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Last wishes: Hold the religion

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Larry Reyka's friends play the kazoo in his honor. (Courtesy of August Brunsman)

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A table displays some of Reyka's personal belongings. (Courtesy of August Brunsman)

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The ceremonial robe worn by some Humanist celebrants. (Courtesy of August Brunsman)

When August Brunsman IV attended a memorial service for his friend Larry Reyka in Columbus, Ohio, a few years ago, he wasn’t put off by being asked to take part in a kazoo-filled requiem or even by a duo's irreverent performance of Monty Python’s “Universe Song.” Brunsman knew Reyka would have preferred such absurdity to any mention of his place in heaven.

“Larry carried a kazoo with him and played it during moments he felt didn’t have enough humor,” said the 30-year-old Brunsman.

Though not always so theatrical, a growing number of funerals and memorial services are being performed across the country by Humanist celebrants-—an atheistic analog to clergy-—at the request of people who wish to exclude religion and ritual from the way they honor their loved ones. The result, Humanists say, is a more authentic and personalized tribute to the dead.

“The religious aspect of funerals is diminishing,” says Ken Bronstein, president of New York City Atheists, a group founded in 1941. He emphasizes that people today want more of a positive, celebratory experience as opposed to the recitation of a sermon.

Fred Edwords, director of communications for the American Humanist Association and the celebrant for Reyka’s memorial service, agrees and takes it further: “It is we Humanists who coined the term, ‘A Celebration of the Life of…’ that you see or hear even at some religious services now. This aspect of what we do has seeped into the larger culture,” he said, adding, “Over time, everybody will be doing it our way.”

Reyka’s memorial was held in a community building at a public park. On display at a fold-out table near the entrance were some of his personal belongings, including various atheist-themed bumper stickers, a favorite hat and suspenders, and, alongside a Certificate of Baptism, a more recent “Certificate of De-Baptism.”

The number of Americans who identified as atheists or “non-religious,” including agnostic, Humanist or secular, more than doubled to 30,000 between 1990 and 2001, according to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, the most recent data available. Similarly, membership in the American Humanist Association has also doubled in the last few years, Edwords says, to over 10,000 today.

He attributes the growing numbers to a curious dynamic. “We find that whenever there’s a surge of extreme religiosity with strong political power in this country, we have a rise in membership,” he said. “We doubled it in the 1980s as well because of the growth of the religious right that started up then. Whenever they are in the ascendancy, people react and say, ‘I’m going to stand with others of like mind and be counted as opposition.’”

But the appeal of a non-religious memorial service extends beyond those in the Humanist community. Yair Eisenberg, 79, though born into a Jewish family, was not particularly interested in religion throughout his life. Nor was his wife, Marjorie, who died of organ failure last July in Palo Alto, Calif.

Though neither of the pair ever identified as such, he contacted a local Humanist celebrant to preside over his wife’s service. At the funeral home, a video montage of scenes from Marjorie’s life was projected on a wall where a crucifix usually hangs. He said it felt like more of a custom fit and the guests reaffirmed this in their comments to him. Marjorie was cremated and Eisenberg plans to spread her ashes over the lake where she spent her childhood.

In fact, most people who choose non-religious funerals either are cremated or donate their bodies to science, said Edwords, adding that Humanists are often turned off by the ceremony and expense of a traditional funeral, from the extravagant coffins to the enbalming.

For Brunsman, the big difference between Reyka’s service and other more traditional services he has attended was the replacement of references to God and the Bible with stories about his friend.

“The parts of those funerals that were provided by the clergy were almost a spiritual rubber stamp, where the pastor shows up and basically spends most of the ceremony talking about how important Jesus is to everybody,” he said. “It wouldn’t even have mattered if the pastor happened to know the deceased.”

Former parochial vicar Mark Vicary of the Archdiocese of Newark says that the focus of a church funeral should be in “praying for one’s soul that he or she would be with God in heaven.”

“What we do sometimes is we customize it a little bit,” he said, “but ultimately it’s about the ritual that we pray, and it’s not the life that we exalt.”

He compares the liturgy in a Catholic funeral to a work of art. “So, if we’re sculpting this picture of what we believe as Christians, and then somebody stands up and says, ‘Golf was his life,’ and this, that and the other thing, that sort of detracts from the message,” he said.

David Wulff, an expert on the psychology of religion at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, says that for many people, assertions of being a believer are often more a social statement than a declaration of their real convictions.

“To declare oneself an atheist is to set oneself outside most social circles,” he said.

Therefore, some wait until death to express what they couldn’t say in life. Ultimately, though, he feels people today simply want more of a say in their own and their loved ones’ memorial services.

These untraditional services can sometimes raise questions about whom the funeral is for-—the grieving or the deceased. Dr. Rick Rickard, an 80-year-old veterinarian from Cleveland, has conducted Humanist services since 1965. He once had to preside over a split service, giving a secular version to half of the family, immediately following a minister’s service for the other half. Usually, though, he said he urges families to adhere to what the deceased would have wanted.

“In some respects you can say a funeral is for the grieving,” he said, “but you must respect the wishes of the dead.”

E-mail: ak2751@columbia.edu