During their lifetimes, the non-religious are subjected to an endless cascade of evangelism, conversion attempts and general hoorah from their fervently faithful brethren. Now a British study confirms that funeral directors — and families, for that matter — need to be aware of the needs of non-religious people when planning their funerals or memorial services.
In an age when everyone strives to be “sensitive” to those whose views, outlooks and practices may be outside the mainstream, individuals of a non-religious bent are still fair game for those who insist on pressing their beliefs on others. That’s a mistake, says a study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
“The issue of death is one of the most important incidents that all societies deal with,” said Dr. Matthew Engelke, at the London School of Economics, in a news release about the study. “I wanted to look at how, in contemporary society, people who do not believe in an afterlife are commemorated at a funeral.”
Engelke focused on funerals provided by the British Humanist Association (BHA). “It was clear that the people who chose these funeral services were not necessarily humanists or atheists. They generally described themselves as ‘non-religious’, which covered the entire spectrum from absolute atheist to a more general lack of commitment or belief, especially when it comes to organised religion.”
One of the most striking aspects of BHA funeral ceremonies is that they strive to be true to the individual, to reflect as best as possible the character, world views and the sensibilities of the person who has died. “The focus is almost exclusively on the person, which is often not the case with the more traditional religious ceremonies” said Engelke.
Engelke said he commonly came across family members and friends who said: “We told the funeral director John did not go to church so we did not want a vicar to take the funeral.”
“This gives an intriguing glimpse into the extent to which modern citizens feel it important to express their uniqueness and individuality,” Engelke said.
“It is important for social scientists to look at these key moments in life, as it is through these that we get a sense of the most significant issues that matter to people and understand what it means to be non-religious in a modern British society,” said Engelke. “And I think one of the best places to start is ritual services such as funerals.”
Nuts and bolts
Services for the departed non-believers can differ from the more traditional religious affairs in other ways as well. For one thing, they don’t have to be held in a church. A funeral home chapel, a catering hall, or a hotel meeting room are perfectly acceptable substitutes, as are crematory chapels and simple graveside sites. A private home or a restaurant are also options, according to the a British organization, Co-operative Funeralcare.
Other than the setting and the language of the service, most non-religious services are similar to traditional religious services — with readings, one or more eulogies, brief remarks by family and friends and musical selections.
For those who are opposed to the idea of a completely secular service, the Unitarian Universalist Association is a nationwide U.S. denomination that has many of the trappings of traditional religion but is basically humanist in its approach. Local congregations, which are autonomous, tend to celebrate what they see as the eternal truth that lies at the heart of established religions without imposing any strict dogma.
The UUA publishes a guide to Unitarian funerals and welcomes inquiries from families facing the death of a loved one.