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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - Funeral for an Atheist

With apologies for  being tardy this morning, here is our question this week!

Just discovered revgals as I am a candidate in waiting for a call.
My next door neighbor's husband died yesterday and they are both atheists.  She wants me to plan a service to be held in a few weeks at the funeral home.  They are waiting one of their sons to return from Germany.  So where does an unexperienced revgal begin or not begin????

Jennifer responds:

First of all, best wishes to you as you preparing for your first call!

Your neighbor is in need. She’s reached out to your for help. I’d begin there.
If you don’t already know your neighbor well, you’re certainly being provided with an opportunity to get better acquainted and for both of you to determine whether you’re the best person to help her.

You’re being given the gift of some time to have one or more conversations about what she envisions for the service.
You don’t say what your own tradition is as far as worship and theology are concerned. It’s important for you to determine how comfortable you are with her requests.  
You’ll learn from a conversation with her what would be helpful, caring and compassionate. Figure out what your conscience and your faith will allow, and see where the Spirit takes you.

And Muthah+ (aka Lauren) writes:

I am an Episcopalian and we have an 'app' for that.  You might look at your tradition's ministry to the unbaptized for some help.  But most of all you want to provide comfort and help at a time of loss.  Meet with the family and find what they need to hear.  Poetry, readings that speak of the values that the family appreciates.  In one such funeral, we took some of the love letters the spouse had from her husband during the war.  Be open to asking them how they want their loved one remembered because you are not only speaking TO them but your are speak THEM to others who will be attending.  Let them know that you would generally speak of God and ask them how they want the goodness of the deceased to be expressed.  I often invite others in the congregation to speak if it is small gathering.  

Finding the value in the deceased is an important thing for them and for you. Hold up those values and speak the goodness that are in them. Get the family to tell you how they appreciated him.  When we are speaking of the Good we are also proclaiming God's presence, you just don't have to say so. I try to keep it light, respectful and short.  And with a bit of gentle humor if the situation presents itself.  Rejoice that she trusts you enough to have you do the funeral.  It says volumes about your relationship.  The hard work will come weeks from now when she is alone.  Then the problems with afterlife, how to remember, etc. will crop up and she will need to ask questions.  

And Crimson Rambler offers:

The Anglican Church of Canada in its Book of Occasional Services (the odds and ends that didn't make it into either the Book of Common Prayer OR the Book of Alternative Services) has some very useful prayers and a form for remembering thankfully the life of a person who did not profess the Christian faith...  When you feel it might be inappropriate to proclaim the resurrection, there are still useful and helpful things to be said.  The link to the Rite online seems to be broken, so I'm including a link to the Episcopal Church equivalent -- I hope --
You might also want to take a look at a very useful Lutheran text called A Trumpet in Darkness.

I hope that this is helpful.  In my experience it has been useful to say, "I will do my best for you" and then ask very carefully about what they WOULD like to hear, ignoring as much as possible the grumbles about what they DON'T want, (usually, "a lot of religion stuffed down our throats")... I remember on one occasion , working with a widow, and making micro-suggestions on behalf of the assembled guests, "Would you mind if I read a bit of Scripture, nothing too long?  Would it be all right if I led the Lord's Prayer; I suspect many of the guests will find it familiar?" and little by little, gently, we managed to assemble most of what would have constituted a Christian funeral.

Every blessing on this work...and this new challenge!


Thank you so much, dear matriarchs, for your helpful responses. What about the rest of you? What experience or advice would you offer? Please join the conversation in the comments section. And, as always, send us your questions at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.


  1. In my first summer of ministry I was called upon to do a graveside service for a former resident of town who was an avowed atheist. I used Eccelesiastes 3 as Scripture and spoke in terms that could be general or theistic depending how you took them. It must have worked for the family as a couple years later I was asked to do the same for his wife. I think I still have the service on a CD somewhere if you want it.

  2. I so appreciate these comments, especially Muthuh's about speaking the Good and thus the God.

    My father has been hospitalized twice recently, it's clear to us that this is the beginning of the end for him (heart valve, 83, etc.). I've had a couple of conversations with my mother about what she wants and doesn't want - my parents don't attend church anymore but my father still believes. They plan to be cremated. My mom reports that my dad isn't ready to talk about what he wants for a service, but she's decided she doesn't want one, and she's finished going to funerals. She just returned from a family funeral where they spoke highly of the deceased, a Vietnam Veteran, when all she remembers is his heavy drinking. I told her that I thought we could skip the memorial for her, since church isn't part of her life, but that we hold a catered lunch for friends and family where we could remember her and tell stories. She didn't respond, but I kept it light and planted a seed, I hope.

    My point, other than that I needed to vent, is that I think it's important to hold in tension the different threads of a person's life in a eulogy. My preaching teacher urged us to name the elephant in the room. If the deceased were an alcoholic, acknowledge that, along with the story of their recovery (if true) or couched in hope of another kind. If they didn't believe, speak of what your tradition teaches, and acknowledge that we see the truth dimly in this present life. Of course you talk to the family and learn what they know and need to hear. But you also proclaim hope and new life, even if you sidestep naming Christ.

  3. Others have mentioned good resources. What I can tell you is that a decade ago I did the funeral for my neighbor's husband. It forged a special bond between us for which I will always be grateful. And though this certainly wasn't why I did it, now she goes to church after not having done so for a long, long time; I would like to think that the love and care she felt in that service played a role in her re-discovering the love and care of God, even if just a small bit.

  4. I have done funerals for people without a church connection, but who for some reason would like a minister to lead the funeral. at times there has been the request, to not be too churchy. I suspect some people have had very poor experiences of church, and funerals. I start by asking the family to tell me about the person, then what they hope the service will be - formal, informal, stories, music etc. I then make some suggestions as to how this might go together in the time constraints that we have at the crematorium chapel. The funerals always end up following our standard liturgy, but most people don't know that, because of personalising a few details.
    I know I attended a family funeral while I was a student training for ministry, and it was dreadful [IMO] and other members of my family asked if that was what I was going to be doing - hard when most of the family are not church attenders.
    My experience of funerals for non-church attenders, not necessarily avowed atheists, but someone has asked you for a reasons, is that good listening to their story will help you choose appropriate elements for the funeral - and suggest which music, stories etc would be better at the wake/refreshments afterwards.

  5. This is lots of good advice. I have appreciated this book, Funerals with Today's Families in Mind. It's at my office, and I'm at home, so I'm not sure if it has a section that addresses your question, but I seem to remember that it does.


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