If you’re the lone unbeliever or one of very few in your family situation, you may have concerns about loved ones turning your f uneral or memorial into a religious occasion that fails to acknowledge—or outright denies—your secular worldview. In that situation, what can—and can’t—you do about it in advance? I asked Josh Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers’ Alliance. -Simon Davis
Simon Davis: You’re the only atheist or humanist in a devout family, and you’re concerned that when you die your relatives will throw a big religious funeral for you and totally “plow under” any acknowledgment of your unbelief. Is there anything you can do now, while still alive, to prevent that?
Josh Slocum: Get comfortable with the reality that you cannot and will not ever be able to control what happens after your death. There are ways to plan to avoid some of these circumstances, but nothing is foolproof. Remember that when you’re dead you’re not a person anymore with interests. You won’t be around to hear what people say about you.
People are going to say awful things about you after you’re dead (there’s always someone who doesn’t like us), and people are going to say wonderful things.
Davis: What, if any, are the options for ensuring that your survivors do not hold an overtly religious funeral or memorial ceremony?
Slocum: At bottom, this is about logistics, not specifically about religious vs. secular matters. These conflicts happen in all families. The best way to arrange things in advance to your liking is to legally designate a trusted friend who you know will honor your wishes as best as he or she is able. But remember that the people you leave behind matter too. You, in death, don’t exist anymore. Please try to be kind to the people you love and ask them what they can manage. Helpful guidelines are more workable.
In almost every state, you can legally designate a person to be the sole legal authority to direct what happens at your funeral. So yes, you can easily, and at no cost, cut off your blood or marriage kin’s legal rights. They have no standing if you assign that to another adult. Think of it like your health-care proxy/advocate, who has the final say on your medical condition when you’re unconscious, only extended into death.
Davis: Conversely, is it possible to guarantee that a secular or nonreligious memorial gathering will be held?
Slocum: You can’t compel people to have a certain celebration, and you can’t prevent them from having one. Stop and think about it. How, literally, do you believe it would be possible to legally decree that “no one in my family is to go to their church and have a religious service in my memory”?
Davis: How can you assure that your desired form of disposition (burial, cremation, body donation, and so on) is honored?
Slocum: Your designated agent is the best way to do this. Again, find a person you trust. Find that friend; plan together; give him or her the legal authority, and put your mind at rest.
Davis: Is it possible to guarantee that any monument or headstone doesn’t contain religious symbolism?
Slocum: Once again, there is no physical or legal way to compel anyone even to buy you a tombstone. Or a funeral. Most people don’t know this, but next of kin are not bound by law to pay for your funeral or incidentals if they don’t want to take on that responsibility. Yes, you can buy your own tombstone ahead of time, but as a consumer advocate I warn in dire terms against buying cemetery property far in advance. Buying interment rights ahead of time is risky because you might not be living in the cemetery’s area many years down the road, and transporting a casket a long distance can be very costly for your survivors. An unneeded grave can be difficult to sell, especially today when the cremation rate is rising.
As for pre-purchasing a stone, each cemetery has its own rules about the type and size of monuments it will allow to be set. If you do move and choose a different cemetery, the stone you pre-purchased may not be acceptable there. Finally, the various pre-need funeral plans offered through funeral homes are seldom as efficient financially as simply depositing the funds in a Payable-on-Death account at own your financial institution.
Davis: Are there ways to ensure that the death notice released to the local press acknowledges your atheism or humanism or at least makes no false or anachronistic claims about your being a church member?
Slocum: Nope. Anyone with the legal right to arrange your funeral can write anything he or she wants in an obituary. So once again, the answer is that you need to find a trusted friend to designate as your agent. Leave him or her some suggestions about the kind of work you’d like to be remembered for. This is the right place for that, and it’s perfectly natural to want your values reflected.
Davis: Finally, are there more effective methods that work only if you’r e wealthy (say, your will directs your executor to cut people out of the estate if they hold a religious funeral)?
Slocum: I suppose, but that’s more out of the plot of an old Hollywood potboiler than a real-life situation.