Can we agree to differentiate?

Charles Cowling

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Ed’s note: Here’s your chance to interrogate the BHA on humanist funerals. If you’ve something to say, say it. Hannah or another BHA representative will respond. 

Guest post by Hannah Hart from the British Humanist Association explains the basics about humanist funerals, what happens at them and how they are organised.

The 2011 census showed that at least a quarter of us are not religious, and certainly many of us know we wouldn’t want a religious funeral for ourselves. 

So it’s no surprise that has been an enormous increase in number of non-religious funerals over recent years. Mostly this is to be welcomed; it signifies there is a real alternative for those for whom a religious service would feel inappropriate or hypocritical. 

But it also means that choosing the right person to lead a funeral can seem overwhelming, especially at an already difficult time. So how do you work out who would be the best choice in your situation?

 First things first: what is Humanism?

Humanism is a positive approach to life based on reason and a concern for humanity and the natural world. It is neither religious nor superstitious. 

We think that people are able to make ethical decisions based on experience and compassion rather than, for example, religious teachings. 

And what does Humanism have to do with funerals?

Humanists think that we each have one life, and one life only. We think funeral services should reflect this. And since there’s no issue of what happens after death to address, our funerals can concentrate on the life lived. 

So humanist funerals are about the profound sadness of saying goodbye whilst also celebrating the life and legacy of a loved one. They provide a very dignified and very personal farewell. 

And what is a ‘humanist celebrant’?

Celebrants are people who create, write and conduct ceremonies. 

Humanist celebrants are those who conduct and create non-religious ceremonies. They are sometimes called officiants or even humanist ‘ministers’. 

And Humanist Ceremonies™ celebrants have been trained and accredited by the British Humanist Association (BHA), a registered national charity representing the needs of non-religious people. Providing high-quality ceremonies is big part of the BHA’s work. 

Why do people choose humanist funerals?

Often because they feel it will most accurately reflect the personality or outlook of the person who has died. And many people come to us having been to another humanist funeral and actually enjoyed it; they’ve perhaps found it more honest and moving than other services they’ve attended. 

I’m not sure if the person who has died could be called a ‘humanist’. Does this matter?

Not at all. Our funerals are available to anyone who wants to mark their loved one’s life in a non-religious, personal, meaningful way. 

But I don’t want to offend anyone. Will it be ‘preachy’?!

Absolutely not! Our celebrants are there to provide an appropriate, personal, non-religious funeral – not to promote a cause. And every funeral is carefully designed to be inclusive of all present. 

What actually happens at a humanist funeral?

Each ceremony is unique, written specifically for the person who has died. In terms of structure, it may contain music, a welcome and then a tribute section of up to fifteen minutes. Time for reflection often follows, then the committal, and then closing comments.

Sounds great… but a lot of work.

This is where the celebrant comes in. Their job is to makes things as easy as possible. They meet key members of the family or close friends and talk about what is wanted from the funeral and about the person who has died. They then co-ordinate contributions and write a bespoke ceremony, making sure everyone is happy with this before the day itself. 

Where are humanist funerals held?

Most are held in crematoria and some at burial grounds, but since funeral services have no legal status they can be held wherever a family wishes.

 We also conduct a growing number of memorial services (when there is no body to inter). These are held at all sorts of venues.

Do you allow any religious content in your ceremonies?

Our ceremonies are non-religious but we recognise that there are aspects of religious reference embedded in our culture and day-to-day experiences. For example, certain hymns can remind people of their youth or even of their favourite rugby team. We are happy to include this sort of content where it helps to reflect the person, but not as an act of worship. 

How are your celebrants different from other non-religious celebrants?

There is a wide array of people working as celebrants and so it’s impossible to generalise about what they do and how well they do it. 

What we can do is assure you of the British Humanist Association’s approach and our commitment to quality. And we’ve certainly got experience on our side; our members were conducting humanist funerals as far back as the 1890s! 

Our celebrants are carefully recruited and trained to the highest standards. They are quality assured and regularly observed, follow a strict code of conduct and undergo continued professional development. 

How do I find a humanist celebrant?

Many funeral directors can recommend a Humanist Ceremonies celebrant or you can look for someone yourself on our website

Our network is as diverse as the clients we serve, enabling you to find a celebrant that is just right for your particular situation. 

And our celebrants are always happy to be contacted with any questions or simply for a quick chat so that you can decide with confidence if they are the right person to conduct your loved one’s funeral.

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RichardHannah HartsweetpeaAndrew Hickson (Kingfisher Funerals)Charles Cowling Recent comment authors

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Richard
Guest
Richard

Thanks, Hannah. All good.

Hannah Hart
Guest
Hannah Hart

Lots of points here. Apols I’m not going to address them all as I suspect after a while we’d be just be going round in circles… In particular, some feel we should ‘loosen up’ a bit and others that we are not being ‘properly’ humanist enough and being too flexible. This is the case not just with within comments, but in wider conversations. We think we’ve just about got the right balance as BHA celebrants but of course there are grey areas. I’m always happy to discuss this for as long as anyone wants to, it’s just a debate better… Read more »

Richard
Guest
Richard

Hanna, as the marketing exec of BHA ceremonies, I’m sure you’re grateful to GFG for the opportunity to promote your employer’s services. You’ve done a decent job so far of laying out your stall and answering questions. The fact there’s no consensus of opinion makes the dialogue all the more thought-provoking. 1 I’ve heard a few celebrants say they’ve liberated themselves from delivering BHA Humanist Ceremonies™ in order to more freely serve people and diversity of choice as civil celebrants. Is there an exodus, or are new recruits arriving to sustain headcounts? Is there a secualr version of the Protestant… Read more »

Andrew Hickson (Kingfisher Funerals)
Guest

One of our local celebrants has a ‘can’t sing, won’t sing’ attitude, but does that make her a bad celebrant? By the same rule, should the funeral director join in everything (after he/she has been out for a fag that is)?

sweetpea
Guest
sweetpea

Andrew, I wouldn’t go as far as to say she is a ‘bad’ celebrant, but perhaps not as good as she should allow herself to be. Barring physical impairment, there is no reason why anyone leading a ceremony shouldn’t sing at a funeral (and as one of our primary assets as a celebrant is our voice, we can probably rule out physical inability for most). This is not Cardiff Singer of the World. This is not About Me. Whatever we perceive the quality of our voice to be, we are there to lead, to encourage, to support. To show that… Read more »

sweetpea
Guest
sweetpea

Andrew, has your non-singing celebrant ever considered asking for the microphone to be turned down during the singing part? It might give her a bit of support in trying herself out in public? As I said, it’s a vulnerable thing to do, and as a musician she might appreciate some help from you in loosening up her inhibitions.

gloria mundi
Guest

Sweetpea,you said it.
New rule: if the celebrant needs to step back because s/he doesn’t feel able to participate in or lead part of the ceremony – it’s the wrong celebrant for that particular funeral.
I’m so pleased to hear you had a bloody magnificent celebrant just when you needed one.
x Gloria

sweetpea
Guest
sweetpea

It’s good to hear from you, Hannah, and I’m grateful for the explanation of what humanist celebrants have to offer. There’s no doubt that a humanist funeral done well is a beautiful thing to behold. However, it seems that some of your arguments just do not add up. In your own words, a humanist funeral is ‘neither religious nor superstitious’. All well and good, although to be frank I’m not overly fond of the word superstitious – seems a little judgmental to me. However, you then go on to say you are ‘happy for a family to include a hymn… Read more »

Jed
Guest
Jed

Thank you Hannah Hart – you have a fab name, if I may say so! (Happens to be the same as my paternal grandmother.) On the hymn front: I’ve had ‘civil’ funerals with the two most popular hymns – All things bright n beautiful, and the second is without doubt Morning has broken – in my neck of the woods any way… As a person who has experienced ‘worship’ I have never felt that the inclusion of these hymns came anywhere close. People think they ‘should’ have a hymn, they also imagine they will sing it… But rarely do. The… Read more »

Richard
Guest
Richard

Atheists believe they’re right and theists are wrong, and vice versa. Only possibilists are able to hedge their bets with a clear conscience. Bending over backwards to accommodate against firm beliefs is opportunism. My next question though: is there conflict between the public campaigning role of the BHA to rid society of God, and the role of delivering ‘non-judgmental’ ceremonies for private citizens, even those who are atheist in life? Now for a bit of comment: divisions between believers and non-believers are often predictable, but the stance of inbetweeners here remains refreshingly capable of surprises. As a 21st-century, Brit Catholic,… Read more »

Michael Jarvis
Guest
Michael Jarvis

Hannah: thanks for your considered response. I’d like to focus a little more on the matter of hymns, if I may, because I was shaken by the reference in your original piece, and I can’t follow the reasoning in your reply to my question. The problem as I see it, is what, to the BHA, would constitute an act of worship. I presume that you would define worship as “praise and/or exaltation of a deity or spiritual force”. The vast majority of hymns will fall within that designation. I can think of several where it is pretty opaque, but they’re… Read more »

gloria mundi
Guest

You’re going well, Hannah, thanks. But: “A Celeb” is right: sometimes the first contact a family has with any celebrant/vicar/etc is dangerously close to the event. Not that often, I grant you, but any celebrant is most of the time in the hands of undertakers, sod’s law and the vagaries of life. The reverse has happened to me – i.e. they wanted their favourite vicar, because they knew her, and after an hour, they said “And no mention of God at all.” She gently pointed out that that was kind of what she did, they parted amicably, and I was… Read more »

A Celeb
Guest
A Celeb

‘All BHA celebrants talk to the family at their very first contact to ensure that a humanist funeral is the right option. The situation Gloria mentions simply wouldn’t occur.’
Yes this is what I used to think. Until…the family stress that they want no mention of God AT ALL. Nothing religious WHATSOEVER. I reassure them, spend two hours with them and just as I get up to leave they say, ‘And you will be saying the Lord’s Prayer won’t you?’

Hannah Hart
Guest
Hannah Hart

No worries about the link at all! H

Hannah Hart
Guest
Hannah Hart

Ooh, lovely, some big questions! Sorry to have kept you waiting for responses. First, am happy to confirm that, in the style of American political ads, “this message was approved by the BHA”! I am the ceremonies marketing person for Humanist Ceremonies and work closely with Isabel Russo, our Head of Ceremonies. One caveat is that I’d aimed this piece at the general public rather than funeral professionals. This might explain some surprise at what is / isn’t included in the article. One theme of comments seems to be that we are too restrictive in ‘not doing God’; that we… Read more »

Charles Cowling
Guest

Lots of high-revving erudition here while we await the arrival onstage of the BHA. You people are great.

I have, in the last hour, received confirmation that a response is, verily, on its way. Hold your front pages.

Michael Jarvis
Guest
Michael Jarvis

Ah, donkeys…not just in the first book of Chronicles: the well-known hymn ‘All Glory, Laud and Honour’ was translated from medieval Latin by John Mason Neale in 1852. Only six of the original 32 verses are regularly used in modern hymn books. One of those omitted runs:

Be thou, O Lord, the rider,
And we the little ass,
That to God’s holy city
Together we may pass.

Meanwhile, exquisite silence from the BHA.

Jed
Guest
Jed

That is one of the Bible’s best offerings RR ‘Finally, brethren; whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things’ closely followed by Galations 5:6b ‘the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love’ but of course the very best of them all has to be: 1 Chronicles 27:30b ‘ Jehdeiah the Meronothite was over the donkeys’ 😉 Humanists, celebrants, priests, vicars, FDs, donkeys, journalists – without love they are… Read more »

Richard
Guest
Richard

Peter Hitchens, a Christian, writes this about attending the funeral last year of his brother, Christopher, an atheist: I have just returned from the USA, where I attended – and took a small part in – the memorial event for my brother, Christopher. I was in an odd position. I was a Christian at an occasion that was Godless by definition; I had known my brother for longer than anyone else there; yet I was not part of his milieu and couldn’t share their joy and glee in his assaults on religion, or a lot of the other enthusiasms celebrated… Read more »

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

When I was a (rebellious) Humanist celebrant, the BHA supported the celebrants’ network with the written intent “to promote humanism through Humanist ceremonies.” That’s mainly why I left, to dissociate myself from the orgnaization and this abuse of the trust put in it by people who wanted only ‘something that’s not the vicar’, and who couldn’t give a monkey’s about humanism itself.

During those six or seven years of officiating at ‘humanist’ funerals, I conducted only one for an avowed humanist. He stipulated that he didn’t want humanism mentioned at his funeral – I could have kissed him!

Angela Sanderson
Guest

Why are more and more humanist funeral celebrants incorporating religion into their services? I always believed the lack of religion was the ethos of a humanist service – but even local FD’s are saying humanists are ‘doing’ religion.

Andrew Hickson (Kingfisher Funerals)
Guest

I was going to leave it a couple of days before saying the same thing GM. But also fair to ask – does the BHA know this has been posted?

gloria mundi
Guest

Erm, BHA – some chewy, interesting things here to respond to, I’d have thought – hope we’ll be hearing from you!

Richard
Guest
Richard

Excellent questions/comments so far. There have been debates here and elsewhere about humanism needing to provide an alternative form of community—the humanist message, rather than simply rejecting faith, should be about engaging themselves in activities that improve lives. Reason alone is not enough, especially as most religious people don’t deny science either. Perhaps, the BHA would say it’s endeavouring to improve lives by lobbying against faith schools or bishops in the House of Lords. Fair dos: good intent can involve a complex set of variables before we see the outcome of an action. However, religion offers a community gathered around… Read more »

Michael Jarvis
Guest
Michael Jarvis

An interesting piece. Many members of the public with whom I have spoken over the years have said that they wished for a nonreligious send-off but would like a favourite hymn or two. It seems to be a remarkably nuanced statement that this is OK for the BHA provided it does not constitute an act of worship. One of the most popular hymns to be mentioned to me in respect of funerals is ‘Abide with me’; it’s a good job that the modern fashion is to omit verses 3,4,and 5 otherwise they would find the lines: And, though rebellious and… Read more »

Andrew Hickson (Kingfisher Funerals)
Guest

Hi Hannah This is a great opportunity to air some concerns and ask some questions, so thank you before we begin. I hope not to come across as devil’s advocate. Please excuse me if I do! I used to have an enormous amount of respect for the BHA, so much so that I introduced my mum to the concept, and she trained to become a BHA celebrant. When the BHA first appeared, it (they) filled a niche hole in the market, it was forward thinking, it marketed itself well, it was appreciated. Then along came the Civils, with their motto… Read more »

gloria mundi
Guest

Thank you, Hannah and Charles, for this opportunity to ask a few questions. Mine are: 1. Would you agree that the terms “humanist” and “humanist funeral” are wider than the BHA network? Many a funeral may be humanist in essence, have little or nothing in it of worship, but not be conducted by someone in your network; I feel there is some danger of a brand name being confused with a wider ethical and philosophical approach to death and its rites. 2. Can you accept that calling other people’s beliefs “superstitions” can sound alienating and I’m afraid faintly patronising. For… Read more »