These questions have been the domain of religion and custom for most of human history. For individuals in America who are becoming less and less religious and more secular, the death customs that are tied to religion are not meaningful any longer, and do not help the grieving process, but may actually hinder it. I have sat through too many funerals where the name of the deceased was mispronounced, where the service mentioned almost nothing about the person who the crowd had gathered to mourn. The officiant, not having ever known the individual, makes broad, sweeping passes of judgement about their character, calling them kind hearted or charitable, using any random positive characteristics to describe the deceased. Furthermore, in religious services, from an outsider's perspective, there seems to be a shameless plug during the service to speak more about the deity, and even tell stories that have no relation to the funeral service or death at all, but appear more to be used to try to entice people to come back to the church or temple for regular Sunday services.
For these reasons and more, a religious ceremony for my funeral is out of the question. The struggle from here is that meaningful secular funeral rituals are sparse. Where should one start, then, if one is to build a non-religious funeral ceremony from scratch? First, one might want to look to how a humanist ceremony operates, as this is one of the most popular options available for creating a meaningful non-religious funeral. Unlike proscribed rites of death from most religions, a humanist funeral provides plenty of personalization to allow the ceremony to both celebrate and send off the deceased in a respectable way that also allows for the grief necessary to heal.
Perhaps, rather than plan forward, it might be more meaningful to plan backwards, from far after your death, and figure out what is most important to you.
At this point in my life, I would want the following for my affairs, listed in no particular order:
- Do not bury me in a graveyard or embalm me. There is no reason to waste the resources or space on either of these things.
- Upon death, donate any usable organs so that another may live.
- Of the options of which I am currently aware, cremation or burial in a tree pod appeal to me most. In any case, great expense should not be spent on the disposal of my body. I am still young, so many new options may become available. If they do, I trust survivors to pick an option they best think would suit me.
- If I should enter hospice, a home death is preferred. Remove the medicalization of my death insofar as possible. Do not worry about spending money for a public viewing, but have a body viewing within the home.
- If I should be cremated, spread my ashes somewhere in nature. On a trail in the mountains, under a cherry blossom, somewhere up the Poudre. The specific spot should be meaningful to the survivors, and somewhere they can visit.
- I hope I might remain lucid enough into my old age that I am able to write a jisei before I die. This is a tradition I admire from Buddhist monks and poets in Japan. If I am able to do so, I would like my jisei to be read at my funeral.
- Be honest about the man I was. Do not glorify me above my faults, and do not ignore my shortcomings. Remember me truthfully, with all of my flaws, so that the memory left behind isn't saccharine.
- Donate any books I may still possess to either a library or a charity, so that they may go on to educate and enlighten future generations.
- Both at my funeral and after, don't remember me for the circumstances of my death. Remember me for the circumstances of my life.
- My funeral should not be conducted in a church, and the service should not be affiliated with any religion or have a religious officiant. This is not to say that references to things that happen to be religious should be taboo, but the funeral should overall be a secular event. Furthermore, let the funeral be not a somber affair, but also be a celebration of life.
As I age and grow as a person, I am sure these wishes may change over time. They should not be static, and it is okay to change one's thoughts about their death over time. The important part is not only thinking about these things ahead of time, but discussing them with each other, so that your survivors might know what you want when you pass.