I’m not religious but there’s something about funerals…

Charles Cowling



Posted by Belinda Forbes


From the moment I had booked myself onto a course to become a secular funeral celebrant, it started happening.  Like when you get married, get pregnant or get a puppy.  Suddenly everywhere you turn, it’s about weddings, what the expectant mum shouldn’t eat or drink, and how you should never play tug of war with a puppy.  Oops!  Too late.

So, three years ago, having resigned from my job as a teacher, I was looking forward to my course on writing and conducting non-religious funerals when I read an article in the Sunday Times.  To sum it up, the non-religious journalist Minette Marrin extols the virtues of tradition and religion for funeral ceremonies.


I was so annoyed, I wrote to her: 

Your article, “I’m not religious, but there’s something about funerals” makes the point that non-religious funerals do not quite hit the mark and are not a proper end.    Most funerals I have attended were Christian ceremonies, and in almost every case the deceased was not a practising Christian.  The passages from the Bible have been anything but comforting for the majority of non-religious people in the congregation.  At my grandfathers funeral, a dreadful passage from Revelations was read out.  At my grandmothers funeral, the vicar referred to her as Kay throughout her name was Kathleen!  …We cannot all have a handsome Victorian Gothic church and Harold Pinter reading a poem.  But we can choose a fitting farewell whether religious or not.

She replied:

…Each to her own, I guess, as far as funerals go.  I think it’s very hard at the last moment, in the middle of grief, to make decisions, and if no one has taken them before, then convention is good to fall back on. I think the words of the prayer book are very beautiful, and give me a sense of connection with the past and other funerals, but I entirely take your point.

With best wishes

Minette Marrin

Although I was impressed that she had taken the trouble to reply, I was still annoyed.  However, three years later, I look back at my pre-celebrant self and smile.  I am annoyed no longer.  If an atheist wants a traditional Anglican service in his village church, why not?  If a Roman Catholic wants to be cremated and asks me, an atheist celebrant, to conduct the service, why not?

And thank you Minette for replying!  In many years to come, may you have the send-off you have asked for.

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David Gunner
David Gunner
10 months ago

Sorry I am not joining the discussion I merely want to contact Belinda Forbes but have lost her contact details. Is she still practicing? David Gunner.

gloria mundi
10 years ago

Well I’d say wonder no more, sweetpea – I don’t think many FDs round here actually say “where do you want the funeral ceremony? Here are some options for you to consider, which you may want to discuss with that nice Ms Gloria Mundi.” (fade in sounds of the ice floes grinding together down in hell…) They tend, I think, to say “cremation or burial?” “Which day at the crem, I’ll book a slot.” And only then do they say “I’ll see if that humanist is free.”(Sorry to all the more flexible and sensitive FDs out there, but that’s mostly… Read more »

10 years ago

Yes, you’re right. This raises an interesting point about the actual venues people choose. From a practical point of view, a cathedral or large church may be seen as one of the few places to be able to accommodate a large number of people at high profile funeral. But both civil and secular funerals, as we know, take place at any suitable venue – a theatre, sports stadium, school hall, hotel, marquee etc. But are those people making the decisions ever made aware of this at the right moment? I sometimes wonder.

Belinda Forbes
10 years ago

sweetpea: None of the atheists I know would want their funeral to be in a church, but their relatives or the people organising the funeral might. Have you noticed how many high profile funerals take place in churches/cathedrals. Were they really all church-goers?

10 years ago

Well, I can see that religious communities might have their own legitimate concerns about people who don’t really have an understanding of their faith suddenly opting for a wedding or funeral at a pretty church for purely social or aesthetic reasons. I suspect in more recent times that that happens more for marriages than funerals.

But then perhaps Elizbeth I was also right about not opening up windows into other men’s souls….