Over My Dead Body

I was listening to NPR the other day (it was brief, and I don’t remember which program it was that I heard a snippet of), and heard a man speak of the death of his mother, which happened many years after he and his siblings had left the Catholic Church. As non-believers, and more importantly, as individuals independent of any faith traditions, he and his siblings were at a loss: what do you do with the body? Not in the sense of “do we just let her lie there and decompose?”, but more in the sense that they had no rituals, no traditions to follow. (More, after the jump:)

The faith communities have rituals by the ton; there are (or rather, may be—I certainly cannot speak to all such communities) expected services, expected words, expected behaviors. At a time when survivors (is that the right word?) may be numb, grief-stricken, or perhaps merely annoyed and busy, having such structures may be a welcome scaffolding, a support when the whole world has just undergone a tectonic shift.

What, then, of atheists? I have been through two more funerals over the past couple of years than I have wanted to, where both men were atheists (one explicitly, the other for all intents and purposes, though culturally Persian and non-practicing Shia); family and loved ones included a variety of faiths and lack thereof. The Cuttlefish family are mutts; there are strong currents of one culture or another, but over the extended family, they mix. Mind you, each current thinks itself special, and deserving of special accommodations, so there was (for instance) a strong expectation of Christian prayer at my atheist brother’s funeral.

I’ve said before, elsewhere, that the clergy were uniformly useless during this process. They had their rituals, but those were not ours, and were about as much use as a sweater on a fish. The master of ceremonies at the memorial service was a minister, who kept noting “I did not know him, but it’s clear he was special…” Part of what made him special, part of what made him who he was, was precisely why you did not know him. He was not of your community.

There was one person at the time who made a world of difference. He was trained as a rabbi, but he was acting at the time simply as a bureaucrat, a government functionary who was part of the process of officially identifying my brother’s body. But he was a source of practical and needed advice, from navigating the paperwork through what to expect emotionally for months to come. He did not speak through his faith community (it was not until late in our conversation that we found he was a rabbi), but much more broadly and inclusively—he had clearly spoken with people of many different traditions over the years, and this knowledge had made him… wise.

There have been others, since then, who have made a difference. As always, there are good and bad in any profession; we happened to have stumbled upon a competent but unspectacular funeral director, whose advice was not terrible, but was nothing helpful either. I have since found a site I really like, where a preoccupation with death, dying, and ceremony has made them wise, like the rabbi bureaucrat. (They also liked some of my verses, so that helped.) The people at the Good Funeral Guide are something special. They are not limited by a particular tradition, but show respect for the human condition that transcends the “ritual for ritual’s sake” my Christian relatives required. Their blog makes for a good read, whether you have reason to contemplate death, or just want to enjoy life. I don’t know that I could do their job, but I am very glad they are doing it. I also don’t know that I could give any advice about funeral traditions for atheists (indeed, I am certain many do not want any ritual of any sort), but if there is anyone who I’d look to for that advice, it’s them. And no, they didn’t pay me to say that.

Anyway, enough of my rambling. A verse! This one was originally inspired by the Good Funeral Guide people; they had tweeted about a story on an epidemic of naked dancing at funerals in Zimbabwe. Not part of my family’s traditions, but hey…

Dance naked at my funeral! Because
You can; because you are alive to dance!
Dance naked—never mind the laws—
The cops might care; you’ll have to take that chance!

Dance beside the fresh-turned earth—my grave—
With nothing on but bright blue sky, or clouds
If the sky is mourning my loss. Misbehave!
Dance naked! You have no need of shrouds!

Dance, naked, around my silent stone;
If I were there, and living, I’d dance too!
But no, my music’s stopped; my dance is done
Dance for me! That’s all I ask of you!

Dance naked—mourn in movement, in the buff;
For now, forget… you’ll join me soon enough.


  1. Jeff Sherry says

    At my mother’s funeral (’87) we had a closed viewing by immediate family. We spoke a few words between ourselves. 3 months later we spread my mothers ashes on the hills in a state park per my mothers wishes. Probably pretty dull to many people.

  2. Makoto says

    I’ve given some fairly explicit instructions to my family when the time comes that I no longer have use for this set of cells that comprise my body:

    First, take anything that could be used for others. Any organs that can be transplanted should be snagged right away.

    Next, take anything that can be used for students and teaching. Stuff to learn how to operate, dissect, to learn from what killed me, and so on.

    There won’t be much left after that, so there’s no need for a funeral, just make sure the biological hazard that was my corpse is properly disposed of according to federal and state regulations.

    Then – have a party. Make sure there are board games, video games, movies, etc and so forth, and that everyone can have a good time, because that’s what I’d want to be happening if I was there. Dancing naked is optional.

  3. Dorothy says

    To: Makoto
    What a lovely idea. I wish I could have done that. But in the cases of both my husband (2009) and my Mother (2010)I didn’t have the choice. We lived in a small village, and in such places, while you may be quite open about being an athiest, what your neighbors hear is: not decided. A service was expected.
    We happened to be friends with a gay couple, one of which was studying for the ministry – united church. Dont ask. But, this being small town Ontario, our friendship trumped the church(s). I asked that he be the speaker – but I didn’t want to hear a single !@#$% word about $%^&* god or that ilk.
    We called it a celebration of his life. And, bad as that time was, it was ok.
    In the case of Mother, she was 95 and had been dying for some time. So I had been grieving for some considerable time. Not helped by the fact that my baby brother had taken his own life (living in the states, and no notice to anyone – I got a call the day of the funeral) in 2008, and I had to lie to her about him being too busy to come and visit, etc. I had already informed all interested relatives that there would be no service. When she finally went, I had her quietly cremated. I simply could not deal with another “celebration”
    It’s fine to go the spare-parts route – if you can. In small town Ontario you really do not have that option.
    I have two fine, hand-blown, locally made urns, now. At least I got them both home.
    Come my own time, I hope that that couple are still around. They at least understand that I will not be in heaven, or in the hands of god, or any such crap. I will be compost.
    I will live as best I can while I am still alive. If you cannot bother visiting while I am alive, don’t bother when I am dead.

  4. Johnny Vector says

    (Just catching up on old posts now that (one of) my computers can see FTB again.) I went to 4 funerals in the span of a year about 7 years ago. The worst was the Catholic funeral of my stepmom’s mother. Two hours of services with maybe two mentions of her (and even those were in the context of what a good churchgoing woman she was). Basically one long advertisement for the church. It was all I could do to not storm out in disgust.

    Then there was my father-in-law. He was cremated, and we had a memorial service at the local watering hole he loved. They donated the use of their banquet room, and we told stories about him and sang songs and wore his team’s garb, and sang more songs, and drank to his memory. I think everyone there heard a story about him that they hadn’t before. No god talk, no religious sales pitches, no strangers trying to pretend they had something to say about him. Just friends and family remembering why we loved him.

    I may have told this story here before, but if so, tough.

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