trained to work with these kinds of circumstances? For example, a mortuary in San Francisco will help the family in holding a traditional Chinese service – important for the later generations who aren’t as well-versed in older customs.

    Beyond that, I’d focus on good memories of the deceased. And, although he was an atheist, this doesn’t necessarily mean he has no beliefs to speak of … and some of his strongest traits / best work may be in how he expressed those non-religious beliefs.

  • Annster

    I’m a Humanist being ordained as an interfaith minister in two weeks (and will register as a Humanist celebrant) One place to look for a celebrant, if you live in a state without any, would be some of the hospices in your area. Our class on memorials was taught by a hospice chaplain, and one of the sample ceremonies she gave us was for a ‘no religion, please’ request’

    I’ve also had good results using this book – Funerals Without God: A Practical Guide to Non-Religious Funerals by Jane Wynne Wilson. Thoughtful, sensitive advice and great words!

  • walkamungus

    My father was an atheist. We held the memorial service at the beautiful local Methodist church because the funeral home wasn’t large enough. The minister, a really nice, low-key guy, sat down with us beforehand and worked out how much god there should be in the service*. He didn’t know my dad & of course we didn’t want him to pretend he did, but he gave a good general “sermon” about loss and memory and how we all have to find our own way between the two.

    *We made it clear that my dad wouldn’t want to be prayed for. But for the benefit of the theists in attendance, there was one prayer, along the same lines as the “sermon.”**

    **And we had one brief Bible reference, at my suggestion — I had to track down the version I wanted to be used — from Deuteronomy, about God taking Moses up the mountain to look into the Promised Land, and then burying Moses “with his own hands” there. For me, it’s a good metaphor for striving for your goals (and perhaps ultimately failing to reach them), but knowing that the people who love you will love you anyway.

    So I guess that description kind of wandered, but I’m trying to say not to get over-worried about keeping whatever you come up with strictly atheist. Do what’s best for your daughter, and yourself, and the other people who’ll be there.

  • Just don’t have any hell-fire preaching like this. Have some people say some anecdotal stories about him to celebrate the good times of his life. Try to leave your daughter with some good memories about the experience.

  • Jennifer

    Gosh how I love this board. The discussions are so informative and intelligent. I agree with the idea that the funeral is for the living. To celebrate the life of the deceased is the way to go. I really like the picture idea so friends can fondly remember the good times. Sharing the person’s favorite food, drink and music is great too. This moves me to put in writing my last requests, too.

  • Richard Wade

    To the Christian woman,
    Firstly, I commend you for your gracious ethics in wanting to have a service that reflects the values of the deceased rather than your own values. That shows a very high level of character.

    There have been several excellent suggestions here from which you can choose the most feasible and appropriate, so I won’t bother repeating them.

    But the issue of the man’s suicide has not been mentioned, and it is important to be aware that that can profoundly change the set of emotions that the friends and relatives at the service will be feeling. Along with grief, there can also be shock, bewilderment, anger at the deceased, and guilt.

    Depending on the circumstances surrounding the suicide, which are not described in the letter, during the eulogy or when people take turns to share with the group, it might be appropriate to avoid mentioning it, or it might be appropriate to at least acknowledge its reality, or to even discuss it frankly. In any event, you can assume that it will be whispered about during and after the gathering.

    The other variable affecting whether it would be wise to discuss this very delicate matter at the service is the group’s mix of relationships to the deceased. The presence of his 8-year-old daughter complicates this, but it should not be simply assumed that it should never be discussed with her. It definitely should be discussed at some time soon.

    The service can be an opportunity to begin the healing of the deeper injuries that a suicide can cause to the bereaved, even if it includes nothing more than saying that it is okay to thoroughly discuss it later. The worst thing would be for everyone to walk away with the tacit agreement that “we never talk about it.” Adults as well as children need to express their conflicting feelings about such a thing, but they often keep it bottled up for years unless they are given permission.

  • BlueRidgeLady

    Maybe if there were any charities or causes the father was into, there could be a donation to instead of flowers. Flowers are fine, too.
    I personally would want people to gather around and eat and drink, hopefully say some nice things about me.

    The service itself can be as short as you wish. Poetry, music, etc are not exclusively religious. I would include the daughter (if she is old enough or wants to be included) and not focus on the manner of death whatsoever. I would maybe have people who knew him share a funny or special story about the man, maybe a time he was there to be a shoulder to lean on, or something silly that happened as kids.

    Sorry you are going through this and that the father was going through such a bad time as well. Best of luck. You all will get through this together.

  • Amy

    If you’re interested in readings, I’ve always found this particular poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye poignant.

    Do not stand at my grave and weep;
    I am not there. I do not sleep.
    I am a thousand winds that blow.
    I am the diamond glints on snow.
    I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
    I am the gentle autumn rain.
    When you awaken in the morning’s hush
    I am the swift uplifting rush
    Of quiet birds in circled flight.
    I am the soft stars that shine at night.
    Do not stand at my grave and cry;
    I am not there. I did not die.

  • First off, bravo to this Christian for reaching out and asking about what to do. I’m sorry for her and her daughter’s loss.

    http://friendlyatheist.com/2010/04/15/an-atheists-memorial-service/

    This post and the program for the service it talked about was beautiful and moving. I would definitely suggest that she take look.

  • Anonymous

    Try Reading “Speaker for the Dead” – Orson Scott Card

  • Pensnest

    The best funeral I’ve attended was for an atheist. There was a moment for ‘private thought’ which those who wanted to could use for prayer; the service was *far* more focused on the deceased than any religious funeral I have been to, with her close family and friends participating to give a eulogy, read poems, go through a ‘biography’… There are all kinds of things that can be done to celebrate the life of the person who is dead, and at the end of this particular funeral, I felt both happier that I’d known her and sadder that she was gone. So my best advice would be, concentrate on the deceased and talk about his life and the kind of person he was.

  • The Other Tom

    You can look at it two ways – the funeral is either about what the deceased would have wanted, or it’s about comforting the living.

    If it’s about what the deceased would have wanted, speak to those who knew him, ask them what they think he would have wanted, and go with it. You may or may not like the results. My father, for example, has made me swear that there will be no service for him, that I must have him cremated as cheaply as possible and do as I like with the ashes, and that I must see to it that the family does not hold a church service or funeral. I know this will upset everyone, but it’s what he wants.

    If it’s about comforting the living, speak to those you hope will attend, ask them what would comfort them, delete requests for religion from the list, and go with it. Usually I would expect a viewing (although perhaps not if you feel there are reasons not to), a burial, usually someone gives a very brief speech at the burial about the deceased’s life and what they cared about, often a moment is set aside for people to speak out about their memories and feelings (but make sure you have at least two people you have spoken with and who have agreed to speak out or it becomes an embarrassing awkward moment in which it becomes clear nobody wants to speak up for the dead), and then finally there is usually a meal in which the living can gather to talk, catch up, comfort each other, etc.

    It’s my opinion that the meal is the most important part, because it’s an opportunity for those who are coping well to gently and lovingly remind those who are most bereaved that life is going on and that there are good things in the world to look forward to.

  • Big Jim

    When I’m gone, I couldn’t care what my funeral is. If friends/family want to get together for a party, that’s fine. I see no need for anyone to be graveside for a service. In fact, I cannot imagine being buried. Seems like a waste of good land. Sorry if that offends anyone. It was not meant to.

  • Grimalkin

    She may wish to contact the local Humanist group. Many have people who do just these sorts of things for the Atheist community and they will likely be able to provide someone to hold the service.

  • JB Tait

    Ask the 8 year old what she wants.

  • ian

    My mother wished for a simple memorial, and to be cremated naked in a cardboard box.
    I was shocked when siblings objected, 1st too the memorial portion, we ended up hiring a minister and rented a historical/museum chapel, compromise on wording, then the girls just had to dress her up and insist on upgrading to plywood (there actually is a cardboard casket). I guess though in the end, these are really for the living. We had a fantastic wake, 3 days of pagan celebration and sad stories.

  • Jeza

    This is the original questioner for this particular thread and I would like to sincerely thank everyone for their thoughts.

    The service has been yanked from my control and taken over by his Aunt and I find it appalling that this woman who hardly knew him has control in this situation. She has begrudgingly decided to use an officiant who will keep the religious aspect of the service to a minimum and for that I’m grateful, however it will still be more religious than he would have wanted.
    They did listen to me and have him cremated as he wished, and they will allow attendees to speak of him and share memories so that also is acceptable. They are however burying his ashes in a grave adjoining his mother’s body and I know he would have found this to be the most heinous of crimes as he never had any kind of love for the woman.

    His history was a sad one, one parent committing suicide when he was 12 and the other dying when he was merely 19. He spent most of his life burying his miseries in drug and alcohol abuse and that was the reason I left him, not because I ever stopped loving him. His daughter never really had the opportunity to know him as he never wanted a relationship with her after I left when she was only 2yrs old. I believe that will make it easier for her to go thru the funeral at this time but I know at some point she will feel the full impact of losing half of her genetic past.

    Again, thank you all for your comments. The funeral is tomorrow and whereas it will not be what he would have wanted I have to keep in mind that he believes there is nothing left of him so in turn will not mind and the religion there will only offend me(knowing it would have upset him).

    ~Jeza

  • I hope it goes well Jeza and the officiant uses a bit of compassion and keeps the “hellfire and damnation” out of the service.