The case for a secular funeral ritual

Charles Cowling

Image from the Purple Funeral Company

Though secular people are increasingly saying no to a religious funeral, we note that it’s taking them forever to do it. Why so?

Because, though they reject the theology, they like the ritual. Ritual is the antidote to chaos. It brings order. Everyone knows what to do. When death turns our life upside down, convention conquers confusion.

Which is why the Victorian funeral procession is still with us, too, albeit vestigially. Our modern grieving style does not go in for the same vulgar ostentation, and modern traffic has made stately procession mostly impossible, but we can still travel the first and the last twenty yards in reasonably good order just about, and people cling to that because, dammit, the way to do it is the way it’s always been done.

Once the undertaker and his or her bearers have bowed deeply and departed, that’s where, at a secular funeral, familiarity flies out of the window. Up steps the celebrant and no one knows what the heck to expect. And though the verdict of the audience afterwards may be that they liked the negative quality of the ceremony – it gave the dead person, not god, star billing – I think they often go home nursing a secret disappointment, a sense of something missing. 

They miss the familiar script. Because they feel a funeral should be a custom.

Which is why they like the traditional dressing-up, the undertaker, clad in the garb of a Victorian gentleperson, handing over to someone dressed in medieval vestments. Secular civvies just don’t cut it – too dowdy, too individuated.

People miss the heightened, numinous language.

They miss the non-verbal elements of a proper ceremony: symbolism, movement, the elements that make for a sense of occasion, a sense of theatre, the transfiguration of the ordinary.

Because at a time like this they need ritual.

Secular celebrants take upon themselves an intolerable burden. It takes disparate qualities to be a good celebrant: intelligence, empathy, writing skills, inexhaustible powers of origination, a feel for theatre and the ability to hold an audience. It’s too hard. In a secular ceremony the celebrant is often a solo performer. That’s not the case in a ritual. In a ritual, the celebrant is an actor uttering familiar words, and is merely pre-eminent in an ensemble performance which involves all present. In a ritual, the celebrant may not be an awfully good actor – but Hamlet is still Hamlet. Here’s the point: in a ritual, a superb celebrant is a bonus, not the be all and end all.

Unique funerals for unique people. It’s a lovely idea. But come on, no one to whom death has happened actually wants a celebrant sitting on their sofa, sipping tea, saying brightly, ‘You can do what you like – we start with a blank piece of paper!’ When your brain is in bits that’s one of the most unhelpful things anyone could say to you.

Can a celebrant really reinvent the wheel every time he or she creates a ceremony? Of course not. Unique funerals for unique people is a pipedream, and the time has come to declare the experiment a partial success but an overall failure because it meant chucking out the baby with the bathwater.

Which is why secularists need now to move on and devise their own liturgy – or, if you prefer, something generic, formulaic, recycled, polished and proud of it, because that’s what a liturgy is.

Is it really possible to achieve a good funeral without improvising every time someone dies? Can a secular liturgy be both personal and universal? Can it be prescriptive and adaptable?

Why not? Religious ceremonies do it all the time. And the eulogy will always be the centrepiece.

A good secular ritual will be well-plotted, of course, and like all good rituals it will be a purposeful, meaningful journey.

It will visit places along the way which participants may find difficult, but which they will be glad they did. This is the nature of ritual: in order to be therapeutic it must sometimes be medicinal.

It will unashamedly plagiarise other rituals.

It will be created by a team of sorts in the spirit of the creators of the King James Bible:

Neither did we disdain to revise that which we had done, and to bring back to the anvil that which we had hammered: but having and using as great helps as were needful, and fearing no reproach for slowness, nor coveting praise for expedition, we have at the length, through the good hand of the Lord upon us, brought the work to that pass that you see.

It will happen. Some people want to create their own funerals from scratch; most don’t. 

24 thoughts on “The case for a secular funeral ritual

  1. Charles Cowling

    Thank you also Jed. I hope I do. I find the important thing about being retired is that I will be able to give people the time

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling

    Go Chris the trainee – as long as you have brains and a heart you can go far in this world… and it sounds like you have both aplenty.

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    Chris the trainee

    Thank you Kitty !

    Charles Cowling
    1. Charles Cowling

      Thank YOU! First time round, I missed most of the comments on this post.

      Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling
    Chris the trainee

    I know this comment is late and nobody will read it probably. But how could I ignore such persuasive debate from everyone ? My mother died recently. We decided on a celebrant because neither my mother nor I (an only child) were religious at all. It worked well and the freedom we had to invent (with the celebrant) an agenda that sent the old dear off with a poem written by me and a review of her life (both that brought smiles, despite the last 10 years dogged by dementia) was a breath of fresh air.
    It had the added bonus that, as a retired police officer, I thought my skillsets may match a celebrants (you’ll have to ask – it’s complicated) and I have now started training to become a civil celebrant.
    And so to ritual. Gloriamundi is right – we do have ritual. Everything that they cited happened and it felt comforting. But we were not bound by the rituals of a church that to us, were just words and gestures, no more.
    I hope I can get this right for people as the task looks quite daunting from where I stand. Thank you all though for your input. Food for thought indeed

    Charles Cowling
    1. Charles Cowling

      Chris the trainee – I read it!
      I can completely see why a good police officer would be a good celebrant – you’ve got to get on with people in difficult circumstances. Also the life experiences of being in the police must be second to none. Go for it!

      Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling

    It wouldn’t work if people didn’t buy into it, Sweetpea, so there’s your answer. There is no King James to ordain and enforce it. The premise is that most people want to do what’s done and pull out a familiar script. Most, not all. The ‘bondage of prescribed wording’ is exactly what a lot of people might feel they need, perhaps; they would not consider those words pejorative. A premise is only a premise. The idea was to provoke debate, not to provoke. A funeral has a big job: to promote the emotional health of the bereaved. I hardly ever hear people talk about what’s needed to do that.

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling

    Who was it who said ‘One Englishman, an idiot. Two Englishmen, a Club. Three Englishmen, an Empire’? I’m beginning to think that a gathering of funeralistas must mean A Committee For The Formulation Of A Standard Secular Liturgy is lurking. Collective noun for funeralistas, anyone? A murder?

    Why must we (after only just beginning to escape the bondage of prescribed wording for some of the most important moments in our lives and releasing ourselves into the exciting quicksand of bespoke ceremony) yearn to begin re-solidifying them all over again?

    Yes, we need ceremony, yes we need ritual, yes, we need to be magpies in collecting material for our library of resources, and yes, we need to learn from what the older traditions have offered us in responding to people’s deep emotional needs. But surely this process is just as valid (if not more so) when undertaken with each group of people in mind, rather than bland design by committee.

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling

    Let’s not overlook geomancers.

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling

    Let’s gather cartographers.

    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling

    Quite right GM. A dialectic’s what we need. Practice and development leapfrogging over each other.

    But if the day to day isn’t to dominate we need a vision too. A sense of the potential in what we do.

    I think Charles has sighted the golden city – now all we need is a route map.

    Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling

    I wonder if, and no disrespect to your energising and eloquent post, Vale, we sometimes seem suggest that a “scrap it all and start again” approach is feasible.

    You write “start to form.” Actions and words form now, and are used today, by one of us, somewhere in the land. I’m solid for a better understanding of human mortality, and I believe that will enable – is enabling – us better to “understand what the human spirit needs in grief,” as you so well put it. It’s a long time since I was brought up short by the simple comment “but death is not, of itself, a catastrophe.” But that comment helped me think and feel more productively and more broadly about the ending of life.

    How to train celebrants? Get them to explore what the human spirit needs as it grieves. As you say, the words and actions will flow. But we have this week’s work to attend to, as well as we can…we can’t really say “OK, no more funerals till we’ve worked this thing out.”

    We may in varying degrees be impatient for change, Charles is fedup, perhaps? with evolution. But these things, surely, can only evolve? Bit by tough bit, as we think and feel our way through it, develop this week’s ceremony and then next’s week…

    Charles Cowling
  11. Charles Cowling

    Ha! I see that Richard has made a start too in today’s blog post.

    Keep up, keep up!

    Charles Cowling
  12. Charles Cowling

    Yes, Yes, Yes!

    This is a great post, Charles. Important. Even – as I’m like Immelman now on a hyperbolic curve – a real milestone in the development of secular funerals.

    Of course we need language that matches the intensity of the event. Of course we should be sharing and reshaping the words and phrases we use. And of course we must pillage and plagiarise – without conscience or remorse – the existing liturgies and remake them as our own.

    But, but, but…

    It’s not just about the words. To my mind words aren’t even the starting point. Great words and great rituals both spring from the same source – the need for a group of people to express something deep or complicated or difficult or inspiring.

    So my starting point for all our explorations must be meaning and a deeper understanding of what the human spirit needs in grief. If we had better insight into this actions and words would – I believe – start to form.

    Charles Cowling
  13. The Good Funeral Guide – The extra-rational power of ritual – The Good Funeral Guide

    […] this is to lead to developing any debate about secular funeral ritual (See here) it is for secularists to take up the […]

  14. Charles Cowling

    Interesting points Jonathan, as ever.

    I think it’s easy to overlook, James,how many ceremonial elements there are in a conventional secular ceremony, though I appreciate that ceremony and ritual are not the same thing.

    Looked at from Mars, as it were:
    1. people don’t just amble in, they process, behind the coffin, except the celebrant goes in first (usually – all this is “usually.”)
    2. There is a mark of respect for the dead person – FD&co (and celebrant) bow their heads towards the coffin when it is in place. (Some slow FDs bow towards the cross, even if it has been removed…oh well…)
    3. We are wearing special clothes.
    4. People are called up to speak, it’s not just “open mic.”
    5. We hear at least some heightened language, a long way from daily speech (including 7 year-old grand-daughter’s little poem)
    6. There is a moment of farewell, with people standing, and words/music to accompany. The coffin often then is removed from view.
    7. We listen to music which may be everyday stuff, but has been chosen for a special significance -even if it is ironic or jokey eg Always Look on the BSofL)It’s not your iPod on shuffle.
    8. There may be many other elements – pictures, flowers, candles, other decoration. Moments of shared silence, of contemplation – and of course their may be a hymn, chant or prayer.
    9. We process out.
    10. The FD presents the celebrant’s very small fee with a flourish – hopefully not in full view of the mourners…OK the last one’s in jest.

    I feel that we self-styled revolutionaries should not throw out babies with bathwater. You and I may want more and better, you may say this stuff is out-dated, stilted, empotionally stifling – but if it’s well done, it can mean a lot to people. We’re not going to able to design things from the ground up in a hurry. Ritual is a shared development.

    Don’t know how long I’ll continue in conservative mode…probably till next time I do an outdoor burial in horizontal sleet with people weeping and yelling and a piper playing…

    Charles Cowling
  15. Charles Cowling

    The non-religious majority still choose a religious service for some reason; not, presumably, for the religion, but whether it’s to do with the ritual I think is open to question.

    Most have no more idea what the heck to expect of a vicar, once the funeral director has closed the crem doors and gone outside for a fag, than of a celebrant. Nor, for that matter, of the funeral director or the procedure at the crem or any of it at all. They constantly ask us celebrants questions of the most fundamentally ignorant nature, as if they’ve never even heard of a funeral let alone been to one. If you don’t know what a ‘catafalque’ is, you probably don’t know even the word ‘liturgy’.

    We like to guard our ignorance of funerals, which has perhaps more to do with the reason for the glacial pace of change than has our considered judgement of who will conduct them for us and how.

    Charles Cowling
  16. Charles Cowling
    james showers

    A bold and brilliant post, Charles. I agree to some large extent. Civil ceremonies have almost no ritual, and our crematoria are sorely ill suited to it in almost any form other than via the religious service.
    It may indeed be possible to distill profound elements of civil services and through repetition over decades discover it has become ritual.
    The beauty of a religious service is its familiarity: words, tunes, robes and stories made smooth with long unquestioned use. Nothing jars or goes deeper than you want. It’s not even particularly personal. But it is moving, as we try to understand that these familiar elements are being conducted for someone known to us, who is now cold in that box up front.

    But we on these wonderful islands are a bolshie, independant, workshy bunch; and I can not see us settling for yet another set of proscribed rules and fancy words, even if we are told they will be good for us!

    But yes, I am sure that we can do better. And better again.

    Charles Cowling
  17. Charles Cowling

    When flying a kite with a constrained word count one paints with a broad and provocative brush, GM, and you are quite right: I have no evidence that people nurse secret disappointments. I would only make two observations. First, expectations of a funeral as an emotionally valuable event remain very low, which is why people resent the cost. Second, when a good celebrant gets behind people who seek to empower themselves, the result can be awesome – as you describe. But people like this are of course a minority.

    I am not aware of any research having been done to measure the emotional value of a funeral. That would be valuable. I shall enquire.There’s been heaps of work on the value of ritual, of course.

    My anxiety is that the secular funeral movement is settling for cosmetising things as they are rather than lifting its eyes to where funerals need to be and campaigning for radical change. (Yes, I am impatient of evolution.)

    Can do better, must do better that’s my refrain. But I voice that opinion open-mindedly in a blog where everyone has the right of unmoderated reply – which being the case, it’s amazing how few trolls we attract, isn’t it (though our religious correspondent may sometimes demur)?

    Charles Cowling
  18. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    I”m standing up, Charles, which makes it tricky to type,but respect is in order. You excel yourself here, you certainly do.

    I’m not sure how we would know whether or not people go home nursing a secret sense of disappointment, and I’m very wary of projecting my wishes and agenda on to other people’s funerals. I don’t believe secret disappointment would be true at yesterday’s funeral, about 85% of which was drawn up and delivered by the family. The daughters and grandchildren were grieving and weeping, it was tough for them, but afterwards a daughter said simply “now I feel calm.” And no, she didn’t just mean she was glad to have got the funeral “out of the way.”She’d delivered something of great significance to her, a thing of beauty and meaning.

    But more broadly, of course we lack communally-accepted ritual, unless we are Pagans, various New Agers, who seem to have a stronger ritual element. But that’s just the stage we’re at – it takes time, I guess, to work out accepted forms, and for them to spread. This topic is worthy of more study and work. And I agree with Richard (for once)the future is formed by the past, we need to look about us and gather our materials from the past and the present, and then practice and disseminate them until they offer comfort and support to those who have not the cutlural respources to do as yesterday’s really rather wonderful family did.

    Charles Cowling
  19. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    Charles, a brilliant piece, beautifully crafted and with a ground-breaking message – which I happen to agree with instinctively.

    As you recall, I touched on the ritual debate a couple of months ago. Coming from a Christian outsider, my blogs perhaps lacked the impact that I hope your latest hard-hitter achieves.

    How to build more ritual into civil funerals? The answers are out there for those who in the field who are open to some serious head scratching.

    As I’ve said before, I’m not the enemy within. Choice is good. All persuasions need to be served by good funerals. I applaud the service to society of good civil funeral celebrants.

    But it’s my hunch that the boat needs to be pushed out a bit further. Devising more of the right kind of ritual might just well be the way forward.

    Procession, costume, candles, music, standardised ‘liturgy’… the future is formed by the past.

    Charles Cowling
  20. Charles Cowling

    Great to hear from you, XP. Would it be right to say that the best celebrants are evolving their own liturgy, did they but dare so name it? (There’s all the difference in the world between a liturgy and a template, of course.) If that’s the case, it’s a shame there isn’t more sharing.

    @Jon: me neither.

    Charles Cowling
  21. Charles Cowling
    X Piry

    I feel the same way as Jon, above – what would a secular liturgy be?

    I would also question that folks often go home disappointed. Some will, of course, but the comments that I get (even from those who are regular church goers) suggest that there are other attendees who are moved by the ceremony and get a lot out of it.

    (Yes – I would say that, wouldn’t I?)

    Structurally, a lot of my ceremonies follow a similar pattern. This is designed to be as comfortable as possible for the bereaved. I’m not even sure that that’s the right thing to do (they need to grieve, after all), but it is well received.

    And most (but not all), still have a committal, often with closing curtains.

    As long as folks feel that they’ve said goodbye, then our job, in the main, is done. Whether that should all be done in the same way or not is less certain.

    Great article, thanks Charles – always delighted to have my ideas challenged.

    Charles Cowling
  22. Charles Cowling
    Jon Underwood

    Really good article, making excellent sense. As to what the secularist liturgy would look like – don’t have a clue 🙂

    Charles Cowling

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>