2 people mourning
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Not all funerals have to be religious. 37.2% of the UK population claim to be either atheist or having no religion. As well as atheists, who disbelieve the existence of a God, there are plenty of people who are agnostic about God, or follow spiritual practices without adhering to a particular religion. This data stands in stark contrast to a decade ago, when only around 15% of the population were self-proclaimed atheists.

In light of these changing trends, it is important for funeral homes to cater for those who wish to have a secular, or atheist funeral service. It is no longer a given that a funeral must be Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or any other religion. It can simply celebrate the deceased’s memory without relating to God or the afterlife. Imposing religious themes or messaging upon a funeral service against the wishes of the family could cause offence, as well as potentially losing their custom.

But what is involved in an atheist funeral service, and how can funeral directors incorporate secular ceremonies into their current offerings?

Religious Funeral Services vs. Atheist Funeral Services

The Lord is my Shepherd Psalm 23
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There are many similarities between a religious and an atheist funeral service. Both forms of ceremony are intended to celebrate the life of the person who has died, and provide a means for their family and friends to get together and say goodbye. Both funerals will feature some form of service, possibly involving speeches, music, and remembrances from their life. In the same way as a religious funeral, the deceased may be either buried or cremated in a coffin or casket.

The key difference between the two is that a religious ceremony will focus to some extent on the afterlife, to which the loved ones of the deceased believe they will have moved on. It will involve a celebration of their passing on from life to death and religious imagery may feature heavily. There are likely to be hymns and religious readings, while the service itself sometimes takes part in a place of worship or religious significance. An atheist funeral, on the other hand, will focus predominantly on life rather than death. Any readings and songs will have an emotional connection to the deceased rather than any religious meaning. One significant difference is that an atheist funeral could take place in any location, such as a community centre, a loved one’s home, or even outdoors in nature. The body may or may not be present, and the family and friends may have their own unique customs and rituals upon which they have decided.

Tips to Prepare an Atheist Funeral Service

So how can you go about preparing an atheist funeral service, particularly if you have historically only offered religious ceremonies in the past? Here are a few tips to get you started.

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Talk to the family

One atheist funeral will be completely different from another, so it’s essential you communicate with the family of the deceased to identify exactly what they envision from their funeral service. They may have a clear idea of precisely what they want, from the decor to the individual readings. In this case, your job is easy and you merely have to provide what is asked for. But if the family is unsure of the best course of action, you will likely need to provide suggestions, which can be difficult if you’re not used to preparing secular funerals.

Find the right officiant

Most religious funerals will be held by an officiant who is accustomed to holding a religious ceremony. For an atheist funeral it may be necessary to find an officiant who has experience delivering atheist or humanist services. It may be that the family or friends of the deceased wish to officiate themselves.

Prepare the venue

Not all funerals must be held at a funeral home, and the family may wish for the service to be held in a place that holds sentimental value, such as a home, a pub, or even in the middle of a local woodland. There are no laws that dictate where a funeral can or can’t be held, as long as the owner of the venue or land in question has given permission. When preparing the venue for the service, you must be careful to avoid overtly religious decoration.

Be respectful

It goes without saying that respect must be paid to the loved ones of the deceased at all times. Atheism is increasingly common, and the family may feel strongly about not wanting religion to be a part of the ceremony. Adhere closely to their wishes, and refrain from imposing any religious messaging into the service unless with their express permission. On the other hand, be careful not to appear anti-religious. While the deceased may have been atheist and wished for an atheist funeral it doesn't mean that everyone attending is necessarily an atheist too.

Be flexible

There is no cookie cutter approach to an atheist funeral service. Every single ceremony will have its differences, in accordance with the wishes of the deceased and their loved ones. Be prepared to cater to quirky or unconventional requests. For example, while some people are opting for eco-friendly funerals involving a minimum of fuss and a coffin made of biodegradable materials, others may incorporate rituals of their own design, such as each friend and family member painting the coffin or writing on it a message of remembrance. It’s important to be flexible in accommodating specific funeral requests and be prepared to politely decline a suggestion if it happens to be impossible or inappropriate.

Over time you are likely to undertake an increasing number of them and may develop your own process for arranging such events. If you use funeral home software you may be able to tag atheist funerals as a funeral type to ensure all staff are aware which funerals are atheist.

In conclusion, there are a number of ways to prepare an atheist funeral service. These ceremonies are often joyful celebrations of life, in which religion may feature to some extent, but will not be the focal point. Instead, they are largely centred upon remembering the life of the person who has passed on. When preparing a secular funeral, be sure to find out the exact wishes of the family, and do your best to be flexible and accommodating every step of the way.