Facing Death Without Religion: How Non-Religious Elders Imagine Death and How That Shapes Their Lives

Document Type

Peer-Reviewed Article

Publication Date



Religious beliefs in the afterlife are often found to help people cope with death anxiety. This article explores how non-religious elders imagine death and the impact such imaginaries have on their lives. Data come from a qualitative study of non-religious US elders (n = 97). The author finds that non-religious elders imagine death in three main ways (lights out, recycling, mystery). While at least one of these imaginaries allows for a sense of continuity after death, they are distinct from religious beliefs about the afterlife in their affirmation that death marks the end of individual consciousness. That acceptance was seen as an important part of what it means to be non-religious. While some non-religious elders appear to seek symbolic immortality through building a legacy, for others the acceptance that death is end of individual consciousness prompts an effort to focus on the present, on finding joy and connection with people they love.