FFRF’s guide to godless funerals and secular memorials
FFRF often gets requests about its “Godless Funerals and Secular Memorials” web page. We are reprinting it here with hopes it will be of use someday to you or loved ones.
(Or you can go to ffrf.org/publications/secular-funerals)
By Anne Nicol Gaylor
Freethinkers believe that a memorial service should celebrate life, not death. Memorials should honor the person who has lived, not be a vehicle to proselytize unsavory dogmas such as sin and salvation, as typical religious funerals often are. It is time to dispense with carbon-copy, fill-in-the-blank services read by clergy who use the occasion to promote religion, instead of honoring the individual. Freethinkers can specify “no religion” in their wills and papers, and freethinking families can likewise make clear they want no religious observances at funerals, the gravesite or memorials.
At the Freedom From Religion Foundation, we often hear horror stories about what happens when religious relatives put on godly funerals for people who were “devoutly unreligious.” We have heard of religious relatives throwing out valuable freethought libraries! We receive frequent requests from FFRF members who wish to ensure that their own memorials or those for nonreligious friends and relatives stay secular and true to the wishes of the deceased.
Memorials can be planned with readings from favorite poets and writers, with favorite music, with personal anecdotes told by friends and families, with family photos and other personal touches.
Another way to honor the living is to specify secular charities and organizations to donate in memory of the deceased. Friends and relatives who might never consider donating to such a charity often will honor such a request and this is a way for freethinking or progressive concerns to live after you.
Many freethinkers plan memorials rather than funeral services. Memorials have the advantage of giving grieving family and friends the chance to recover from the shock of sudden death, to make travel arrangements, and to fulfill obligations and legal duties before having to plan meeting logistics. Whether to hold a funeral or a memorial service is entirely a matter of family discretion and personal choice. Memorials are not reserved for those being cremated.
If a funeral (which includes a burial) is chosen, the timing usually takes place within a week of death. Individual state laws regulate when a burial must take place. Funeral homes can help a family consider the myriad small details, and there are also memorial societies that can help individuals plan details in advance of their deaths and save on expenses. No clergy is required to participate in any aspect of a funeral or burial.
FFRF is often asked: How do I make sure I am not given a religious burial? These requirements may be left with final papers, an “After I’m Gone” list left with trusted family, executor, or as a stand-alone instruction with your other important documents, clearly marked and signed. Do not rely on placing such a provision in a will, which likely will be read after burial or cremation. In Wisconsin, the Department of Health has an “Authorization for Final Disposition” form which allows someone to detail arrangements for a funeral or memorial (see “religious instructions”). Your own state may offer such a form.
There are no orthodox rules or religious rites that must be followed. Isn’t that nice?
Anne Nicol Gaylor was the co-founder of FFRF.
• Memorial Services For Women by Meg Bowman
• A Humanist Funeral Service by Corliss Lamont
• Funerals Without God: A Practical Guide to
Non-Religious Funerals by Jane Wynne Willson
Sample secular service
• Selected readings (if desired)
• Tribute/memorial portrait/eulogy (Prepared remarks)
• Song or music
• Personal memories (spontaneous memories shared
• Song or music
• Closing words or thank you
• Closing music
• Invitation to reception
During the tribute or memorial portrait, a family member or a chosen speaker remembers the person who has died. This talk can incorporate personal anecdotes, achievements; whatever it is that best describes this person. Audience members can be invited to share memories.
You may wish to point out the skeptical views of the person being remembered. For example: ______ did not believe in life after death; _______ believed in life before death. But _______ does live on in a natural sense, in the memories of those who remain, _____’s children and grandchildren [if applicable], and in ______’s accomplishments. (This leads to the memorial portrait or tribute).
Most freethinkers craft their own unique program. A friendly colleague or family friend may officiate. Families personalize the event with picture boards or other memorial displays. Don’t be afraid to be different. Even a favorite recipe of a good cook — brownies, etc., — can be distributed (or served). Talented friends or family can be included in the program. Songs, music, poems or sayings personal to the deceased can be featured. Many memorials provoke as much laughter as tears. Music can begin and end the event, and be interspersed throughout.
Note: If religious relatives are involved, you may wish to include a “moment of reflection” to keep the peace.
The favorite music of the person being memorialized is an obvious choice, and/or family favorites. There is no right or wrong. FFRF Member (and brave church/state plaintiff) Phyllis Grams, who was known for being organized and fearless, planned her own memorial service down to the final period, and chose as her selection a Frank Sinatra recording of “I Did It My Way” (causing a roomful of friends to erupt in affectionate laughter).
If you want your memorial service to include the music of freethinkers, please note the impressive roster of classical composers (and popular standards composers) who have been free of religion. (They may have been commissioned to write requiems, etc., but that was because the wealthiest clients were often churches and religious monarchs!) Nonreligious composers include: Faure, Bizet, Berlioz, Brahms, Copland, Debussy, Delius and Verdi. Classical composers who were not devoutly religious, rejected church teachings, or who were Deists include Beethoven, Mozart and Tchaikovsky. Chopin was not an atheist, but he had given up the Catholic Church at his death.
Songwriters who are/were not religious: Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim and Scott Joplin. The lyrics to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a comforting song that is a favorite worldwide, were written by atheist Yip Harburg. “Imagine,” by John Lennon, is another international favorite. Robert Burns was also an irreverent Deist who wrote many beautiful and meaningful songs.
Other ideas: “Danny Boy,” “To a Wild Rose” from Woodland Sketches by Edward Alexander MacDowell; “Wandering Westward” from Mark Twain; Fifth Symphony (New World), Second Movement, first third by Antonin Dvorak (a believer but he wrote beautiful music), “The Last Spring” by Edvard Grieg, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Old Man River by Jerome Kern.
For more listings, go to ffrf.org/publications/secular-funerals.
Immortality by Felix Adler
When Great Trees Fall by Maya Angelou
Let There Be Light by Philip Appleman
The Dead by Rupert Brooke
Continuance by Samuel Butler
Unweaving the Rainbow (excerpt) by Richard Dawkins
Death Sets a Thing Significant by Emily Dickinson
The Bustle in a House by Emily Dickinson
Death by Epicurus
Do Not Stand At My Grave & Weep by Mary Elizabeth Frye
Sing Well! by Joyce Grenfell
Leavetaking by Mary Lee Hill
Dear Lovely Death by Langston Hughes
At a Child’s Grave by Robert G. Ingersoll
Mystery of Life by Robert G. Ingersoll
This is the Silent Haven by Robert G. Ingersoll
The World Sweeps On by Robert Ingersoll
A Pindaric Ode by Ben Jonson
An Epitaph by Walter de La Mare
No Single Thing Abides by Lucretius
In Flanders Fields by John McCrea
Dirge Without Music by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Sonnet by Elizabeth Morrow
Remember by Christina Rossetti
Song by Christina Rossetti
Epitaph by George Santayana
I Have a Rendezvous with Death by Alan Seeger
I Choose by Seneca
Sonnet CVIII by William Shakespeare
Adonais by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Prometheus Unbound by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Heritage by Theodore Spencer
The Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser
Requiem by Robert Louis Stevenson
From the Garden of Proserpine by Algernon Charles Swinburne
In a Burying Ground by Sara Teasdale