Burying Your Dead Without Religion

The proportion of Americans who don't identify with a specific faith is growing. What does this mean for the future of funeral rites?
A sketch of a skull by Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1510 ( Jakub Krechowicz/Shutterstock )

If you're interested, there's a tattoo parlor on the island of Oahu in Hawaii where an artist named Dodge may be able to give you a tattoo that incorporates a dead body—literally. “You simply take the cremains, or the ashes, and you mix them in with the ink, and then you ink that onto the person," explained Candi Cann, a professor at Baylor University and the author of Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the Twenty-First Century, which came out in June.

"It’s really not that different from wearing a piece of jewelry that your grandma gave you: You’re not wearing the piece of jewelry—you’re wearing your grandma.”

For most of human history, religious ceremony has helped people deal with death, providing explanations about souls and the afterlife along with rituals to help the living deal with their grief. Not all religions do death the same way. "There are certain denominations within Christianity and certain religions in general that do a better job of remembering the dead," said Cann. "Like the Catholics: There’s a very set calendar for remembering, and it’s still tied down to the religious calendar."

Tattooing yourself with a dead person's remains is one new way of memorializing death in the absence of faith, she said. "As society becomes more secular, and people are more and more turning to that 'spiritual but not religious category,' they’re forming their own do-it-yourself ways of remembering the dead."

Even within religious communities, some people have trouble finding meaningful ways to grieve, she said. "A lot of these more evangelical and charismatic denominations emphasize salvation and heaven—you’re going to be with the Lord, so you’re supposed to be happy. So if you feel bad that your best friend died, then there’s something wrong with you."

No matter your beliefs, it's important for everyone to process loss, intellectually and emotionally: After all, death is weird. In everyday life, it can be easy to ignore the starkest truth of human existence—we are finite, and one day, life will end—but not when somebody dies. 

"I’ve often compared ritual to the muscle memory of grief," said Caleb Wilde, a Pennsylvania funeral director who runs the blog "Confessions of a Funeral Director." On Twitter, he describes himself as "the last person to let you down."

Ritual "allows us to approach death in a more mindless, yet meaningful way," he said. "The farther we move away from having a type of ritual, it does seem to make the grieving and the experience of death slightly more difficult."

One way to deal with this is to invent new ways of finding meaning, like getting a tattoo or personalizing a casket or urn. "Batesville is one of the largest American-made casket producers, and that’s something they’ve pushed: ones with ornaments on it, or golf balls, or guitars, or they have a deer because they guy was a hunter." Wilde says he's seen this desire for personalization most among Boomers, which he sees as part of tendency among that generation to push back against social norms.

A very small number of families are also arranging their dead in scenes that resemble life: sitting around in the kitchen, for example, or drinking a beer. Ironically, this echoes one of the customs of traditional Irish wakes, where celebrations are often held in the presence of the dead body. But for these newer, highly posed scenes, "there’s not many embalmers who could do that—it’s quite technical," Wilde said. "To have somebody embalmed in a setting where they’re seated or holding a cigarette would be quite difficult."

These ways of grieving might sound a little silly for older generations, but when it comes to kids, they're heartbreaking. "People gravitate toward ritual much more when it’s of a tragic nature," Wilde said. For families that aren't religious, "we’ll find a theme of the deceased or of the child and use that theme. There was one that went through the news a couple years ago where a young person died and they had a Star Wars-themed funeral. There was one a little bit ago that had a Disney-themed funeral. The new ritual becomes personalization."

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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