Funerals are for…

Charles Cowling

Four comments here from this article in yesterday’s Guardian.

Organising the funeral for my 17 year old son, who died in an accident overseas in Sept 2008, was made vastly easier by the wonderfully kind funeral director and an equally wonderful C of E Canon – a Canon whose first words on meeting us were to offer us the keys to his Church so we could go in, lock the door behind us, and curse God.

Yes, funerals are for the living but there is virtue and comfort across generations in familiar rituals. We sang no hymns apart from the Lord is My Shepherd. But we said prayers and despite my rage and despair I said them with heartfelt sincerity. My daughter and I spoke about the boy we loved so much. The Canon gave a fiery and angry sermon of amazing power on about the cruelty of loss and the pain of grief. The rest of the music consisted of Max’s favourite songs. We had 500 people at the crem, standing room only, many of them stunned and tearful teenagers who couldn’t believe what they were a part of. The funeral service was just right because it was mostly about him but also about those of us left behind to cope with his loss.
My real point is that it’s all very well to intellectualise and pontificate about these things but when it comes to deciding on a funeral service we must go with what our heart tells us, not our head, and we must remember that like the other great set-pieces of our lives the rituals exist because they express a deeper meaning than we sometimes realise.


Over the years, I’ve been asked to recite eulogies at Atheist, Jewish and Salvationist funerals.

The approach I used on all these occasions was more or less the same; fully acknowledging the grief of the bereaved, offering the solace of friendship and respect and duly celebrating the lives of the departed. In all cases, there was a lot worth celebrating.

Following the very dignified, secular funeral service of a dear and respected friend and mentor, a formerly Catholic Atheist, I felt there was something missing, if not for him then for me.

So, being Jewish, I went home and recited Kaddish for him and continued to do so for a year. Given his tolerant indulgence of religiosity , I can’t imagine that my old pal would have objected.

It was my way of thanking whatever forces may or may not shape our destinies for the apparent serendipity of friendship.


I think the divine spirit can be just as much in so called ‘secular’ words and music as in so called ‘religious’ words and music.
to say something is ‘god free’ doesn’t mean that god is not present. I think we try to separate the ‘spiritual things’ from the ‘non-spiritua’l things creating a dualism that isn’t really present in our world


Quoting: ‘At my age, I go to more funerals than weddings nowadays. What dismays me about them (except in the case of humanist occasions, which have proved excellent celebrations of life, not death) is the way the person officiating is always a priest, and the true object of the funeral is a recruiting pitch for the church. The person concerned is forgotten as promises of eternal life for those present are made – providing, of course…’

I understand where you are coming from, really I do but I wonder why – if the deceased or their family, have chosen to have their funeral service taken in a church, anyone would be surprised that a priest is taking the service – in the CofE, a licenced Reader may also take the service. My husband is a Vicar in the CofE and as such, has a responsibility to ensure that certain protocols are adhered to within that church – the church belonging not to him, but to the Parish. The other point that I can speak of from personal experience is that when my husband is arranging the funeral with relatives of the deceased, he asks if they would like the service to have a evangelistic aspect or not; many times people say yes. If people say no, my husband obviously respects their wishes and at all times, at least in our church, the service is about celebrtating the life of the deceased and what that person meant to their family and friends. Christians believe in an afterlife; why would this belief not be a part of a Christian funeral – indeed it is part of the liturgy. Nobody is forced to have a funeral service in a church.

By contrast, my daughter – not a church-goer and a Guardian reader to boot, went to a humanist service and was appalled at the ‘advertising’ for atheism. It can cut both ways.

8 thoughts on “Funerals are for…

  1. Charles Cowling

    That’s a good point, Charles. After all – I’m pretty sure that no member of the clergy sits with the family and asks “so, why are we having a (insert name of denomination here) funeral?.

    As always – stuff to think about. Very grateful for it.

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling

    GM you are the middle-of-the-road militant. I know what that feels like. And re XP, I think you have to state a position of some sort for the benefit of those who wonder who on earth this unfrocked person is. Having said which, I very often don’t. It’s time secular funerals behaved like any other funeral and just got on with the job. The ceremony makes perfect sense if it does a good job by the guy in the box. To state a position is to risk alienating people.

    Have you noticed how many people are confused by the word ‘celebrant’? But, as I think we have agreed, there’s no better term we can think of.

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Your solidarity is greatly appreciated XP – but – er – am I in danger of turning into a fundamentalist anti-fundamentalist?

    Nevertheless, I’ll continue to collect the necessary hardware.

    No, really, that was just a (feeble) joke, Officer…

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling

    All interesting stuff, as usual.

    Jonathan – there is nothing about the BHA that guarantees work. I agree with Gloria, it’s personal reputation that generates the phone calls, and that’s only when the usual independent/retired vicar is on holiday!

    Interesting observations, Gloria. Personally, I tend to say something (a sentence or two) about humanism, to explain what we’re doing and why, but I would expect to link it back to the deceased (and Bert demonstrated these ideas through his charity work….).

    Sometimes, however, with the presenting symptoms that you’ve mentioned, a very brief “this will be a non-religious ceremony which looks to celebrate the life of Ethel” is probably as far as I will go.

    I absolutely agree – fundamentalists of any colour should be the first to go, when you take over.

    I’ll be behind you to reload, sister!

    Charles Cowling
  5. The Good Funeral Guide – What is a funeral for?

    […] Three views here about what a funeral is for by Christian holy people in response to this article here. […]

  6. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Greetings, Jonathan. Thanks for your question – I guess all questions are optional on the courtly vellum of the GFG! Here goes.

    Yes, I think it likely that a lot of BHA celebrants joined at the point they wanted to be celebrants, and I’d agree that the degree of committed atheism varies a lot amongst us. We get attacked as atheists, whereas in my limited experience of gatherings, a good proportion of us are more truly described as agnostics.

    But what taxes me is less the beliefs of each of us, than the way we do or don’t tell people in funerals about those beliefs. I don’t much enjoy zealots and polarizers, these days. The true humanist ceremony embodies both a humane and humanistic outlook in everything that is said and done, it doesn’t need and shouldn’t tell people what humanism “is.” Or worse, what it isn’t…

    I’ve taken maybe 10% of non-religious funerals for humanists, who either know directly about the BHA or at least understand something of the label. But of course the usual presenting symptmon is simply “he never went to church and we don’t want the minister.”

    As you say, there are some practical benefits (a degree of structured initial training, public liabilty insurance, access to discussions and further training, some degree of quality oversight, a degree of visibility via website, easy tag for FDs etc)as well as some disadvantages (eg access to narrow-minded zealots who think a large part of our job is to promote a set of beliefs and non-beliefs. Such people are prone to going on about “market share.” But one can ignore such if one is suffiently mindful….if one is… And it has so far proved easy enough to ignore the things we are expected to do that I don’t want to do.)

    But as you’ll remember, we do pay for these things – 10% levy. And I think once FDs have grasped the religious/not religious decision, they don’t really mind if a celebrant is humanist, baggist, shaggist or whatall provided s/he’s good enough. And some of them don’t seem to mind too much about that, provided s/he’s efficient, doesn’t break wind and hasn’t caught her skirt in her knickers/forgotten to do up his flies..

    In the end, it seems to me to be down to relations with FDs and some local reputation (slow to build, for obvious reasons.)That’s why the “market share” thing pisses me off.

    I’m looking forward to helping with my first composting funeral, corpse to be in a temporary wire-mesh cage to keep out the wolves for however long it takes, and buried in a shallow grave with leaves over it. Bereaved to insert a microchip in the ground if they wish so they can track down in future the very spot where the old boy rejoined the flow.

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling

    Good point, Gloria: how many humanist celebrants were members of the BHA before they trained to conduct funerals? A minority, I blieve. You sign up for the same reason you pay your subscription fee – because it’s a requirement to practise as part of a network that guarantees you work, not necessarily because it’s a conviction.

    I strongly suspect that most ‘humanist’ funeral celebrants are, like I was in my time, not actually humanist in the Humanist sense. In point of fact, I never even conducted a funeral for a humanist, never mind mentioning humanism at a funeral. It was just a handy label for the funeral directors.

    How about you, incidentally? (* This question is optional!)

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Excellent post thanks Charles. Humanists who preach atheism need to check their life insurance, because when I take over…

    It certainly can “cut both ways.” At a meeting of BHA celebrants, the more recently trained (not necessarily the younger) celebrants present were the ones who reported that they never said anything about humanism, other than they were members of the BHA. (Which I think is fair enough, otherwise “who is this stranger with no clerical collar? Did he just come in out of the rain?” etc.)Us non-preachers were in a large majority at this meeting, I’m pleased to say. I’m hoping the others will gradually depart the scene, or perhaps (here’s hoping) they’ll realise at last that a funeral is nothing to do with celebrants’ beliefs, once they is happy they are not being hypocrites and it’s appropriate for a non-believer to lead or help with the ceremony. Why do they think it’s OK to preach atheism when they object to anyone preaching about a religion – at a funeral?

    Of course, I recognise that devoted opponents of anything and everything the BHA does will be happy to jump on all this, but we vary – like clergymen/women, Canada Geese, dumplings and daffodils.

    In terms of funerals (weddings, namings)it seems to me that the whole belief/nonbelief argument is usually pretty sterile. Celebrancy/ministry should surely be about the honesty of feelings, quality of performance, truth to the family’s wishes. And f coyrse, if the family and the dead person believe in an afterlife and Christian dogma, than of course they want a minister to talk about such matters.

    I’m right with the short para in blue italics above, myself…but even this, I promise not to preach about from the crummy old lectern in our local crem – or even out across a little rural graveyard.

    ps why are Guardian readers always “to boot?” Is it such a defining characteristic? I think we should be told. Now a Mail reader to boot, that’s a different matter, and a Mail journalist to boot would be a real pleasure sometimes….

    Charles Cowling

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