When somebody dies in the Catholic tradition, people generally know what to do. There’s the saying of the Last Rites at a dying person’s bedside, the vigil for the deceased — also known as a wake — and, often, a formal Mass of Christian Burial.
In the Jewish tradition, there’s the practice of sitting shiva: the week-long mourning process during which the family of the deceased remains at home, and friends and relatives call on them to pay their respects.
In the Islamic tradition, the deceased’s body is ritually bathed and shrouded in white cloth before Muslims of the community gather to perform the Salat al-Janazah, the customary prayer for the dead.
But what happens when you die and you don’t follow any faith tradition?
When Iris Explosion — an entertainer and social worker who prefers to go by her stage name — was widowed unexpectedly at age 28, she and her friends had to create the memorial service for her husband, Jon, from scratch.
Explosion and her husband were not conventionally religious — she describes herself as a “lax Jew,” while her husband, a queer man interested in alchemy and other occult practices, often felt alienated from the born-again Christianity of his parents. The memorial service her friends created a few days after his death, she says, contained a blend of traditions and practices individual to Jon.
A Jewish friend recited the Mourners’ Kaddish. The group told stories — some reverential, some “bawdy” — that reflected all aspects of Jon’s personality. They played an orchestral rendition of the theme song to Legend of Zelda, Jon’s favorite video game. Friends from out of town dialed in on Skype to share their stores. Numerous friends gave Explosion rose quartz, a stone associated in some New Age and occult traditions with heart healing, as a gift.
The memorial service — as well as a second funeral service, which took place a few months later, and was similarly eclectic in style — focused on Jon’s personality and interests rather than being constrained by a specific set of traditions.
Explosion is just one person among the 24 percent of Americans who identify as religiously unaffiliated. For the religious “nones,” the issue of what happens when you die is an open question in more ways than one. According to a 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, the most recent year for which data is available, 29 percent of Americans do not anticipate having a religious funeral, for whatever reason, and given the steady increase in religious “nones” over the past decade, that number will likely only rise.
But what do secular funerals — or death rituals more broadly — look like? What can they provide that religious death rituals can’t? What are the challenges involved in putting them together?
And as secular funerals become increasingly individualistic, tailored to the preferences and needs of the deceased, rather than a given religious or spiritual tradition, what does that mean for the sense of community engendered by ritual?
Secular funerals are part of a wider “unbundling” of religion
It started with weddings.
Scholar and psychologist Philip Zuckerman, author of Living the Secular Life, suggested in a telephone interview that secular funerals are just the latest iteration of the secularization of major life stages overall.
Its genesis, he said, lies in the proliferation of secular weddings in America. In 2017, just 22 percent of American weddings took place in houses of worship, a nearly 20-point drop from 2009, according to data from the wedding website the Knot.
“The first thing we saw was zillions of people going online and registering with the Universal Life Church,” said Zuckerman, referring to an organization that virtually automatically ordains people over the Internet, “so they can perform their own weddings for friends and family, so they can still make it sacred but not under the auspices of religion.”
Different states have different laws about the extent to which Universal Life ordinations are legally valid for performing weddings. Funerals, however, have no such restrictions.
Zuckerman posits that, among the people he’s interviewed for his book research, the desire to have a secular funeral isn’t just about not wanting to affirm the existence of a God or afterlife in which the deceased may or may not believe. Rather, he says, it’s also about wanting to preserve a sense of the deceased’s individuality.
“They just don’t want fairy tales. They don’t want to be told, ‘So and so’s in a better place now’ or ‘So and so is now suckling the bosom of Jesus’ — they can find that talk annoying,” Zuckerman said.
“We want to curate our own Facebook page. Why wouldn’t we want to curate our own funeral?”
More and more, Zuckerman said, he sees people choosing their own music and their own speeches that they want to be read after they die. “I think that is part of our growing individual and less of this care of tradition … more and more people want to feel the idiosyncracies of the dead person and the specialness of the dead person.”
This attitude, he said, is particularly prevalent in the United States. “We all like to think in the United States that we’re special. Why wouldn’t we want our funerals to be special, too?”
Certainly, for Iris Explosion, commemorating Jon’s life in a way that felt true to his personality and character was a priority. From sharing Jon’s favorite Spotify playlists with his friends to curate the music selection for the services to working in references to My Little Pony — a show Jon loved — Explosion and the couple’s friends created a memorial for Jon that befit his character.
By contrast, Explosion said, she declined to attend other memorial services, like one hosted by Jon’s family in his home state, that had a more Christian focus, instead circulating an email to attendees of that service asking them to donate to Planned Parenthood, which she felt better reflected her husband’s values.
Explosion’s experience dovetails with a phenomenon called religious “unbundling.” A term coined by Harvard Divinity School researchers Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thomas, who frequently cover how phenomena like Crossfit and Soulcycle function similarly to religions for their participants, “unbundling” refers to the way in which both the religiously unaffiliated and religious alike are increasingly willing to pick and choose elements of spiritual traditions.
Someone might, for example, be a committed Christian but also practice Buddhist meditation or yoga, or be an atheist but attend Jewish family holidays and read Tarot cards. In a pluralist landscape, in which people are used to gathering information and ideas from a multiplicity of sources (not least through the internet), a more individualized approach to religion and life rituals is all but inevitable.
As a culture, we still haven’t figured out what secular death rituals should look like
Even for those of traditional faiths, death is a phenomenon that defies easy answers. But for the religiously unaffiliated, processing and dealing with death and its aftermath can be an especially loaded task.
Brad Wolfe is trying to help them do that.
Wolfe is the founder of the weeklong Reimagine End of Life festival. Wolfe, a singer-songwriter and author, was inspired to work in the end-of-life space after watching a close college friend’s struggle with terminal cancer. The festival, which takes place in New York and San Francisco, partners with community centers and artists to curate a 300-strong series of events — from talks to workshops to performances to museum displays — dealing with the subject of death.
“Death is often the central coalescing element around which many religions are formed,” Wolfe told Vox in a telephone interview. “As we’ve become more secular in some communities … there’s an increasing hunger for that space … to come together and explore this topic.”
“Death is often the central coalescing element around which many religions are formed”
The weeklong New York festival, which took place around Halloween, featured a range of explorations: a class on how to write your own obituary, doctors talking about dealing with their patients’ deaths, live musical performances dealing with the themes of loss and bereavement.
What connects each event, however, is a sense of intentionally: that people are actively setting aside time and space to deal with a weighty topic.
Both Wolfe and Zuckerman identify similar elements of what that “coming together” looks like. Ideally, both say, it involves elements of ritual, community gathering, and a sense of meaning: How do we conceptualize a person’s death as part of a bigger picture?
Wolfe suggested that we might be better off looking at this “coming together” not as a non-religious event, but as an expansion of the definition of what religion means. At least two Reimagine events are, fundamentally, immersive theatre performances. In one, participants are invited into a phone booth to have conversations they wish they’d had with somebody who has died.
In another, participants role-play members of a fictional bereavement support group. Speaking about these events, Wolfe argued that the lines between art, ritual, religion, and performance are deeply blurred.
“The boundaries between art and religion are more porous when it becomes a practice explored with intention,” Wolfe said. What matters is the sense of significance shared by participants: “Having a practice, a shared system, allows us to connect in ways that give us a sense of comfort and something we know we can turn to.”
The idea or combining artistic creation and end-of-life ritual is far from new to Janie Rakow, president of the International End of Life Doula Association. As a “death doula,” Rakow works in hospices, helping those facing the end of their lives develop rituals and practices around their own deaths. While she works with patients from a wide variety of religious backgrounds through the hospice, she tailors her work and approach to the individual in question.
One of the most important parts of the end-of-life process, she says, is the act of creation. She helps her patients develop what she calls “legacy projects”: individual artistic works, from a memory box to audio letters.
“Everyone has a legacy,” Rakow says. “So [I ask myself] what kind of legacy project could we possibly create with this person to really leave behind a sense of who they are or were?”
Next, she asks patients to help plan their own death — where they would like to be? What music they would like to be listening to?
“There may be some ritual work done around that,” she says, even if it’s “as simple as surrounding their bed, holding hands, saying a prayer or saying poetry, reading something to them, [or] lighting a candle.”
The point is to help the dying take an active, creative role in the story they leave behind.
Often, Rakow says, these rituals are tailored to individual passions. She gives the example of one man she worked with, who was dying from ALS, a degenerative neurological condition that prevented him from being able to move. With his wife, Rakow created a series of guided visualizations for the man, who loved hiking.
“And so we would bring him with his eyes closed on the most detailed and specific hike that we could from the very beginning to hiking all the way through.”
She’d walk him through ”smelling the forest and feeling himself walking up the hills and hearing the birds chirping and looking over at the crystal clear lake and the more descriptive we could get, we were able to bring him back into his body that he wasn’t able to use through his mind.”
Secular rituals present their own set of challenges
One of the most difficult parts of creating secular death rituals is compensating for the lack of built-in community, or built-in structure, that often accompanies more established religious traditions.
Zuckerman pointed out that the secular bereaved don’t necessarily have a clear roadmap, or community support, to help them deal with the pragmatic aftermath of a death.
“One of the biggest problems for secular culture [is that] you have to cobble together and make it yourself. If you want your kid to have a Bar Mitzvah, it’s all taken care of. You want your kid to go through confirmation class in the Episcopal Church? Boom, they’re enrolled. If you want to do a secular version of that? Good luck. You’re on your own. You have to figure it out, explain it to people, rent the space, find people, figure out how to write up your own program. … It’s a lot of effort.”
The lack of intentional secular communities, Zuckerman said, only intensifies this problem. “With religious communities,” he said, “not only is the structure of the funeral in place, but there are going to be people who are going to immediately sign up to cook dinner for your family for a month and they’re going to deliver food to your doorstep and they’re going to help you get your kids to school and they’re going to do a lot for you. And when you’re secular you don’t have those kinds of resources.”
For some secular Americans, the idea of having a “chosen family” — a close-knit network of friends — helps fill in the gap. Just as Friendsgiving has become a phenomenon among urban millennials, so too have friendship networks more broadly become an increasingly vital part of social cohesion: replacing both extended family structures and traditional organized religious communities.
That was certainly the case for Explosion. She cites her friends’ involvement in making the service possible at a time when she didn’t feel capable of planning herself. “I needed camaraderie and community,” she said, and I feel like I had it.”
At the same time, she admits, she had less of a blueprint for how to cope with the next stages of grief after about six months.
“People go back to their own lives,” she said. “And it was hard to feel that sense of community. Without a church or synagogue to bind us together, it maybe felt like it dissipated. People missed their friend and their co-worker. But for me, it’s like — I miss my husband who lived with me, and it was hard to feel that sense of community after time had passed.”
The next step forward might be intentional secular communities
Explosion’s story points to a wider tension in the world of secular funerals, and the creation of secular culture more broadly. On the one hand, the benefits of the “unbundled” religious landscape, for many secular Americans, lie in the opportunity to create truly new, individualistic rituals and experiences. We have the opportunity to curate our identities and public personae event after death, creating experiences that feel unique to us.
But on the other hand, what risks getting lost in the process is precisely that feeling of collective identity that demands subsuming our individuality in a wider whole. Religious rituals and language, from Catholic ceremonial liturgy to the Salat al-Janazah, may not feel fully and uniquely “us,” but they nevertheless define and orient a wider community and give us a sense of shared values.
The 19th-century sociologist Émile Durkheim saw religion primarily as a shared construction of identity; in his seminal 1912 work The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, he wrote, “The most barbarous and the most fantastic rites and the strangest myths translate some human need, some aspect of life, either individual or social.”
As more and more Americans leave organized religion, the next question is whether, and how, many of them will gather together, and how an increasingly individualistic conception of identity can be reconciled with the real, human need for group belonging. As secular funerals and death rituals become the new standard, we may see some of these rituals become more group-centric.
For Explosion, for example, the process of grieving led her to an unexpected new ritual. During her husband’s life, she said, she often played a video game called Destiny with him, looking up the location of objects hidden in-game and giving him hints to find them. While she never particularly got into the game herself, she said, she enjoyed playing it with him. After his death, she started watching YouTube videos of people playing the game, or its sequel, to remember the time they’d shared. Then, she decided to buy the game’s sequel to play it herself.
“I’ve been playing this game I wouldn’t have played if he hadn’t died. And it’s been meditative for me. Finding the little things, like doing these things we used to do, felt like a pilgrimage in a way.”
Sometimes, Explosion communicates with other players in the game online. While she’s only told a few of them about her personal history with the game, she’s nevertheless found a community that can accompany her in a time of grief.
“When we do a big quest or a raid together, there’s always a moment for me of, like, you know, okay, he would have done this. He did this in the old game. Now it’s me kind of picking up this mantle.”
The secular funeral liturgies we see in the future may transition from being individualistic to being based on other non-religious elements that bring a community together. They may involve the music of My Little Pony, or the playing of video games.
Ultimately, they’ll represent two fundamental human needs. First, to make sense of a beloved’s death. And second — and just as importantly — to not do it alone.