Death is an uncomfortable if not unpleasant thought. Death is the final taboo in our society where daily we are exposed to images and programmes about other subjects which our ancestors would call, at best perverse. While we all realise that at some unknown point, we will die, it is not a thought we wish to dwell upon. But, what then?
Humanists believe that there is no life after death apart from the conscious thoughts of those who have loved us as it is their memories of us which carry on rather than our physical form. As the Roman philosopher, Seneca said, “Let us not bury our love with death.” This belief forms the basis of our funeral services. Within the ceremony, we speak about the deceased, the person, their character, and their life. The ceremony is a glimpse into their life and the relationships and the effect of their presence amongst their family and friends.
My approach to funerals is to try and construct a ceremony which captures the essence of the person. The ceremony itself tends to be in three parts. The first part is to try and put their death into some context by explaining why we are there and to have a reading which encapsulates the life of the person. The main part comprises their life story which would contain all the important pieces of their life, from birth, childhood, young adulthood and so on. This would include the humorous stories oft told about them and the esteem they are held by their family and friends. While I speak of their death, I always try and finish this part with the positive memories that they have left behind in those who love them. The final part of the ceremony is the committal – goodbye - in which we condense the qualities of the deceased’s life into words which sum up how they will be missed.
A Humanist funeral does tend to have laughter and tears but that is to be expected. Our lives have been full of each, whether through joy or sadness so why should our funeral not capture those parts of a life which characterised the person.
To achieve a funeral ceremony with these elements, I meet with the family and/or friends of the deceased and we go through their life. From their early childhood escapades, through school, sports, and hobbies, to their employment, their relationships and their own new families, to find out the character of them and the many stories which are told about them.
As there are no bible readings or hymns, we concentrate on the person and what they meant to the people gathered at the funeral. In lieu of hymns, the funeral director and I will ask them to prepare music for the funeral which the deceased enjoyed. I have had everything from big band, classical, comedy to heavy metal and some which I could not truthfully class as music. I will advise the families to choose particular music for their entrance and exit from the funeral as often these tracks have a significant meaning for the family.
After visiting the family, I draw up a draft script for the ceremony and email it to them so they can check it is accurate and contains what they wish said at the funeral. Often our talk has unlocked further memories and these can often be incorporated into the ceremony. The only drawback to some ceremonies is time. Crematoria have a limited time frame for the ceremony and in too many cases, much is left unsaid. That is why if I am asked, I would always say to consider holding the ceremony in a funeral home, village hall or another appropriate venue, as time is not a constraint.
One of the main concerns, especially amongst those more mature among us who were brought up with the nonsense that we should not show our emotions, is “how are we supposed to behave during the funeral”. I always tell them, a Humanist ceremony is about the person you knew and loved, listen as we speak about them and lose yourself in your memories. Just be yourself, laugh and cry as you wish. After most funerals, I have been approached by the family or other persons who say” I don’t know how to say this but I “enjoyed” the ceremony”. I know the word enjoy seems incongruent with a funeral and if anyone has another word that could describe it, I would be most grateful.
The following is taken from my experiences and is not thought or meant to be other than a brief guide.
Speak to your family about your wishes – many families are not aware of their loved one's thoughts on what they wish to happen after their death. Make sure they are aware of your desire to be buried whether in a standard cemetery or a natural burial site, cremated or the soon to be licensed environmentally more friendly – resomation. If you wish your body donated to medical research that has to be done prior to your death.
If possible write out a few stories about your life which you wish to include in your ceremony. Many families feel badly because they know little about the early years or parts of their lives. I have had families who found medals but didn’t know this part. If you have been diagnosed with a terminal illness think very seriously about contacting a Humanist Celebrant and being involved in writing your own story.
Make sure the Funeral Director can carry out your wishes. Consider the length of the ceremony which your life story may require. Often it is better to have a ceremony at a funeral home, hall or hotel to allow the stories to be said rather than the heavily time-constrained crematoria.
You will need to make an appointment with the Registrar to record the death and obtain the death certificates required to administer the estate.
For some the trauma of a loved one's death can be very stressful and they do not whom or where to turn for help. There are a number of organisations which can assist such as Cruse or through the local council. There is a counselling directory which has links to trained and accredited people. There link is www.counselling-directory.org.uk