Putting Together a Godless Funeral

Jon Canter‘s sister Rosemary died of cancer in March. In the last couple months of her life, she told Jon what she wanted her funeral to be like — neither she not Jon believe in a god, so it wasn’t the kind of funeral you’re used to seeing. But I think their decisions would make most atheists proud:

In many ways, the planning of a godless funeral was a liberation. For our mother’s cremation we had, via that secular miracle the internet, procured the services of a rabbi. (Oh yes, my sister’s non-religion was, in fact, “Jewish atheist”.) He recited the prayers with commendable gusto. But he was much like the vicar so familiar from Church of England funerals –- he didn’t know the deceased; he couldn’t eulogise her, except to say he’d heard nice things about her from her family. How many times have you shifted in your pew with embarrassment, as a vicar tries to celebrate a member of his flock who, it’s soon apparent, is a bit of a mystery sheep? I knew my elder sister for all but the first four years of her life. In celebrating her, I had infinitely more knowledge and authority than a religious intermediary only doing his or her job.

So. I would talk about her, as would two old friends she nominated.

… I announced there would be a silence, at the end of which everyone should applaud, long and loudly, to give thanks for Rosemary’s life. It worked wonderfully, though I say it myself…

There was some religious music in there, and recitation of a sonnet invoking God’s name, because it meant a lot to Rosemary. She grew up with God, even if she didn’t believe in one.

But they didn’t sit there and talk about where she was going after death because they knew better than that. They didn’t pray because it wasn’t going to make a difference. They celebrated a life that was influential to so many of the people in the crowd — what more could you ask for at an atheist’s funeral?

  • Mr Ed

    Two words for a godless funeral, “open bar.” A few years ago a neighbor died, she left instructions for her funeral. A hall was rented and each person who entered got a name tag with color code dots so we could each see from what point in her life each person was from. The Canada people got a blue dot, the New York City folks got green and so on. This acted like an ice breaker and got every one talking about her life. The event was catered and had an open bar which encouraged people to stay and share instead of doing a quick in and out like at some wakes.

    A funeral isn’t about the dead person, they are gone and beyond knowing, it is about friends and family accepting the change and coming to terms with grief. A party is a much better way of remembering some one than flowers and a grave.

    I’ve left instructions, and set aside money, for a roast when I die. Keep your eyes on the Central Connecticut Obits as my wife is likely to kill me any day now you you wouldn’t want to miss a party.

  • Lauren S.

    “She may not have wanted Him at her funeral, but she needed Him.”

    This line rubs me the wrong way. It is very possible to want the comfort of tradition from ones past without needing “Him”. It sounds like “even an atheist needs god,” which is irksome.

    I think it sounds like nice service, but that line just makes my skin crawl.

  • WebHybrid

    Sorry, no pass. In the decsription we see “There was some religious music in there, and recitation of a sonnet invoking God’s name…” like a stain of hypocrisy on the event.

  • T-Rex

    My funeral will resemble my typical Friday evening. Happy hour with family, friends, food, drinks, doobies and stories on our local beach here in Florida. Only this time, my cremated remains will be sprinkled back in to the ocean from whence my ancestors crawled. I’ve also thought of recording myself in one last goodbye stating my thoughts and ideas about life and religion for all of the theists that show up as one last “finger in the eye” of their belief system. But I haven’t acted on that thought yet….yet.

  • Lauren

    T-Rex, you ROCK!

    When my dad died, we didn’t have any religious leaders present what-so-ever. Why the hell would we, a family of proud heathens? The people who KNEW him actually got up and spoke, his friends mostly, and myself, since I was the eldest. Then we went and ate and drank, something my family is good at! When I die, I want the same.

    Honorary drinks and doobs MUCH appreciated! ;)

  • Nik

    I’ve already told my brothers, when I die, ship the body to UT Knoxville’s Forensic Anthropology department, take the insurance money and have a nice vacation somewhere, and if you have some money left over, throw a party with good food and wine.

  • Scramble

    Lauren S. and WebHybrid: a funeral is a deeply personal event, meant to reflect the life of the deceased. As all people are complicated, and as many people who have let go of religion in the course of their lives continue to have complicated relationships with/cultural attachments to their former religions and former gods, it makes perfect sense to include some religious elements if they were meaningful to that person. Such things might not be personally meaningful to you guys, or to me, and fair enough. But I don’t think any of us is in a position to judge how someone else chooses to express their religious, nonreligious and cultural life experiences at their own funeral.

  • Patrick

    Don’t know for sure about the applause thing (it could work, I guess) but I do like Mr. Ed’s idea. Very positive (though not everyone’s going to be a drinker, or be comfortable in that setting, in my case anyway).

  • scc101

    I was walking in a cemetery recently and found this on a gravestone:

    To my family and friends I thank you from the depth of my heart all those who have befriended and encouraged me in my business and otherwise I die without any religious services and with a clear conscience with kindly sentiment for all human beings farewell my dear ones.

    Just fyi, the lack of punctuation was in the original.

  • Lauren S.

    @scramble I never said that you shouldn’t have what you want at your funeral. But this is being held up as a godless funeral. It is not a godless funeral. hence the discomfort.

    And even having religious things in it, may not mean that she needed “GOD” at her funeral, but the comforts of tradition. I am taking issue with the idea that the UK is “not a religiously observant nation – except when it really counts.” (emph mine)

    to me that indicates how it is important IN GENERAL to have a religious funeral, even if invoking Richard Dawkins. The idea that it matters, and is important is offensive.

    If I knew that my sibling would say that about my death because I wanted to include religious music, I would be livid. I would say they shouldn’t write such things, and that I just like the song because it familiar and feels nice, not because I need god. I don’t know him or his sister, so I don’t know if he is putting meaning into a dead persons last wishes that weren’t there, or if she did want ‘god’ at her funeral.

    But either way it is either hijacking an atheist’s choices to push religion, or is not atheist.

  • Scramble

    Hm. I guess I interpreted his discussion of “needing” god at a funeral, and of being in a non-religious nation “except when it really counts”, as sarcastic critique born of the frustration that, even having lived a predominantly non-religious life, one cannot escape religious influences. Having been born in 1949 and lived in a (at least somewhat) Christian culture, his sister was exposed to art and music of a religious nature in her formative years. In order to fully represent her, and the full spectrum of literature and music that mattered to her through her life, they had no choice but to include some religious pieces. Sounds to me that he is deeply irritated that even at a godless funeral, god is by necessity present-even inescapable due to his deeply rooted presence in the culture. Thus “she may not have wanted Him at her funeral, but she needed Him.”

    As for “invoking” Dawkins, I took that to be some of the injected humour he mentioned.

    Thoughts?

  • http://atheistreadsbible.blogspot.com/ Jude

    I eulogized three of my grandparents and my dad. However, I couldn’t deliver the eulogies at the funerals of one of my grandmothers nor my dad’s because I liked them too much. I made the mistake of letting the minister read the first one. He added some ridiculous Bible verses to it. So I had a friend read the second, which went fine. I’ve sung with my brother exactly twice–at two of the funerals. My mother was appalled because my grandmother requested a secular song–Springtime in the Rockies–so I talked my brother into singing it with me. If funerals can have “hits”, that’s what our performance was.

  • Lauren S.

    I reread the first paragraph I quoted. I see what you mean, that he hopes he can have a truly godless funeral.

    so you think that last line is saying we are letting our godless selves down? That these moments, weddings and funerals, are so important and it is a shame that we still invoke god?

    in that case, I still think its ok to have religiously themed music. my secular choir often sang religious music in college. it was the choral music available. And I still think he is confusing needing god and needing comfort from ones childhood. familiarity is comforting. When I freak out saying the hare Krishna is calming. That doesn’t mean I believe the religious implications of it. But repeating a mantra has positive affects (my mother is currently involved in research with veterans), which I believe are biochemical.

    I think many people (including all my grand parents) have had completely godless funerals, so one person having a connection to their childhood does not a trend make, though I can see how it is frustrating to be involved in those preparations.

  • Matthew A. Harmer

    I’ve spent a year researching ALL the details of my funeral; unfortunately, there are a lot of funeral homes in the area who outright will not secularize their services (Upstate NY, home of the Second Great Awakening and birthplace of every nutbar religion in America). I have all the details planned, and instructions have been left with a trusted friend.

    I also plan on being donated to the U of Tennessee body farm; it seems a lot of us non-believers are going to decompose in interesting ways together….

  • http://hoverFrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    I’ve got a plot in some woodland not too far away from where my family live. We held my mother’s funeral there and my unwife’s father’s funeral. The latter was a humanist ceremony and really good. It was a celebration of his life and people laughed and cried and cheered and hugged each other. That’s how I want people to let go of me after I’m dead. My mother’s funeral was hijacked by the god botherer and I’m still furious about it. No celebration of life or release of emotion, just a load of crap about God’s plan and heaven. Never mind that she was an atheist.

  • http://viewfromtheloft.typepad.com estraven

    My sister died suddenly six months ago today. At the funeral home (her sons had decided a one-day visitation with the funeral at the end), we ran a slide show of different stages of her life with some of her favorite music that ran on my husband’s laptop. When it came time for the funeral, it consisted of people getting up and speaking about her. God was not mentioned. There was laughter and there were tears. Linn would have loved it.

  • Einmaliger

    My grandfather’s funeral was pretty much atheistic. It was very, very beautiful.

    They played classical, non-religious music, pieces that were really touching, and then there was the rather long funeral speech given by a professional funeral speaker. He quoted many famous thinkers – mostly philosophers and poets – with what they said about death. What it really means and how to cope with it. Many meaningful, interesting thoughts. Death is important to everybody, it is something that we all have to face, and this speech was the first one that really made me understand it. Free of religious fantasies.

    When I think about all the funerals I have attended, this one has to be the only one that felt right, the only one that was honest and a real, secular good bye to the deceased one.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_YRBDWLRA7ZKZODNUR4427CQVCU F. Bacon

    It is occasionally unexpected what comes out of atheist funerals.  There is most often a lot of eulogizing, remembrances and stories of both victories and defeats, strengths and weaknesses.  Scripture comes in the form of poetry, which need not be taken literally…e.g.:   to every thing there is a season, a time to be born;  a time to die.


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