A Place on Earth: Ritual, Grief, & Mourning as an Atheist, Part 1

Part I: As They Are, As They Should Be

The moment the seatbelt sign turned off, I began pressing the call button for the flight attendant. A statuesque blonde bounded over, her blue eyes rimmed in frosted lilac. She paused as she stared at the odd couple in the seats to which she’s been summoned: My dear friend Kristi—already vacation-clad in a white skirt, sandals, and floral tank top, headphones covering her ears, laughing out loud at the TV—and me—pale, dressed in skinny jeans and heels, clutching the armrests of the seat in terror.

“Can I help you ladies?”

“Do you have champagne?” I had tried to soothe my pre-flight panic by promising myself I could have a mimosa on the plane.

“No, I’m sorry, we don’t have champagne.”

“Oh…” Memories of watching plane crashes on TV flood into my memory. “What about vodka?”

“We have vodka.”

“Two.”

Kristi takes her headphones off. “Do you have white wine?”

The flight attendant gently squeezed my arm. “So, two vodkas, and wine. Coming up ladies.”

She disappeared into the food prep area. I pressed my back against the seat. My fear of flying developed when I was a teenager, and to this day, shows no signs of abating. No amount of safety statistics or emergency preparedness help. I tried to breathe deeply and tell myself that the alcohol would be here soon. Suddenly, Kristi slapped my arm.

“Oh my God! They have SAVED BY THE BELL on here!!!” She pointed to the TV and smiled. I tried to smile back.

Soon, our drinks would be here. And a few hours after that, we’d land in Orlando. The plane had to make it, I pleaded. Please make it.

This wasn’t just a vacation. This was a mission.

Mourning at Disney

Kristi and I met at Goddard College’s MFA in Creative Writing program. We immediately claimed each other as friends. Kristi is everything I wish I could be: Outspoken, fearless, unapologetically herself. She writes ghost stories, disquieting slices of ordinary life that break to reveal the supernatural. The true genius of her work is that every story starts off with a mundane problem: A relationship ending, money problems, the death of a family member.

The semester after I met Kristi, I lost my father to cancer. Six months later, her father died as well. The proximities of our losses bound us together. As neither of us considered ourselves particularly religious, we navigated the world of mourning untethered to any religious doctrine. The rituals and traditions of dying, of burying the dead, of grieving and recovery are steeped in religious images, symbols, and practices. Neither Kristi nor I could quite reconcile our own experiences of loss to this model. In the months after the loss, we’d call each other, wine in hand, and talk about our fathers: The good memories, the bad ones, the strange funerals, the way assurances of “he’s with God now” were well-meaning, but hit a hollow part of our beings.

DisneyIt was through these conversations that the Disney stories came out. Both of our fathers were hard-working men from humble beginnings who had worked their way up to the middle class (her father was an English professor, mine was a lawyer). Both men wanted their children to have the kinds of childhoods they never had: Whimsy and fantasy, lessons and vacations. Both men had taken their families to Disney World.

One night, Kristi called me as I was coming home from work. “So, I’m the one who’s going to have to deal with the estate,” she groaned between drags of her cigarette. “And that is going to take, like, years. It’s going to be a mess. So, I was thinking, I wanted to do something fun before this all starts, you know?”

“You deserve it,” I replied. My father had few assets when he died, but even so, executing his estate had been a nightmare. I could only imagine what Kristi was in for.

“Well, I was thinking, we should go to Disney World. In honor of our dads! It’ll be like a memorial, but also like a vacation.”

Over the next few months, we talked. We planned. We picked a hotel where we had both stayed with our fathers. We plotted which rides we had to go on. And we shared stories, memories of simple gestures: Our fathers getting us mouse ear hats, our fathers holding our hands tightly as we walked through the parks. Disney wasn’t just a place we had gone on vacation. It was a place we had gone where we felt normal. Kristi’s childhood had been marred by her mother’s illness, and she had essentially raised her siblings and managed the house while her mother’s health declined. My mother developed schizophrenia when I was young, and I spent much of my childhood homeless, dashing from hotel to hotel, or couch to couch, while my father tried to get custody. Those trips to Disney World were respites from our lives. They were places where we could actually act like children, where life had all the trappings of normalcy and magic and safety. It was an homage and a pilgrimage, a place to heal and a place to remember. And so, in 2008, we got on a plane to Orlando in an attempt to mourn the men whose absences were still palpable in the most authentic way we knew how.

Mourning while Atheist

JZSmithReligious historian Jonathan Z. Smith writes that “ritual is a relationship of difference between ‘nows’—the now of everyday life and the now of ritual place; the simultaneity, but not the coexistence, of ‘here’ and ‘there’…Ritual…is, necessarily, an affair of the relative…In ritual, the differences can be extreme, or they can be reduced to micro-distinctions—but they can never be overthrown.”[1] Smith’s assertion of simultaneity seems particularly salient with regards to atheists’ imaginaries of mourning: In the absence of an established practice of mourning, in the absence of a set ritual of goodbye, how is the necessary juxtaposition of the “here” and “there” made public, made palpable?

This question is salient to the 20% of Americans who identify as atheist, agnostic, humanist, “none,” or other in terms of religious affiliation. And while much has been made of interreligious dialogue, of pluralism, and of how these groups cultivate meaning in their lives, little has been said on the subject of how 1/5 of the population encounters grief and loss.

Mourning while atheist (or agnostic, or humanist) is complicated business. The rituals we’ve seen others turn to for comfort might not resonate at the same frequency for many of us. And while some might take comfort in participating in established religious rituals, there is also a palpable desire for something authentic, something that speaks to a belief system with no set liturgy, with no set doctrine.

In the absence of established ritual, where is meaning found? How is the simultaneity of “here” and “there” affirmed, both publicly and privately?

A Whole New World

Disney World isn’t a destination; it’s an alternate reality. Beginning at the airport, there’s a clear sense of otherness associated with Disney. While harried passengers crowd security lines and run to gates, the Disney-bound follow paths marked in cartoon footprints to busses that shuttle you to your destination hotels. Television screens alternate between playing classic cartoons and Disney guides. If you opt for the buses, you also receive special luggage tags. Slap these onto your suitcases, and a team of runners transports your bags to your hotel room. When you arrive, your suitcases are already there, one against each bed, seamlessly incorporated into the motif of Disney-themed artwork and towels twisted to look like the Mickey glyph.

From the moment you arrive, there’s a clear division between this world, and the other.

Maintaining a space that is authentic to both grief and memory, to vitality and mortality, is arduous, if not nearly impossible. But Kristi and I wanted authenticity. We wanted a place where we could reminisce without the realization that we were injecting death into daily life, where we could honor both the best memories of our childhoods, and the realities from which we escaped.

Here With Us

Our flight descended through a hurricane, which Kristi thought was exciting and I thought was how I was going to die. Because we had to circle above the hurricane clouds before we landed, we missed our bus. Not to worry, the flight crew assured us, another fleet of buses would be there in just under an hour. Kristi and I found the first outdoor smoking area we could. Heavy rain obscured everything outside. We smoked two cigarettes each, staring into a wall of silver and green.

Disney AirportNo longer suffering from nicotine withdrawal, we wandered around the airport. Kristi ducked into a Lush store, and I followed. We played with soaps and lotions and lip balms. We left smelling like hyacinth and covered in glitter.

We made our way to the bus depot. Every employee smiled at us. At each station, we were asked just a few logistics questions: How long are you staying? Where are you from? Are you celebrating anything special on this trip?

“Yes!” Kristi squealed. “We’re celebrating our fathers! They took us here when we were young. They both died recently, so we’re here to honor their memory!”

The ticket agent put her hand over her heart. “Oh, bless you. That is beautiful. I’m sure they’re here with you, you know.”

“Oh, I know they are,” Kristi replied as we were ushered to our bus.

Once we were on the bus, she turned to me. “Don’t you feel them? Smiling? Wanting us to have a good time?”

I glanced at the TV screen above our seats. It flickered, then a cartoon with Chip and Dale came on. My father’s last days were spent in an ICU, tubes strung serpentine through his body. Most of my memories of him were of that room, the rhythmic sound of ventilators, the whir of dialysis, the overpowering smell of bleach. Watching two cartoon chipmunks collect acorns on the screen seemed a world away.

“I do,” I said, as we sunk into our seats and the bus left for the resort.

Performing the Way Things Ought to Be

Meghan&KristiJohnathan Z. Smith says that ritual “is a means of performing the way things ought to be in conscious tension with the way things are.”[2]

It is this definition of ritual that, I suspect, we strive for when we mourn. We hold our own continued presences to an unfathomable absence until it sings, or until we can’t stand it. And somewhere in this process, we discover that the underlying mechanics by which we let go are, perhaps, not so different after all.


[1] Jonathan Z. Smith, To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987) 110.

[2] Ibid, 109.

Click Here for Part 2
Meghan Guidry (Harvard University)
MeghanMeghan is a Masters of Divinity candidate at Harvard Divinity School, where she studies bioethics, humanist philosophy, end-of-life care, and health policy. Her research focuses on the disconnection between ethics and technologies, assisted suicide, and other cheery subjects. Her interests include creative writing, swimming, language philosophy, medical sociology, and coffee. You can check out her books at Empty City Press, find her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter @monocrescent.

118 responses to “A Place on Earth: Ritual, Grief, & Mourning as an Atheist, Part 1

  1. Pingback: A Place on Earth: Ritual, Grief, & Mourning as an Atheist, Part 2 | Applied Sentience·

  2. I submit this respectfully.
    There is what we know: that we are an animal species like any other and that we are going to be returned to the earth.
    There is time and eternity. These are two aspects of the same reality and we live in both all the time whether we experience both or not.
    This being the case, it is enough to remain still, give thanks for the earthly lives of those you love who have died. This is the there. And then go forward and live. Here.
    This is really all the ritual you need. If you prefer you can elaborate it by having a remembrance of the dead in any way you can imagine.
    But what is important is to be still and give thanks and then live as well and as joyfully as you can.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment, Sarah. I think your reminder of remaining still is so needed, and so important. There’s so much strange and nuanced pressure to “recover” and “return” after loss, to rush back into the world that is both fundamentally different because of the loss, yet mostly unchanged to those around you. I think this rush often does so much damage, and I hope that more open dialogue and discussion about what happens after the loss–and after the overt rituals acknowledging the loss–will help reveal that there is a real power and compassion to staying present with the loss, and to charting one’s own path between the split worlds of here and there in whatever way feels most comfortable and authentic. Your comment reminded me of how crucial this is, so thank you for that!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Hetile! I’m glad you liked it, and I hope you’ll check out the rest of the series (Part II is up now, and I’m sending Part III to my editor tomorrow).

      Like

    • Thank you so much, Pmdello! I’m really glad you enjoyed it, and Kristi and I were glad that we got to celebrate our fathers in a way that honored their memories and their favorite things. Although, I’m not sure my dad would have approved of the amount of wine I drank on the trip, but that’s a different story 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much, Jay! It really did bring a lot of comfort. I was actually back in Disney last year (August), and though it was a short trip, being there felt like a strange but wonderful homecoming. It’s really comforting for me to have this physical place to return to that makes me feel connected to my father, and I’m really fortunate to have it. Thanks for reading!

      Like

    • Me desculpe, mas eu não falam Português. Você fala francês? Eu posso responder a quaisquer perguntas com bastante facilidade em francês, ou posso usar um programa de traduzir para responder em Português, se você tiver perguntas específicas.

      Like

  3. That was very touching. I was reminded of my grandparents on my mother’s side, who opened their last door together on grandfather’s 92nd birthday. Ever since I can remember they had been preparing us for this eventuality, that they dreaded being utterly dependent and didn’t want their children wasting years of their lives changing their diapers – or paying someone else to do it. A few months before they died, I felt the urge to buy and eat a particular brand of chocolate which grandfather always brought on our hiking tours in the Austrian Alps, almost as though it was a premonition of their demise. I still can’t help but buy that brand of chocolate when I encounter it at the supermarket

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you so much for sharing this, NicoLite! Your story resonated so strongly with me. I think those tangible memories (a particular place, a particular meal, a song) do more to keep the dead alive in our memories than anything else. My father loved port wine. Unfortunately, I can’t drink red wine (I get terrible migraines from even a tiny sip), but every time someone else has it, I smell it because it reminds me so much of my dad. I hope the chocolate is a comforting and warm way to connect with your grandparents and to keep them alive in your life.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You’re a very talented writer. I could easily visualize your scenes. As a Christian I obviously believe that a soul exists so my hope for you is that you can reunite with him. I hope this doesn’t offend, it’s meant to be genuine.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you so much for this, MCWQ. I really appreciate your comment, and it doesn’t offend me at all. One thing that I’m going to address in another part of the series (likely the 4th installment) is the tension about being an atheist, but also really wanting there to be an afterlife so there can be a reunion with those we’ve lost. I think that while I don’t have the answers to these questions, my father always encouraged me to trust people, and to trust that people are good and compassionate and kind, and that that kindness can be a powerful force. Finding kindness and connection across the world through exploring this very idiosyncratic story has been a wonderful and humbling experience, so thank you for being a part of it, and I hope you’ll follow the next parts of the series.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Experimentalzee! I’m so glad this piece resonated with you, and that using Disney as a mourning site is creative and cool 🙂 I didn’t realize how crucial it was at the time, but in the years since that trip, I’ve felt more and more like it was the most important “big” part of the mourning experience I had.

      What really struck me when I was down there was how ubiquitous this kind of commemoration seemed to the staff. I suspect that they see these kinds of commemorative trips a lot, which is both really cool, and also intriguing, because it makes me think there’s this whole community that uses Disney World (and other communities that use other sites like Disney World) as anchoring sites of mourning. I hope more of their stories come out, because I think they’ll be so valuable and inspiring to hear, especially for those of us that need to know we’re not alone in making up our own rituals.

      Like

    • Thank you so much, RainbowQueen! I’m glad you liked it, and I hope you’ll follow the next parts in the series (and I hope I can keep the whole series as engaging as this first part). 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Our relationship with our dads and moms count a lot on how we perceive life and people in general. The general consensus I have with myself with regards to my children and spouse is to forgive and then to forgive again. Whatever faults they have is nothing compared to the pleasant and embraceable experiences with them that they themselves, long after we ourselves are physically gone, will cherish forever.
    Inspite of being atheist guys (a belief which I don’t share with you), I love this piece of yours about father-child relationship. Thank you. Whether you like it or not, God Bless You.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you so much for this thoughtful comment, Life Culture Express! I so appreciate your insights into familial relationships, and I agree that active and intentional forgiveness is crucial. There are so many opportunities to be irritated and angry with those closest to us, and it’s a really powerful thing to show up to those relationships every day with active and conscious compassion, because as you so aptly said, what matters is the experiences that they will cherish forever.

      Thank you for so compassionately and articulately sharing your beliefs here, and thank you for sharing this blessing. While our belief systems are different, your words come from a place of true compassion and care, and that genuineness means so much to me. Thank you for sharing them. I hope you’ll continue to follow the series, and I’m looking forward to your feedback on the next installments.

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  6. What an interesting piece. Thank you so much for sharing this.
    I remember envying people who have religion as a comforter when I was mourning. But ultimately, much like you with Disney, I found my own way of getting through it. I suppose over time there will be atheist rituals of comfort. For now we just have to think of them ourselves.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Lena. I agree that it can be so challenging to find and create meaningful rituals when you’re not affiliated with a particular faith tradition, especially during times of loss and grief. I’m glad that you found a way of getting through it that was authentic and meaningful for you.

      I think your point about there eventually being codified atheist rituals of comfort is spot on. I’ll be curious to see how those evolve, and what forms they take in the coming years.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Mike. You bring up a really good point, and one that I’ve thought a lot about (though I’m not exploring too much in this article). Disney is super weird when you think about it: It’s this simulated fantasy world not just in the visuals and fairy tale components, but in the operational components. It really does seem like another world, which is part of its allure, but also a really curious (and some might say fraught) prospect.

      I think the question that undergirds your insight is how, then, can we cultivate feelings of joy outside of that simulation? How can we engage with the “real world” in such a way as to experience ease and whimsy and imagination without having to physically remove ourselves from it? It’s a really important question, and thank you for bringing it into this discussion.

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    • I think this is a great insight, and thank you for sharing. It’s definitely a double-edged sword in some ways. After I lost my dad, there were times when I wished that I had a theological or religious ritual to turn to, because I felt so lost and so isolated in my own grief. But, as you so wisely said, not having that forced me to cultivate not only rituals, but modes of commemoration that feel more authentic to who I am, and to who my father was. It wasn’t always easy, but it was definitely worth it.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. What a cool topic to write about- something I hadn’t thought of before, atheism meeting the need for ritual and ceremony, mourning. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Bethelwood! I’m glad this piece resonated with you. I agree that the idea of atheism meeting the need for ritual and ceremony isn’t something I’d thought about much until I found myself really craving some form of public (or at least visible) commemoration. I think that regardless of belief systems, the need to have a loss honored and validated by those around us is a profoundly human need. Thanks so much for reading, and I hope you like the next installments!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Rose! I’m glad you enjoyed this and that it resonated for you. I hope you like the next installments! 🙂

      Like

  8. thank you
    for sharing this piece
    and
    my condolences
    on your loss
    ~
    within a three month span
    my dad unexpectedly died of cancer
    and my I held my stillborn son
    and
    tried finding a way
    to say
    good-bye
    ~
    i too searched
    my own rituals
    as I grieved
    within my newly created void
    ~
    your personalized way
    of mourning
    and remembering
    your father
    is very touching

    Liked by 5 people

    • Geo, thank you so much for sharing your story, and I am so deeply sorry for your loss. I can’t imagine the pain you’ve experienced, and there truly are no words that seem adequate for this magnitude of loss. I hope that you have started to find your rituals, ones that feel authentic and comforting in this unimaginable loss. Thank you again for sharing your story, and for having the courage to share the depths of your loss so elegantly and so bravely.

      Like

        • That’s so well-said, and so insightful. Sharing these stories does indeed have an enormous healing power. Thank you for sharing yours, and take good care of yourself 🙂

          Like

  9. You are a truly gifted writer and I feel compelled to say that Jesus would happily comfort you in your pain with no strings attached.
    All you have to do is ask.
    “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
    Matthew 11:28
    God Bless you

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you so much for your kind words, Macheall. While we follow different spiritual paths, your sharing of this text, and your compassion, mean a great deal to me, and I thank you for it. I’ve often found comfort in religious music from numerous traditions. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Arvo Part’s version of the Stabat Mater Dolorosa, but I’ve often found great comfort and solace in it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFbnC_2OOJE. Thanks again for sharing, and I hope you’ll check out the rest of the series!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. This is fantastic. I’m going to suggest that my interfaith group explore the topic of grief and maybe use this post as a starting point. Well written and just a really insightful look at grief. Also appreciated the Smith references and the opinion that flying is terrible. I’m new to WordPress and am looking for new blogs to follow. I will definitely be coming back!

    Liked by 4 people

  11. Pingback: A Place on Earth: Ritual, Grief, & Mourning as an Atheist | Google-site·

  12. I never really understand why grown ups get so hung up on Disneyland but this piece made me think differently 🙂 And whether you subscribe to a specific set of religious beliefs or not, rituals are important. You’re just creating your own, which is totally fine.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thanks so much, Andreaisbrough! I’m glad you liked the article, and that that it resonated for you!

      Like

  13. As a devout Christian, I was nervous to see the word “atheist” in this title. I was unaware of what I was facing, however, this was a beautiful post showing how we can all find our own piece in this world. Much love to you, thank you so much for sharing this!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Joyfulnoises! I really appreciate it, and I’m so glad this resonated for you. Much love to you as well, and thank you for reading and for sharing!

      Like

  14. Very interesting post on how an atheist might mourn, but at the same time I feel something very spiritual about your memorial vacation! I don’t think I have seriously considered how others who are in that 20% might react to events such as these in their lives. It’s a blessing to hear the love your father had for you and his family!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you for this, Visionstochange. I think it’s a very insightful comment, and it brings to light some very important aspects of the atheist/agnostic/humanist identification. There is an overarching question of belief here, and one that I’ll have to reflect on more. Thank you for offering this starting point.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Hi. I am new to the site. I was impressed by your imagery. You write with such a sharp vision, i found i couldn’t stop reading for quite awhile.

    I look forward to more of your work.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. I’m actually so very pleased you wrote about this. I had a funeral this week for a friend’s girlfriend and it was my first time back in a church in a long time, and a catholic church at that. As we were standing there at the visitation waiting to talk to the family, I looked around and started thinking. I asked my friend how I would grieve something like that, because the deceased girls parents seemed so logical and peaceful. I figured it’s because they have religion to support them. They find peace in their belief that their daughter is now in Heaven. How will I grieve my losses, and how will they memorialize me? It’s a somewhat new and interesting thought for me, and you provided excellent insight to the different methods of dealing. Everyone copes differently! I also very much love that second quote. Thanks for sharing this, truly.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful and insightful comment, amacknificentview. I’ve had similar experiences, and I have also often thought about future experiences of grief and loss, and how to navigate them both through theistic traditions (of my family), and through my own non-theistic ones. I think it’s a very crucial question to ask, and I hope that as you embark on the brave journey of asking, the answers you find will feel authentic and resonant for you. Thank you again, adn take care!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Shelly, though I’m sorry there was something in this piece that was panic-inducing. I also suffer from panic attacks, so I can empathize. I am glad there was something resonant in here for you, and thank you so much for reading.

      Like

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