The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Atheist funerals mark the end

Tuesday, 8 October 2013



Posted by Richard Rawlinson

Coming to adulthood in the 1980s, there seemed to be less anger surrounding religious beliefs. Before sex abuse scandals, suicide bombers and militant atheism hit the headlines, debate seemed more liberal, tolerant and respectful of differences. Ironically, there seemed to be less apathy, too. You could search freely across boundaries that seemed less rigidly defined.

As a token Christian adolescent trying to get to grips with existentialism, I recall some angst-ridden questioning of the meaning of life and death. When our brain dies, does our consciousness cease to exist, too? What if our minds just create meaning to stop us from despairing? Are religions mere comfort blankets for the deluded?

In time, I concluded that, if the hope inspired by faith turned out to be groundless, I’d rather be a cripple with a crutch than without. Later still, my faith was restored more fully.

Sartre recognised the problem of Nietzsche’s nihilism with an existentialism replacing cultural illusions with enthusiastic commitment to our personal choices. A definition of existentialism is ‘in and of itself’. If we freely give food to the hungry, the act has value in and of itself.

Many humanists believe life has meaning in and of itself. They’re sons and daughters, parents and grandparents. They create things and contribute to society. They seek creature comforts for themselves, their loved ones and those they do not know.

They accept we can also be cruel to ourselves, our loved ones and those we do not know. We can chase pleasure from a bottle, and abuse power on a domestic and global scale.

Most humanists aim to curb destructive traits via a code of ethics forged through a reason that’s not beholden to consciousness beyond death. They believe in objective good and bad, unencumbered by aspirations to merit heaven or avoid hell in any afterlife. They believe in love and beauty in and of itself, and, presumably, hatred and ugliness in and of itself, but try to be committed to the former.

Most would agree that those with and without faith both succeed and fail in varying degrees. There are saintly and wicked things done in the name of religion, and outside of religion.

I’ve been reminded of existentialism both by funeral talk here and by a recent sad encounter. Walking home from work I pass a mental asylum. One day, I bumped into a friend outside who, it transpired, had been sectioned. Surprised, concerned and sympathetic, I asked him to a nearby café to talk. With an hour before his curfew, he told me about triggers for his mental state. At some point, I alluded to prayer. He politely said he’d stick with lithium for now.

Many funerals offer practical, psychological and spiritual succour. Just occasionally, people politely say they’ll accept all the physical and psychological help available, but would rather leave God and the eternal soul out of it.

As this is the last wish of the dead person, it’s fulfilled with due respect and diligence. The life is celebrated and eulogised without prayers (public prayers anyway). Bereaved guests benefit. ‘The final send-off did him/her proud, and witnessing it helped us let go’.

However, I’m interested why so few opt for an exclusively atheist funeral, according to several civil celebrants and undertakers here. Could it be that, while we’re comfortable with the idea that we didn’t exist before conception, we remain troubled by the idea of perpetual annihilation of consciousness after physical death follows life?   

A humanist funeral is for the living as an atheist believes there’s nothing positive to look forward to after death, and nothing negative to fear. Death may be a blessed relief from physical pain but that’s now for those left behind to contemplate. The person is not in a new realm of peace outside his body, he has ceased to exist. He is not in a void, an empty space. He is simply no more.

If this finite history of a life is dwelt upon, it can lead to unsettling thoughts among those left behind. If a comet collides with Earth and all life is annihilated, the destruction of humankind has no meaning, in and of itself, as humankind no longer exists to be affected.


9 comments on “Atheist funerals mark the end

  1. Tuesday 8th October 2013 at 7:39 pm

    As someone who works a lot with people (of many different spiritual backgrounds and walks of life), who work in spirit with peoples souls after death…either as traditional shamans, clairvoyants or soul midwives, I weary slightly at the death is the end idea. However, that is a whole different can of worms and unless you can ‘see’ for yourself, nothing will convince the unconvinced……. what is important I think, is that the kind of send off needs to a), be appropriate to the deceased and thier life and spiritual beliefs (or otherwise). b), the send off needs to move the mourners from one emotional place to another, in order to allow them to move onwards into a new version of life with the new ‘memory-relationship’ with the deceased. It matters not a jot how this is done, but it matters THAT it is done. c), if there is a religion involved, it is a help if the person up-front explains a little about why the ritual is being done…so that those unfamiliar with it realise that what may simply appear to be churned out liturgy or rhetoric, is a time honoured formula into transcendence and a way of sending the soul onwards. Whatever happens at a funeral has to ‘fit’ the people involved, secular, athiest, religious, fun, furious, simple, complex, black or coloured – it is really no matter, as long as it’s right. Endless circular debates are now possible but what I believe we need are appropriate celebrants of every hue on the spectrum!!

    • tim clark

      Wednesday 9th October 2013 at 8:32 am

      For me, Angie, you have it at b) We sometimes write of funerals as if there was an atheist, or agnostic, or religious, congregation in front of us. But the congregation will include people of differing faiths and no faith, possibilists and don’t know/don’t cares.

      We (celebrants) follow the wishes of the family, who are usually following their perceptions of the dead person’s approach to such matters. Whatever the belief framework for the funeral, our job is that transition.

      I’d be cheeky enough to suggest that’s also true for ministers of religion . They may – and a large proportion of their congregation may – believe that the transition is one that involves a soul. But ministers and celebrants have to at least try to reach out to everyone present.

      Perhaps it’s an impossible aim, perhaps that’s why it’s such an uncertain sort of role, but if we are not trying for that transition from dead body to the meaning of a life, I don’t think we are doing our job, in our multi/no faith society. Ministers of religion can add on the soul stuff, excuse my disrespectful shorthand, but on its own, that won’t do it for many of us!

      If the transition works, people will get a feeling they often describe as “spiritual,~” or as Ru says, they will feel it’s been, somehow, a religious ceremony even though in content it wasn’t!

  2. Richard

    Tuesday 8th October 2013 at 1:16 pm

    Many thanks, Ru. I agree love is the common denominator and that in itself makes all spiritual. But even with love in common, the difference remains between praying for the repose of the immortal soul, and celebrating a life that no longer exists.

    I understand why perpetual annihilation isn’t dwelt on at the service. Likewise, the church has toned down talk of hell over the centuries. Too much in my opinion. It’s not a rejection of content for either, just a case tone when presenting content.

    But aren’t both arguably a bit of a cover-up: the quasi-religious service presuming heaven regardless, and the atheist funeral glossing over non-existence?

    Ru, I’m sure you do inspire spiritual feelings when you discuss a life and a death without alluding to God. I also accept the majority don’t want to or need to grapple with thoughts as I’m doing now.

    But does that mean the response is to give them a bit of this and a bit of that, regardless of belief? Is peace of mind all what people want from a funeral, a eulogy cherry-picking the best of a person, along with a sentimental nod to them now being in a better place? Do the grieving believe what’s said, or do they just think it’s the best way to neatly tie up loose ends? And does the status quo aid closure if it’s paying lip service? Do you think funerals will ever more clearly define the meaning of nothingness? Lots of questions!

    • Kathryn Edwards

      Tuesday 8th October 2013 at 6:28 pm

      Richard, does an atheist funeral have to dwell on non-existence? Isn’t that like listing all the things one isn’t having for dinner?

      • Richard

        Tuesday 8th October 2013 at 10:07 pm

        Kathryn, that is the very question I’m putting out there for others to answer. I don’t think it’s like listing things we don’t have for dinner personally. I think it’s about being honest. And about thinking.

    • Thursday 10th October 2013 at 8:02 am

      Richard, you’ve clearly never sat in on one of my eulogies. Honesty is at the core of our approach towards everything we do with the bereaved, and this includes a frank approach to their faults as much as their virtues. It’s one of the reasons we refuse to euphemise, we don’t ever say loved one, because not everyone is.
      The truth about a life can be told, the truth about what happens next can’t be, from either position, with certainty.

  3. Charles Cowling

    Tuesday 8th October 2013 at 12:41 pm

    Worth pointing out that religious folk tend to be frighteneder of death than atheists because they fear judgement. Worth pointing out also that the Jewish religion paints no pictures whatever of what happens next, leaving it up to each person to pick for themselves from a range of options spanning heaven, reincarnation and being reunited with loved ones. Most people regard what may happen next as the Great Perhaps – none more so than Jews. Lastly, as Ru points out, religion has not gathered the word holiness entirely to itself.

  4. Tuesday 8th October 2013 at 12:29 pm

    Richard, but they do. Certainly nearly all of the funerals that I take are essentially atheist in their nature, just not defiantly or even conspicuously so.

    Even most Humanist ceremonies these days appear to have removed the stated ideology, unless the person who has died was an explicit Humanist.

    Yes, it is a much more difficult concept to hold steady on; the idea of permenent personal extinction rather than eternal life. Personally both views fill me with horror, placing me firmly in the middle, liberal to the end, and cowardly too, but nobody wants this viewpoint hammered home, a funeral is enough of a downer already without rushing around like the sketch from the Fast Show of the bi polar painter shouting “Black! Black! What’s for tea mother, worms?”

    When eulogised well, a life can be discussed, mourned and, if appropriate celebrated, as well as wider issues of life death and mortality brought in, without distinguishing it from a religious service. The common denominator to all of our lives, religious or not is love; the presence or absence of it in our lives being the important thing.

    One of the highest compliments I have received as a celebrant, or ceremonial undertaker as we prefer to be called these days was when someone said “that was the most religious feeling service I have ever been to,” with no mention of god, an afterlife at all.

    • Kathryn Edwards

      Tuesday 8th October 2013 at 6:29 pm

      I’m liking ‘ceremonial undertaker’.

Leave a Comment