Atheist Funerals

Hey folks. I’m back. Give me a bit to get my feet under me, and posting will resume.

One thing: it’s a truism that funerals are for the living. From my perspective, funerals exist to help the survivors come to grips with the gap that has opened up in their lives.

Different people will need different things as they learn to cope with the death of a loved one. But I have a hard time understanding the role of the southern baptist ceremony I just saw. All the talk about heaven and the repeated bouts of evangelism seem to me to miss the point. None of it helps close the hole that now exists.

(As an aside, I think that if Rabbi Hillel had been a Baptist, he would have stood on one leg are recited John 3:16 and the Great Commission, then proclaimed that all the rest of the Bible was commentary. I’m an atheist, but sometimes I think I get more from the Bible than they do.)

Madalyn Murray O’Hair got in trouble once when one of her supporters suggested that an atheist funeral was a contradiction. Chuck the body in a hole and go on. This strikes me a foolish and blind. The psychological issues that exist are very real and have to be dealt with, and where better to start than a funeral?

And honestly, I don’t think that religion helps deal with the problems nearly as well as many believers insist. More often than not it simply changes the subject. Perhaps the deceased is in heaven, but I’m still alive and I have to keep on living. How do I cope?

Which raises the question: what would a truly atheist funeral look like?

Hallquist on Eich
All Cycles Come to an End
Atheists in the Evangelical Mind
Romance at Mars Hill
  • AshtaraSilunar

    Ideally, I’d say it would be a bit more like a wake than a true funeral. Sit around swapping stories about the dead, so you laugh as well as cry. Play a bit of their favorite music, read a favorite poem or book excerpt, and just remember them.

    • Paul

      I always have said that I want my friends and family to get together and get weepy drunk and talk about what a nice son of a bitch I was and what a shame it was that I was gone.

  • Kat

    Being brought up a devout Roman Catholic, I was always taught that a catholic funeral was the pinnacle of what such a ceremony should be. Then six months after I became an atheist a very special friend of my grandmother died. Attending his funeral, the first truly secular I had ever been to, was an incredible eye opener and a truly beautiful experience. It was held at a funeral home and the entire ceremony was centered on him – not Jesus or God – just him. The celebrant read out a lengthy but incredibly interesting and well delivered synopsis of his life and the close family members and friends spoke movingly about the deceased. It was such a beautiful ceremony.

    Afterwards, my father elbowed me and made a sneering comment about atheist funerals and how they have nothing on a good Catholic funeral Mass and I just thought to myself of all the catholic funerals I had been to and how (like the weddings) the actual part that involved the person was tacked (as an obviously irritating but unavoidable distraction) onto what was obviously the main event – droning on about and invoking the name of their god.

    Funerals may be for the living but when I die my Catholic family (both immediate and inlaws) can go suck eggs because I want a funeral just like my grandmother’s friend!

  • Kat

    PS. Apparently now eulogies are not allowed at Catholic funerals. They have to take place the night before at the rosary vigil. I understand that some priests ignore this, but this is now the approved norm.

  • Kat

    In 1989 the Vatican published the revised Order of Christian Funerals (OCF) for the United States. The long-standing prohibition of eulogies at Catholic funerals was again upheld and restated. “A brief homily based on the readings should always be given at the funeral liturgy, but never any kind of eulogy.” [OCF # 141] In the revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal promulgated by John Paul II in year 2000 (GIRM 2000), this prohibition of eulogies was again restated: “At the Funeral Mass there should, as a rule, be a short homily, but never a eulogy of any kind.”

    The firm belief of the Catholic Church is that the Christian funeral is not a celebration of the life of the person who has died, even though we honor and express gratitude for all God’s gifts to that person. “The funeral liturgy is a celebration of salvation and mercy, of grace and eternal life. It is not meant to be a commemoration (much less a canonization) of the person who has died. Extended remembering of the deceased often results in forgetting the Lord.” (Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk) While the presider is to keep in mind with delicate sensitivity not only the identity of the deceased and the circumstances of the death, but also the grief of the bereaved, the focus of the Christian funeral rite is the saving mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Attentive to the grief of those present, the homilist should dwell on God’s compassionate love and on the Paschal Mystery of the Lord, as proclaimed in the Scripture readings. (OCF 27). – from

    • vasaroti

      Well, that sucks. People donate to the damned church all their lives, and all they get is a “one size fits all” funeral.

    • JohnMWhite

      Funnily enough, I have been to around a dozen Catholic funerals and every single one included a eulogy. One was for a friend who had just graduated from high school, and he was so well liked he got about five. This appears to be another disconnect between the Vatican clerics in their ivory tower and the real world Catholics who may actually be familiar with the concept of compassion. Didn’t Ratzinger wax on about the deceased at John Paul II’s funeral? I don’t believe it was particularly lengthy but he certainly had something to say about the previous pope and his life. It’s a callous rule that even the church seems to largely ignore.

    • Mogg

      The Catholic church in Australia have recently started getting strict on this, too. It seems to be so very disrespectful of the humanity of the situation – too bad for you that your friend or relative has just died, you have to forget them now.

  • Kelly

    When my sister’s husband died, she held a beautiful memorial service for him. He was young – only 32 – and in law school when he died. His friends from school came up and told stories about him; some friends he was in a band with played some of his favorite songs; we read short stories he had written. There was as much laughter as their were tears. His young daughter (only 2 at the time) was walking around and playing – jumping up and down the steps at the front of the hall. Most of the people there said it was the best service they’d been to, and that they felt it was exactly the send off that he would have wanted. I don’t recall there being a word of God or heaven… unless you count the people who said they could imagine him looking down and laughing as his daughter played.

  • Mike Stafford

    Check out the British Humanist Association website, they offer assistance and ideas to those looking for a service that doesn’t endless banging on about Christ.

    The one such service I attended was incredibly moving, just as Ashtara and Kat have described

    • Custador

      The BHA are on my shit-list for being part of the usual round of wedding scammers (people who double their prices or more as soon as they hear the word “wedding”). Their fee for almost every kind of service is £140. Every kind except weddings. For those it’s £350.

  • Sabio Lantz

    Since almost nothing unites “Atheists”, the funerals would be different of course and it depends on who buries who:

    (1) If an atheists dies and theists bury her/him — there is not telling what they’d do. The one I just went to like that was a baptist as could be — with people politely whispering that the deceased was an atheist.

    (2) If it is an atheist burying a loved one who was devoutly theist, what would they do? It depends if there are guests or not? No? And who the guests are.

    (3) If an atheist was burying a fellow atheist who was not out of the closet what would they do? Again, surrounded by theists guests, the choice may change vs atheist guests. When there are mixes (the usual), it becomes very complicated.

    (4) If an atheist had only atheists at her/his funeral, what would she/he wish — well that depends on the atheist — even then, it would vary greatly, I’d imagine.

    But I think most would desire some sort of ritual. The desire for ritual is deep. And the desire to give a performance of the ritual the way the grieving audience prefers is important — to some.

    Too complex of a question.

    • FO

      I would say to respect the beliefs of the deceased.
      Should some of my elder relatives die, they’ll have Catholic ceremony and I will do my best to follow the ritual.

  • EldoonFeeb

    For my funeral, I’d like everyone to get drunk and screw. That should make them feel better.

    • UrsaMinor

      Cheerful thought, but getting drunk and screwing are best done separately if you are aiming for maximum enjoyment.

  • Carla

    This is the most beautiful, and most comforting, thing I’ve ever read. This will be a part or my funeral.

    • John Power

      What? Drinking, or screwing?

  • ccarr

    Eliezer Yudkowsky of Less Wrong has an interesting article on this:

    Ask yourself: if religion had never existed — if we had never made the original mistake — what would the world look like? Would we still have funerals?

    I feel certain that we would. There would be no talk of God or heaven, and a lot of other superficial differences. But the living would still need to commiserate. I suspect it would be very similar to what we have now.

  • Bob Jase

    I’d like to see the corpse sit up and say, “I was right”.

    Then ziti, lots of ziti.

  • vasaroti

    It think a funeral structure should be devised that allows all the attendees to get to know each other a little bit. The bereaved may find in each other some of the qualities that they most enjoyed in the deceased. Stand up and say something like “I met X when we were in college,” and then pass out business cards with hobbies and interests jotted on the back.” Better yet, have more parties while you’re alive, so your friends from various facets of your life can meet.

  • SystemsReady

    I’d want mine to be FUN. Funny stories (about me, lol), good music, yummy food (preferably with lots of SHRIMP, which is my favorite food!)…make it a big party. A celebration, if you will, of my life and the fact that THOSE ATTENDING are still alive. Have lots of bright, gaudy colors! Black is boring! You know…fun. It’s easier to remember someone when you’re happy about them, y’know?

  • Robley

    I would imagine Viking Funeral, I know for myself I have asked to be cremated. Then To have my ashes spread at World End National Trust in Massachusetts, I would rather have my body go back to Earth this way rather than taking up a plot of land that no one will ever visit anyway. Only other thing I request was there be a Finnegan’s wake, just meet at a pub and have a good time reminiscing.

  • FO

    “Do the fuck you want with my corpse, it’s NOT my problem!”

    But I think funerals force you to face Death.
    This is why religious funerals don’t focus on the deceased, but on distracting from the fear of Death, on reasserting that you, in that moment of weakness and despair, need them.

  • Tim

    I had a buddy pass recently. He was very athiest but his dad was a preacher. They had a Methodist funeral, which was pretty good actually. The minister talked about how much we miss him, and about how he was in life. There was a little proselytizing about Heaven that I could have done without.

    Anway, after the funeral, I hosted a meet up at my house for all his friends to drink and smoke and talk non-religious junk. We pulled out some of his old drawings and played some of his favorite music, told stories and talked about missing him, and all helped to console his sister. I felt everyone got a lot out of it without any form of religion. The lesson it showed me is that we were all there for each other. It was good to know that I wasn’t the only one dealing with it, it wasn’t a taboo that we couldn’t discuss, and that if I needed to talk about it, there were plenty of people willing to listen.

  • Kodie

    I’d like the word “die” be more acceptable. Someone died. They are dead. I don’t really care about my own funeral. I have a dress I bought for one of my cousin’s weddings that is really nice, I think I made my wishes known to my mother when I bought it that I’d like to wear it at my funeral/burial. I don’t have a will; I don’t have children and I don’t have money. I don’t care if I’m buried or torn apart by lions, unless I’m still alive either way.

    The word “dead” makes me think of other things. Mostly Christian population believes at least in souls and heaven, at least as far as I know. What if your smartphone dies? You say it died. You treat it like it died. You might try to revive it, you might cry, but you accept that it’s dead and you buy a new one. You don’t bury the old one or think its soul is in heaven. It magically brings you many apps and when it’s dead you know what the word “dead” means. You know when your dog dies, but you distinguish your dog from your smartphone, you distinguish between a living thing you loved and an inanimate replaceable useful expensive thing you loved. But a person you loved – a whole other level. If you are a Christian, the only rational reason to cry is that you think there’s a solid chance they didn’t get into heaven. I think that’s why, at wakes or funerals, people like to make their case. The dead are always good. It’s distasteful to bring up negative aspects of their personality: they had crazy rants about salad dressing; they were a racist; they weren’t always the most supportive parent. Holy crap, literally, this dead person was an angel on earth the whole time they lived. That’s what eulogies are about. It’s disrespectful to speak of someone who is not there to answer for themselves. This is why I don’t understand the (fairly occasional) firefighter funeral aired pre-emptively on tv. The service is sentimental and religious. It’s on tv only because too many people want to attend than there is capacity for. And of course, the life-saving aspects of the deceased are important to the obscurity of any of their faults. It’s rude to point out that he’s also kind of a racist or beat his wife a little. But he didn’t die. He’s looking down on all the firefighters, he’s their angel now, he’s their role model. Dare not say a word against a dead person, even use the word “dead”. I really have a soft spot for firefighters, but their funerals tend to be extremely Catholic and ALSO pre-empt regular programming for several hours. Undue respect for the dead is a cult unto itself.

    I don’t have a lot of expectations what will happen to me if I die before my parents. I’m not married, and if I was, it wouldn’t be to someone who disrespects my wishes, but I don’t have a lot of wishes to disrespect. “She was and now she isn’t.” My grandfather, the atheist I speak of sometimes, had a cross placed on his coffin; I know I mentioned this to my mother (this was her father) – I said, you know and I know he was an atheist, what is up with that cross? It didn’t have a lot of impact on the wake or funeral, it was just a prop. If someone feels like placing a symbolic prop on my casket, I don’t think I’ll be in a position to care. If they want to go (uncharacteristically) southern Baptist on my funeral, I doubt I will care. My only provision, and I don’t think it will matter, is that I don’t interrupt anything people expect to watch on TV. I love TV and anyone who turns on their show and sees a funeral instead – this is for them.

    • Noelle

      I cried when people died when I was a Christian. Had nothing to do with not believing in heaven.

      • Kodie

        That’s ok, Noelle. I had a few beers earlier and it’s been a while so I have a lot lower tolerance. I might have exaggerated or been on a roll or something. I still think people stand up and say nice things about marginally terrible people in an effort to plea their case to god to let them into heaven. Or, you know, I hated that bastard but he had a few good qualities which we’ll all miss, like how his nose whistled and he couldn’t tell when he was wearing one black sock and one brown sock. That was charming. Honestly, the last funeral I went to was my grandfather and he took a long time to die. I didn’t know until he died that my mother always hated him and was glad. Of course she didn’t say this at his funeral up in front of everyone else.

        • Noelle

          no worries. I’ve posted under the influence myself on occasion.

          I notice you grew up atheist and most arguments one gets into online are from the more polarized believers. What I heard of heaven differed widely in my childhood and youth. Some believe in a literal and corporeal place with forever sunny nature scenes and mansions and singing angels and eternal conferences with god to ask him everything you always wanted to know. Some believe you get to look up all your dead friends and relatives and favorite celebs and hang out. Some believe you get to watch the living through magic portals and laugh and cry with them through their lives. Others hold to more of a vague idea of your spirit goes somewhere pleasant and since it’s not attached to a body there’s no more pain, but it’s not particularly aware or caring of what’s going on anywhere else either. For those with heaven fetishes and the wish to discard the earthly life as a brief stopping place, there are those who say this is the only life like this that we get and heaven is an unknown state. What we have now is unique and death loses it forever. So if a child dies, most will cry because an entire lifetime is lost before it had a chance to begin. If a young parent dies, people cry for their children and the lost chances of seeing them graduate from school, get married, and have their own kids. If an old well-loved relative dies, most will logically accept it as part of a good life but still be sad that it’s over. Many religious people will agree death means the unique and brief opportunity we know as life is gone, and it’s particularly tragic to be snuffed out early. Those who don’t can be very hurtful. The whole god wanted another angel bit to a parent who lost a child should be grounds for a beating.

  • Anne

    I would like my friends and family to have a picnic by the lake and after dark when everyone is good and drunk, take my ashes, strap them to the biggest firework they can buy and enjoy the show.

  • Paul

    My father died of emphasema two years ago after a very prolonged illness. We knew he was dying 7 years before he passed away. Early on I heard “In the living years” play on the radio and I took it as a guide. Over those 7 years I made sure I said all the things I have ever wanted to say. He had lung cancer first, which he survived but they told him that he couldn’t do wood working anymore. He called one morning and said for me to come over with some friends and a Uhaul truck. I got an early inheritance of my father’s extensive workshop, much of which had been his father’s. I am the only one of his kids who does woodworking. We talked more in those 7 years than in my entire life up to then. I live very close to my parents so that I had advantages over my brother and sister in terms of finding closure. I never have really been sure what closure means but my father passed without me feeling that something had been left unsaid.

    We met with lots of the extended family at the viewing. Dad looked very good to me. He had lost a lot of weight but the medication he was on had made his face retain fluid. Instead of looking bloated, he looked more like I had remembered him all those years.

    My family is Southern Baptist, with some Assembly of God folks in the more extended family. The family graveyard is in the Florida panhandle. At the graveside, the minister from my grandparents church said a brief bit about my father. He had never med him, though my grandparents were prominent members of the church when they were alive. His part of the service was very brief. Then my sister and I talked about dad. I was first. I have bad knees and use my grandfather’s cane. It was really holding me up that time. I spoke about the things I had learned from dad and about how I had approached the last years of his life. My mother couldn’t speak because of her crying, so she wrote out her farewell to dad. There was no religion in what I said. My brother and I are atheists but as you observed, funerals are for the living. My sister spoke about dad as well. The service was brief and we went back to the little church after the graveside service. Just inside the door was a picture of a man. The pastor thought it was my grandfather. I recognized the picture as being my great grandfather. We talked with our extended family and looked through the church. The original building was a white clapboard. It had burned down a few years ago and they rebuilt it in brick but it was otherwise the exact same configuration.

    I’m not sure what a real “atheist” funeral would be like, but this funeral worked very well for me, my brother, my sister and my mom. Dad is buried at the feet of his father and a double tombstone marks that mom will be by his side, right below my grandmother. I am staking out the position on his other side. Being a family cemetary you stake your place by putting a marker where you want to be planted.

  • Bionic Hips

    This seems like a good time to plan for what you should do with the body. My wife died last July and donated her body to science. There is a memorial bench for her on her favorite XC ski trail and a memorial picnic table on her favorite walk. Since the body was donated to science, there was no viewing (which I could not have handled). I always thought it was a sadistic exercise to have the grieving family have a “receiving” line by the casket – far more than I could have handled. Instead there was a portrait of her taken by a friend of mine who is a professional photographer who is a doctor on the side. She was religious so we did it at the church with people coming over to my house afterwards where we shared storied, had as good a time as possible under the circumstances. For me, the same but no church service.

    But do get your affair in order – power of attorney, will, make your wishes known, seriously consider body donation or organ donation, end of life care, etc. She almost died before her affairs were in order. No excuses, get it done.

    • k.holdom0790

      I too have donated my body to science and always make my wishes about organ and tissue donation very clear to my family. It gives me pride and satisfaction, to know that my body may help advance scientific research or train future medical professionals long after I stop needing it!

  • Chris

    I’m an atheist, and I’m going to a funeral tomorrow for a very close friend that killed herself. She was not an atheist, and apparently it is going to be a Lutheran type of service/funeral. Obviously, I won’t be buying any of the “she’s in a better place now” talk. If I’m honest it does make it kind of hard knowing that here existence is over, but I will remember the good things that happened while with her, and I’ll remember her smile, and the most important thing, I will be reminded that life is precious, and all though it can be harsh, life is an amazing thing and not even one day of it should be taken for granted. RIP Tori!


    I say, get my old buddies that are still living together, tap a keg, play my favorite jazz and tell lies about me until the keg floats, and call it good.

  • Leah

    These seem like good suggestions for an atheist funeral where the death was expected or the person was old and had lived a long, full life. What about an atheist funeral in a tragic situation? Perhaps a little girl was raped and killed. I’m guessing drinking, screwing, and fireworks wouldn’t be the way to handle that one. How does atheism handle this sort of tragedy?

    • UrsaMinor

      Atheism doesn’t handle this sort of tragedy. People do. They gather for mutual support to mourn the loss. It is no great mystery.

  • Leah

    Fair enough – but perhaps I just phrased that incorrectly. This post is about atheist funerals, and I’m curious. What, specifically, could be done/said at an atheist funeral in this hypothetical situation?

    • Yoav

      The details of a funeral will be different in each case but the centeral point is the same, a funeral that is centered on the person and their life as well as on their family and friends not on jesus (or any other mythological figure). I understand you probably thinking that having god involve will help make sense of the tragedy, maybe there is a reason behind it, unfortunately life doesn’t always make sense and if you actually thought about it for a second you would realize that according to your beliefs you suggest that we should center the funeral around the one entity that could save her and instead just set and watched as she was raped and murdered.

  • Leah

    That’s definitely one way of looking at it, Yoav. Another way of looking at it is, if there’s a God, she, as an individual – who had so much unique hope and potential, and so many unique thoughts, desires, dreams, experiences, relationships, loves – is not actually finished. A pipedream, maybe – but that’s not for certain.

    Also, you suggest I haven’t thought about my beliefs. I disagree. I’ve agonized over them for many years. Just because a person believes in God, it doesn’t mean they haven’t considered the entire scope of what that belief could mean, even the messy, uncomfortable, confusing parts.