Continuing with the Neptune Society series on cremation and religion, this article focuses on atheism – the fastest growing “religion” in America according to Pew Research. Although atheism is not a religion per se, when it comes to determining a person’s final wishes for cremation, burial, funeral practices, or memorials, atheism – or the absence of religious beliefs – is playing an increasingly large role in today’s funeral industry.
What is Atheism?
Many people do not understand exactly what atheism is. In the past, atheism has been described as “lack of belief in God.” This in itself is a monotheistic definition of atheism. Atheists in fact don’t believe in God or gods, spiritual or supernatural beings, or anything else of the sort.
Atheism is actually not a religion or a belief system in and of itself. Atheists believe many things and come from many backgrounds. The one common thread that ties all atheists together is a lack of belief in any gods and supernatural beings.
That said, it’s interesting to note that atheism isn’t necessarily incompatible with certain, less religious belief systems or practices such as Buddhism. Buddhism does not require belief in divine beings or gods, but doesn’t rule them out either. So, in this way Buddhism might be considered “non-theistic,” rather than atheistic.
When it comes to cremation or funeral practices, this is an important distinction, as an atheist may not believe in God or gods, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have other beliefs that ought to be considered.
What do atheists believe about death?
Atheists do not believe in supernatural beings, and that includes their own souls when they die. In fact, most atheists would not use the term “soul,” or even “spirit,” preferring instead to use terms like “consciousness” or “awareness.”
As one atheist put it, “I have always felt that when I die, I am dead and gone, my conscious life will end, my interactions with others will end, and I will be simply gone. I don’t know what causes consciousness (call it spirit, call it soul, I don’t mean to pick sides with my words), but I expect that it will end. My afterlife will be in the memories of those I knew, those who loved me, those who carry me on in their hearts. I, myself, cease to exist.”
What are atheist funeral practices?
As atheism is not a religion and atheists may have differing beliefs and values, it’s not surprising that they don’t hold one specific view of how funeral practices should be conducted. Some atheists prefer cremation, others may prefer traditional burial. Some atheists may want a memorial service, others may want something less traditional.
Often, a more traditional memorial service is held at the request of the family. However, although some family members may prefer that the funeral include religious hymns or scriptures that are comforting to the bereaved, most atheists themselves might prefer that their funeral or memorial service not be overly religious in nature. Other atheists might prefer that their families do whatever gives them the most comfort.
Because there can be some tension between atheists and more religious family members in this area, it can be a good idea for atheists and their families to create a plan in advance to ensure that an atheist’s final wishes are respected.
At Neptune Society, we respect the decision of each individual and family. We strongly recommend that individuals and families discuss their cremation and funeral wishes in advance and consult religious or philosophical leaders if they have any doubts regarding their decision.
If you or a loved one is considering cremation, we at Neptune Society encourage you to consider carefully your own position on the subject, discuss your options with your religious leader, and make the choice you believe is right for you and your family. For more articles in this series, please see our religion and cremation article archive.
Special thanks to Greg Crouse , Service Manager of Neptune Society San Antonio for her support and contributions to this post.