A rise in atheist funerals shows that fewer of us need to rely on faith when confronted with mortality
For centuries, the Christian church wrote the script for how westerners deal with death. There was the deathbed confession, the last rites, the pallbearers, the obligatory altar call, the burial ceremony, the stone, the angels-and-harps imagery. Yet that archaic and stereotypical vision of death, like a mossy and weather-worn statue, is crumbling – and in its place, something new and better has a chance to grow.
Traditional funerals and burials are declining in popularity (to the point where churches are bemoaning the trend), in favor of alternatives like green burial and cremation. Personalized humanist funerals and secular celebrants are becoming more common, echoing a trend that’s also occurring with weddings.
As younger generations turn away from religion, the US is slowly but surely becoming more secular. As mortician and “good death” advocate Caitlin Doughty writes in her book, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory, America is seeing a sea-change in traditions and rituals surrounding mortality.
Doughty and others see this shift not as something to be lamented, but to be embraced. Instead of following a script that’s been written for us, we can create our own customs and choose for ourselves how we want to be remembered. We can design funerals that emphasize the good we did, the moments that made our lives meaningful and the lessons we’d like to pass on.
Rather than the same handful of biblical passages, we can have readings from any book, poem or song in the whole broad tapestry of human culture. Rather than mourning, gloom and sermons on sin, we can have ceremonies that are joyful celebrations of the deceased person’s life.
But the rise of humanism isn’t just influencing what funerals look like; it’s changing how we die. For ages, when the church’s word was law, suicide was deemed a mortal sin. Even today, studies find that more fervent religious devotion correlates to more desire for aggressive and medically futile end-of-life intervention, not less.
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