For many, a funeral service is a big part of their religious beliefs and traditions and serves as an occasion to make remembrance of the hope and faith they might hold. It is very common for funeral services to encompass generational traditions and rituals that honor the faith of the deceased. It’s not uncommon for burial ceremonies to be centered around hope for a better life after this one is over and the spiritual journey that awaits the one who has passed. For those that hold no beliefs in an afterlife, a funeral service entails something different.
If you have been recently invited to attend a secular funeral, we encourage you to go over this guide to help you understand a little more about nontraditional funeral services and what to expect as a guest. Continue reading to become familiarized with secular funeral customs and traditions as you learn about a different approach to funeral rites and final goodbyes.
Atheists are known for their disbelief of the afterlife or a higher being. For this main reason, it’s very unlikely you’ll come across religious hymns or prayers, or even a priest or pastor when attending an atheist burial. For them, funeral services are more focused on the life of the deceased rather than what awaits him or her after. Secular funerals take heed on remembering the life of the deceased, the time spent together, and what he or she accomplished.
Although not as traditional as many are used to in the sense of religious rituals and reciting of prayers, atheist burials generally include many of the traditional funeral practices including burial, cremation, embalming, and organ donation. Ultimately, they view this as an opportunity to honor and commemorate a loved one, while retaining an emphasis that a death has occurred and acknowledging the pain and hurt that comes with it.
Although many would think secular funerals vastly differ from the more traditional and religious kinds, the truth is both types of ceremonies have a lot in common and ultimately hold the same dynamics.
This is how atheist funerals resemble traditional ones:
In the end, a secular funeral retains the traditional essence and somber atmosphere that usually comes with a burial service. However, there are many things that make the two different and are unique to each kind.
Here are a few things you can expect when attending a secular funeral that you won’t see at a traditional ceremony, or perhaps you’ll often see in a different way:
Music. Secular funerals’ music selection is often soft and does not have a religious connotation like the hymns or prayers that are often sung at religious funerals. Overall, music forms a crucial element of secular funeral services and is usually played at the beginning and end of the service. Although both funeral types involve some kind of tune, they usually differ in their purpose.
Poetry. Instead of prayers and Psalms, secular funerals often involve poetry. Secular funerals often include sentimental poetry, usually from non-religious authors. Eulogies may also be read to honor and commemorate the deceased.
Location. Typically, secular funerals can take place anywhere, except a religious place of worship.
When attending a non-religious funeral you can expect the same ambience of sadness and grief experienced at religious or more traditional funerals. Many times, secular burials hold what can be considered a more celebratory approach, as they focus on celebrating and honoring the life of the deceased, while still continuing to recognize the pain that comes from losing a loved one.
Guests are usually expected to wear traditional mourning clothes: i.e., a black dress, dark shirt, closed toes, or anything that is modest and conservative. This can vary if the deceased asked for a more cheerful or themed-based ceremony with a different dress code..
Given the non-traditional nature of secular funerals, they can be highly personalized and unique to each family. Guests can expect an open casket just like a closed one, an urn with cremated ashes or no urn at all, loud music playing, as well as a wide range of scenarios that might be considered inappropriate under a traditional setting.
Overall, guests can expect to hear stories of the deceased person’s life, music enjoyed by him or her, poetry and inspirational readings, and memories told by those close to him or her.
As you attend a secular funeral for the first time, finding the right words to say to those grieving without disrupting their choice of beliefs might be one of the most difficult scenarios you’ll encounter. Most of us are used to expressing our sorrow and condolences with expressions like “he is in a better place now” or “you’re in my thoughts and prayers.” In many atheist funeral settings, while these types of sentiments are still considered acceptable and appreciated, it’ll always depend on the preferences of each individual family. In more serious instances where expressions like this might sound offensive, you can opt for more subtle phrases without any religious associations such as “you’re in my thoughts and wishes” and “sending you all my love and support,” “I feel your pain” and “you can count on me for anything. A simple “I’m sorry for your loss” is always appropriate, as well.
Atheist funeral services are highly personalized and vary from family to family. You can expect something different with every secular ceremony you attend. However, the focus remains to honor and remember the deceased as the family and friends come together for support.
We’d like to remind you as a guest to not forget to take into consideration the pain and grief that those attending are experiencing, making them more sensitive and vulnerable to comments that oppose their beliefs. Above all, don’t forget to remain gracious and as respectful as possible of everyone’s choice of beliefs.