Dying an Atheist in America

Dying an Atheist in America

by Chris Morton

Dying in America is a complex and distasteful process for most American families and often a taboo subject. As Timothy Leary puts it: “Most human beings are taught to face death, like life, as victims – helpless, fearful, resigned. We’re schooled and counseled – programmed to act out a life of scripts based on our worst tendencies toward fear and self-doubt….Throughout history ‘fear of dying’ has been used by priests, police, politicians, and physicians to undermine individualistic thinking, to increase our dependence on authority and to glorify victimization.” 1

He goes on: “Think of all the hot-button issues that get the church fathers’ panties all in a bunch: conception, test-tube fertilization, contraception, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, abortion, euthanasia, suicide, cloning, life extension, out-of-body experiences, occult experimentation, astral travel scenarios, altered states, death-and-rebirth reports, extraterrestrial speculation, cryonics, cyborgization (i.e., replaceable body parts), sperm banks, egg banks, DNA banks, artificial intelligence, artificial life, and personal speculation about experimentation with immortality. All things that experiment with the basic issues of birth, embodiment, and death are anathema to the orthodox seed shepherds, the engineers of the feudal and industrial ages…. Why? Because if the flock doesn’t fear death, then the grip of religious and political management is broken.” 2 The psychological fraternity often considers people who think about death to be ill; terms such as clinically depressed follow them. Death as a cultural/social bete noire has developed because of the attitudes of formal religions to the end of life, their falsehoods about life after death, or an existence after death (reincarnation, for example), as controlled by a judgmental deity. In America all of these threatening religio-theistic perceptions of death, and the fears that they engender, have become integral to the development of a high-income death industry; pre-death medical treatment, cadaver dressing including makeup, artificial under skin inserts, wigs, freezing, embalming, burials, cremations, urn-production, casket-building, funerals, home visiting, soul saving and church/temple services are all part of this. The Atheist is left in limbo. As Robert Hatch says: “For once we complete life’s passage, we enter a realm where two divergent forces control our destiny; the undertaker our body, and God our soul.” 3

Atheists must face this multiple-layered, ingrained challenge to their assertions that there are no gods and there is no afterlife. And as Atheists they must come to terms with this position, not only as an intellectual exercise, but as part of their emotional well-being and their scientifically defined way of living and viewing life. To face dying is to be able to prepare for this last part of living – to embrace it as an end and not to fear it as the religious would have you do. It is a fundamental part of who you have chosen to be – an Atheist.

Because death in America is so tightly interwoven with religious ritual and political regulation, it is very difficult for an Atheist to satisfactorily sidestep their controls. Obviously, Atheists, are not interested in having prayers said over their corpses or some kind of processional cemetery burial (particularly to lie among all those theists!). But the problems go much further than this.

As an American Atheist I believe that I am entitled to control my death as I am entitled to control my life – that is part of my right to individual freedom. But the religions do not agree that we have the right to control our deaths, and neither do our political regulating institutions whose members are usually more-or-less Christian. It is here that the really serious and complex problems and conflicts begin for the Atheist.

Dying is a process, death is the end. It is during dying that the first problems begin. An Atheist is a member of Homo sapiens. He or she is a biological machine whose function is to expand and develop its species and to protect all other species dependent on it in this lifetime. There is no “afterlife.” Therefore, life itself is very valuable. To me (and this may not hold for all Atheists) if my life ceases to be valuable to me and to others, it can and should be ended – to use another machine-term, I can be powered down, or as Timothy Leary puts it, “deanimated.” 4 If I am still functioning, somewhat, this choice is a hard idea for most people (particularly Atheists because of their love of this life) to accept. So let me take a small part of it for elaboration and leave the rest to your own choice.

Let us begin, then, by talking only of pre-death problems where dying takes a while. Each state in America has different laws regarding an individual’s choice of medical treatment when that individual can no longer make clearly articulated demands. Some now accept a “Living Will” (the idea was introduced in 1967 by Luis Kutner of the Euthanasia Society). Some require a medical “Proxy” which is signed before illness overtakes one’s ability to communicate, so that someone selected by the dying person can make decisions for him or her. Some states accept neither.

The problems of choices for dying are exacerbated by hospitals and self-styled legal religious groups (such as the National Legal Center for the Medically Dependent and Disabled, Inc. run by James Bopp, Jr.) who believe that the right to die is not the individual’s, but must be dictated, to the end, by a god (although they seem to think they are this god’s mouthpiece). And then, of course, there is the money. Hospitals, hospices, doctors, nursing organizations, nursing homes, equipment renters, medical technology experts, and drug companies all make billions of dollars a year from keeping people alive while at the point of death (for the horrifying details of the effect of this look at the case of Karen Quinlan in 1976 or Carzon v Director in 1990). 5 There is something wrong with a system that forces me to put the following statement in my Living Will:

If I am in a medical facility/hospital that is supported by a religious denomination I must be moved to an alternative secular facility immediately, regardless of my condition. It must be made clear to all medical staff dealing with me that I do not believe in a god, therefore I do not believe in miracles or “acts of god.” It must also be made clear to all medical staff that my non-beliefs, as they affect my treatment, supersede their beliefs, therefore, they may not impinge their beliefs on their choice of treatment for me. 6

And so, just prior to death when we are often physically and mentally at our weakest and most vulnerable, Atheists are again faced with a fight for their own freedoms; a fight whose rules are created by theists, religious dogma, religious history, religiosity, political partisanship, the courts and money. Choices in dying must be carefully considered by Atheists. Can you create an environment with your supporters to exercise control over where you die, when you die, how you die, how much you suffer when you are dying, and how to maintain your Atheist tenets throughout the process?

After death the Atheist’s fight continues, and, if anything, it is both more concerted and dirtier because it involves the body disposal industry. For the most part, this is a highly organized, small group of large companies, including four very large ones (SCI, Loewen, Stewart, and Carriage Services) and eight smaller ones, none of whom advertise their services openly, but work under the guise of locally named funeral homes with locally known people – even old families — running them. Their aim is not compassion and support for the bereaved, but the collection of the highest fees possible from anguished and emotionally vulnerable relatives. It also involves those who believe that the dying and the dead must be saved from damnation – a highly organized and effective combination when their goals are reinforced by family grief and guilt.

The body disposal industry is, historically, an outgrowth of the religions which still maintain strong influences over it, and often have direct financial ties to it (handouts, direct fees, fee sharing are some of their fiscal arrangements). For example, In chapter 15 of “What Happens When You Die; From Your Last Breath To The First Spadeful,” a common type of death-by-numbers religious-based guide, only four religious practices and their funeral rites are listed: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Wakes (although a “wake” is hardly a religion on its own) – apparently all the rest fit in somewhere under these categories, including Atheists.

In the last thirty years body disposal has been left to local undertakers (sorry, Funeral Directors), or, more recently the large funeral companies who all took their cues from the deceased’s religious denomination. However, this is changing because many church bureaucracies have begun to see how they might swell their coffers by “owning” cemeteries and mortuaries and charging large prices for funerals: “The Pittsburgh diocese, however, announced a few months ago that it was setting up ‘The Catholic Funeral Plan’ to promote with their own sales people. According to the functionaries I talked with there, the aim of the plan is to: Spread the mission of mercy, Minister to the grieving, Protect the teachings of the church and liturgy…” 7 And: “Yes, the Church will benefit from the rent and income from these operations.” 8

Death and body disposal in America are synonymous with past religious practices; the old church-yard with its bent and broken tomb stones, or the memorial chapel, or the ash urns sealed in small cavities behind temple walls, or the cemetery with its crosses and angels and tombs. And the rituals – there are always those rituals. All of these link our current disposal efforts to past religious practices where they prepare the holy receptacle of a departed soul while prayers are said to speed that soul on its way to the good afterlife. Not good places for Atheists to be!

Today a cold and calculating death industry, and often unscrupulous religious groups, try to cater to everyone. The cold, impersonal Unitarian rooms of their “chapels” can be changed at the blink of an eye from an over decorated Roman Catholic wake with open coffin, plastic statues of Mary and Jesus, overflowing flowers, massive crosses and priests and cardinals in scarlet and black and gold and white, to the plain, almost sterile Jewish shiva with no decorations, no coffin, no flowers, mirrors covered with black cloth, and black-coated rabbis. Each ceremony can be as expensive as another, each ceremony is pumped with religiosity. And somewhere in all of this (or perhaps outside it) the dying Atheist must find a place.

Atheists should attempt to avoid all of this and, they should find a way to have their bodies disposed of in a way that is in line with their Atheism. In my wallet I have a telephone number on a card in plain view. This is the number of the local university medical school biomedical unit.

As an Atheist and a supporter of scientific advancement for the good of my species and the improvement of life, I have bequeathed my body to the medical college. They will use it for one of two things: medical student training or experimental medical procedures. They collect my body at their own expense, and they will dispose of its sliced up, formalin-smelling remains when they are done with it. Hopefully it will have helped science in a small way to further benefit humankind.

Apart from providing an inert biological machine for medical science to study and expand our knowledge, I am serving my own purpose through the arrangements I have made. The body disposal industry will not get near my body or my family — they will not pick me up and handle me; I will not be embalmed, which is often done automatically unless funeral directors are told specifically not to do it. This is a pointless practice — it preserves nothing; after “embalming” bodies they turn into bacteriological slime anyway.

And the other costs?

These include keeping my corpse in the mortician’s freezer; giving mourners a place to congregate and show the family respect; the flowers; the snacks; the music (piped or we can provide a live organist — and what would they play at an Atheist’s wake?); the cars for the entourage; the organization of the burial plot, or the slot in the wall of heavenly peace after the crematorium has sent over someone’s ashes – they burn corpses in bunches, so you get a mixture – nice for roses, but not quite what people think they’re getting; and the rituals with priests or rabbis or shamans, or whatever.

Everything is modeled on a pseudo-religious ceremony, everything is part of a vision that comes out of a supposed relationship with a deity of some sort. And everything usually costs $10,000.00 and up. Dying isn’t cheap. It is said that the recent Kennedy son’s (Roman Catholic) cremation and double burial at sea cost taxpayers around a million dollars — an expensive proposition particularly when I had to pay part of it and I am an Atheist who believes in none of it.

The dying and death processes will probably not take place as Atheists would like them to, unless they are very careful and have a lot of determined support. State laws, hospital regulations, doctor’s fears about prosecution, religio-legal intervention, geographical and political factors, a family’s grief, religious beliefs and superstitions, priests looking for a “soul” to save, and the speed at which the body disposal industry moves after contact by their network of informers; all are against us.

Results of an uncontrolled dying process will have some of the following results: being kept alive artificially if you do not die immediately. Once the processes of being kept alive, artificially, begin they could go on interminably because of fear and religious/legal intervention. The amount of pain-killers requested to deal with pain will not be administered because most doctors are afraid of medical board reviews where they must explain why they prescribed such high doses, and because most of them just don’t understand pain control. If someone is dying, why dither about worrying about speeding up the dying process with too many painkillers? Because a miracle may occur, that’s why – their god, their fear, follows them everywhere. If you are considering passive euthanasia (food, liquid, and medicine stoppage, with only painkillers to support comfort) or doctor-assisted dying, forget it.

The following things will happen, particularly if Atheists die where nobody knows them, away from their home region. The local body disposal (funeral home) people will whip the body away from the hospital morgue to their refrigerators (remember the costs begin when they leave their funeral parlor) before anyone can do anything — and then, because possession is nine-tenths of the law, they will begin their carefully rehearsed process of undermining any alternatives but their own. They will call distraught relatives and say that they have the loved one’s body for safekeeping. The relatives will agree, and in their grief they will forget to tell the mortician not to embalm the body. The body will be embalmed. The costs are now around $4,000.00 and rising. If the Atheist’s body has been bequeathed to a medical school, they will no longer accept it because it has been tampered with. So the Atheist’s body must now be buried or burned.

I don’t fear death at all. As a committed Atheist I have come to terms with the end of my life as a natural, anticipated process. I think about it and talk about it as an everyday item. Dying and death have always seemed to be something final, simple, and very commonplace. But what I do fear, desperately, is the way my fellow non-Atheist humans are going to abuse me as I approach death and after I die. Even though death is final, I feel so sad that my wishes as an Atheist will probably not be taken into consideration. At the end of my life, my non-beliefs will be superseded by others’ beliefs because I will no longer have a voice. Because of the insidious involvement of formal religions in every facet of dying and death and instead of continuing to help my species after death — as my Atheism demands – I will be thrown away.

Atheists need to deal with these problems together; to make it clear what their wishes are; to demand treatment that accords with their Atheism; to fight against intrusion by the religious; and to fight to maintain our Atheism by donating ourselves to science. Much of what we face can be made easier by loyal relatives and friends. Much of what happens can be supported by clear, written demands. Atheism, is to me, a way of life – I and others like me should be able to make it our way of dying and death, too. And of course there is the Atheist’s life: “As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so life well lived brings happy death.” 9

Further Reading:

  • What Happens When you Die: From Your Last Breath To The First Spadeful: Robert T. Hatch, Citadel Press, 1995.

  • R.I.P. The Complete Book of Death and Dying: Constance Jones, Harper Collins, 1997.
  • Design For Dying: Timothy Leary with R.U. Sirius, Harper-Collins, 1997.
  • The American Way of Death Revisited: Jessica Mitford, Knopf, 1998.
  • The Good Death: The New American Search to Reshape the End of Life: Marilyn Webb, Bantam, NY 1997.
  • FAMSA – Funeral Consumers Alliance, P.O. Box 10, Hinesburg, VT 05461 http://www.funerals.org/
  • The Hemlock Society, P.O. Box 101810, Denver, CO 80250-1810 http://www.hemlock.org
  • ERGO – Euthanasia Research and Guidance Organization, 24829 Norris Lane, Junction City, OR 97448-9559 http://www.finalexit.org


1 Page 110: Design For Dying. [back]

2 Page 114: Design For Dying. [back]

3 Page 4 (Prologue) “From Your Last Breath To Your First Spadeful” [back]

4 Page 144: Design For Dying [back]

5 “Tough Love”, Page 131ff, “The Good Death.” [back]

6 From my own Living Will, Page 1. [back]

7 “Pittsburgh Catholic Funerals” from the FAMSA Web page: http://www.funerals.org/alert/pachurch.htm [back]

8 “Catholics Targeted” from the FAMSA web page: http://www.funerals.org/alert/catholic.htm [back]

9 Michael Angelo. [back]

Chris Morton spends time helping inner city youth bridge the digital divide and building and maintaining Web-sites. He has a PhD and enjoys reading, writing, photography and traveling.

Coming Out

Coming Out Home

The Other Closet

Atheist Weddings

Dying an Atheist


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