The experiences of dying and grief are as varied as humanity itself. But those who are comforted by religions have, as it were, a ready-made package to (at least) consider their death, or the death of someone they love.

“What you’re going to run smack up against is the religious aspect,” says Mary Jo Kurtz, chief operating officer of Van Dyk Health Care. “Many times, the religious culture of the family has a lot to do with how that death is celebrated, or mourned.”

Kurtz, raised as a Catholic, married a Presbyterian minister. She is one of many who think that faith helps ease the journey through dying.

Religion As Comfort

“Throughout all my years, it does seem that those who have a religious belief are more comforted,” Kurtz says. “When the minister shows up, or the pastor shows up, it’s very comforting. They serve an amazing role.”

Judah Ronch, PhD, a dean at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Management of Aging Services program, says he has a hunch that Kurtz is right.

“I would bet you that the faith-based organizations do a much better job with grief,” he says. “Because it’s part of their culture, it’s part of their values.”

‘None Of The Above’ On The Rise

That may be true, but providers had better prepare themselves for those without faith, experts say. According to Pew Research’s extensive survey of religious life in America, those who check “none of the above” are the fastest growing category.

Some of those “unaffiliated” people were religious in their own right, but a growing number of people—nearly 9 percent in the latest Pew study—say they’re either “not too certain” there’s a god or don’t believe in a god, period.

And even those who believe in religion appear to be more committed to spirituality than to a specific faith: Pew found that 28 percent of respondents had changed their religions in their lifetimes.
Don’t expect that trend to reverse: The past decade has seen an explosion of atheist-themed books, movies, and even celebrities. There are even public arguments, on mainstream news channels, on whether conservatives make better atheists than liberals.

The good news is, there’s actually a long tradition of unbelievers trying to die well. (In fact, many unbelievers argue that they themselves are the Praetorian Guard of the grand stoic traditions).
Besides the grand ends of classical antiquity—from Socrates to Marcus Aurelius (“Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.”)—there are the great Enlightenment deaths of people like Thomas Paine and David Hume.
Paine, visited by two clergymen on his death bed, told them, “Let me have none of your popish stuff. Get away with you. Good morning.”

Hume, quoting Lucretius, said—while dying from stomach cancer—that he didn’t fear oblivion because he was merely returning to the oblivion from whence he came. (This would later be taken up by Mark Twain, who said, “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”)

Atheist Arguments Over Life, Death

That doesn’t mean that unbelievers are giddy for death. In fact, two of this century’s most celebrated atheists—essayist Christopher Hitchens and neuroscientist Sam Harris—quarreled openly about the worst aspects of death.

Harris takes the Lucretian line. “Death is, in some ways, unacceptable,” he said in a “Big Think” interview. “It’s just an astonishing fact of our being here that we die; but I think worse than that is if we live long enough, we lose everyone we love in this world. I mean, people die and disappear, and we’re left with this stark mystery: just the sheer not knowing of what happened to them.”

But Hitchens, who appeared with Harris on stage in 2011, would have none of that.

“It will happen to all of us, that at some point, you’ll get tapped on the shoulder and told, not just that the party’s over, but—slightly worse—that the party’s going on, but you have to leave, and it’s going on without you,” he said. “All right, then, let’s—because it might make us feel better—pretend the opposite: Instead, you’ll get tapped on the shoulder and told, ‘Great news. This party’s going on forever, and you can’t leave. You’ve got to stay, the boss says so, and he also insists that you have a good time.’”