Musings Of A Spiritual Atheist
Death Rites
Humans have a whole range of rites associated with disposing of dead bodies while, at the same time, refusing to fully accept that the person who died has completely ended. Religion plays a key role in this, insisting that the deceased is still alive on another plane of existence, usually one of supreme pleasure. Unless, of course, the dead person lived their life doing things that society considered reprehensible, in which case the new plane is one of unutterable pain and suffering. It is quite paradoxical that those who believe in a Christian god of love also describe him as being quite vindictive by condemning people to an eternity of pain in hell for using the innate ability which he gave them to make their own decisions about right and wrong and coming to different conclusions than he did.

So as to emotionally accept the death of a loved one or a respected elder in society, we seem to have a basic need as a species to mark their death with a special event, to have a special rite of passage, even though no journey takes place. Really, of course, the rite is for those still alive and is to enable them to cope with the death of someone. One might speculate that this need is based on our individual refusal to accept that we are also mortal and will one day die ourselves. Having society endorse a concept of “death but no death” through a religious fallacy enables us to do that rather than accept what we so plainly see. This is not a new phenomenon and archaeological excavations of very early human burials show they included various items likely valuable to the dead person while alive and possibly needed after death in the new plane, making it clear that humanity has grappled with this emotional event for many thousands of years. There is also evidence that our co-species, the Neanderthals, also marked this event with burial, indicating that they too had an emotional response to dying. How far back among human species this goes is not known, but it is likely very ancient. The use of religion to alleviate emotional suffering is obviously a very ancient practice, and death rites may be intimately involved in the rise of such beliefs all those aeons ago. This is not necessarily a negative aspect of society. Today, people still have great difficulty accepting that a loved one has come to a complete end, and turn to religion and religious rites to help them cope and accept it. If it is successful, who is to criticise?

How do atheists, who have no religious affiliation or feelings cope with this aspect of human life? Some, I suspect, just “go with the flow” and attend church services that have been arranged for the deceased, knowing that going to a funeral in order to honour someone does not mean they are affiliated with the church or believe any of its doctrine. The funeral is just where the funeral is, so they attend. When someone other than an atheist is in control of the funeral arrangements for a deceased believer this is quite usual. Even when an atheist is making the funeral arrangements for a deceased believer a church funeral may still be arranged. It would simply be the case of one person respecting the wishes and beliefs of another, and the funeral is to honour the deceased, after all.

In the case of a deceased atheist, the situation should be different, although I suspect that some believers in charge of the arrangements would still arrange a church funeral. This would not necessarily be from a lack of respect, although it does show that, but because church funerals are the usual way it is done and a believer would naturally consider that first. The opinion of most atheists would likely be that a church service would be a waste of time and praying over them to a nonexistent god would be pointless, but otherwise would likely consider it to be of no importance.

It is becoming more common for many people, including those who are not atheists and who may be quite religious, to hold “Celebration of life” events instead of, or in addition to, formal funerals. The actual internment or cremation is often private and for family only. I think this is a move in the right direction since it allows for religious or non-religious burial at the family’s option, and also allows for friends and acquaintances to say goodbye at a later date in a secular atmosphere. It is as well to keep in mind that funerals, wakes and celebrations of life are for those who are still living and have the underlying purpose of helping people emotionally accept the death of a friend or loved one.

With most animals the dead body either decays after death or is eaten as food by another animal. This latter natural event is necessarily highly distressing to our sensibilities. We are, after all, fundamentally a prey animal and have an instinctive aversion to being eaten or to see our loved ones eaten. Objectively, however, using a dead body as food for another carnivore is merely accepting the natural order of events, no different from what happens to millions of other organisms on a continual basis. After all, do we not kill and eat chickens and pigs? Even decay of a body is providing food for other life forms, bacteria and other so-called lower life, as the nutrients contained in a corpse are recycled. Attempts have been made to inhibit this as well by embalming dead bodies, but with limited success. Overall, over extended periods of time, just about all biological material is recycled one way or another. That is the natural way.

In some parts of the world, particularly in those areas where religious commitment is declining, a movement has developed to incorporate acceptance of the natural way into burial rites, often secular. These are described as "green" burials, where the body is treated minimally after death, just enough to show respect for the person's life. The body is then buried with a minimal covering, which may vary depending on the political jurisdiction involved, to enable rapid decay and utilisation of the resulting materials to sustain some other life, usually a tree or something similar. The body decays quite rapidly and is incorporated into subsequent lives over a long period of time. It is tempting to say, “as nature intended” but there is no actual intent involved. It's just the way things should be and, for an atheist, simply recognises our true place in the universe and nature, that we are an integral part of it and not a special feature different from all others.

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