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."

These kinds of rituals also change the roles people play in the performance of death. In her fieldwork on death tattoos in Hawaii, Cann found that "tattoo artists had this kind of shamanistic role—they really care about the feeling and the significance of what this will mean for someone years down the road." They're the rabbis and priests of the body-art world: The tattoo recipient shares his or her story, and the artist offers a ritual in return, making the experience of loss more tangible and contained.

Wilde has also seen some families getting more involved with, well, dead bodies, including dressing and caring for the deceased. "That’s just a healthier approach toward death than the traditional: everything being done by the funeral director," he said. "Death and dying has become professionalized—that’s the main reason we don’t have a healthy relationship with death."

“There’s this movement to reinsert the body, whether through cremains or tattoos, or setting up your grandma at the table as part of the funeral," said Cann. "There seems to be this grassroots movement to bring the actual dead body, the corpse, into the mourning ritual.”

"Dying has become professionalized. That’s the main reason we don’t have a healthy relationship with death."

Just as people seem to be paying more attention to dead bodies, they're also paying more attention to the physical world those bodies are buried in. For his part, Wilde is interested in arranging more "green" funerals, which he sees as symbols of an orientation toward this world, rather than the next.

"Certainly with evangelical Christians, they believe that there’s a life that exists after this one—there’s a whole other world that we’re preparing for," he said. "There’s a strong tie within evangelicalism between the embalming and the immortality projects we pursue."

But "when you take that idea away, it kind of inspires us to something that’s more sustainable: Even in death, we want to respect the world we live in.”

A green cemetery might use caskets made out of biodegradable materials, like pine or wicker, and have few headstones. They often don't have vaults, which are typically concrete, steel, or plastic enclosures for caskets, either above or below ground. The vault "has a psychological value: It keeps all the elements out,” Wilde said, but it's not very sustainable to "bury ourselves in a couple hundred pounds of steel."

Similarly, "embalming fluid is not the worst chemical to put in the ground, but it’s not the best either," Wilde said. "Most states require a body to be embalmed if the viewing is 24 hours after death. But there are ways to get around that, one being dry ice, which arrests decomposition and keeps things from getting yucky.”

The irony of "green cemeteries" is that the ideas actually aren't new—and they're not that secular, either. In the Jewish tradition, for example, bodies have to be buried in biodegradable materials so that can people can return from "dust to dust," in keeping with teachings in the Book of Genesis. Embalming is also prohibited. Burials happen quickly after the death, and until then, families are supposed to watch over the body.

"It’s not that we’re reinventing the wheel—we’re rediscovering tradition and the meaning of those traditions," Wilde said. "There’s a lot of spirituality involved."

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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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