Secular Memorials and Funerals Without God

Information and ideas about dogma-free funerals

Printable Brochure: Secular Memorials & Funerals Without God


Sample Secular Service

Poetry and Readings

Music Suggestions

A Freethought Epitaph

Additional Resources



by Anne Nicol GaylorAnne Nicol Gaylor

Freethinkers believe that a memorial service should celebrate life, not death. Memorials should honor the person who has lived, not be a vehicle to proselytize unsavory dogmas such as sin and salvation, as typical religious funerals often are. It is time to dispense with carbon-copy, fill-in-the-blank services read by clergy who use the occasion to promote religion, instead of honoring the individual. Freethinkers can specify “no religion” in their wills and papers, and freethinking families can likewise make clear they want no religious observances at funerals, the gravesite or memorials.

At the Freedom From Religion Foundation, we often hear horror stories about what happens when religious relatives put on godly funerals for people who were “devoutly unreligious.” We have heard of religious relatives throwing out valuable freethought libraries! We receive frequent requests from Foundation members who wish to ensure that their own memorials or those for nonreligious friends and relatives stay secular and true to the wishes of the deceased.

Memorials can be planned with readings from favorite poets and writers, with favorite music, with personal anecdotes told by friends and families, with family photos and other personal touches.

Another way to honor the living is to specify secular charities and organizations to donate in memory of the deceased. Friends and relatives who might never consider donating to such a charity often will honor such a request and this is a way for freethinking or progressive concerns to live after you.

Many freethinkers plan memorials rather than funeral services. Memorials have the advantage of giving grieving family and friends the chance to recover from the shock of sudden death, to make travel arrangements, and to fulfill obligations and legal duties before having to plan meeting logistics. Whether to hold a funeral or a memorial service is entirely a matter of family discretion and personal choice. Memorials are not reserved for those being cremated.

If a funeral (which includes a burial) is chosen, the timing usually takes place within a week of death. Individual state laws regulate when a burial must take place. Funeral homes can help a family consider the myriad small details, and there are also memorial societies that can help individuals plan details in advance of their deaths and save on expenses. No clergy is required to participate in any aspect of a funeral or burial.

FFRF is often asked: How do I make sure I am not given a religious burial? These requirements may be left with final papers, an “After I’m Gone” list left with trusted family, executor, or as a stand-alone instruction with your other important documents, clearly marked and signed. Do not rely on placing such a provision in a will, which likely will be read after burial or cremation! In the State of Wisconsin, the Department of Health has a form, “authorization for Final Disposition” which allows someone to detail arrangements for a funeral or memorial (see “religious instructions”). Your own state may offer such a form. See sample.

There are no orthodox rules or religious rites that must be followed. Isn’t that nice?

Several freethinking reference books include:

Sample Secular Service

By Annie Laurie Gaylor, with thanks to Jane Esbensen and Bonnie Gutsch.

  • Music
  • Welcome
  • Selected Readings (if desired)
  • Tribute/Memorial Portrait/Eulogy (Prepared remarks)
  • Song or Music
  • Personal Memories (spontaneous memories shared by participants)
  • Song or Music
  • Closing Words or Thank You
  • Closing Music
  • Invitation to Reception

During the tribute or memorial portrait, a family member or a chosen speaker remembers the person who has died. This talk can incorporate personal anecdotes, achievements; whatever it is that best describes this person. Audience members can be invited to share memories.
You may wish to point out the skeptical views of the person being remembered. For example: _________ did not believe in life after death; __________ believed in life before death. But _______ does live on in a natural sense, in the memories of those who remain, ________’s children and grandchildren [if applicable], and in __________’s accomplishments. (This leads to the memorial portrait or tribute).

Most freethinkers craft their own unique program. A friendly colleague or family friend may officiate. Families personalize the event with picture boards or other memorial displays. Don’t be afraid to be different. Even a favorite recipe of a good cook—brownies! etc.,—can be distributed (or served). Talented friends or family can be included in the program. Songs, music, poems or sayings personal to the deceased can be featured. Many memorials provoke as much laughter as tears. Music can begin and end the event, and be interspersed throughout.

Note: If religious relatives are involved, you may wish to include a “moment of reflection” somewhere during the program to keep the peace. It’s up to you.

Poetry & Readings

Many of the following poets/essayists were/are nonreligious/unorthodox. In the following selections, feel free to change the personal pronouns as they apply. List in alphabetical order by author.

By Felix Adler, founder of Ethical Culture

The dead are not dead if we have loved them truly.
In our own lives we can give them a kind of immortality.
Let us arise and take up the work they have left unfinished.

Let There Be Light
By Philip Appleman

Is it
crossing over Jordan
to a city of light, archangels
ceaselessly trumpeting over
the heavenly choirs: perpetual Vivaldi,
jasper and endless topaz and amethyst,
the Sistine ceiling seven days a week,
the everlasting smirk
of perfection?

Is it
the river Styx,
darkness made visible, fire
that never stops: endless murder
too merciless to kill,
massacres on an endless loop,
the same old victims always
coming back for more?

Or is it the silky muck
of Wabash and Maumee, the skirr
and skim of blackbirds,
fields of Queen Anne’s lace
and bumblebees? Well,
go out once more, and feel
the crumble of dry loam,
fingers and soil slowly becoming
the same truth: there in the hand
is our kinship with oak, our bloodline
to cattle. Imagine,
not eons of boredom or pain,
but honest earth-to-earth;
and when our bodies rise again,
they will be wildflowers, then rabbits,
then wolves, singing a perfect love
to the beautiful, meaningless moon.

The Dead
By Rupert Brooke

Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!
There’s none of these so lonely and poor of old,
But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.
These laid the world away; poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be
Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene,
That men call age; and those who would have been,
Their sons, they gave their immortality.

Blow, bugles, blow! They brought us, for our dearth,
Holiness, lacked so long, and Love, and Pain.
Honor has come back, as a king, to earth,
And paid his subjects with a royal wage;
And Nobleness walks in our ways again;
And we have come into our heritage.

These hearts were woven of human joys and cares,
Washed marvelously with sorrow, swift to mirth.
The years had given them kindness. Dawn was theirs,
And sunset, and the colors of the earth.

These had seen movement, and heard music; known
Slumber and waking; loved; gone proudly friended;
Fell the quick stir of wonder; sat alone;
Touched flowers and furs and cheeks. All this is ended.

There are waters blown by changing winds to laughter
And lit by rich skies, all day. And after,
Frost, with a gesture, stays the waves that dance
And wandering loveliness. He leaves a white
Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance,
A width, a shining peace, under the night.

By Samuel Butler

I fall asleep in the full and certain hope
That my slumber shall not be broken;
And that, though I be all-forgetting,
Yet shall I not be all-forgotten,
But continue that life in the thoughts and deeds
Of those I have loved.

Excerpt from Unweaving the Rainbow
By Richard Dawkins

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

. . . we didn’t arrive by spaceship, we arrived by being born, and we didn’t burst conscious into the world but accumulated awareness gradually through babyhood. The fact that we gradually apprehend our world, rather than sudddenly discovering it, should not subtract from its wonder.

Death Sets a Thing Significant
By Emily Dickinson

Death sets a thing significant
The eye had hurried by,
Except a perished creature
Entreat us tenderly
To ponder little workmanships
In crayon or in wool,
With “This was last her fingers did,”
Industrious until
The thimble weighed too heavy,
The stitches stopped themselves,
And then ‘t was put among the dust
Upon the closet shelves.
A book I have, a friend gave,
Whose pencil, here and there,
Had notched the place that pleased him,—
At rest his fingers are.
Now, when I read, I read not,
For interrupting tears
Obliterate the etchings
Too costly for repairs.

I died for Beauty but was scarce
By Emily Dickinson

I died for Beauty – but was scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb
When One who died for Truth, was lain
In an adjoining Room –

He questioned softly “Why I failed”?
“For Beauty”, I replied –
“And I – for Truth – Themself are One –
We Bretheren, are”, He said –

And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night –
We talked between the Rooms –
Until the Moss had reached our lips –
And covered up – Our names –

Because I could not stop for Death
By Emily Dickinson

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

The Bustle in a House
By Emily Dickinson

The Bustle in a House
The Morning after Death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted opon Earth –

The Sweeping up the Heart
And putting Love away
We shall not want to use again
Until Eternity –

My life closed twice before its close
By Emily Dickinson

My life closed twice before its close—
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me

So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.

By Emily Dickinson

My life closed twice before its close;
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me,
So huge, so hopeless to conceive,
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.

The Choir Invisible
By George Eliot

O may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence; live
In pulses stirred to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
Of miserable aims that end with self,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
And with their mild persistence urge men’s minds
To vaster issues.

So to live is heaven:
To make undying music in the world,
Breathing a beauteous order that controls
With growing sway the growing life of man.
So we inherit that sweet purity
For which we struggled, failed and agonized
With widening retrospect that bred despair.
Rebellious flesh that would not be subdued,
A vicious parent shaming still its child,
Poor, anxious penitence is quick dissolved;
Its discords, quenched by meeting harmonies,
Die in the large and charitable air;
And all our rarer, better, truer self,
That sobbed religiously in yearning song,
That watched to ease the burden of the world,
Laboriously tracing what must be,
And what may yet be better—saw rather
A worthier image for the sanctuary
And shaped it forth before the multitude,
Divinely human, raising worship so
To higher reverence more mixed with love—
That better self shall live till human Time
Shall fold its eyelids, and the human sky
Be gathered like a scroll within the tomb
Unread for ever.

This is life to come,
Which martyred men have made more glorious
For us who strive to follow.

May I reach
That purest heaven—be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love,
Beget the smiles that have no cruelty,
Be the sweet presence of a good diffused,
And in diffusion ever more intense!
So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world.

Epicurean Epitaph

I was not. I have been. I am not. I do not mind.

By Epicurus

Become accustomed to the belief that death is
nothing to us.
For all good and evil consist in sensation,
but death is deprivation of sensation.

And therefore a right understanding
that death is nothing to us
makes the mortality of life enjoyable,
not because it adds to it an infinite span of time,
but because it takes away the craving for immortality.

For there is nothing terrible in life for the man
who has truly comprehended
that there is nothing terrible
in not living.

Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep
By Mary Elizabeth Frye

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
By Thomas Gray

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Sing Well!
By Joyce Grenfell

If I should die before the rest of you,
Break not a flower, nor inscribe a stone,
Nor, when I’m gone, speak in a Sunday voice,
But be the usual selves that I have known,
Weep if you must:
Parting is hell,
But life goes on
So . . . sing as well!

By Mary Lee Hill

If I should die and leave you here awhile,
Be not like others, sore undone, who keep
Long vigil by the silent dust and weep.
For my sake turn to life and smile,
Nerving thy heart and trembling hand to do
Something to comfort weaker hearts than thine.
Complete these dear unfinished tasks of mine,
And I, perchance, may therein comfort you.

Dear Lovely Death
By Langston Hughes

Dear lovely Death
That taketh all things under wing
Never to kill
Only to change
Into some other thing
This suffering flesh,
To make it either more or less,
But not again the same
Dear lovely Death,
Change is thy other name.

At a Child’s Grave
By Robert G. Ingersoll

I know how vain it is to gild a grief with words, and yet I wish to take from every grave its fear. Here in this world, where life and death are equal kings, all should be brave enough to meet what all the dead have met. The future has been filled with fear, stained and polluted by the heartless past. From the wondrous tree of life the buds and blossoms fall with ripened fruit, and in the common bed of earth, patriarchs and babes sleep side by side.

Why should we fear that which will come to all that is? We cannot tell, we do not know, which is the greater blessing—life or death. We cannot say that death is not a good. We do not know whether the grave is the end of this life, or the door of another, or whether the night here is not somewhere else a dawn. Neither can we tell which is the more fortunate—the child dying in its mother’s arms, before its lips have learned to form a word, or he who journeys all the length of life’s uneven road, painfully taking the last slow steps with staff and crutch.

Every cradle asks us “Whence?” and every coffin “Whither?” The poor barbarian, weeping above his dead, can answer these questions just as well as the robed priest of the most authentic creed. The tearful ignorance of the one, is as consoling as the learned and unmeaning words of the other. No man, standing where the horizon of a life has touched a grave, has any right to prophesy a future filled with pain and tears.

May be death gives all there is of worth to life. If those we press and strain within our arms could never die, perhaps that love would wither from the earth. May be this common fate treads out from the paths between our hearts the weeds of selfishness and hate. And I had rather live and love where death is king, than have eternal life where love is not. Another life is nought, unless we know and love again the ones who love us here.

They who stand with breaking hearts around this little grave, need have no fear. The larger and the nobler faith in all that is, and is to be, tells us that death, even at its worst, is only perfect rest. We know that through the common wants of life—the needs and duties of each hour—their grief will lessen day by day, until at last this grave will be to them a place of rest and peace—almost of joy. There is for them this consolation: The dead do not suffer. If they live again, their lives will surely be as good as ours. We have no fear. We are all children of the same mother, and the same fate awaits us all. We, too, have our religion, and it is this: Help for the living—Hope for the dead.

By Robert G. Ingersoll

Love is the only bow on life’s dark cloud,
It is the morning and the evening star.
It shines upon the babe,
and sheds its radiance on the quiet tomb.
It is the mother of art, inspirer of poet,
patriot and philosopher.

Love is the air and light of every heart—
Builder of every home, kindler of every fire on every hearth.
It was the first to dream of immortality.
It fills the world with melody—
for music is the voice of love.

Love is the magician, the enchanter,
That changes worthless things to joy,
and makes right royal kings and queens
of common clay.

Love is the perfume of that wondrous flower, the heart;
And without that sacred passion, that divine swoon,
we are less than beasts;
But with love, earth is heaven, and we are gods.

*This is also a song that can be played at the ceremony—Dan Barker’s Friendly Neighborhood Atheist CD.

Mystery of Life
By Robert G. Ingersoll

Before the sublime mystery of life and spirit,
the mystery of infinite space
and endless time, we stand in reverent awe . . .
This much we know:
we are at least one phase of the immortality of life.
The mighty stream of life flows on, and, in this mighty stream,
we too flow on . . .
not lost . . . but each eternally significant.
For this I feel: The spirit never betrays the person
who trusts it.
Physical life may be defeated but life goes on;
character survives,
goodness lives and love is immortal.

This is the Silent Haven
By Robert G. Ingersoll

A thinker of pure thoughts, a speaker of brave words,
a doer of generous deeds has reached the silent haven
that all the dead have reached,
and where the voyage of every life must end; and we,
his friends, who even now are hastening after him,
are met to do the last kind acts that man may do for man—
to tell his virtues and to lay with tenderness
and tears his ashes in the sacred place of rest and peace.

The Rubaiyat
By Omar Khayyam

Oh, threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain–This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

I sent my Soul through the Invisible,
Some letter of that After-life to spell:
And by and by my Soul return’d to me,
And answer’d “I Myself am Heav’n and Hell:”

Heav’n but the Vision of fulfill’d Desire,
And Hell the Shadow from a Soul on fire,
Cast on the Darkness into which Ourselves,
So late emerged from, shall so soon expire.


Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and — sans End!


Alike for those who for To-day prepare,
And those that after some To-morrow stare,
A Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries
“Fools! your Reward is neither Here nor There”.

The World Sweeps On
By Robert Ingersoll

A heart breaks, a person dies,
a leaf falls in the far forest,
a babe is born, and the great world sweeps on.
By the grave of all who have died stands the angel of Silence.

A Pindaric Ode
By Ben Jonson

It is not growing like a tree
In bulk, doth make men better be;
Or standing long an oak, three hundred year,
To fall a log at last, dry, bald, and sear:
A lily of a day
Is fairer far in May,
Although it fall and die that night;
it was the plant and flower of light.
In small proportions we just beauties see;
And in short measures, life may perfect be.

Our Lives Matter
By M. Maureen Killoran

We come together from the diversity of our grieving,
to gather in the warmth of this community
giving stubborn witness to our belief that
in times of sadness, there is room for laughter.
In times of darkness, there always will be light.
May we hold fast to the conviction
that what we do with our lives matters
and that a caring world is possible after all.

An Epitaph
By Walter de La Mare

Here lies a beautiful woman:
Light of step and heart was she;
I think she was the most beautiful woman
That ever was in this country.
But beauty vanishes; beauty passes;
However rare—rare it be;
And when I crumble, who will remember
This beautiful woman of this country?

No Single Thing Abides
By Lucretius, 96-55 BCE

No single thing abides; but all things flow.
Fragment to fragment clings—the things thus grow
Until we know and name them. By degrees
They melt, and are no more the things we know.

Globed from the atoms falling slow or swift
I see the suns, I see the systems lift
Their forms; and even the systems and the suns
Shall go back slowly to the eternal drift.

You too, oh earth—your empires, lands, and seas—
Least with your stars, of all the galaxies,
Globed from the drift like these, like these you too
Shalt go. You are going, hour by hour, like these.

Nothing abides. The seas in delicate haze
Go off; those mooned sands forsake their place;
And where they are, shall other seas in turn
Mow with their scythes of whiteness other bays.

The seeds that once were we take flight and fly,
Winnowed to earth, or whirled along the sky,
Not lost but disunited. Life lives on.
It is the lives, the lives, the lives, that die.

In Flanders Fields
By John McCrea

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Dirge Without Music
By Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts
in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter,
the love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know.
But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes
than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

By Elizabeth Morrow

Like treasure lost at sea, her loveliness
Lies buried now: unchanged, inviolate,
Beyond all sounding, glassy depths possess
That beauty; naught has perished small or great.
Far from this surface world of weeks and days,
The coming summer or the winter’s cold,
Ineffably her own, a thousand ways
Rest in the dark of understanding, hold
Color and light against that other death
Oblivion. Sunk in silence they await
The moving tide of memory at whose breath
Waters divide above our doomed estate;
Her look, her laugh, her step upon the stair,
Leaping to life, incomparably fair.

And Why?
Nancy Wood

You shall ask
What good are dead leaves
And I will tell you
They nourish the sore earth.
You shall ask
What reason is there for winter
And I will tell you
To bring about new leaves.
You shall ask
Why are the leaves so green
And I will tell you
Because they are rich with life.
You shall ask
Why must summer end
And I will tell you
So that leaves will die.

While You Live

When I am dead
Cry for me a little,
Think of me sometimes
But not too much.
It is not good for you
Or your wife or your husband
Or your children
To allow your thoughts to dwell
Too long on the dead.
Think of me now and again
As I was in life
At some moment it is pleasant to recall,
But not for long.
Leave me in peace
And I shall leave you, too, in peace.
While you live
Let your thoughts be with the living.

By Christina Rossetti

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.

Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.

Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

By Christina Rossetti

When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:

And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.

By George Santayana

O Youth, O Beauty, ye who fed the flame
That here was quenched, breath not your lover’s name.
He lies not here. Where’er ye dwell anew
He loves again, he dies again, in you.
Pluck the wild rose, and weave the laurel crown
To deck your glory, not his false renown.

To W.P.
By Santayana

With you a part of me has passed away;
For in the peopled forest of my mind
A tree made leafless by this wintry wind
Shall never don again its green array.

Chapel and fireside, country road and bay,
Have something of their friendliness resigned;
Another, if I would, I could not find,
And I am grown much older in a day.

But yet I treasure in my memory
Your gift of charity, and young heart’s ease,
and the dear honor of your amity;
For these once mine, my life is rich with these.

I scarce know which part may greater be,
What I keep of you, or you rob from me.

On Suicide
By Arthur Schopenhauer

It is quite obvious that there is nothing in the world
to which every man has a more unassailable title
than to his own life and person.

I Have a Rendezvous with Death
By Alan Seeger

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows ’twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear…
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

I Choose
By Seneca, 5-65 BCE

If I can choose between a death of torture and one
that is simple and easy,
why should I not select the latter?
As I choose the ship in which I sail and the house
which I inhabit,
So will I choose the death by which I leave life.

Excerpt from Hamlet
By William Shakespeare

Hamlet: O, I die, Horatio;
The potent poison quite o’er—crows my spirit:
I cannot live to hear the news from England;
But I do prophesy the election lights
On Fortinbras: he has my dying voice;
So tell him, with the occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited. The rest is silence.


Horatio: Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince.

Sonnet CVIII
By William Shakespeare

Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.

The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,
And the sad augurs mock their own presage;
Incertainties now crown themselves assured,
And peace proclaims olives of endless age.

Now with the drops of this most balmy time
My love looks fresh, and Death to me subscribes,
Since, spite of him, I’ll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o’er dull and speechless tribes:
and thou in this shalt find thy monument,
when tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent.

Macbeth Act V. Scene V.
By William Shakespeare

Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

By Percy Bysshe Shelley

He outsoared the shadow of our night.
Envy and calumny and hate and pain,
And that unrest which men miscall delight,
Can touch him not and torture not again.
From the contagion of the world’s slow stain
He is secure; and now can never mourn
A heart grown cold, a head grown gray in vain—
Nor, when the spirit’s self has ceased to burn,
With sparkless ashes load an unlamented urn.

Prometheus Unbound
By Percy Bysshe Shelley

Gentleness, Virtue, Wisdom, and Endurance,
These are the seals of that most firm assurance
Which bars the pit over Destruction’s strength;
And if, with infirm hand, Eternity,
Mother of many acts and hours, should free
The serpent that would clasp her with his length;
These are the spells by which to reassume
An empire o’er the disentangled doom.

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.

By Theodore Spencer

What fills the heart of a man
Is not that his life must fade,
But that out of his dark there can
A light like a rose be made,
That seeing a snow-flake fall
His heart is lifted up,
That hearing a meadow-lark call
For a moment he will stop
To rejoice in the musical air
To delight in the fertile earth
And the flourishing everywhere
Of spring and spring’s rebirth.
And never a woman or man
Walked through their quickening hours
But found for some brief span
An intervale of flowers,
Where love for a man or woman
So captured the heart’s beat
That they and all things human
Danced on rapturous feet.
And though, for man, love dies,
And the rose has flowered in vain,
The rose to his children’s eyes
Will flower again, again,
Will flower again out of shadow
To make the brief heart sing,
And the meadowlark from the meadow
Will call again in spring.

The Faerie Queen
By Edmund Spenser

What if some little paine the passage have,
That makes fraile flesh to feare the bitter wave?
Is not short paine well borne, that brings long ease,
And lays the soul to sleep in quiet grave?
Sleep after toyle, port after stormie seas,
Ease after warre, death after life does greatly please . . .

By Robert Louis Stevenson

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you, ‘grave for me:
Here he lies where he long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

From the Garden of Proserpine
By Algernon Charles Swinburne

We are not sure of sorrow,
And joy was never sure;
To-day will die to-morrow;
Time stoops to no man’s lure;
And love, grown faint and fretful,
With lips but half regretful
Sighs, and with eyes forgetful
Weeps that no loves endure.

From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.

Then star nor sun shall waken,
Nor any change of light:
Nor sound of waters shaken,
Nor any sound or sight:
Nor wintry leaves nor vernal,

Nor days nor things diurnal;
Only the sleep eternal
In an eternal night.

In a Burying Ground
By Sara Teasdale

This is the spot where I will lie
When life has had enough of me,
These are the grasses that will blow
Above me like a living sea.

These gay old lilies will not shrink
To draw their life from death of mine,
And I will give my body’s fire
To make blue flowers on this vine.

“O Soul,” I said, “have you no tears?
Was not the body dear to you?”
I heard my soul say carelessly,
“The myrtle flowers will grow more blue.”

Into the Heart
By Rabindranath Tagore

This song of mine will wind its music around you
like the fond arms of love
This song of mine will touch your forehead
like a kiss of blessing.
When you are alone it will sit by your side
and whisper in your ear;
When you are in a crowd it will fence you in with aloofness.
My song will be like a pair of wings to your dreams;
It will transport your heart to the verge of the unknown.
It will be like a faithful star overhead
when dark night is over your road.
My song will sit in the pupils of your eyes,
and will carry your sight into the
heart of things.
And when my voice is silent in death,
my song will speak in your living heart.

As Sometimes in a Dead One’s Face
By Lord Alfred Tennyson

As sometimes in a dead one’s face,
To those that watch it move and more,
A likeness, hardly seen before,
Comes out—to someone of the race.

So, dearest, now thy brows are cold,
I see thee what thou art, and know
Thy likeness to the wise below,
Thy kindred with the great of old.

But there is more than I can see,
And what I see I leave unsaid,
Nor speak it, knowing Death has made
All darkness beautiful with thee.

To Toussaint L’Ouverture
By William Wordsworth

. . . Thou has left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.


Music Suggestions

The favorite music of the person being memorialized is an obvious choice, and/or family favorites. There is no right or wrong. Foundation member (and brave church/state plaintiff) Phyllis Grams, who was known for being organized and fearless, planned her own memorial service down to the final period, and chose as her selection a Frank Sinatra recording of “I Did It My Way” (causing a roomful of friends to erupt in affectionate laughter).

If you want your memorial service to include the music of freethinkers, please note the impressive roster of classical composers (and popular standards composers) who have been free of religion. (They may have been commissioned to write requiems, etc., but that was because the wealthiest clients were often churches and religious monarchs)! Nonreligious composers include: Faure, Bizet, Berlioz, Brahms, Copland, Debussy, Delius (“Over the Hills and Far Away”), and Verdi. Classical composers who were not devoutly religious, rejected church teachings, or who were Deists include Beethoven, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky. Chopin was not an atheist, but he had given up the Catholic Church at his death.

Songwriters who are/were not religious: Gerschwin, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim and Scott Joplin. The lyrics to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a comforting song that is a favorite worldwide, were written by atheist Yip Harburg. “Imagine,” by John Lennon, is another international favorite. Robert Burns was also an irreverent Deist who wrote many beautiful and meaningful songs.

Other ideas: “Danny Boy,” “To a Wild Rose” from Woodland Sketches by Edward Alexander MacDowell; “Wandering Westward” from Mark Twainby Jerome Kern; Fifth Symphony (New World), Second Movement, first third by Antonin Dvorak (a believer but he wrote beautiful music), “The Last Spring” by Edvard Grieg, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Old Man River by Jerome Kern.

A Freethought Epitaph

Below is a suggestion by Foundation Member Andrew Gaylor:

In contrast to the ponderous paeons to an imaginary deity and the unfamiliar descriptions of the deceased that accompany the death of a religionist stand these rapturous words of Walt Whitman, which could serve as a lovely memorial for a life-embracing freethinker:

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Leaves of Grass, 1891

Freedom From Religion Foundation