When Religion Stayed Out of the Funeral

Grief Thieves?

Very few of us can say we have never attended a funeral. How was the experience? I’m willing to bet it was similar to the feelings expressed in the Atheist Republic blog by Casper: The Grief Thieves. Personally I always felt like a chance to express sorrow and support was robbed from us at the service by a cynical nobody. There was this person leading affairs who seemed to just want to sell the idea of Heaven and Christ the Redeemer, however much their own dogma said the person in the coffin was burning in Hell. They weren’t interested in my loved one; they just wanted to sell their god to a group of vulnerable, distraught people. I would spend most of my time biting my tongue and seething with anger. It was only later, once we had got out of there, that I could begin properly grieving.

Another way?

My Nana was dying. She knew it; she was old. All her grim (standing family joke) talk of, “I won’t see the year out,” that she’d started when she was at her three score years and ten had finally run its 24 year course. So naturally she began talking about her funeral and how she wanted it to be. We discussed what music she would like playing, and naturally her thoughts turned to what sort of words she wanted saying. I knew she had played the organ in the church in her village when she was younger and I was never 100% certain of what she thought about God. You see, one doesn’t talk about that sort of thing when one is British. Religion and politics? No, no, no.

So here I was, mere weeks away from my last ever conversation with her, and finally it was time to ask her if she wanted a religious service; to be blunt, whether she believed in God. She just laughed and said, “Well, I’ve never really had time for all that nonsense, you know!”

We didn’t dwell on it, we had rather more interesting things to cram into our little bit of time we had left, like sharing memories and my hopes and dreams for the future after she was gone and so on.

Time passed and she slipped away. My dad was the executor of her will and so forth.

We talked about the funeral and my dad (who I was pretty certain was an atheist) gave me the best news I could hear. He had obviously been having the same sort of conversations with Nana as I had been, and had approached a Secular Humanist Minister to lead the funeral service. I hadn’t even been aware there was such a thing and had been bracing myself to stamp my foot and even investigate if there were an option for me to lead the service myself, being no stranger to public speaking, rather than suffer a priest.

So that was that! All sorted.

The Funeral

It’s almost seen as ridiculous to enjoy a funeral, but here I was almost inappropriately grinning. For the first time here was a man who was actually talking only about how we might be feeling. He was only talking about who my Nana was and about her place in our lives. In that strange way of funerals we were hearing new things about this person I had known all my life. It was openly spoken that she had no religious faith and that her wishes for a non-religious service were being upheld. There was no hint of animosity towards religion; he even lead the Lord’s Prayer as a nod of tolerance and respect for those there who were themselves religious so that they could feel they were respected. And even that didn’t jar or feel out of place. I knew my wife standing next to me appreciated it. What a difference! The beliefs of all present were being taken into account and respected.

For once I wasn’t angry. For once we were genuinely celebrating the life of my dead Nana, whom I would never see again, with dignity and respect; without it being cheapened by some huckster selling his afterlife bribe.

For once, I could walk from the service and feel uplifted and at peace.

Where do I get one? Whom do I call?

The British Humanist Association is rather obviously your port of call in the UK; or the American Humanist Association in the US

From the British Humanist Association site:

A Humanist, non-religious funeral or memorial ceremony will:

  • focus sincerely and affectionately on the person who has died
  • allow friends, relatives and acquaintances to express their feelings and to share their memories
  • have warmth and sincerity: many bereaved people find them helpful and are pleased to have provided a ceremony their loved ones would have wanted
  • celebrate the life of the person who has died by paying tribute to them, to the life they lived, the connections they made and left behind
  • be simply more appropriate for those who have not lived according to religious principles, or accepted religious views of life or death.

Secular Seasons is a good place to start for this kind of service in the USA.

In their own words:

For atheists, humanists, Brights, and other freethinkers who embrace a naturalistic worldview, death is understood as the end of personal existence. There is no soul or other supernatural component of the human personality that can in any way survive after physical death. Accepting death as part of the natural order, humanists view funerals and memorials as an opportunity for the living to celebrate the life of the person who has died.

I realise it now seems a bit Anglo-American biased to leave it there, but a google search in your location of “Secular funerals” or “Humanist funerals” will yield similarly helpful results.

I cannot recommend being forceful about this issue enough. I’m sure some of the religious members of a family or friends might kick up a fuss but not a single person had anything bad to say about the service. Some of the people there were indeed religious, but they were more than happy to see that any of their fears of the service being meaningless or unfriendly toward them were groundless. I’m sure many people attending will have gone away wanting the same for themselves or their loved ones, with their eyes having been opened wide.

I’m glad I could promise my Nana that we would do things her way and that it was, indeed, both dignified and fitting to who she was, not who people pretend to have been just for religious appeasement, and I hope this allays those fears many of you have about this very sensitive moment.

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