What happens when an atheist dies? Like, practically-speaking?
May 15, 2014 8:05 AM   Subscribe

Where do atheist funerals/memorial services take place, and who, if anyone, officiates?

I'm young enough and in good enough health that I don't feel an urgent need to get my funeral planned, but it occurs to me that I don't really know, logistically, how one would plan a non-religious funeral. If my family wanted to give me a religious funeral that would be OK with me but none of my immediate family are particularly religious either, and I think it would probably ring hollow to them if a minister stood up at the front of the church and talked about how I was in heaven. So I assume they would want to honor my (lack of) beliefs, but I doubt they would actually know how to do that.

The actual "what happens during the ceremony" part doesn't seem that difficult - there are readings and music and stuff that I think would be appropriate. But it seems like a service needs at a minimum some kind of MC to keep things rolling along - who does that in the absence of a clergyperson? (I imagine a friend or relative could take on this role, but for me personally no one springs to mind.) And also, I'm really not sure where it ought to take place - I guess a funeral home chapel would be acceptable, but I'm also really not into the whole funeral industry. Someone's home, or a function space? A restaurant or something like a VFW hall? (I would expect to be cremated* so it doesn't have to be someplace you can bring a dead body.) I suppose a UU church and minister would be OK in a pinch, but it doesn't exactly appeal to me, either.

Anyway, have you been to a funeral or memorial that honored a dead atheist? How did it go? Where was it?

*Or, in my dream world, turned into an articulated skeleton.
posted by mskyle to Society & Culture (32 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
The ones I've attended have been held at the funeral home/parlor, and are usually conducted by a member of the family. If you don't have someone like that, I've seen the funeral director take that responsibility.
posted by raisingsand at 8:10 AM on May 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

I have been to a great number of memorial services for atheists. They can be held anywhere. A park, a theater, a backyard, a community center. Most of them involve readings, music and memories. Also, food. Lots and lots of food.

I have seen everyone from partners/spouses take the lead to charismatic friends. Someone who loves you and wants to remember you first is really all that needs to be done. For instance, I would go up, tell people how much you meant to me, share a funny story and then ask for anyone else who would like to speak. After about a 1/2 hour of that, invite people to the buffet and play favorite music of the deceased.
posted by Sophie1 at 8:17 AM on May 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

My mom was an atheist and a member of the UU church. Her memorial was at the church and officiated by the UU minister. Another friend -- the memorial was at a community center and officiated by family.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:18 AM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

The last atheist funeral service I attended occurred entirely graveside and was (as you've described) presided over by friends and family. Afterwards, people adjourned to a favorite bar of the deceased and some accompanied his partner to a family home after that started to wind down.

Prior atheist funerals I have attended took place at funeral homes, Unitarian Churches, community centers and in parks. Graveside and funeral homes have the advantage of having mechanisms (staff, licenses, equipment) in place for moving bodies around, as well as the benefit of professional experience dealing with a lot of the unexpected stuff that happens.

When my grandmother died many years ago, there was no service of any kind, really. She had no particular faith and hated ceremonies of any kind. After the interment, which was just the family, there was a luncheon at one of those strictly for showers and funeral banquet halls we have in the midwest. A few photos of her in the place of honor and people talking amongst themselves. It was, actually, peaceful and nice.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:19 AM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've been to two such services, For the first, the service was conducted by a very liberal Christian minister who agreed as a favor to the family to conduct a secular service. Another one was held in a rented room at a community center and was conducted by a friend of the deceased. In the latter case, it was quite a burden on the person who had to officiate at the service. The body was not present at the second service.
posted by Area Man at 8:19 AM on May 15, 2014

I've seen the funeral home service/family member moves things along version of this, as well. I haven't seen it done by a member of the funeral home staff, but I'd imagine that's an option.

What I've also seen done, and what I would prefer for myself if my family members don't have a strong need to do things another way, is to skip the more formal 'ceremony' entirely. Friends and family get together somewhere, maybe a private room at a restaurant or a family member's house or the park or whatever, and basically just dedicate some time to sharing their good memories of the person. Maybe a great meal, some drinks, a reading or a speech or two, but mostly just an informal coming together to celebrate what that person meant in your lives. The version of this I've seen has been so informal it's barely required a moderator type person, but it might not be a bad idea to have someone ready to jump in if needed.
posted by Stacey at 8:19 AM on May 15, 2014

My mum's funeral (in the UK) took place at the crematorium, which has neutral "chapel" that can host religious or non-religious services. We found a professional humanist celebrant who did an excellent job of creating and running a service based on our wishes.
posted by crocomancer at 8:20 AM on May 15, 2014

what you decide to have done with your body can help direct what sort of service you have and where. by law mortuaries are required to dispose of your remains in a sanitary manner, ie burial, cremation, donation, body farms, etc. if your body is not present then that lightens things up and your remaining kin/friends could have the service anywhere. the church just comes into play when people want to participate in the ritual of where the body is preserved for a temporary amount of time and displayed for the mourners in their specific house of god before moving on to the graveyard or what have you. the rest of it is not necessarily church related and anyone taking charge can decide who speaks.

personally i'd be down to have my body donated to a body farm or for organ donation, whatever works. burn the rest. if whoever is left in my life wants to spread the ashes then please climb the rocky mountains as high as you can and let the rest of me go with the wind. i wouldn't need anything said as i'd imagine everyone would be too busy catching their breath from the climb :)
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 8:21 AM on May 15, 2014

My parents belong to a very atheist-leaning UU fellowship, and memorial services for non-members are sometimes held at their church. Among the members, some have memorial services at their church, while others choose to have services in funeral home chapels or similar.
posted by snorkmaiden at 8:21 AM on May 15, 2014

I had a relative who was ardent active atheist whose one wish was absolutely no religious services when I die. What I found was that funeral homes are an unbelievable rip off. Even for placing the "cre-mains" after cremation in a hole in the ground, and that all of their services have some kind of "non-denominational" "spiritual" service and in a hall with stained glass windows. For about $5k plus you have to use their crap caterer at inflated prices.

We did cremation through local chapter of Neptune Society, which was very reasonable and well-managed. And used the couple of grand we saved as a donation to the local public library that put a plaque on the wall outside and let us use a room on a Sunday when they were closed to hold a memorial service.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 8:21 AM on May 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

Usually in the funeral home (as more religious and semi-religious services do too these days). As long as there's no body, you can definitely have a "memorial service" in any available function space. Or private home. It's only weird if you've got a body in a non-dead-body place. If you have no friends or family who can serve as MC, the funeral parlor either can do it or can recommend someone. If you have a family friend who's a minister (like you have a sibling who's religious and is close with their minister, or you just have a buddy who's a minister), most ministers who lean a bit liberal are comfortable presiding over a non-religious funeral. It's a form of caring for the distressed (the still-living) regardless of whether they're the same religion or not, and saying NO prayers isn't usually violating a minister's religious beliefs (in the way saying someone else's prayers might).

I went to a non-religious memorial service recently at the deceased's favorite restaurant, in the restaurant's function room. The owner and waiters all poked their heads in to offer their condolences, but mostly it was a couple of people giving something between a toast and a eulogy, and then we all drank and ate and reminisced. It was very nice.

A friend of mine went to a family funeral for an atheist great uncle that involved lighting a miniature viking boat on fire and releasing it on Lake Mendota and getting arrested, so maybe not that. (No, the body was not in the boat, it had been cremated properly and the ashes scattered, but it turns out you need a permit of some sort to launch a flaming boat from a public beach while drunk.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:23 AM on May 15, 2014 [9 favorites]

The one I helped to plan for a friend took place in the ballroom of our local LGBT community center. Mostly officiated by his sister, but she opened up the floor to let anyone who wanted speak out with their stories, and there were a few planned readings. I liked this arrangement because it acknowledged that people from many different stages of his life, with many different relationships to him, were grieving and didn't center any one group's grief as the most significant.

There was no music, and there were no clergy members present. His was donated to science in this instance, so there wasn't even an urn, but guests were encouraged to write letters to him and put them in a sealed box, which his sister kept.

Food was a mix of catered and potluck, and there was so so much of it. Enough that we ended up donating a substantial amount of leftovers to a homeless shelter after the ceremony.
posted by ActionPopulated at 8:23 AM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

A couple weeks ago I went to the memorial of friend who passed away a couple months ago. He was an artist/cartoonist who knew and kept in touch with an amazing amount of people. His wife had a big party in the back yard of their home. Friends came from all over. She asked a few people specifically to share a story. Her brother acted as MC and introduced the speakers. Several people spoke after when they opened the mic for anyone else who wanted to speak. Musician friends jammed while other guests visited and looked through the house and studio at all his art work that was hung up through the house for the occasion. I don't know what their religious beliefs actually are, but there was no religious aspect at the party.
posted by Swisstine at 8:28 AM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

My parents are staunch atheists, and when they pass, they've told us that instead of a funeral with a service, they'd like to have their bodies cremated. Afterward, instead of a memorial service, they'd like a wake. Their idea of a wake mostly involves inviting all their friends over to the bar and having the money that would have been spent on a funeral going toward buying the first round of drinks.
posted by PearlRose at 8:32 AM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

The first funeral I went to was for a teacher of mine, and it was at his funeral that I heard the word 'humanist' for the first time. It made a huge impression on me. The ceremony took place at the crematorium and we sang Men of Harlech in place of any hymns. I can't remember who officiated: it could have been a member of the British Humanist Association or an employee of the crematorium.
posted by daisyk at 8:32 AM on May 15, 2014

Call it a "celebration of the life of" ... not a memorial, not a service, not a wake, not any of the things that immediately conjure up connotations of religion or traditional funerals.

Don't do it in a funeral parlor... for the same reasons. The body should be nowhere around, or it's being venerated in some way. Plus the funeral parlor doesn't serve drinks or food.

Don't have a receiving line... They're deadly. Design an affair where people mix and mingle, and if they want to talk to your loved ones they will.

Before or during the celebration, in the same location, have an informal remembrances part, where people can talk about you, sing about you, show videos of you, whatever. Don't make it too structured.

Nthing body donation... you'll do a lot of good that way.

Consider a green burial rather than cremation when the med school is done with you... better for the earth. But don't have a headstone or any other marker and make it clear that you do not expect to be visited, because you won't be there.
posted by beagle at 8:41 AM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I also recently attended a non-traditional memorial for a relative whom I'd assumed was religious, but which had no religious aspect to it. It was in a function room at a nice restaurant, with her immediate family at a top table and two huge, framed collages of photos of the deceased on another table, surrounded by flowers. Several people who'd known and loved her came up to give prepared speeches, and in between courses the guests at different tables would mingle, swap stories and memories of her, and look at the pictures. Her small grandchildren were allowed to play on the floor like at any family party, which lightened the mood a bit at times. On preview, it was a lot like the "celebration of the life of" that beagle describes.
posted by daisyk at 8:48 AM on May 15, 2014

I just attended an atheist 'farewell' - a marquee in a public space. The MC was a marriage celebrant, many of whom do a range of officiating ceremonies.

The person who died wrote their own eulogy that was read out by the celebrant, and chose her music and photographs that were shown on a screen for us.

I have to say it was the most honest and affecting farewell I've ever experienced.
posted by honey-barbara at 8:52 AM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I went to a very nice memorial service for an atheist family friend a few years ago at a local botanic garden. She was cremated, so there was no body. There was a projector set up to show pictures of her life, and friends and family made toasts and told stories. There was no officiant or anything. She had made her wishes well known before she died, so planning it was straightforward for her family.
posted by oinopaponton at 8:55 AM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

My father was an atheist, when he passed we held his funeral in the local Salvation Army hall The funeral director arranged for a non denominational speaker to come and basically fill in for the role of a minister, I think he was a civil celebrant, like the ones that do civil weddings, there was no mention of God in the "service" and we carried out his coffin to Green Days "Time of your Life". The celebrant came and talked to the family to find out stories about Dad, helped people that wanted to read a Eulogy and let us have our own slightly quirky funeral (everyone was invited down to decorate his coffin with stickers and paints instead of flowers) and made it all run smoothly.

On the plus side having it at the Salvation Army hall for a donation they put on lovely sandwiches and cakes for after and a couple of the members where quietly there for after the service for people that needed comfort. This and being in the hall gave it a churchy enough feel for the friends of Dad that would find comfort in that without being against what he believed in as he respected a lot of the charity work they did. Considering how sad I was at the time, I can look back at the funeral and find a lot of peace in how it worked out.

There was no viewing of the body, he went off to be cremated and about 6 months later when my mother was ready his ashes were buried in a garden with just his immediate family present, and my brother laid a small headstone/stone marker himself.
posted by wwax at 8:56 AM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

My grandparents and their deceased brothers and sisters so far have all donated their bodies to science and we had big memorial parties in their honor in a convenient location about six months after their deaths, with family members and friends making toasts throughout the party at random intervals. This is how I'd like to be sent off when the time comes, since, like them, I am also an atheist.
posted by sockermom at 9:19 AM on May 15, 2014

Now that I think of it, none of the funerals I've been to were religious in nature. As you may have guessed, I'm not in the US. I'm guessing that you are.

Normal funerals / cremations as I know them are held in the funeral parlour. There is no reason to even go near a church, since there is no religion involved*.
The body is present (coffin can be open or closed). The people who work at the funeral parlour (I don't know what they are called) take care of the practical side of things: they tell people when to enter or leave the room, they play the music. Family members or close friends will normally greet the guests and say a few words, there may be several speakers, there is usually music in between.
If there is no family member or friend to speak, someone who works there will speak a few words instead. But if there are guests, that seems unlikely to happen.

The body may be buried, moved towards the crematorium part of the building or left in the room as people leave. Usually, the close family of the deceased stands in a line to shake hands, which is awkward and awful.

After that, there is coffee and limp cake served in a different room. There may even be sandwiches.

I can imagine this is not really what you would want, but it's what's happened every time I went to a funeral/cremation, and that seems to be your main question.

* in my world, churches are inherently religious. I do not understand the UU thing. I would not call that a church if it caters to atheists as well.
posted by Too-Ticky at 9:21 AM on May 15, 2014

My Mum's funeral was in the non-religion-specific chapel at the crematorium. It was MC'd by a professional celebrant, who visited my Mum in the hospital before she died to discuss what she did and didn't want, what she believed about where she was going and whether she wanted to mention that, etc etc.

Technically this meant that we could have avoided a funeral home (and associated fees) altogether by having the body transported direct from the morgue to the crematorium.

After the very short service we repaired to a local function space and partook of buffet food. We ripped off a Quaker tradition by all sitting around in a circle and taking it in turns to speak of my Mum and how we knew her, if and when so motivated.

An older religious friend who attended said that it was the first funeral she had been to that wasn't in her Christian tradition, and also the first one at which the proceedings made her feel happy and comforted rather than sad and angry.
posted by emilyw at 9:22 AM on May 15, 2014

An anecdote from Kurt Vonnegut about an atheist/humanist funeral:
I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great, spectacularly prolific writer and scientist, Dr. Isaac Asimov in that essentially functionless capacity. At an A.H.A. memorial service for my predecessor I said, "Isaac is up in Heaven now." That was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. It rolled them in the aisles. Mirth! Several minutes had to pass before something resembling solemnity could be restored.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:12 AM on May 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

My father-in-law was an outspoken atheist. He loved life, and lived well. Food, wine, and great company were very important to him.

When he died a couple of years ago, he was cremated. The ashes are in storage, to be scattered with my mother-in-law's in a pre-selected place when the time comes.

For a "service", we gathered at my mother-in-law's house, and we cooked all of his favorite foods (deviled eggs, spiedies, eggplant parmesan, gateau, among others), and opened great bottles of wine from his cellar, and we all shared our favorite stories about Peter.

He was a great man, and I miss him terribly, but this celebration helped us put his life in context and say goodbye in a way that honored him and showed us how he'd touched lives. If my survivors duplicate such a thing for me, they could do a lot worse.
posted by rocketman at 10:17 AM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

My grandmother had a non-religious service...I don't think she was SPECIFICALLY an athiest, but just not really religious and didn't have a church. We did a small memorial service at my aunt's house, where basically people who knew her came and offered their memories of her. It was very informal...I think my aunt sort of 'led' things in the sense of saying something at the beginning and end, but mostly it was just going around the room and sharing good memories. Really lovely. :)
posted by rainbowbrite at 10:17 AM on May 15, 2014

My wife was an atheist. When she died she was buried in a "green" (they don't do embalming and they use biodegradable caskets and such) cemetery that she picked out when she was sick. Her friends and family spoke. We each put a handful of dirt over her casket.

There was no difficulty in planning a non-religious funeral. When she died, I gave the responsibility of planning the thing to her brother, who talked to the funeral home she had chosen. They helped to get everything squared away. That's what they do for a living and they will make sure that all the important bases get covered. If you have questions or are unsure what you want to do, you can ask them.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 11:07 AM on May 15, 2014

My grandfather was philosophically a Quaker more than actively religious, and he requested a (roughly) Quaker service. It was held in a large room at his retirement home and was the first of its kind that I (an atheist) went to and thought, "This, I could do." He had been cremated, but my aunts prepared a board of fun pictures of him. There was of course food. The structure was loose: my aunt began by explaining what was going to happen (anyone stood and shared any sort of story/memory/thought whenever they felt like it; a few people brought specific things to read, and others spoke off the cuff) and, when it seemed like everyone was done, my brother closed with the one reading my grandfather had requested. It was a poignant, funny, thoughtful service that wasn't stuffy at all, and I thought it beautifully encapsulated his life. We buried his cremated ashes in the family plot in a small wooden box my brothers made together.

TL; DR: My grandfather was awesome, and people gathering to share memories is a nice send off that is non-secular. (Also, food.)
posted by pitrified at 11:24 AM on May 15, 2014

Many thanks for all the replies, everyone - not going to mark anything "best" because there are a lot of good ways to do funerals! The last few funerals I've been to (various kinds of Christian) were actually very nice and comforting, just not reflective of my personal beliefs. I like the "getting the emotions/memories" moving function of a traditional funeral, just not the actual religious bits.
posted by mskyle at 2:04 PM on May 15, 2014

I plan on being cremated and having a backyard memorial service.
posted by jpe at 3:03 PM on May 15, 2014

Another one chiming in for "officiant from the British Humanist Association".

My grandmother wasn't actively atheist, but she was very firmly non-religious and left very definite instructions that her funeral reflect that.

The officiant was excellent: supportive and helpful, and provided a structure to the ceremony that helped the speakers from the family to tell their stories.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 9:57 PM on May 15, 2014

Do you not have civil celebrants where you are? (I'm assuming USA.) In Australia they sometimes do funerals as well as weddings, but we may be a comparatively irreligious lot. Or the funeral parlour has someone who can fulfill that role.
posted by Coaticass at 3:14 AM on May 17, 2014

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