Funeral Ritual

by Raemon7 min read20th Apr 201813 comments


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Followup to: Solstice: What Memes May Come (Part II)

Content note: My own opinionated thoughts on rationalist funeral ritual, which have evolved a bit since I first started thinking about it in 2012. I expect that if you haven't thought about funeral ritual and find that you need to, this will make for a better starting point than figuring things out from scratch.

But, human mindspace is diverse enough that I wouldn't be surprised if this anti-resonated with some people. Make of it what you will.

[Edit: In this post, I was specifically exploring 'funerals where a majority of attendees are "culturally rationalist"', as opposed to general secular funerals. However, it turns out much of the advice is still relevant regardless]

Prior: a desire for deep cultural ritual

In October 2012, as I planned the Winter Solstice ceremony, I was thinking a lot about death. In the space of three weeks, three friends of mine had lost someone closed to them. And it occurred to me that the rationality community had very little in the way of funeral ritual.

My friends were all young, but it seemed likely at least someone in the community wouldn’t make it. And we were not ready.

When my Grandmother died, I went to a Catholic funeral. And as much as I don’t believe in any of the doctrine, there was something comforting in having several hundred people join together to say the Lord’s prayer in unison. The literal content of the words was basically meaningless – what mattered was the knowledge that my Grandmother was not alone, that hundreds of people were connected to her, and to each other.

Another friend of mine lost their mother, and had a similar experience. They said (paraphrased) “when you lose someone, you do not have the energy to try new things. You are lost. You don’t know what to do. The point of funeral ritual is not to be epistemologically sound, it’s to give you something to do, that you know how to do, that everyone knows you’re supposed to do, so that at least you can do something.

A ritual that completely fails will feel hollow. Ritual that almost succeeds but doesn’t match your values or aesthetic feels cringey. I think pushing past that cringe is an important piece of the modern search for meaning and culture.

But funerals are not the time to experiment.

I looked at this set of facts, and it seemed like the solution (if you wanted an epistemically sound culture with its own traditions) was to create new ritual in advance, and somehow make it already a part of your culture by the time someone died.

For a few years, I approached Solstice with this in mind – using it in part to explore small fragments of funeral ritual. Hopefully, one day, we’d have some words or deeds we could share together, that felt right.

Then in 2016, a friend of mine died.

My beliefs about funerals have changed.

It took me awhile to get these thoughts written up. In the past year there have been at least two more deaths that I know of in the rationalsphere, and I’m finally getting around to it.

Cosmopolitan Aesthetic Clash

I still believe in everything above – in principle. In practice…

...there are just too many different aesthetics and values at play that are orthogonal to main criteria of who needs to get value from a funeral.

The point of a solstice-like-event is to bring people together around a shared sense of values. The point of a funeral is to bring to people together surrounding a shared connection to a person.

Sometimes, there is enough of an overlap here for you to do something oddly specific. If a loved one had a strong aesthetic sense of their own, or spelled out in advance what kind of funeral they want, that can be a schelling aesthetic that everyone can agree to honor. There is value in having traditions that feels special, if you can, and there can be value in respecting the wishes of the deceased, as a way to carry their agency a little bit further into the future, past their death.

Much of the time you will not have a clear sense of the person’s wishes, or aesthetic.

Instead you have a loose collection of people who may or may not know each other, who may or may not agree about religion or rationality or transhumanism or poetry or music. This seems to be a brute fact about the modern, atomic, cosmopolitan world.

Tight-knight, culturally homogenous places with longstanding traditions can lean harder into funeral ritual that is unique, intense and/or deeply significant to the people involved, but I think this just isn’t an option if you’re the sort of person living in a major modern city. This makes me sad but I now think it’s true.

Funerals are often times when people who don’t normally quite mesh with each other come together again to remember a person they have in common.

And meanwhile…

...the default, minimum-viable funeral or memorial is... just surprisingly potent:

Have a facilitator who welcomes everyone and sets the tone for the event. Have everyone who wants to take a turn saying what anything they need to say.

Some people will share funny stories.

Some will share times when the person helped them.

Some people might need to be angry, to get some kind of closure on unresolved conflict they had with a friend.

Some people might share a song or poem that is meaningful to them, without any implicit pressure that the song feel relevant to anyone else.

Some people may just need to silently cry and shake and then be held by someone.

Some people may not have known the deceased well, but have feelings about death in general that they need to share and process. (Sometimes, most people in the room may be in this category, and in this case it may perhaps be better for the facilitator to set a tone, early on, that this is okay.)

When everyone who’s had a moment has gone, the facilitator gives a final short speech to wrap things up, and create a space where people who still need to cry or shake or sit in silence feel a space for that, and people who need catharsis and release and to laugh and joke with old friends a space for that.

This seems to be the schelling structure of funerals, at least that I’ve seen.

Small bits of sacred uniqueness

When my friend died, I erred on the side of trying out some oddly specific things at the memorial I facilitated. I think this was the correct choice – the longterm value of rationalist culture required someone to try something at least once that tried to push through the cringe towards something culturally meaningful.

Having been through the experience once, I think I have a pretty clear sense of what sorts of things might possibly work, in which contexts. I do recommend most people err on the side of something simple.

The basic format was similar to the minimum-viable-funeral described above, but with a few additions. Some thoughts on each:

Passing Forward the Light

I wanted to have at least one ritual frame that was simple and elegant – oddly specific enough that I could imagine it becoming a cultural motif, but straightforward enough to resonate with non-rationalist friends.

We began the ceremony with a single lit candle, placed next to a picture of my friend. Each person was welcome to stand, to say anything they might want to say, and then light another candle off of my friend's flame. If you didn’t have anything to say, you were still welcome to stand silently and pay your respects and light a candle regardless.

In the end, after the closing of the ceremony, we extinguished the central candle, while leaving each of our own lights to burn into the night.

It may not be a very satisfying answer to death, to say that we carry a person forward in our thoughts and memories and in how they shaped us as a person. It’s not a good enough answer. But I think it is a true answer, and in most situations of death, realistically the best answer we have. A simple ritual that highlighted that while giving some structure to the event seemed worthwhile.

I think this basically went well, and would recommend it or something in a similar vein.

Some bits of logistical advice re candles:

  • I used these small votive candles because they were cheap. But they melted very quickly in a way that a) made a mess that was awkward to clean up, b) sort of ruined the moment. I now recommend splurging for more expensive candles (which last long enough to be re-usable). Longer, tapered candles with a long melting time are best.
  • I think the difference between real and electric candles is enormous.
  • A mistake I made at the end was snuffing out the first candle too quickly, in a way that some people noted felt a bit anticlimactic.
  • Candles can drip wax – make sure to put them on something easy to clean or dispose of afterward.

Leaving People Space

The single biggest mistake at the memorial was not giving people multiple spaces for different emotional needs at the end.

Some people were ready to move on, and start talking/eating/joking/connecting.

Some people needed silence, and saw the former people with a kind of horrified “you’re acting like now everything’s all right. And it’s not.”

So I now think it’s important to have a transition space – whichever place the memorial was taking place in should probably remain quiet, or at least keep voices soft, and let the people who are ready to move on go to another room that’s (hopefully) fairly sound isolated.

Shared Canon

In the opening section, I mostly told a series of stories that highlighted what kind of person Adam was and what he cared about, but wove in a couple passages from Beyond the Reach of God. The goal here was to have a moment that included “most of the people here share some sacred text and beliefs, that gives us a sense of shared culture.” At least some people said afterwards that that was… well, comforting isn’t quite the right word. But, was helpful.

The passages I chose were intended to mostly fit into the broader story without feeling weird or preachy. (I also framed it a bit as “this is the sort of thing Adam believed” as opposed to “this is what we all believe.”).

I’m not sure how it came across to the people who weren’t rationalists and/or didn’t resonate with that aspect of Eliezer’s writing. At least one person said that basically “any time you (Ray) were talking about something other than a story about Adam I basically tuned out”, and I think some other people found it actively offputting, but it was hard to tell.

The part that I think ended up most cringey was at the end, when I gave the Origin of Stories speech (from Solstice, although with some parts retailored for the current context). Some of this probably had to do with the speech being relatively new at the time, some with the overall quality of the speech, and being the sort of speech that lent itself to an over-the-top presentation that was wrong for a memorial. (And, some of the cringe had to do with the fact that I had written the piece, so it felt a bit more performative that reading someone else’s piece might have)


Despite my leanings toward simplicity and commonality, it still feels important to have some kind of final moment, giving everyone the opportunity for closure. I think the ideal ending will strike a fairly neutral tone, that can resonate whether you’re feeling angry, grief-stricken, hollow, or bored (and/or perhaps be interpreted through any of those lenses).

If there is no common cultural beliefs among the participants, I think a fairly safe ending is taking seven-breaths-worth of quiet reflection, or perhaps passing around the candle representing the deceased giving everyone a final opportunity to say goodbye. Or any kind of ritual action that is mostly free of ideological content.

I think it’s good for the closing moment to involve everyone standing – simultaneously rousing people slightly so they can be more actively involved with the ending, and leaving them in a stance where they can either sit back down (if they want more quiet reflection or talking), or leave the room for food and drink, and have both options feel like equally active choices.

If there is enough cultural alignment, my own aesthetic preference is to have some kind of short poem that most people are familiar with and have some connection to, that they can either join in reciting, or at least nod along with.

Among “cultural rationalists”, I’m not sure how much consensus there is. Some people identify with the far future. Others do not. Some people see death only to be fought with grim determination, never acceptance. For some, acceptance is necessary.

I don’t know that there’s a final piece that can work for everyone, but the single best contender I know of is Eliezer’s Song of Dath Ilan:

Even if the stars should die in heaven
Our sins can never be undone
No single death will be forgiven
When fades at last the last lit sun.
Then in the cold and silent black
As light and matter end
We’ll have ourselves a last look back
And toast an absent friend.
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