Secular Funerals and Rituals Are Becoming More Common

Rituals help atheists, agnostics and the otherwise religiously unaffiliated move through grief
A beautiful secular funerals can have a casket and twinkle lights

Beautiful funeral of Joshua Amos Harris Edmonds
Credit: beyond

As global projections predict a rise in religious affiliation among people worldwide, the percentage of religiously affiliated Americans continues to drop. The Pew Research Center has found that a growing minority of Americans, particularly Millennials, are religious “nones” — atheists, agnostics and those who don’t identify with any organized faith. The Center’s study, “The Changing Global Religious Landscape” revealed that in 2014 the “nones” rose to 23 percent of the adult population, up from 16 percent in 2007. 

As the group of “nones” grows in number, secular funerals are becoming more common, as atheists and agnostics use non-religious rituals to memorialize their loved ones who have died. Rituals help us grieve, and lack of religion does not have to mean lack of ritual. 

Secular Funerals More Flexible

Atheist or Humanist funerals avoid references to the after-life, on which many religious funerals center. They also tend to be very personal. In the absence of scripted prayers or religious protocols, secular funerals are generally devoted to sharing memories and celebrating the life of the person who died. Loved ones often incorporate favorite songs and poems in much the same way that religious mourners incorporate hymns and prayers. Songs and readings may be pieces that reflect on the cycle of life. Or they may simply reflect the loved ones’ personal tastes. 

Because no religious edict dictates where secular funerals take place, people hold them in a variety of locales. Some mourners choose a “traditional” funeral home. Others hold the service in parks, backyards, theaters, community centers or crematoriums. And if the person who died opted for cremation rather than burial, there’s a lot of room to dream of unique places to hold a memorial.

Secular funerals can be held outdoors in a park like this one

Balloon release at a memorial service

Rituals Heal Grief

Rituals, whether religious and formal or informal and secular, are an important tool for helping mourners move through grief. They can also help restore a sense of control in the chaotic emotional environment that follows loss. Michael Norton and Francesca Gino published an article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology titled, “Rituals Alleviate Grieving for Loved Ones, Lovers, and Lotteries.” In it, they define a ritual as a “symbolic activity that is performed before, during or after a meaningful event in order to achieve some desired outcome — from alleviating grief to winning a competition to making it rain.”

The point is that rituals help people make meaning from the events of their lives. Since meaning-making is one of the most important pieces of developing and predicting resiliency, let’s embrace the tool of ritual. It can ease our suffering whether we’re religious or not. 

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3 Responses to Secular Funerals and Rituals Are Becoming More Common

  1. avatar A. Terungwa says:

    Hi Ellary,

    It’s good to see that our society is gradually making progress to accommodate the religiously unaffiliated population.

    Believe me, rituals such as this are some of the reasons why (some) people even seek out a religious affiliation in the first place.

    However, with this reality, the fact of religion or its choice will not be connected to rituals – but personal conviction, ensuring a very healthy state of affairs for all parties.

    Do make the day great.

    A. Terungwa

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  2. avatar Ellary A says:

    Thanks for reading, A. Terungwa! I agree that rituals can bring comfort to both religious and non-religious people. There can be a lot of healing potential in personal rituals!
    Thanks for the thoughts,

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  3. I agree that a post-death ritual does not have to be religious. However, I wanted to note that although the term ‘funeral service’ is used for a wide range of post-death rituals, there are three major types.
    To my mind, a ‘funeral’ service is about acknowledging the death of a loved one and the loss of a further DIRECT relationship with them: it is usually a few days to a week after the death, and may include witnessing in a gravesite burial or the cremation [Note: in some places, family/friends can participate in filling the grave, or pushing the button to start the cremation.]
    Secondly, I see a memorial to be exactly what it states — a rite in memory of the loved one, remembering the key parts of our past relationship with them. It usually happens later than a funeral service — weeks to months — often determined by when most of the family/friends can attend.
    Thirdly, there are ‘celebrations of life’. They are often indistinguishable from memorials. I suggest that a ‘celebration of life’ is more significant if it happens before the death. It allows a lot of people to say ‘goodbye’ at once, without requiring a lot of energy from the Death Journeyer (who, towards the end, will most likely not have the energy for ‘one to one’ visits); and they get to heard about others’ favourite memories of them and carry that into their death. In one example of this, the person had all of her favourite belongings put in a bedroom, and invited guests to choose an item that was most significant to them; the sharing afterwards meant that the Death Journeyer knew what each person had chosen and why.

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