“We are not ghosts in waiting”: How atheists cope with death
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Death is not only experienced on a personal and psychological level, but it is also experienced as a rift in social life. Robert Hertz (1960) found that funerals, burials, and mourning made death the “object of a collective representation” (pg. 28). When looking at these aspects of death, anthropologists have studied them through the lenses of specific religions, as it is through religion that people have found social support, spiritual guidance, and answers to questions about an afterlife. However, there is a growing number of people that are not religiously affiliated, including people who identify as atheists, and these people's death related beliefs and practices have not been studied anthropologically. In this study I conducted 17 semi-structured interviews with self-identified atheists to explore how atheists cope with death. I focused on three aspects related to death: funerals, coping with loss, and afterlife beliefs. I found that my participants favoured personalized, unstructured, and celebratory funerals. Talking about the deceased person and sharing happy memories were not only considered to be important aspects of the services, but also helpful in coping with the loss more generally. As well, none of my participants believed in an afterlife, and many used science as a means to provide institutional backup to their lack of belief in gods, deities, or souls. This provides a starting point to begin understanding atheist relationships to death.