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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13 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:59 AM

Thank you for writing this.

Awhile back I attended a memorial service for someone I knew, but not well, who had committed suicide. There was a moment during the service where a friend of the deceased who went up front to talk started breaking down and crying - and then she stopped herself. She stopped herself. From crying. At a memorial service. I still think about this.

One of the functions/problems of funeral rituals is coordinating the direction support needs to go - people support people who were closer to the deceased/are having a harder time, and get support from people who are having less of a hard time.

I guess this means a funeral is a two-group event, at least along that axis - you have the group of people being comforted (family and close friends), and then the group of less-close acquaintances, who (aside from being there to deal with their own grief) are also there to comfort the first group (both by direct action, and by showing them the person they lost mattered to people).

I guess the implications of that are (a) sometimes (like with your friend) you need separate rituals, because you have multiple important first group/second group divisions. And (b), it's not only okay to be there if you didn't know the person that well, it's important (since you need the second group). And from the outside view, you should expect most funerals you go to to have you in the second group.

In terms of the ritual, I'm not sure what the implications are. Maybe it suggests that if you don't have a direct fit for the deceased's wishes, you should look for something representative of group 1 instead of the general attendance (though this raises the problem that identifying group 1 isn't easy - the roommate the person moved in with two months ago may be either a total stranger, or closer than their estranged family). It does suggest that the ritual needs to leave room for unidirectional comforting, but that seems easiest to do by leaving unstructured communication space.

Wanted to give a thumbsup both to this framework and the algorithm generating it – I think this sort of comment (building towards explicit models you can apply towards understanding a problem) is good for discussion.

The implication that people who didn't know the deceased as well can still provide value seems true. (Though I can imagine sometimes it getting weird if most of the people attending didn't know the person well).

Brent had linked this post and commented on FB:

You know what I want as a ritual, if I die? It's pretty straightforward and simple.
People get together and love each other and remember me. And at some point, someone gets up, and holds up something that once belonged to me, that symbolizes something I cared about. And then they say, "I knew Brent. Brent cared about {X}. Who is willing to carry this?"
And then if you have the balls to care about {X} as much as I did, in the way I did, you take the object. And you take the charge. And you fucking run with it, as hard as I would have, if I had all your skills and advantages and powers.
And that happens, over and over, until you're out of objects and tasks.
And if I'm lucky enough to found this as a religion, but we're collectively unlucky enough to have not conquered Death, then when those people die, someone holds up those objects at their funeral, and says "I knew {person}. He cared about {X}. He accepted this from a man named Brent Dill, who also cared about {X}. Who will carry this?"
And if we don't conquer Death, then maybe someday someone will hold up an old, weathered Lego brick, long since modified with a hole to be made into a necklace-pendant, and say "I knew Yareth. Zie cared about children, and showing them that they had the power to change their world. Yareth accepted this from a being named Marle, who accepted this from a woman named Faie, who accepted this from a person named Zerh, who accepted this from a man named Malcolm, who accepted this from a man named Duncan, who accepted this from a man named Brent. Who will carry this?"
And somewhere from within the network-that-lives-on, something like a remnant of me will smile.

I was chatting with a friend about Brent's post here, about the funeral ritual he'd prefer.

I noted: "I like the idea. My main worry here is that there *would* actually be scope creep, as more and more people accumulate obligations from Past Folk, and/or felt pressured into accepting responsibilities in such a way that they *either* became overwhelmed, *or* didn't take the responsibilities fully seriously."

The friend commented "I think... I think in that case it's actually important to be able to make it such that... yeah, one of the things that can happen is that no one is able or willing to take up a thing, and that it... just disappears forever."

And this... suddenly fucking drove home the enormity of death to me, in a way that I don't think I was engaging with even with my post on Kubo a few months back when it occurred to me that most of my great-great-grandparent's agency is already gone forever, AFAICT, or will be soon. (By contrast, it's still at least *conceivable* that I could learn enough about my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents that I could choose to carry their desires and dreams and stories into the future with me)

In the original post's comments, Daniel Powell noted that one of the scariest things that could happen is for someone to say "who shall carry forth this aspect?" and have only silence. And at the time I just parsed the silence as... awkward. Or something. Like maybe the default thing is that people get all their dreams taken on by their friends into the future, but sometimes nobody cared enough about a person and _that_'s when the thing is lost forever.

But, no.

The default is that almost everything is lost.

Imagine if, every time a person died, at the funeral, you gathered together with all the surviving pieces of that person. All the stories you know from their past. All your knowledge about who they were. All the desires they had to enact upon the world, that you could choose continue to enact with all of their passion and drive.

And you look together at those things.

And, every single time, you know that's... just not *actually* **possible** to carry each of those things forward.

And you have the opportunity, at the funeral, to save as much of that person as you can. They are still there. The fragments of them are right fucking there, and you could save them – incorporate their agency into yourself, or, hell, build yourself a tulpa to keep their personality itself.

But you have to be honest with yourself – it doesn't do any good to claim you could keep that fragment alive if you can't. And you probably won't, because it's too much work.

And piece by piece, together, you decide how much of your gone friend you have it in you to preserve.

You could perhaps take on *only* a shadow of fragment – you can't care about The Thing as much as your friend did, but you can care a bit, enough to keep it half alive for one or two more generations.

One way or another, together, you decide how much of your lost friend you are able and willing to save.

And then, the pieces that are left, uncarried forward, gone forever...

Well, you mourn.

It's all you can do.



I don't think this should actually become an institution (largely because it'd be hard to solve the "not pressure people into either taking enormous commitments that will harm them, or deceive themselves into thinking they have taken on a commitment when in fact they haven't.")

But, I... sort of feel like maybe everyone should have visualized this at least once, to comprehend the enormity of what is lost.

If I were hit by a truck tomorrow, I don't think any of the people who would go to my funeral would be rationalists, and most of the people who would go would be religious. Should I just let them do whatever they want with my corpse? I don't want a religious funeral, but it really doesn't seem like time to have someone put up a big "only idiots believe in an afterlife" sign, as much as I wish I could have one at my funeral.

(My wife has said that she's opposed to me being cryopreserved because then I won't join her in the afterlife. She has some strange beliefs about death and spirits and such: she doesn't just believe in ghosts, she thinks that when things go missing, it's because the ghost of her dead brother moved them. I'm going to have to work it out with her once I can actually afford to pay for it - we're at the "choosing which of food, rent, and electricity we're going to pay for this month" stage of broke.)

Yeah, I'd personally handle a family funeral (for a person who happens to be rationalist) very different from a "rationalist funeral." (My friend who died a couple years ago had a large number of rationalist friends. His family held a religious funeral in his home town. Almost exclusively rationalist friends in NYC and Berkeley had respective funerals that were able to basically assume 'rationalist culture'.)

This is a pretty important distinction and this post was almost entirely intended to frame the "cultural rationalist" funeral/memorial. I'll update the OP to clarify. (It turns out that much of the advice here is still good for a mixed/non-denominational funeral – a simple 'take turns talking' style funeral culminating in a final reflection/farewell' seems generally appropriate. But I'd have framed it much differently and had a different journey towards that end point if I were optimizing for "non-denominational" over "rationalist.)

Should I just let them do whatever they want with my corpse?

Why not? I mean, it doesn't really seem like you can currently afford to pay for even life-insurance-funded cryopreservation at the moment (given that you report having trouble with basic necessities), so unless that were to change in some way, why not let your surviving friends and social allies make their preferred choice about the matter?

I don't think Beyond the Reach of God is an ideal text for an event like this as it's not inclusive to everyone. With the last Solstice we stopped using it because we had a rationalist Christian with us. Inclusivity seems to me even more important for an event like a funeral.

Fortunately, I haven't had the need of designing a funeral ritual and I hope that it will stay that way for a while. If I would however design one, I would start by getting people connected to their bodies. Connection to the felt sense is central to be able to process an emotion like grief.

Couple thoughts on that:

1. An important principle in ritual is "be as oddly specific as you can get away with" (but no more).

The more a ritual communicates "the people in this room are connected by something special unique and important", the more moving an experience it'll be. It doesn't do any good to be arbitrarily inclusive – that'll just result in a watered down compromise that isn't exciting to anyone.

This can mean different things in different contexts. If you have a small, tight knit community where you know everyone's beliefs, you can do something specific that you are confident will resonate with everyone. In some cases this might mean avoiding topics that happen to be controversial in your group (but, if you are aware that everyone on the group is on the same page about some other normally controversial idea, you can go all in on that)

Some of my first "large scale" Solstices had the "watered down to the point that people were less excited" problem. Eventually I realized that weird or controversial things aren't intrinsically alienating – it depends a lot on what tone and context you set.

I decided my goal with NY Solstice was to be an event that my rationalist friends were deeply excited by, but which my family wouldn't feel alienated by – it was important to me that my mom/dad/grandma could come. Importantly, my mom, as well as .a family friend who came one year who were both Catholic, don't have any problem with Beyond the Reach of God. (Family friend said it in fact resonated with issues of theodicy that he's thought a lot about)

This doesn't mean you should do it in your group, just, be aware that it's much more possible to walk the "oddly-specific-without-alienating-people" tightrope than you might think, which may apply in various ways. (It does require skill, just, but it is achievable)

At the memorial in question, everyone was an atheist or at least atheist-adjaecent, and I think it was important to actually acknowledge and face squarely "this person is gone forever."

2. Framing things in terms of the deceased's beliefs

I mentioned in the OP – it seems much less alienating to me to phrase things in terms of "this person believed X" rather than "we believe X" (or, just "X!"). I typically don't want to get preached at at a funeral, but I do want to honor or at least acknowledge the things that were important to that person, even when I disagree.

3. Exploring Third Options

Finally, importantly I did not read all of Beyond the Reach of God. (This was not like reading a speech, it was more like lifting some key quotes out that fit more reasonably into a specific custom narrative. I don't actually remember which bits I used but I think they may not have even referenced God – more focused on the "a rationalist who fully understands the mess they're in may not be able to find a way out" aspect.)

Point being, there are options to highlight shared canon without delving into all it's official nuances, sticking the bits that are most relevant.

Tsai Wo asked about the three years’ mourning for parents, saying that one year was long enough.

‘If the superior man,’ said he, ‘abstains for three years from the observances of propriety, those observances will be quite lost. If for three years he abstains from music, music will be ruined.’

‘Within a year the old grain is exhausted, and the new grain has sprung up, and, in procuring fire by friction, we go through all the changes of wood for that purpose. After a complete year, the mourning may stop.’

Confucius said, ‘If you were, after a year, to eat good rice, and wear embroidered clothes, would you feel at ease?’ ‘I should,’ replied Wo.

Confucius said, ‘If you can feel at ease, do it. But a superior man, during the whole period of mourning, does not enjoy pleasant food which he may eat, nor derive pleasure from music which he may hear. He also does not feel at ease, if he is comfortably lodged. Therefore he does not do what you propose. But now you feel at ease and may do it.’

Tsai Wo then went out, and Confucius said,

‘This shows Tsai Yu’s lack of humaneness! It is not till a child is three years old that it is allowed to leave the arms of its parents. The three years’ mourning is universally observed throughout the land. And did Tsai Yu not enjoy the three years’ love of his parents?’

Thinking in terms of minimalistic ritual seems like the right way to approach the problem of trying to create ritual from scratch. It certainly sounds like a much better plan than expecting people to immediately buy into some weird ritual that someone just made up.

Sure, although that's not the alternative I was comparing this to. (See my original Designing Ritual post, as well as the opening section of the OP here)