Rituals of death: Atheists learning to honour a life in their own ways

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"Death renders all equal,” wrote Claudian. How each one of us relates to death, however, is individual, and always changing — as we mature; as we contemplate life, and death, around us; and as society changes. In this special edition of the National Post, we present stories and columns looking at the different ways we see, and prepare for, the Great Equalizer. To read the complete series, click here.

Gretta Vosper occupies an unusual position in the Canadian landscape: she is an ordained minister in the United Church of Canada, and a committed atheist — a peculiar pairing if there ever was one. But for a new breed of atheists facing the prospect of death, she offers an ideal blend of ritual and meaning with an otherwise anti-spiritual philosophy. Particularly at the most poignant moment of their existence: Their death.

Atheists may disdain the notion of a god and an afterlife, and yet many are inclined to want something more than just the scattering of some ashes and a few kind words of tribute to mark their deaths.

Written By: Charles Lewis
continue to source article at life.nationalpost.com

13 COMMENTS

  1. It seems to me fully acknowledging the deceased is dead, and celebrating their life has dignity. Pretending that they did not really die and are watching us from the rafters is so childish.

    I like funerals where we acknowledge that deceased was imperfect but we love them anyway. When my mom died, my Christian uncle called in a Christian to officiate. He started describing a saint. A bunch of us burst out laughing. My mother was a terror. He had never met her, and just did a generic speech.

  2. “Atheists may disdain the notion of a god and an afterlife, and yet many are inclined to want something more”

    Eh? The one thing this atheist is pretty damned sure about is that there is no afterlife, no heaven, no hell, and I won’t “want” anything because I won’t exist to have any desires at all. I hope I make a few worms very happy.

    You can stick me in a wheelie bin for all I care.

      • In reply to #4 by Sjoerd Westenborg:

        In reply to #3 by Stevehill:

        You can stick me in a wheelie bin for all I care.

        How about arranging for us to stick parts of you in other people when their own parts don’t work well?

        I am very cool about that and am a registered organ donor.

  3. @link – So they[atheists] can list a ton of things that they don’t want, including the usual religious language around funerals, but not what they want.”

    Janice Meighan, founder of Toronto-based Rituals Without Borders, which develops non-religious liturgies for weddings, funerals and even the odd divorce, says people who grew up deeply religious often have a revulsion to anything that even looks or sounds like a church service.

    Some secular people do need to be better informed about the availability of the services above, or from Humanist Celebrants, – sometimes called Humanist officiants.

    A Humanist officiant (or Humanist celebrant) is a person who performs secular humanist celebrancy services for weddings, funerals, child namings, coming of age ceremonies, and other rituals. Some Humanist officiants are ordained or accredited members of the Ontario Humanist Society (OHS), Humanist Association of Canada (HAC), the American Humanist Association (AHA), the British Humanist Association (BHA), the Humanist Society of Scotland (HSS), the Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ), the American Ethical Union (AEU), or the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).

    These celebrants organise a meeting celebrating the life and achievements of the deceased, but without any supernatural references to gods.

    But it’s those who grew up in secular homes that are now at the forefront of creating more formalized ceremonies.

    We do need social gatherings to inform family and friends and to celebrate births marriages and deaths without the intrusions of gods and their woo!

    My mother’s funeral, conducted by a Humanist celebrant, was much more focussed on her life, than any of the religious funerals I have attended – where they persistently bang on about their god for the greater part of the service!

    • In reply to #5 by Alan4discussion:

      We do need social gatherings to inform family and friends and to celebrate births marriages and deaths without the intrusions of gods and their woo!

      “We” do not. If you , or some or however many individuals do, fair enough and knock yourselves out, but I think one is well advised to speak for oneself on this topic. Obligatory servicing of ceremonial fetishes is odious whether woo or otherwise driven. One of the many reasons to get away from religion; now this is following us home?

      Quite disappointing really that the absurdity of the strenuous attempts at perpetuating this stuff – New! Now with less woo! is not noticed by those involved.

  4. I submitted this partly because of the following paragraph from the article…… note the profound difference between Canada and the US.

    Atheism’s ranks are swelling remarkably fast: An Ipsos Reid poll from 2011 found just 53% of Canadians said they believed in God (though that may not have included agnostics or people attached to some form of vague spirituality); that was a massive drop from 2000, when 84% of Canadians said they were believers.

  5. In a discussion such as this it is important to bear in mind that the primary purpose of funerary rituals is to enable the deceased person’s loved ones and acquaintances to come to terms with his or her death. A good way to do this is to assemble for a time and recall to each other memories of what the deceased said and did, rehearsing his or her good and bad attributes, rebuking the deceased for wrongs still not righted, praising him or her for the ways in which he or she benefited others, brought good cheer, achieved something admirable, and so on. In Polynesian societies, the funerary rituals last about a week and are great social occasions in the course of which all such things are raised. There is much singing, weeping, laughing and, of course, talking. The Irish have retained something of this in their custom of the wake. It is an important time in which a community can heal the rent in the fabric of relationships that the deceased person’s departure has caused. They do this by celebrating together the life of someone they all knew and have now lost. This is a practice that godless humanists do well to follow. Comparing a traditional Maori tangi, for example, with a traditional Christian funeral shows starkly how culturally impoverished the afterlife-oriented Christian funeral has become.

    It is all very well for an atheist to insist that his remains just be dumped in a hole or burnt and scattered without ceremony, merely to make the point that he no longer exists after death; but he or she is forgetting those left behind. Such an atheist’s modesty and realism are to be commended, but he or she may underestimate how much he or she is valued and cherished, indeed loved, by others. These in fact get to decide how the deceased shall be farewelled, and they may wish to take their time over it, for there may be much to celebrate.

    • In reply to #8 by Cairsley:

      In a discussion such as this it is important to bear in mind that the primary purpose of funerary rituals is to enable the deceased person’s loved ones and acquaintances to come to terms with his or her death.

      I agree.

      My father-in-law believed in god, but did not want a Catholic funeral – too much fuss and not his style, I think. Months after his death, when his large scattered family could get together, we all met and had a funeral of sorts, a remembrance, without any celebrant at all. It consisted of his children and some of his grandchildren reminiscing about him, and there were great stories, lots I hadn’t heard before. Then we all went out to eat and enjoyed the time together.

      It was the best “funeral” I’ve ever been to.

  6. One of my least favourite funerals was when my atheist aunt Edith died. Her Christian younger brother made the arrangements. There was not a word about Aunt Edith, who lead a quite adventurous life running a hospital in Egypt. The informercial went on and on and on about how we in the audience were going to be roasted for eternity interspersed with gibberish. I thought Aunt Edith would not approve. However, she probably thought to herself, I won’t be there, so I might as well let Jack enjoy himself. Ironically Jack’s funeral was much less of a commercial.

    I once composed an elaborate atheist funeral for myself, dripping with symbolic ritual and meaningful music. My sisters said “damned if we are going to mount a production like that for you”, so now it will be left up to my survivors.

  7. godsbuster @11 – “We” do not. If you , or some or however many individuals do, fair enough and knock yourselves out, but I think one is well advised to speak for oneself on this topic.

    I would see these events as communication and social interaction.

    I can’t see a reason to reject sympathetic funerary gatherings or celebratory parties just because we (or if you prefer “people”), reject the intrusive woo elements.

    These should not be copies of religious services, but rather carrying out the normal human social functions which are frequently high-jacked and monopolised by religious cults. One of the reasons why religious groups can easily monopolise such celebrations and use them for proselytising, is because they have packages and buildings readily recognisable and available.

    The historic monopoly was much tighter when they owned burial grounds and could stigmatise those excluded from them. – Likewise births and marriages which can now be conducted by civil registration. There are now public crematoria and hotels where celebrations can be held. I would see a funeral as the time to draw a line under the relationship with the deceased, and to renew acquaintances with other family members from more distant places.

    Obligatory servicing of ceremonial fetishes is odious whether woo or otherwise driven. One of the many reasons to get away from religion; now this is following us home?

    I would agree that the format of parties should not be based on religious ceremonies unless purely coincidentally. However, deaths, the establishment of partnerships, or the arrivals of new family members, need to be publicised to family, friends and acquaintances. Social gatherings can also help renew acquaintances with people who have not met recently.

    There are also less formal gatherings: The mid-winter holiday parties and and sing-arounds with musicians in our local pubs, are quite different to the choir in the church across the road!

    Some people also turn out “religiously” on Sundays, to attend or participate in football matches – much to the disapproval of some competing churches!

    Quite disappointing really that the absurdity of the strenuous attempts at perpetuating this stuff – New! Now with less woo! is not noticed by those involved.

    I too find this irritating when I attend funerals of religious family members or acquaintances, arranged by the religious.

    However the example I gave of my mother’s Humanist funeral -in accordance with her wishes, was arranged by my brother and myself – both atheists, – with no woo content at all at the crematorium, then followed by a purely social gathering at an hotel.

    The use of an experienced Humanist “celebrant”, is very helpful in making arrangements, and takes some of the load off family members who are likely to be upset at the time.

    It is the role which priests abuse as a proselyting opportunity, with their gods and magic afterlives, pushing the records of the deceased’s achievements into the background.

  8. Not the wheelie bin, Steve Hill, the compost pile, (minus the corneas and other usable parts), then (I hope) incorporated into the soil by the next gardeners on the property. All that protein will break down to the nitrogen which is so beneficial for growing plants. Be a shame to waste it.

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