For many secularists, and even those who identify as religious, funerals and wakes can be difficult situations to handle. Talk of ‘God’s will’ and ‘paradise’ and being ‘in a better place’ are not only unsettling themes to bring up during a time of mourning, but taboo and in a lot of cases, insulting.
But how can the secular community make that known, without seeming anti-theist or intrusive?
From the standpoint of someone arranging a service, it can be as simple as releasing a statement online, or through a newspaper obituary, saying that “Services held at _________ will be secular in nature. Please refrain from using phrases or terms which may be linked to any religion and/or its afterlife.”
Though it may be perceived as jarring to some folks, doing that could help to maintain a certain level of respect for secularists and our loved ones’ wishes, and our own.
Services should be dedicated to the memory of a person who has passed, and the emotions involved in processing what has occurred. Often, that is what happens, but when the people closest to the deceased arrange for an ordained priest to speak about ‘God’ and ‘heaven’ and ‘peace,’ what can be done? It’s impolite to outright challenge people’s opinions given the setting, but it’s uncomfortable to listen to, at times, especially if it’s known that the deceased was nonreligious.
From what I've witnessed, sincere honesty is the best when giving a testimony. Talking about how loved a person was, or a shared moment, can be poignant and sufficient. At my friend’s wake a couple months ago, a close loved one of his had prepared a speech, which she began by mentioning she did not believe in any sort of conventional heaven. I forget her exact words. But from thereon, it became very poetic. She went into a significant amount of detail about the elements of the body having a permanence incomparable to anything I've heard before. She ended it with a line something akin to, “And so, you’ll always be with us.” In that way, she maintained a level of decorum, while also beautifully and evocatively delivering a statement that was deeply personal for her to share, in remembrance of him.
Speaking publicly is not for everyone, however, and not all of us have a knack for writing symbolically. For those who must interact before a formal service starts, there are some delicate things that can be said that are equally effective at showing respect and care. There’s no ideal or definitive guide for expressing condolences as a secularist in situations where a theistic burial or congregation is confirmed, but as Caitlin Doughty explains in her video there are a few ways to be genuine and heartfelt without overstepping boundaries and remaining spiritually neutral. Her main recommendations for what to say are:
1. I’m so sorry.
It’s simple. It’s not obstructive. It expresses sympathy.
2. I have no idea how you feel.
This phrase is a little trickier. It’s truthful, but it may make grievers uncomfortable in acknowledging their own emotions in comparison to others’. Alternatively, one can say the more frequently used, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through” or a variation of it.
3. How have you been doing?
It’s familiar, and as Doughty states, “Puts all of the power in the hands of the griever.”
But in asking a question like this, and in approaching conversation with any of those phrases, it should be noted that secularists may still encounter responses steeped in religious belief, such as:
“I just keep praying” or “God’s giving me strength” and many other phrases related to personal outlooks. It can be painful to listen to at times, especially if one holds that souls do not exist or continue into another form of existence in any way.
Regardless, reticence should be a demeanor practiced when secularists encounter exclusive language, and when attending religious funerals for people who were known to have a belief in a deity or deities.
It’s probably common sense that secularists can do little when receiving responses such as that aside from nod and hope the person will speak with what is considered as more tact, or switch the conversation back to reminiscing. But that divide, that disparity between those who believe in a higher power and those who don’t can cause open and closeted secularists to feel helpless as mourners, and as supporters of those mourning.
We can’t say, “Yes, _______ is in a better place.” We can’t say, “I’m praying for you.”
But there is a finality to death that everyone recognizes, and the hurt of it is very real- not just for those who believe the end to be the entire end of a person’s experiences. Nothing can be done, really. All anyone can ever do is try to understand, and empathize.