I met a humanist recently, who takes funerals for those who don’t want a “religious” funeral.
She was a very pleasant bubbly person, (who I’m not likely to meet again – she was visiting from down South) and whilst I’d be happy to share her company, the conversation we had left me a bit stirred up – I was left with the thought “Who on earth do you think I am?”
She was very enthusiastic about her ministry, and glad that she could help people, which was something we shared. But as the conversation went on, I realized that she thought that what she did was very different from me:
“Obviously for you it’s got to be religious, but for me it’s the family that are the most important thing”
“We celebrate the life, and that’s our focus, the individual person”
“it’s much more individually tailored for the family than a religious service”.
I don’t know what experiences she had which led her to believe we were so very different, but I was left with that disquieting feeling that she wanted there to be more of a difference than there was.
I’ve been to several humanist funerals, and a couple of weddings. Some have been very heart-warming and fulfilled the needs of the family. Some have been frankly dull, impersonal affairs, very much an “off the peg” service. I’ve been to plenty of Christian funerals like that too. I’ve been to humanist funerals where they’ve said the Lord’s Prayer and sung hymns. I’ve even been to one where they said “so if they’re looking down on us now”…
So for the record, here’s what I was too polite, or too cowardly, to share with that humanist minister, and what I’d really like folk to know about a priest doing a funeral
1) I’ve done plenty of funerals with no religious content at all. In a funeral. What I personally believe is incidental, it is what the family need to help them through the grieving process that matters.
2) I am not choosy about who I bury, and I don’t charge for it. You get me for free, and you get my time and my effort because you and your family have lost someone you love, and that matters. The people of my congregation give money to the church to pay me a stipend so I do things like this, because they know that things like this matter.
3) When I meet with the family, I ask lots of questions about the person, but more than the actualities of their life, I am trying to form an opinion about (a) how religious or not the family want the service (b) how best to honour the memory of the person who has gone (c) the balance between the importance of celebrating the life of the person, and the necessity of saying farewell – and a dozen other things. Sometimes that’s tricky because the family are nervous about telling me that they are not religious. I’m not here to judge I’m here to make life easier for you. The more honest you can be, the better we can celebrate the person going.
4) The only bit of religion that I insist upon is that I and my church will pray for you and the one who has died. “holding you in our thoughts” is pretty accurate, if you prefer.
5) What matters to me as a liturgist and as a Christian is that you feel that the funeral spoke about the person you knew and loved. It should not feel like a ritual, it should feel like a celebration, a thanksgiving and a farewell.
6) This is the only bit which sounds particularly different from a humanist celebrant. Part of a funeral is saying goodbye. That’s going to involve sadness, and there’s no escaping that. Better to do that surrounded by people who love you and love the person who’s died than have a “joyful celebration” and cry alone in your room. If you want people to be happy at your funeral, dedicate the rest of your life to being horrible. If not, allow your friends and family to grieve for you.
7) Even without the religious idea of heaven, there is always the idea of wounds healing, of time bringing beauty from sorrow, of love outlasting grief. That’s what Christians mean as hope, and you don’t have to be a Christian to experience it. That’s what a “non-religious” service from a religious person will give you, not a recitation of dogma in latin