A Nonbeliever’s Near-Death Experience

By Wendy Thomas Russell | May 30, 2013 | 49 comments

So can we talk about near-death experiences for a minute? You know — the whole tunnels-and-bright-lights thing?

I bring it up because a good friend recently shared with me a YouTube video featuring an 18-year-old with heart disease. In the video, the high school senior, whose name is Ben Breedlove, uses index cards and music to tell the story of his life, his illness and his three near-death experiences.

Viewed more than 2 million times, the video seems to be Breedlove’s way of explaining what it’s like to pass from one world to the next and back again. He describes the journey in somewhat mystical terms — bright lights, a white room, a feeling of deep peace and calm. He also reports feeling proud of himself, of all he’s accomplished in his life. And he marvels at how good it had felt to be in that calming, bright-white place — so good, in fact, that he never wanted to wake up.

“Do you believe in angels or God?” Breedlove asks his audience just before the video ends. “I do.”

This young man’s experience, and his words, are meant to be affecting — and they are. Especially knowing that only a week after Breedlove uploaded that video to YouTube, his heart stopped again. Only this time it didn’t start back up. Ben Breedlove died on Christmas day.

As I watched the video, I was touched by Breedlove’s courage, optimism and humor. He’s clearly a good person who deserves to be happy. And that he appears to find happiness, even in the grip of death, is both sweet and uplifting.

But to answer Breedlove’s question: Do I now believe in God or angels?

No. The answer is no. Not even a little.

While I truly believe Breedlove saw those bright lights and felt that deep sense of calm, I don’t believe that what he saw and felt were “evidence” of another realm. Rather, they were the dreams and hallucinations so often brought on by brain malfunctions, powerful drugs and our own rich imaginations in the midst of life-threatening illness or trauma.

I’m intimately familiar with the phenomenon because I, too, had a near-death experience 16 years ago. Only I experienced it as a nonbeliever.

My own story begins in a restaurant in Lincoln, Neb., on the evening of May 20, 1995. I was in college at the time, and that night I was having dinner with my mom and my boyfriend, Charlie. (If the name rings a bell, that’s because I eventually married him.) I started off the meal by informing our waitress that I had a serious allergy to peanuts and tree nuts. But, by the time we ordered dessert, she’d forgotten. I took one bite of our cheesecake and knew immediately there must be nuts in the topping. Soon, I began feeling sick to my stomach. The waitress apologetically confirmed there were crushed almonds on top of the cheesecake, and we left.

About 30 minutes later — after my mom had begun her two-hour drive home and Charlie had headed to a video store to get us a movie — my face swelled up and I began having trouble breathing. Nothing like that had ever happened before, but I sensed that something must be terribly wrong. I called 911, then ran to the porch to wait for help. Charlie met me there, video in hand. Within seconds, I was lying down, struggling against my ever-shallowing breath. The effect was terrifying. I can still feel the chipping paint on the wood slats below me as my body thrashed around, desperate for air. “Try to relax,” I remember Charlie saying, as he held me in his arms. “You’re breathing. You’re breathing. You’re breathing.”

And then, suddenly, I wasn’t breathing anymore.

I immediately lost consciousness. As Charlie tells it, my body went rigid and my lips turned blue. He tried to administer CPR, but my tongue had swelled to the point where he couldn’t do anything. From the look of it, he said, I was either dead or dying.

By the time the paramedics arrived, I was in full respiratory arrest. Their first rule of business was to get a tube down my throat so they could push air to my lungs; but it wasn’t easy. According to the paramedics’ report, the first several efforts failed. And when they finally did intubate me, it didn’t do much to improve my situation. By the time I got to the emergency room at Lincoln Memorial Hospital, I was still in respiratory arrest. There, I was injected with all kinds of drugs, fitted with a chest tube for a collapsed lung, and given a rather grim prognosis. As I lay in a coma, breathing only with the aid of a respirator, doctors brought up the distinct possibility of severe brain damage.

Obviously — or maybe not so obviously if you believe Fox News fans — I made a full recovery. I remember coming out of my coma, but still not able to speak (or even swallow) because of the tube running down my throat.

The only way to communicate with my parents was to trace out letters with my finger. At first, they didn’t know what I was trying to do, but then my dad figured it out and offered me his palm to write on.


When I got to the word “damn,” the smile that spread across my dad’s face said it all: Not only was I alive and awake. Not only was I able to form words. But, by God, I was cursing again. All was right with the world.

This is the wristband I wore during my hospital stay. When my brother saw it, he asked: “Is that your allergy or your diagnosis?”


Now, about that near-death experience…

I can’t tell you exactly when this happened, other than to say it was sometime after I lost consciousness and before I was stabilized in the hospital. But, just like Breedlove, I had a vision that accompanied an extreme sense of calm. I didn’t see angels or bright lights or tunnels or staircases to heaven, though. What I saw was my own funeral. Or, more specifically, I saw the feet of the people at my own funeral. (Kooky, I know.) It was as though I were sitting under a table. That was my vantage point as I watched these black dress shoes shuffle back and forth on a wooden floor. There was no question that it was my funeral, but instead of feeling depressed or scared or even very sad, I felt a peaceful acceptance. In fact, it was kind of nice seeing all those people getting together to remember me.

And that was it.

Feet. Then nothing. Then cursing on my dad’s hand.

I don’t tell this story to undercut or minimize Ben Breedlove’s experience. I think his visions were profound and beautiful and life-changing and remarkably comforting. Just like mine, but in a different way.

I say it only to show that near-death experiences are colored entirely by our own unique backgrounds, philosophies, personalities and values. When faced with our own mortality, Breedlove and I both imagined what comes after death.

He’s religious; I’m not.

He saw an after-life. I saw a funeral.

This post originally appeared in January 2012.


  1. Randy the Atheist says:

    Hi all ~

    I would like to share my NDE experiences too. As a teenager suffering from severe case of narcolepsy, I had NDE’s almost on a weekly basis. And in many cases, I wasn’t even dying. My NDEs were as real as Breedlove’s and sometimes, even better than his. But because it happened so often, it started to become annoying. But anyway, thats not the point I wanted to make. In many of my NDE’s, not only did I meet other people who had passed away in life yadda yadda yadda – but I also met people who hadn’t yet died – like my dad, my sister’s elementary school friend for some ungodly reason, and my math teacher whom I often wished I had really seen in the afterlife.

  2. Cindy says:

    Sister. That WAS NOT a near death experience. It was a DREAM

  3. Judy says:

    Just a quick note. Enjoyed your article. Happy that you are here to tell the story. I must say I haven’t laughed so hardily as I did after reading your brother’s comment about your bracelet in a very long time. Thanks, I truly needed that at this moment in my life.

  4. […] What was interesting was that believer of God or non believer of God, they all felt peace. I read an article about a woman who was a non believer of anything supernatural. She had seen a video of an 18-year old boy who claimed to have been surrounded by angelic figures and felt peace. Instead of the usual story of being welcomed with open arms and seeing bright lights, this woman witnessed her own funeral. She claimed to be lying on the floor and see feet shuffling across the floorboards. Oddly enough, she felt the same peace that the 18-year old boy felt. (The article –> http://wendythomasrussell.com/a-nonbelievers-near-death-experience/ ) […]

  5. S. Mastrangelo says:

    Apparently yours was only a hallucination from the drugs that were administered to you or maybe a dream. I say this, because my experience from research of those experiencing a NDE does not comport with what you believe you saw. But Ben Breedlove’s represents a true NDE. So please don’t be surprised if you change your belief’s if and when you have a second brush with death.

    • Kevin says:

      I’m a confirmed agnostic. To me, atheists are wrong to claim that “there is no God, period.” How do they know? When my death does come I hope to experience the same unmitigated joy that Ben (and many others) have felt as they were dying, but as an agnostic I’m worried that all I’ll see are feet. As a loner, I’ll probably only see 3 pair of feet.

      A bigger hope that I have is whether or not my “spirit” will survive and I become, for lack of a better term, a “ghost.” Why? Because it sounds like fun and there many people I’d like to visit once I’m dead! I’m very science-based in my thinking, but also very open minded and had a ghost experience that is hard to explain: I have one of those lamps that turn on when you touch it. One day it turned on by itself. My first thought was static or my cat bumped it and I didn’t notice, but after looking around I found her in the bedroom. I asked “Is that you Mom? Dad? Bob?” and a few others who have died and the lamp dimmed by one setting. I said, “If you’re a ghost make the lamp brighter” which it did. Then I said, “If this is a spirit doing this, then turn the lamp off” and it turned off. Weird, huh? It never happened before or since and I’m at a complete loss to explain it.

  6. Kumera says:

    What is your take on veridical experiences, such for example as when the NDEer is able to report with 100% accuracy what was happening in another room or (as in Anita Moorjani’s case) another country? It is difficult to see how that can come from the brain alone.

  7. Mikael says:

    There is an afterlife, but what most people see in their NDEs are hallucinations based on their lives. When they die, they enter in a state of “dream”, made out of some kind of energy. When this energy fades out, the deceased person’s spirit is back where she died (and often, they can’t leave). Unlike what some people say, spirits are not immortal. They have to “feed” in order to keep existing. They feed out of emotions. Especially fear. That’s why some ghosts haunt houses and scare/mess with people. It’s not because they are evil, it’s just because they need these energies to keep going. If the spirit dies due to the lack of “food”, it will reincarnate. Once strong enough (after scaring the living crap out of 5 whole families lol), they can leave the place they died and venture away (on earth or not. There is many “safe” or “unsafe” havens that humans can’t see with their basic vibrations).

  8. Christine says:

    The real question should be, what do any of us get out of a near death experience? With all these near death experiences, what is the purpose? With all my heart I believe it’s God’s way of opening a window to our daily existence. He is showing us a glimpse of heaven. He doesn’t force us to believe, but he still makes his way known. How else would some people turn to him? It opens our minds up to notice what his word through the Bible has been telling us all along. Some people don’t believe because they don’t want to. Pray about it even if you never had prayed before in your life. Praying is just taking the time to talk with our creator. God answers those who seek him in many different ways. Through our thoughts, through people talking about him, through dreams and yes some through near death experiences. Thank you Jesus!

  9. Ryan London says:

    It seems this blog has some traction as i’m commenting on it 2 years after it was posted:) I too was a hard core atheist; when you’re dead, it’s like going to sleep and never waking up.(which may be the case) Then my mom died and I’ve had a couple of experiences that have led me to re-think my position about the possibility of life after death. After this happened I started thinking about all the other people that died and how something out of the ordinary had happened. Odd things like coming home from a friends funeral, sitting down to turn on TV and there’s a game on ESPN from 3 years ago on TV and the camera shows my buddy that just died giving high fives to everyone around him…..or having a strong feeling to call another friend that passed that I hadn’t talked to in years, and one afternoon I couldn’t get him out of my mind, then he died that night. (both friends were under 35 and not sick). Just little things that could very well be nothing, but have happened, then the big one being what happened after my Mom died, which is where I started.
    After that happened, I started doing some research, then more research and read more and more about NDE’s and related topics and there have been a few very interesting facts, like someone blind from birth being able to see colors, or in cases where others died, those people being with the person during their NDE while not knowing these people had passed away. It’s almost like we have another sense, a connection but we’re not smart enough to know about it. We’re like Crabs in the ocean who don’t realize that there’s this whole other sphere above the oceans. A favorite saying about this is, “do you believe in cock roaches?” Yes? “Ever try to explain to them about who you are?” So, that’s my take. One thing for sure, we’ll all find out soon, or you won’t either way, death is nothing to fear.

    • Kevin says:

      @Ryan London:

      I came home one day and as I entered my bedroom, I clearly heard, “Kev’s here.” My name is Kevin, but my Dad always called me “Kev.” For some reason it hit me really hard and I sat down and started crying. It happened in June of 2012 but I didn’t write down the exact date, but wish I had. Due to an estrangement with my family, I didn’t learn about my Dad’s death until August. When I read his obit it showed that he died June 23, 2012. Coincidence? You decide.

  10. susanne sisk says:

    I was recently involved in an auto accident that caused an almost immediate amputation of my right leg. I Was dragged under an 8 ton truck while riding a scooter. I’ve been agnostic all of my adult life. But I had an experience that has changed that somewhat. I remember a sudden exuberance of freedom. Almost as if a part of me was giddy at the thought of being free from my body and trying to shoot away from the scene of the accident as quickly as possible. No tunnels, no white lights, none of that. Just pure joy at being free. I ddidn’t get very far, as a very tall being of light, beautiful and commanding stopped me in my tracks. It told me that this was something that was supposed to happen in my life, and took me back to my body, but did so with the utmost love and comfort, like a mother cradling a newborn. This presence stayed with me until the trauma center helicopter came and the entire time I was enveloped in that feeling of love and well being…perhaps yours was a dream of the mind..mine was not. I’ve always thought that no one on earth is anywhere smart enough to know all the answers for themselves, much less anyone else…but I do know that I will never be afraid of death again, and that I will try to be a better person from now on, because life and consciousness do indeed go on, and I’d sure love to be where all that love is and nowhere else.

  11. Interesting comments and all — but I’m more worried about you and the nuts. Good grief. You’ve got to be careful. Obviously you have been since 1995 was a few years ago.

    So you think the brain is still firing and on its last gasps our own death references leap to mind? Is it not possible that your experience was so different than “the believers” experience — because he did have faith? I don’t know if God would reveal himself to anyone who didn’t chose to be united with him. Maybe that choice continues on after death? Who knows? And please stay away from the nuts.

  12. Luke Nilsen says:

    I have read of near death experiences like the one you describe containing corroborative detail. A woman who was pronounced dead on an operating table and revived described a canvas basketball shoe on a windowsill to a friend while recovering, who went to verify this and found it where she said it would be. I knew my father had died and saw him before anyone informed me which was witnessed and verifiable. Having said all this i do not want to believe in false hopes and wonder about it all. What would be interesting with the funeral is if theres anything you shouldnt be able to know. Then again who knows what to think

  13. Mt says:

    Everyone’s experiences are fascinating. I agree with Cal that using the specific example of the dying young man was in poor taste. Regardless of how is was written, the author has no idea what the family feels…what would or would not be hurtful, she simply did not give it any weight in her pursuit of making her point. So to justify it afterward is self-serving. The author should demonstrate some honesty there – hey, I write what I write and if it is harmful, so what? The “I can’t imagine” answer is (if not patronizing) not credible.

  14. Cindy says:

    What if…. what you believe… is exactly what you get in the end, no more, no less?
    Believers go on. Non believers do not, because they don’t believe they do.
    In other words, what you believe determines your fate. Faith in a being to save you, saves you. Faith is nothing, brings you nothing. As for the feet, perhaps your view is looking down, instead of up. Have faith that there is something out there that made both you and Ben. And it loves you beyong measure. It has faith in you to find it.

  15. Scott says:

    I mean, if you get right down to it, you saw a funeral, which would have occurred after your death, so really, you experienced an after-life too. Yours was just, well, slightly less enthused. I would argue that your “near-death” experience is more geared towards proving your point than accuracy in detail, or properly stream-lined logic.

    • Thanks, Scott. But, wow, did you misunderstand this post. I’m not saying I literally saw my own funeral. (That’s actually the opposite of what I’m saying!) I’m saying that, at a time when my body was in grave danger, my brain produced an image for me. Not sure how I can stream-line my logic any more than that.

  16. Luke says:

    Another commenter on this page has already stated, specifically in reference to the naturally occurring chemical DMT, that the ‘experience’ is very similar to experiences of near-death. I have to state this succinctly, rationally, and with as much fervor as a I can: If you’ve never had a powerful psychedelic experience at least once in your life, you are missing out on very huge cosmic understanding of the questions ‘what?’, and ‘why?’. This includes DMT, LSD, Amanitas, Psilocybin, Ayahuasca and Mescalin. All different colors of a very similar palette.

    Abandon your per-conceived notions of “drugs” and humor me for a moment. Human beings have experimented with different substances and the way they affect our brain chemistry for ages. Alcohol, nicotine, caffeine just happen to be a few that have been legally sanctioned by our government. But why not psychedelics? Does anyone remember how the last generation influenced by psychedelics tried to change our world? World peace? “Drop acid, not bombs”? “All you need is Love”? What would have resulted would have been a huge shift in the status quo. Ever wonder where this stuff came from?

    You see, I’ve been to that ‘white room’ in my waking state, and when you’re staring ‘IT’ down right in the face you realize that God isn’t some floating man-like entity in the sky, there is no heaven and hell. All of these are man-made ideas to explain one thing, the one thing that can’t be explained with words, the source of it all, the space and connection between EVERYTHING. Trying to talk about what it is will only lead you in circles, circles that surround the ‘point’ but never actually hitting the bullseye. The Taoists wrote an entire book about this called ‘The Path’, The Tao. When read you get that very feeling of circling some great message but leaves its understanding up to the individual. The only way to know is to experience it, I mean, isn’t that the way life works?

    I don’t claim to know even if appears as though I do, I can only tell of my experience, as the saying goes the wise man knows only that he knows nothing. It happens like a dream, a dream that gives you a message but only if you’re looking for it and after its over you immediately begin forgetting the details. You can and will spend the rest of your life trying to conceptualize that experience, put the puzzle pieces of the moment back together, try to find words to fill the void but ultimately all you’re left with is that peaceful, calming feeling, what Buddhists call the ‘Inner Peace’. Don’t you see? God is just a word we created to contain the greatest mystery, never ever expecting anyone to truly understand what it means. That’s why ancient Hebrews used the word Yhwh because we weren’t supposed to even speak it; supposedly impossible for us to grasp its meaning. We’re all apart of this string of events, from the big bang to the closing credits, what may be the greatest ‘Rube Goldberg’ ever, and it all works out. And when you’ve received the message you understand that there’s no reason to harm anyone, no reason to take your happiness from another person. No reason to make judgments or feel self-conscious. I imagine that that guy named Jesus probably had a very similar revelation, perhaps not under the influence of drugs, but as stated before DMT is naturally produced in the brain, so ponder that.

    Life’s kind of like reading a mystery novel. If you want to wait it out and read to get to the end of the book that’s all sunflowers and roses, good on you. But if you’re like me and get a greater enjoyment from reading the end first and then reading the novel just to see how it all plays out and how it could possibly come to that conclusion then perhaps psychedelics are right up your alley. Trust me, it’ll save you a lot of time worrying if your characters are going to be all right. We all get to the end in the end anyway, right? We’re all explorers of this realm, how deep are you willing to go?

    • Well, I’m not sure I can back the use of psychedelic drugs on my blog (and wouldn’t want to, frankly) but I will say that I agree with virtually everything you’ve just said — and you said it very well! I think what you’re advocating, in general, is finding ways to expand your mind, to take it in new directions, and to gather a different perspective on the world, our existence and each other, yes? Certainly, as an experiment, LSD will do the trick on that score — but I think there are other ways, too. Legal ways. Yoga and meditation, for example, or really great literature. Thanks so much for writing!

      • Ray says:

        I have never accepted religious dogma, despite attending a Catholic school in my young childhood, as I understand it is nothing more than fables made up to explain things which were not previously understood. I am a junior in university now, studying psychology, religion, and history, and a class which I am currently taking requires the reading of the book “Lessons from the Light” by Kenneth Ring, Ph.D. This book is the product of his decades of research and investigation into near-death experiences (NDEs), and it literally changed my life. As soon as I started reading it, the accounts of what happens postmortem just felt right. Not far into the book, I read a certain passage and suddenly felt my heart fill with a joy I have never felt before, which I can only describe as divine love, and I burst into tears. It was the most intense, real feeling I’ve ever had, as if everything else I had experienced before then had been muted. Now, I still don’t agree with any of the world religions, as I think they are all either partially or completely man-made, but I do believe in a higher power. I don’t know if it’s one God or many gods, or even if they are gods at all, but I do know that my personal truth is that something created us for the sole purpose of loving one another unconditionally. I don’t know if my brain chemistry changed or what, but since that experience I have had a radical change in my personality and affect, all for the positive, without any effort. I have also noticed that people seem to be much more interested in talking to me, or even just being near me, as if they feel comfortable with me even if they are complete strangers. I don’t claim to be a beacon of hope or anything, but I do know that something happened that day, and despite my atheistic background (it was pretty militant in fact) I feel in my heart that it was divine intervention. I implore you to read that book.

  17. Kmuzu says:

    I have MS, which means that my brain kind of short circuits now and then .. and I have experienced many of the NDE symptoms during a bad MS run .. Which means all of this kind of stuff is probably just the brain rebooting.

    • Interesting! I hadn’t thought of it that way.

      • Jose says:

        Out of body experiences confirm there is a soul or spirit who doesn’t die when your body dies. There are also hundreds of documented cases of reincarnation. This suggest there could be a “place” where spirits gather after disincarnation. Heaven? Could this conglomerate of souls have the capacities to influence terrenal affairs?

  18. Joseph Grenon says:

    I have come across many near death experiences. My problem with them is that they are all “near” death. We may not be able to account totally for what experiences people have. Should they wish to deify the experience, fine. I would like to hear from someone who has actually been dead for a week or two. That would be testimony worth hearing. Even better if there could be a recordable and reconstructible conversation with someone who has been dead for a substantial amount of time, say 20-50 years. I could call that evidence. Everything else is subject to much controversy. As of now,near death does not equal death. If you can recall anything of the experience and tell about it, ipso facto you were never dead. It all amounts to campfire conversation and will follow the prominent beliefs to the story teller and the audience.

      • tim says:

        Either consciousness continues when brain function ceases or it doesn’t. Forget about any other definitions of near death and concentrate on the experiences of patients in cardiac arrest. Cardiac arrest IS death, it the very first stage of permanent death but the state of consciousness is the same a someone who has stayed dead. There should be nothing going on in the brain during cardiac arrest but the evidence we have from five prospective studies indicates that consciousness continues. The Aware study should be able to answer this question once and for all but personally after looking at the NDE for over thirty years I’m already certain it does continue though I appreciate that THAT is anathema to some people.

  19. robotnik says:

    I read that DMT is secreted by your pineal gland when you sleep and when you you are dying. It is allegedly the chemical that facilitates dreaming. Some people extract it from plants and ingest it, which induces a waking dream trip. It is the most illegal substance on the planet, yet our bodies naturally produce it.. The reason I bring it up though is that the people who use it tend to describe very similar experiences. Out of body experiences and bright lights are a common theme, as well as meeting sentient beings. The DMT users often see ‘Machine Elves’ which they describe as conscious, jeweled orbs, and when they relate their experiences to one another some people even begin to think that they exist. Perhaps the DMT being released in near-death experiences explains the similarities of the near-death phenomenons as well as the purported realism of what these people have experienced. It is fairly annoying when people try to cite near-death experiences as evidence for their god… as if their beliefs couldn’t have brought on that experience to begin with… I’m glad you touched on that point.

  20. Jennifer says:

    While I have no Doubt in the power of the brain, and I know there is much still we do not understand. Maybe its part of our life experiences, but why does that invalidate the possibility that some people have a heavenly experience. Isn’t it possible that maybe those who have had an experience like Ben Breedove see more religious things because God is bringing them to Heaven, and maybe ur experience God wasn’t bringing you to heaven.

  21. Leslie says:

    Oh, I definitely believe there are more to these than meets the eye. What? No idea! But that’s why I find them so fascinating. :)

  22. Summer says:

    I’ve had one of these as well! Like the comment above mine, it also makes me feel there is more to life than what we can detect with our senses. I’m non-religious (I joke that I’m a “recovering Christian”), though not a “materialist.” Personally, I find the research into near-death experiences so fascinating and important. I don’t know if you’ve read any of Raymond Moody or Pim Van Lommel’s books, but there really is no singular physiological theory that can explain away every single experience (of course, this does not mean there is not one) and the theory that it’s just the result of an oxygen-starved brain (“dying brain theory”) is actually filled with flaws. There is also a physician who has begun something called the AWARE project, where hospitals are asked to question patients after cardiac arrest to see if they noticed an image placed on the ceiling, to see if they were really “out of body”. How interesting, right? Because of my experience and this research I’ve been reading, I tend to lean toward 50% thinking consciousness isn’t a product of the brain (more like a receiver) and continues on in some way and then the other 50% of me thinks we just cease to exist. So, there’s lots of arguing in my head. =) I think it may have been mentioned on here before, but if you haven’t read Fringeology by Steve Volk, you definitely should. In fact, he may be a good person to interview for your blog (stevevolk.com).

  23. Heila says:

    Talking about funerals…(sorry, going off on a tangent) My husband and I have discussed this issue on more than one occasion. We are not religious and both of us feel strongly that we really would not want to have a traditional church based funeral as that would just be too hypocritical to contemplate. There are a few problems here: 1) Both of us grew up in families who are Christian, at least nominally, even though they now rarely go to church or participate in other organised religion. They still say grace at meals and feel that the church has a role to play in baptisms, weddings and funerals. (Hatching, matching and dispatching). We have a lot of genuine and earnest Christian friends. All of these people would be distressed at the lack of some sort of ritual, and it is after all meaningful for those who are still alive rather than the one who is dead. 2) The church has a very efficient and well practised framework for dealing with death. They make it easy. I have no idea how one would go about arranging a non-religious event to say goodbye to a loved one. In the absence of a religious authority figure, would you have a MC like at a wedding? And who would this person be? Someone who knew the deceased well would be appropriate but would they be emotionally up for it?

    Both of us feel that cremation, or some other eco-friendly alternative is the way to go. Then there can be a party, perhaps at a place that the dead person really liked, and people can talk and cry and laugh and remember together.

    Anybody else have thoughts on this?

    • Hi Heila!
      ‘Hatching, matching and dispatching’ made me laugh out loud.
      And great questions! I think people will inject their religion into your funeral no matter what — and that’s totally okay. But I definitely see your issue with having a church conduct the ceremony. I do believe — although anyone feel free to correct me if I’m wrong — that funeral homes are well-equipped to deal with non-religious ceremonies. And the funeral director may even sometimes act as the “MC” — although some people, I know, just have a lineup of speakers. As long as there’s a program provided to guests, there won’t be much confusion.

      • Heather says:


        Most funeral homes – the ones that are worth their salt, anyways – should be able to conduct ceremonies from all walks of religious life (or lack thereof.) I know that for most of the secular ceremonies I’ve worked, the family has chosen a family member or close friend to serve as the MC for the service, although I’ve seen the funeral director do it, too. Most will choose specific family members to eulogize through the service. Some ceremonies will even have the equivalent of “open mic night,” passing around the microphone at an appointed time to allow anyone to speak to share stories about the deceased.
        Some funeral homes are incorporating “celebrants” for their services, people who attend training on providing meaningful secular services to those who are agnostic or atheists. I have never been to one of these services, but a quick google of “funeral service celebrant” seems to bring up a fair amount of information.
        Also, if you’re worried about your family being too involved in disrespecting your final wishes, many states do allow pre-need plans that cannot be changed or revoked after they have been paid in full. I strongly, strongly recommend that everyone who can looks into pre-need funeral service plans! You take care of your wishes the way you want them done; you have everything completed for your family during a time when making decisions totally sucks; and you can make payments or hold off payment completely until after you have died. Although preferences can be specified in wills, they’re simply not as binding as pre-need plans.
        Don’t fear! The industry is finally starting to catch up with the fact that those of us who are secular exist. You can have the ceremony you deserve without the pomp and circumstance of a church service.

  24. Cal says:

    I, myself, am atheist – but I find this article inappropriate. Not the concept, not the point – but citing the specific example of a young man who posted his dying thoughts online. Let alone less than a month after his death. His beliefs helped him deal with what was happening to him – and his family’s beliefs sustain them, as well. This is exactly the wrong time and manner in which to tell them ‘I think your beliefs are false.’ And if any of them – /ever/ – find this article, it will be extremely painful to them.

    Please show this guy and his family some respect. Take out the specifics, and make it more generic.

  25. Andrew says:

    I found your post very interesting, and I thought I’d share my own near-death experience.

    This happened when I was 5 years old, while at the beach with my mom. I’d found two other kids to share the playground with, so we were pretending to be race cars whilst taking laps around a row of palm trees. At some point, I’d drastically slowed down, but the adrenaline of the “race” kept me from noticing the fact that I’d been bitten multiple times by fire ants, of which I’m very allergic to. I eventually lost the ability to move my legs, and my body began to ache badly. I was also hallucinating, as I remember looking up to see the kids that I was racing with were now running on top of the palm trees.

    I called out to my mom, who immediately noticed something was wrong as she approached. I remember reaching out to her as I lost consciousness. I stopped breathing as I was rushed to the hospital, but on the way I had an out-of-body experience. I remember seeing myself lying in an ambulance with my mom and an EMT, as they tried to revive me. I floated through the ceiling of the ambulance to see it was crossing a local bridge enroute to the hospital. While the ambulance continued forward, I continued upward, while a bright light enveloped my vision. It was a very peaceful feeling, and I wasn’t distressed about seeing my still body or the speeding ambulance. When I awoke, I was in a hospital bed, and my dad had arrived to see how I was doing. I was fortunate enough to be able to return home that evening.

    While the experience makes me believe that there is more to life than what we can detect with our basic senses, I remain an atheist.

  26. JT says:


Leave a Reply

Due out March 31, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious offers a well-researched look at a timely subject: secular parenting. With chapters on avoiding indoctrination, talking about death, vaccinating kids against intolerance, dealing with religious baggage, and getting along with religious relatives, the book offers a refreshingly compassionate approach to raising religiously literate, highly tolerant and critically thinking children capable of making up their own minds about what to believe. The book may be pre-ordered by visiting Brown Paper Press.

      Natural Wonderers is my new blog published by the Patheos faith network. An extension of my previous blog — Relax, It's Just God — Natural Wonderers offers stories and advice on raising curious, compassionate children in secular families.
                    Become a Subscriber!
                            Stay Connected