What Happens at an Atheist (Secular) Funeral Service?

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For many people, funerals are a time to honor traditions. Christian funerals focus on the destination of the deceased through prayers and hymns. At Buddhist funerals, you may see monks chanting while images of Buddha surround them.

But what happens when your loved one has no beliefs? Do you plan a funeral? What customs do you follow? According to Pew Research, 22.8 percent of Americans were atheists as of 2014, and the number grows every year. 

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Atheists are people that lack an active belief in gods. Traditional funerals are rooted in the belief of life after death. Funerals for atheists center around life instead. If your loved one recently passed away or you are curious about atheist funerals, keep reading. 

If you expect an atheist funeral to be different from the traditional you may be surprised. While the two groups have different beliefs, the funeral services can be similar. From sharing eulogies to creating art around the casket, an atheist funeral is traditional and unique.

Secular Funeral Service Rituals

In general, secular funerals are human-centered. The best part is their flexibility. Services can be low-key or creative. Some families choose to hold services before the burial and others at the graveside. Others may opt for a memorial service instead, where the body isn't present. Others choose to opt out of a traditional service altogether. They throw a party at their loved one's favorite place or get together at a park. 

Most atheist services are a gathering of family members to reflect on their loved ones and ideas of death.

Order of service

Secular funerals are not about the finality of death but about celebrating life. Atheists believe their life is the sum of their experiences. They want their life to be remembered through a celebration of memories and the things they enjoy. A service is a wonderful way for friends and family to release emotions in a safe space.

The secular service can be held before cremation, burial or after being put to rest. Secular services don’t have scripts or blessings but it is helpful to include structure. Since secular funerals are so different the timeline of events will vary. Your order of service may look like this: 

  • Music may play while guests take their seats. In the meantime, guests can reflect upon the life of the deceased. 
  • Close friends or family members offer a greeting. Having a family member or friend take part in the welcoming can make the ceremony feel more personal.
  • Next, words are said about the meaning of death, usually inspired by other poems and philosophical passages.
  • Your loved one is honored through tribute, usually via eulogy. A chosen person reflects on the personality and life experiences of the person that has died. 
  • Followed by the tribute, guests can reflect on the personal relationship with their loved one and move towards closure. This is a moment of silence or guests can talk amongst themselves. 
  • Finally, the remains are honored. Atheists differ in their burial customs. In some rituals, loved ones may decorate the coffin with paint, writing messages of love. You can also scatter your loved one’s ashes or meditate with friends and family as a closing ritual.
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Songs 

Music is an important element to set the tone for your loved one’s service. It is usually played at the beginning and end of the service. You can decide the music selection by thinking about the mood and location of the service. Is the service in a casual setting? Then you may want to choose an upbeat tune. Does it veer more towards traditional funeral practices? Instrumental music may be a better choice. 

Soft music throughout the service is also a great way to encourage reflection. You may want to choose a non-religious composer at your loved one’s service. Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky are all composers that didn't consider religion important.

Music selections may lack religious undertones or they may include religious elements. The obvious choice is to choose music that your loved one enjoyed. Religious songs like ‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘Hallelujah’ can even be considered if they were important for your loved one. 

Recently, there has been a rise in secular hymns. These are songs that aren’t spiritual but can invoke spiritual feelings. They are classics that remain popular throughout generations. Some choices include ‘Over the Rainbow’ ‘Imagine’ and ‘What a Wonderful World.'

Participants can also play instruments or sing songs. Remember there is no right or wrong song for your loved one’s funeral. Think about what your loved one enjoyed and their personality to make the right choice.

Location of the service

You can hold an atheist funeral anywhere. In a non-religious funeral, the body may not always be present, so a service can be anywhere you feel celebrates the life of your loved one. If your loved one was a baseball lover, how about a ballpark? You can remember nature lovers in the mountains or on the beach. Favorite art galleries, museums, restaurants, and bars are all potential options. 

Here are some more ideas to help you begin thinking about the perfect place:

  • Family or friend’s home: A home burial is a wonderful way to remain close to your loved ones. Hand-digging your loved one’s grave in a place where they spent so much time can be a healing experience. Always make sure to check your individual state regulations before choosing this option. 
  • Community center: Perhaps your loved one was particularly fond of their hometown or city of residence. A community center can be a warm place to gather for an intimate ceremony. Attendees can sit in a circle while reminiscing on fond memories. 
  • On the water: If your loved one was an adventurer, a burial on the water can provide a special sense of closure. A marina, beach, or pocket park are all unique venues to celebrate their life. 

When choosing a location, consider the kind of life your loved one lived and what they may have liked.

Readings and poems

Secular funerals don't focus on religious teachings, so your loved one's favorite books and poems are an obvious choice. Reading from non-religious authors may be preferred. Next, consider the location of your service as a starting point. You may want to use a nature-inspired reading for an outdoor service. 

Friends and family can take turns reading during smaller ceremonies. You can also include a eulogy. Eulogies reveal your loved one's accomplishments, personality, and impacts on the community. They are especially useful for large funerals where not every attendee may have known your loved one well.

Burial customs

Atheist funerals are open-ended since religion doesn't dictate what should or shouldn't be done. Secular Americans are reshaping traditional burials. In 2015, cremations will outnumber burials by 2 percent with an increase to 19 percent by 2020. Atheists have values and beliefs as diverse as burial customs. If your loved one didn’t express their preference before passing, here are a few burial options to help you decide: 

  • Cremation: There are many options for your loved one’s ashes. The common practice is to bury ashes. You can scatter them, use as a keepsake, or offer them to friends and family during the service for closure.
  • Casket: You may opt for a traditional metal casket or one made out of biodegradable materials. Instead of using a professional, you may want to dress and care for the body yourself.
  • Body donation: You can donate your loved one's body to medical schools, hospitals, or body farms. 

Keep cost in mind when you are making your or your loved one’s burial plan. The average cost of preparing a body with a metal casket is $3,500. Compare this to the cost of a direct cremation that starts around $600-700. Veterans, their spouses, and dependents may have burial benefits in national cemeteries. 

Don’t feel pressured to spend extra money on extravagant flowers or extra casket liners for your loved one. Cost, practicality, and personality can all decide the burial. Most importantly, don’t forget to let your love for the deceased lead way in choosing. 

» MORE: How do you host a virtual funeral? Start here

 

Atheist Funeral Etiquette

At an atheist funeral, there will be plenty of time to speak with other guests to reminisce about your loved one. You can expect the feelings of grief and sadness to be the same as in traditional funerals. You can expect a celebratory, casual, or somber mood based on location and what the family expects. 

The most important part of etiquette is to keep religious expression out of the conversation. It’s best to put your own beliefs aside, if you don’t agree, and focus on those of your loved one.

Proper attire

You can expect traditional mourning attire at a non-religious service. Keep the location in mind when choosing what to wear to a funeral. Customary black or other dark colors are a safe choice unless indicated otherwise. 

Gifts, cards, flowers, and other presents

Take note of the family’s wishes when bringing a gift. There are no steadfast rules for non-religious funerals. You may want to consider a card with a short sympathy message or traditional flowers. Some families ask for donations for a charity or to cover funeral expenses.

If the family doesn’t ask for gifts you may want to send a thoughtful card a week or two after the funeral. 

Frequently Asked Questions About Atheist Funerals

A non-religious funeral can be confusing. Depending on the wishes of the family, location, and type of burial each service is different. Below are answers to the most asked questions. 

How do you start planning an atheist funeral?

To begin planning, think of your loved one. Did they ever express the kind of funeral they wanted? What things did they enjoy? How did they want to be buried? Your loved one may have expressed preferences in the past.

You will also have to choose the location, songs, and readings. If your beliefs differ, try to cast them aside. If religious tones are present at the funeral, it may upset other friends and family.

What do you say to the family at an atheist funeral? 

If your beliefs differ, focus on who the person was. You can share a memory or experience you had with their loved ones. Expressions like “he’s in a better place now” or “my prayers are with you” aren’t necessary. Instead, you can say, “My thoughts and wishes are with your family.”

How do you tell someone you want an atheist funeral?

If your family doesn’t agree with an atheist funeral you can gently remind them that every person has their own journey and this is yours. Ideally, funeral wishes should be discussed before a tragedy happens. 

Final Thoughts 

Atheist funerals aren’t cookie cutter. They can be casual joyful celebration or life or somber events, but the person that died is always the focus. If you're lost in planning, remember to think about what they would have wanted and keep your beliefs out of it. 

Whether you want an atheist funeral or a traditional one family members can change your wishes to suit their own beliefs. It’s always best to make arrangements ahead of time. Be in control of what happens at your funeral.


Sources: 

  1. Michael, Lipka. “A closer look at America’s rapidly growing religious ‘nones.’” Pew Research Center, May 13, 2015, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/13/a-closer-look-at-americas-rapidly-growing-religious-nones/
  2. “Statistics.” National Funeral Association, www.nfda.org/news/statistics
  3. Christensen, Andrea. “Researchers identify criteria for 'secular hymns'.” Science X Daily, Brigham Young University, January 19, 2017, www.phys.org/news/2017-01-criteria-secular-hymns.html
  4. What is Atheism? American Atheists, www.atheists.org/activism/resources/about-atheism/
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