Can we agree to differentiate?

Charles 30 Comments

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.


  1. Charles

    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 example: what might a humanist celebrant do with a family who wanted the four points of the compass and the four elements acknowledged and thanked for the life of someone who lived close to the elements and the outdoors? Science tells us they are not entities we can thank; might a humanist celebrant sniff out a “superstition” in this case?

    3. Is there, think you, any danger of confusing a poll that shows a % of people who don’t follow a religion with the idea that none of these people have any sense of “another world?” Charles introduced me to the term “possibilist,” and an awful lot of people I encounter are possibilists. A non-religious funeral please, they say, he didn’t hold with any of that – then his son says to the coffin “Dad, wherever you are now…”!

    I mustn’t be greedy – I hope there are lots of other questions from others – but one last question: 4. what, typically, might a BHSA celebrant do for the family if s/he turns down a funeral because the family want something “superstitious” or the conversation in the family meeting (four days before the funeral!) goes “he wasn’t religious, we don’t want the vicar, so we’d just like “Amazing Grace,” and his dear old Uncle Bill would liked to say the Lord’s Prayer?”

  2. Charles

    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 “we won’t impose our ideals on you” – and I think from there the BHA sadly went downhill.

    As a funeral director, I have regular visits from several local civil celebrants, as well as frequent contact with the person who heads the IoCF. I’ve never had any contact from the BHA, and only (sadly) speak to the most local BHA celebrant that I know of when a client, having talked through the options, chooses a humanist ceremony. I’m not aware of any other BHA celebrants in this area, I’d have to research it if I wanted to find one, and in all honesty, it would be easier for me to ask a civil celebrant to conduct a non-religious ceremony.

    When we are contacted by the family of someone who has died, we talk through the three main options – religious, civil and humanist. We talk in quite some depth about the pros and cons of each (far more than saying “was he religious” or “do you want a humanist minister?”(sic)). Having explored the options, by far the biggest percentage choose the civil route, and I seriously think that this is because it allows them the freedom that more and more people demand these days. Restricting certain elements (such as hymns or prayers) is surely a backward move in the current demanding climate? It’s a bit like the ‘simple funeral’ that restricts a family from viewing the deceased. It’s outdated. It says “we own the arrangements” when we don’t at all.

    Being really picky, in your Q&A above, you say “our ceremonies” – that’s like a funeral director saying “my funerals” – it comes from completely the wrong direction. They are not ours, they belong to the deceased and his or her family.

    Although I personally aspire to humanist values, I do find it difficult to actively promote humanist funerals because of their prescriptiveness over what is and isn’t allowed. I feel that we, as funeral professionals together, should be encouraging people to diversify and have choice. When we start telling them that they can’t do things, isn’t that rather contrary to what we set out to do?

    Incidentally, my partner and I had a humanist ceremony as a component of our civil partnership last month. Once we had provided the essence of the content to the celebrant, she produced an amazing script. We asked her to include a couple of sentences about humanist values. We kept everything in the script except the word “superstitious”. Whilst we don’t have a problem with it, we felt there would be people who would be offended by that word. It’s interesting that it’s one of the key words in the answer to the question “What is humanism?”

  3. Charles

    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 perverse meanwhile,
    Thou hast not left me, oft as I left thee

    All modern texts do, however, include v.8 which starts:

    Hold thou thy Cross before my closing eyes;

    It’s probably not too difficult to thumb through the English Hymnal, Hymns A & M, or whatever and find the odd number with no overt sense of worship, but I can see the favourites such as ‘Abide with me’ giving the BHA a real crisis of conscience.
    Given that you raise the matter of hymns, Hannah, one may suppose that the BHA accepts that a measurable percentage ask for them. My question, then, is how do you make the distinction between what you would or would not find acceptable?

  4. Charles

    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 the message that death is not the final word about an individual life and nothingness not the final destiny of the universe. If humanism’s ‘no faith’ message is not a plausible alternative, what else can it do as a community service?

  5. Charles

    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.

  6. Charles

    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!

  7. Charles

    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 along with his life.

    But as it happens, I am on reasonably good terms with many of Christopher’s old friends and I had (as most people know) argued directly and strongly, but in a civilised way with my brother about our religious disagreement. We treated each other with respect and parted, shortly before his death, on good terms.

    Thanks to an extremely tactful and thoughtful suggestion from Christopher’s widow, Carol, I was able to contribute a religious reflection to a generally atheist occasion without infringing the rules of politeness or pushing myself forward. I recited the 8th verse of the 4th chapter of St Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (‘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’). As I explained to those at the event, my brother had chosen this passage to read at our father’s funeral in Portsmouth nearly 25 years ago. It had, as it were, his approval.

  8. Charles

    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 nothing.

    I’m with Jonathan – most people say they want a ‘humanist’ because what they mean is – they don’t want ‘the vicar’. I’m no more anti humanist than I am anti religion, but I am pro choice and pro understanding and pro explaining the options… Back to the FDs then – would that they were more Kingfishery than Ostrichy IMHO.

  9. Charles

    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.

  10. Charles

    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.

  11. Charles

    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 are not flexible enough to meet people’s needs.

    We applaud diversity of provision. But that doesn’t mean we should have to be diverse in our offering ourselves. We are utterly committed to people having the most appropriate and meaningful funeral ceremony for their loved one.

    But we are not about being ‘all things to all people’. If we, as humanists, were to start including religious worship in our ceremonies, we’d have no integrity.

    We do what it says on the tin. We offer personal, non-religious ceremonies to those who want them. And plenty of people want a non-religious funeral that is *exactly* that – not religious.

    The word ‘superstitious’ is a contentious one. For what it’s worth, I did not intend to use it in a pejorative manner; indeed plenty of people describe *themselves* as ‘superstitious’.

    I was simply trying to make the point that whilst some people broadly follow the teachings of particular religions, others have values / beliefs that might be described more broadly as ‘spiritual’ and/or involve a sense of the supernatural and/or fate. In these circumstances, a humanist funeral is unlikely to be a good fit for that person / family.

    Other specific points:

    1. Yes, the word ‘humanist’ is broader than the BHA. I tried to address this in the question “and what is a humanist celebrant?” where I distinguished between a humanist celebrant and a Humanist Ceremonies (TM) – i.e. BHA trained – celebrant. However, since we are celebrants from the British Humanist Association – operating under the name ‘Humanist Ceremonies’ (and have been for many, many years), the term ‘humanist celebrant’ is the right one for us to use!

    2. I agree there is no simple way to measure religion. It’s a complex area embracing cultural affiliation, belief, practice etc. My point was merely that many people find the idea of having a religious funeral for their loved one – or themselves – problematic and hypocritical if the person involved lived their life without religion.

    3 – 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.

    4. Andrew, I’m sorry you only have contact from one of your local BHA celebrants. Our distribution of celebrants is broadly good, but there are patches where we don’t have enough people just yet. If you were so inclined, our find-a-celebrant search page will give you details of the others in your area:
    (In fact I’d included this link in my original article but I see it’s (understandably) been replaced with a link to the GFG celebrants page.

    5. The “our ceremonies” point is well taken. I was trying to keep my writing concise and chose this phrase as a quicker way of saying “The ceremonies that our celebrants conduct…”. I can assure you there is no sense of “our ceremonies” in the abstract; they are unique, after all!

    6. Glad you had such a positive experience of a humanist civil partnership. And congratulations!

    7. In terms of what hymns we’d find “acceptable” there is, in practice, a real difference in people wanting a favourite hymn because it has some resonance due to the music / memories etc., and those who actually want a religious component to the funeral. Of course there are many shades of grey here, but the general point remains. We are not out to evangelise. If people would be better off with a religious service, then that’s what we would want them to have.

    8. Similarly, humanist funerals themselves are not dogmatic or restrictive. They are flexible and our celebrants are creative. That’s why, for example, we are happy for a family to include a hymn or occasionally for a guest to lead those who want to in a prayer. But the point is that it wouldn’t be appropriate for the *celebrant* to lead this part of the funeral.

    9. Richard – lovely summary of some of the BHA’s key campaigning points! Since we’re not out to evangelise (see 7!), this isn’t the sort of info we want to talk about at a funeral when we’re instead rightly concerned with thinking about the person who has died and the family left behind… I’d argue that Humanism doesn’t assert that death is “the final word about a life”. Humanist funerals reflect on the legacy of the person who has died, and how they will continue to affect those they were close to. It’s an approach that many people find deeply comforting.

    9. The ‘mission’, as it were, of BHA ceremonies provision is to ensure that everyone who wants a humanist ceremony is able to access one. That’s been the case for at least the five years I’ve been involved as a celebrant. Interesting to hear from a former colleague how the focus has changed.

    Apologies if I’ve misinterpreted any of the points raised. This isn’t the easiest way to discuss such big questions but delighted to be giving it a shot.

    Thanks all again for the interest and contributions.


  12. Charles

    Hannah, thank you for this very full response. I suspect a bout of cross-examination may follow.

    I want to apologise for that link, which was not the intention at all and I cannot think why I posted it or how I came to do so. Sorry!

  13. Charles

    ‘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?’

  14. Charles

    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 called in – for a funeral the following day.

    I find it hard to believe the same never happens in reverse, and I’m wondering if time pressure ever causes humanists, as it would many of us, to loosen up a bit. It’s surely no great help to bail out of a family need at short notice because your own non/belief system is different from their requirements.

    After all, a humanist doesn’t think s/he will be struck down from above if s/he mentions something spiritual/supernatural, does s/he?

    And the word “supersition” is derogatory, I don’t see how you can avoid that. “Spiritual” is a mile away from “superstitious” in most people’s minds. The latter is the sort of word a Victorian missionary might have used about an African tribe’s beliefs and traditions. I urge you to chuck it asap!

    BTW, my understanding is that many BHA celebrants put in an early para along the lines of “Humanists believe……..” That is a gentle kind of advocacy, isn’t it, a kind of mild spreading of the word? Not quite preaching, but IMAO, not too far off – the ceremony would be better off without it.

    Well, I could bang on for ages about the degree to which something such as honouring the elements and the four corners of the compass is “spiritual” or “superstitious,” could/should a BHA celebrant include it etc, but as you say, it’s a difficult setting in which to pursue the more complex areas of our work.

    Seems to me that the BHA might loosen up a bit, try to avoid coming across as a belief system itself, and define itself less by what it doesn’t believe in. I agree with Richard (not something I write all that often!) “no faith” as a defining position doesn’t do much for many people.

    And I agree with rebellious Jonathan – most BHA-led funerals do not come from requests for an atheist funeral ceremony, or even for a humanist funeral. It much more often means “we don’t want a clergyman and the full Chrisitian ceremony.” What they want is compassion and empathy and the right skills – and of course many BHA celebrants have those things in bucketfuls. Some don’t. As with vicars, Civils, and even donkeys.

  15. Charles

    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 very unlikely to be chosen for funerals. (Sydney Carter’s ‘I Danced in the Morning’, and Eleanor Farjeon’s ‘Thanks for a Day’, for example. ‘I Danced in the Morning’ is probably a carol rather than a hymn – I say that before the pedants attack! although it’s increasingly used as a hymn, though not at funerals. Most people will know ‘Thanks for a Day’ by its first line – Morning Has Broken, and short of the deceased having been a Cat Stevens fan, I can’t see that featuring either.) The point is that a funeral hymn will constitute worship to some extent.

    Now, though, with your reply we go one stage further: “a guest to lead those who want to in a prayer”. Prayer. Hmm…I had a go at a short definition of worship above so let’s see: “a petition or intercession to a deity or spiritual force”. Well it could be improved upon but you will take the point.

    I don’t wish to be rude but it really does sound as if you want the cake and the ha’penny, as they say in Yorkshire. It’s all very well saying that if the family really want a religious ceremony then that’s where they should head, but to be honest to me it smacks of the BHA trying to capture the ‘not the vicar brigade’ by means of compromise rather than lose them to non-BHA affiliated civil officiants.

  16. Charles

    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, trench mentality becomes the norm. Even if we’re live-and-let-livers in our daily lives, the fact we worship at mass makes us counter-cultural among anti-God militants, who not only loathe Papist views on abortion, but also tar us with the same brush as peodo priests or fundamentalists, be they muddled creationists or violent Jihadists.

    Some atheists are so confused that their primary target is quiet Christians rather than fascistic fundamentalists due to their PC reluctance to criticise a racial minority. Atheism and socialism do seem to go hand in hand. After Woolwich, I witnessed an infantile minority focus on the EDL ‘free speech’ protest more than the beheading in the street, which was moral relativism taken to a ludicrous extreme. The result is an amusing irony: conservatives standing for freedom and tolerance, bien pensant liberals behaving like bigots.

    But the point I’m coming to is that I wrongly assumed agnostics felt a greater affinity with atheists, but merely lacked the will to impose their views on others. With the sex abuse scandals and terrorist bombers, I understand why many are disillusioned with organised religion, even if neither have anything to do with the love of God. But it’s encouraging to see moderate inbetweeners eschewing atheist bossiness in favour of free choice.

    Humanists may well be peaceful, law-abiding citizens who shun religion because they believe man alone is the source of his own ideals. I understand, without sharing, the view that there becomes no need for God when the best religious values become humanist values: love of neighbour, the exercise of virtues such as justice or courage, and the discipline of appetites.

    From the Enlightenment onwards, many humanists have exalted such humanity. But an increasing number seem more concerned with attacking belief in God as a human weakness. And instead of idealising man, it becomes scathing about moral values, too.

    This relaxing of old humanist values is perhaps exemplified by the recent BHA ad campaign on buses: “There probably is no God; so stop worrying and enjoy life.” This implies God stands between man and happiness (or pleasure). But surely, without God, you need to worry more as your values are up to you alone.

  17. Charles

    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 times they have sung with any sort of gusto were when we eschewed Wesley karaoke and had a real live organist and both the families chose ‘Who would true valour see’… With hither, hobgoblins and all! I felt it was the pilgrimage aspect they wanted, and to praise the valour and courage of the person who had died.

    I like to include some sort of communal speaking , be it the Lord’s Prayer or perhaps by including some farewell words on the order of service and inviting folk to join in – if they ‘will’. It’s good to become a congregation and not remain an audience.

    (Busy looking up the rest of all glory laud and honour now…)

  18. Charles

    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 or occasionally for a guest to lead those who want to in a prayer.’ Mmmmm. Sounds more like a civil funeral than a humanist funeral.

    And then we come to the statement ‘the point is that it wouldn’t be appropriate for the *celebrant* to lead this part of the funeral’. Surely this is a most certain indicator that this particular celebrant is not suitable for this particular ceremony.

    I must admit that, other than happily stepping back for others to contribute to a funeral (while of course continuing to be fully engaged in the proceedings), I have a good deal of trouble with the idea of a celebrant absenting his/herself from any part of a funeral, unless expressly requested to do so for ceremonial reasons.

    For example, when I’ve mentored and observed new celebrants, one of the biggest ‘clangs’ can be felt when a celebrant decides to stand back and refuses to participate, perhaps in a hymn or a song. How insulting! And as a person who has recently been bereaved, I can tell you from experience that I looked to my own celebrant to hold our hands every step of the way, a steadying and leading presence. She did and she was. She was bloody magnificent, and I felt nothing but supported in our choices. The thought that someone would be with us in the fray but only up to a certain point – and then self-absent herself from something which we had considered an intrinsic part our expression – seems like a dereliction of duty, and a personal betrayal of the vulnerable people who are in your care.

    Oh, and can I please make a plea that the dead person isn’t referred to as ‘your loved one’. Sometimes they are ‘loved ones’, sometimes they aren’t, and as celebrants we really should be addressing people in every situation, not leaving out in the cold those who have more complicated circumstances with which to contend. It’s nearly as bad as describing all secular funerals ‘celebrations of life’.

  19. Charles

    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

    1. Charles

      Can’t sing, doesn’t sing, surely? You can’t abstain from doing something of which you are incapable. The role of a funeral director at a funeral is debatable, and certainly not a sine qua non, as the smokerly sort demonstrate. It is, though, arguably, odd if a ceremony leader (sine qua non) asserts a negative presence for parts of the ceremony.

    2. Charles

      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 everything is steady, despite the world shifting on its axis for those facing us. Singing at any event is tricky for those unused to doing so, but more importantly it is an act of exposure and vulnerablity. We are not there to indulge our own feelings by removing ourselves from something so important with a distainful sniff on a lacey handkerchief, resting in the corner while everyone else is exposed. We have to be there in the fray.

      As for funeral directors, their role is slightly different, perhaps, in that they may have some practical details to be attending to for part of the ceremony, and their partial absence may be more understandable. But I see so many different approaches, from fds who barely scrape into the room in time for the closing words, to fds who patiently sit near the back all the way through, nevertheless quietly joining in and supporting the family, to one fd who sits prominently in the pews with all but one of his bearers, who all join in heartily with every service – hymns, ballads, prayers, acts of remembrance, whatever everyone else is doing, they are there too.

    3. Charles

      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.

  20. Charles

    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 Reformation going on with the BHA equalling the Vatican, or is this just silliness?

    2 Do you envisage BHA publicity material U-turning on the word ‘superstition’, or using it less, as a result of some criticism here or elsewhere? I’m sure proselytisers for atheism like Polly Toynbee will continue to sprinkle the word around the media anyway.

    3 Are you aware of any legal wrangles with civil celebrants describing themselves as humanist celebrants when it’s been trademarked by your employer? There are, it seems, several types of humanist and types of humanist organisation. There’s no Christian Priest™.

  21. Charles

    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 had face-to-face

    And I suspect no amount of *written* debate on the topic will change the opinion of anyone involving themselves in this aspect of the discussion. Can we take our lead from Charles’ title and agree to differ?!

    Some specific points:

    1. “Superstition”. I can only repeat what I’ve said – it wasn’t meant in a derogatory way. Further, I didn’t use it as an equivalent to ‘religious’ – my phrase was “is neither religious nor superstitious”. However, I hear that the word has caused some offence here and will be more sparing in my use of it in the future!

    2. Gloria asked whether the inclusion of a paragraph about humanism at the beginning of a funeral is gentle advocacy. An interesting question.

    I can’t speak for every celebrant, of course, but the general approach is as follows: not all funerals (by a long way) have such an explanation. There is no set of words we’re obliged to say. Often celebrants will simply say they are celebrants with the BHA and that as it’s a humanist funeral, it will be non-religious and focus on the person’s life. And that’s it.

    When a paragraph about humanism *is* included, it’s genuinely there to give context so guests/mourners understand the basis of the funeral and, crucially, how this relates to the life of the person who has died.

    This might be as simple as “John’s family have opted for a humanist funeral today to remember him through as it best fits his outlook and approach to life…” … and then, possibly, a few words about what humanism is (rather than isn’t).

    But quite how each celebrant does this in the context of each funeral depends on the family’s wishes. What matters most to all of us is that the ceremony is inclusive and meaningful to everyone there, whatever their religion or lack of it.

    3. Richard asks about inconsistency with our approach to funerals and the BHA’s campaigning to rid society of God. I suspect a certain amount of tongue in cheek here but will give a straight response just in case!

    I am very, very happy to clarify that this is not the BHA’s stance. Campaigning is around ending religious *privilege* in society (collective worship in state schools, Bishops in the House of Lords etc.) and representing non-religious people. We support a secular state meaning the separation of church and state, not annihilation of it! (That’s church, not state!) We support everyone’s right to religious freedom and religious expression.

    Still don’t believe me?! The BHA’s webpage does a far better job than me at explaining it:

    4. There was mention of us “attacking belief in God as a human weakness”. Again, very happy to refute this one. We really aren’t about attacking religion – any religion.

    Instead, we’re about articulating an ethical, non-religious world view. If that chimes with what people think and are interested in thinking more about, then great. But we’re not about trying to convert / de-convert people.

    5. Jed – thank you! I rather like my name too, though I can’t take any credit for it. ☺

    5. OK on not using ‘loved one’ too much. I avoid “the deceased” as it sounds so clinical, and usually shoot for “the person who has died” but sometimes can lead to some long-winded sentences. But your point is well taken.

    5. Onto Richard’s last points. a) no mass exodus of BHA funerals celebrants, no. I would say that, wouldn’t I? 🙂 Happily it’s also true! We do ‘lose’ celebrants from time to time who want to offer a wider range of funerals, yes, but there’s no Reformation going on. Or at least not one I’ve been told about.

    I’m going to check how much the word ‘superstition’ is used in BHA materials. I suspect it’s something I personally use more than the organisation.

    Finally, I’m pretty confident we’ll not be seeing legal battles over who may or may not call themselves ‘humanist’ ☺

    We try to use the BHA and ‘Humanist Ceremonies’ logos / names together in our materials to make it as clear as possible who we are. And, to be pedantic, it’s actually ‘Humanist Ceremonies’ that is trademarked, not ‘humanist’… I suspect this happened many, many years ago.

    We don’t use the (™) much anyway. I used it in this article to try to make the point that there are a lot of celebrants who call themselves ‘humanists’ and we are one particular group of them. It would have been better if I’d referred to “BHA humanist celebrants” perhaps.

    Thanks again for some really thought-provoking questions and opinions!

Leave a Reply

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