Mourning for Atheists
Many atheists and agnostics have no tradition for mourning when someone close to them dies. In some modern cultures, death is embarrassing or shameful, rather than the inevitable and natural consequence of living. Without some guidelines as to how to act, many people are uncomfortable about what to do. The mourners host a nervous cocktail party, running around to make sure that they talk to everyone and thank them for bringing food. The friends say banal and unhelpful things, especially those who have never mourned themselves. At the end of the event, the mourners are left alone with a dirty house and are no closer to acknowledging this monumental change in their lives. I suggest a different way.
Some believers assume that atheists see life as meaningless because atheists know there is no divine purpose nor afterlife. The reverse is true, for an atheist knows that all we have is our lives and what meaning we draw from it, so having someone we love die is as heartbreaking for us as it is for anyone, maybe more so because we don’t buy into the myth of an eternal soul.
For the many people who would like to celebrate someone’s life instead of mourn, I suggest three things. First, celebrate that person while he or she is still alive. You may be reading this page because someone close to you has died and so this option is no longer available, in which case after you have mourned your loss, you should celebrate those that are alive as soon as your able. Second, its natural and healthy to feel bad when someone you love dies, and trying to avoid the feeling by pretending its joyous just delays the inevitable bad feeling and makes you feel guilty for feeling bad. Third, you have your whole life to celebrate and remember, and so I recommend you start by first mourning.
Importance of Ritual
Rituals help mark an event and imbue it with proper importance. Too much ritual over something trivial reminds us how we’d prefer that rituals be performed for meaningful events. For some people, just a set of guidelines, any guidelines, helps people to not drift free. I suggest the following practices, borrowed heavily from the Jewish mourning traditions, to help mourn. It’s important to have some practices to get through the days and arrive at acceptance.
Immediately following death, there is much to do. It’s a sad and sometimes shocking time, so it may be hard to get these tasks done. However, many people want to come forth and help, and now is the time to put them to work. The deceased may have left instructions to follow, or the family must make many decisions, and you’ll need help getting the burial, cremation, and funeral arrangements done. Feel free to tell people who are helping you to make decisions for you if you’re not up to making them yourself. This is the time to focus on the deceased.
After the funeral, the people closest to the deceased should gather in the deceased’s house if possible, or another suitable house or set of houses if not. They will stay there and mourning together for seven days, and receive friends who come for short visits to comfort the mourners. Ideally, mourners should not leave the house at all for the seven days. This is not a time to go out into public and put on a brave face. This is a time to be sad, to reflect, and to remember.
Setting up the house
A candle should be lit and kept lit the entire seven days. It’s OK if the candle goes out and needs to be relit, or needs to be replaced. It’s a symbol to mark the location as a house of mourning.
Mourners should sit low, which reflects how they are feeling. Couches without cushions, cushions on the floor, or other low seats should be used. Normal chairs should be set up nearby for visitors.
Mirrors should be covered, turned around, or sprayed with something to make them unusable. This is not a time for vanity.
Mourners should wear drab and even old clothes. They should not wear makeup or jewelry. They should not wear shoes. They should keep clean, but not bath or shower for pleasure. They should look the way they feel, and not be putting on a public face.
Shiva lasts seven days, and if there are other celebrations that would happen during that time, like a birthday, Christmas, Thanksgiving, or other festive events, then the mourners should either skip these events entirely this year, or celebrate them at another time. It’s perfectly reasonable to wait a month or two to celebrate your birthday. Christmas on February 25th sounds delightful, and now is not the time for celebrations. If the funeral happened on a Wednesday, shiva ends on the following Tuesday.
Many people do not know what to do when they meet a mourner. You may want to put this notice on the front door:
“To well wishers: We are in mourning, and we appreciate your visit. Please knock quietly and come in. Right now, we do not want to be distracted from grief or to be cheered up. Your presence and sympathy are enough.”
There are many things that are reasonable to say to someone who is mourning:
- “I’m so sorry.”
- “It was too soon.”
- “This must be very hard.”
- “There are no words.”
There are many things that people say, but they should not. They are trying to help, but it is better to feel sad and mourn now. Do not encourage mourners to see the brighter side of this loss, do not try to entertain them to make them forget, and do not tell mourners that the deceased would not want to see them so sad. And please don’t tell mourners that the deceased is in a better place. Not only is that a pleasant falsehood, it doesn’t even help believers feel better.
Friends should bring food, but not so much that the house is overflowing. They should bring food into the kitchen and put it away so that mourners will find it when they need to. This is not a time to enjoy great food, this is a time to sustain one’s self through a difficult period.
Visitors are not usually met at the door, and are not seen out, as the mourners are not hosts. Visitors can come and sit by the mourners and need not say anything at all. Visitors should not engage in side conversations with each other to catch up, they can do that another time. If the house is crowded with visitors, it would be good to come back another time.
On the last of the seven days, the mourners should leave the house, even just to walk outside and around the block. Just as it is important to mourn, it is also important for the intense period of mourning to end.
The Next Month
For the thirty days after the funeral, mourners return to their lives, to work and school, but they still mourn. They should limit social engagements and avoid celebratory events. Intense mourning is over, but moments of sadness are expected. This is a time to get used to a new reality, when the deceased is gone.
Friends who visited during shiva should take time to check in with the mourners they are close to. Many people are embarrassed because they don’t like to hear about others being sad, but it means a lot to the mourners to have friends call or visit over the next several weeks.
The Next Year
If the person you mourn was particularly close to you, and unlike the Jewish tradition I will not tell you who qualifies, then mourning may extend a full year. After the year is complete, you are no longer officially in mourning. You may still feel sad occasionally, and that’s expected, but you should engage in joyful celebrations as often as you can.
The date of death should be remembered each year with solemnity. It is not a new time of mourning, it is a time of reflection. Some people fast the entire day. Some light a candle like the ones used during shiva. It does not need to last the full day, and each person should decide how to mark the occasion in his own way.
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