In defence of humanist funerals

My father was a humanist and he should have had a humanist funeral. But he died many years ago, when their provision was far more limited than it is today. On being told my father had no religious faith in adulthood and his only ‘funeral request’ had been for cremation rather than burial, the funeral director simply said he’d let the vicar know. If he knew about humanist funerals, he wasn’t letting on, so he probably didn’t.

My oldest brother was assigned to visit the vicar in advance of the ceremony. We were atheists who had no idea what normally happened at vicar-led funerals in crematoria. Would we have to sing hymns? We hoped not but, in case we did, I suggested Jerusalem because I’d once heard Dad — a great music lover — say he quite liked it.

The funeral, as it turned out, was horrible. In a monotonous voice, the vicar raced through the minimal notes he’d taken about Dad from my brother: where he was from, who his family were, what he liked doing his spare time. He got one place name wrong. Never mind — it was only the place where my Dad loved walking and where his ashes would be scattered. There were no hymns and just one prayer, if I recall correctly. Then there was a bit of twaddle about eternal life as my Dad — an atheist with no hope of resurrection — was “popped in the oven”, as the Rev Ed Tomlinson puts it. (More of him in a moment).

I came away from my father’s funeral feeling flat and vaguely betrayed. Was that it? I was embarrassed for those of  his friends — his former work colleagues, now retired — who’d given up their time and travelled some distance because they wanted to show us — Dad’s family — how that they had liked and respected him and to say their goodbyes. And this was the miserable send-off we’d given him! I won’t dwell on the abysmal failure of that particular rite of passage to fulfil the emotional needs of the bereaved as expected of such occasions; suffice to say I carried the bitterness of my regret for 14 years, until my mother’s funeral provided an opportunity to make things right, at least in my mind.

The Rev Ed Tomlinson, vicar of St Barnabas’s Church in Tunbridge Wells, recently launched a rather unseemly attack on humanists and their funerals. I don’t think Mr Tomlinson would have approved of my father’s funeral, even though it was conducted by a vicar, rather than by one of the humanists he disdains. No, to be “sincerely Christian in character” funerals should be theatrical occasions full of music, ritual and mumbo jumbo, it seems. The pop song chosen by the bereaved because it meant something to the deceased and means something to them has no place in a funeral, whereas the “gorgeous liturgy of the Requiem Mass” does have a place even if the deceased hated it. It’s not the bereaved people’s feelings that matter here. Of course it isn’t.

Mourners who chose a non-religious ceremony were conned by “humanists” making money from death. “I am not the one who suffers,” he said. “Along with my fellow Christians, I will still have the gorgeous liturgy of the Requiem Mass to look forward to. Whereas the best our secularist friends (and those they dupe) can hope for is a poem from nan combined with a saccharine message from a pop star before being popped in the oven with no hope of resurrection.”

The risible comment about humanists “making money from death” is a charge he repeats in a second post here, in which he says,

I am not, like the humanist, running a business and seeking financial gain from funerals. Rather I was and am ordained for the advancement of God’s kingdom on earth.

Post proof or retract, bitch! Yes, humanists do get paid for conducting funerals and so do vicars. Unlike vicars, however, humanist celebrants do not receive a salary and lodgings, etc, from their employer though they may pay a levy to their humanist organisation, if they belong to one. If Mr Tomlinson waives his fee — as one might infer from all that ‘financial gain v advancing God’s kingdom’ stuff — then he’s the exception, rather than the rule. In any event, for the amount of work that goes into a typical humanist funeral ceremony, humanists receive meagre recompense. It is not the thought of financial gain that inspires people to become humanist celebrants. They do have to eat, though.

The suggestion that people are being “duped” by secularists is screamingly funny coming from a peddlar of religion, of course.

Having attended a number of religious funerals — and many more humanist ones — I am satisfied that one of the better decisions I have made in my life was, on the death my mother, to ensure that she didn’t fall into the hands of any religious clergy and to conduct her funeral myself using the humanist model. The music I chose and the words I spoke before commiting her body for cremation reflected her bereaved family’s feeling about her. The centrepiece of the ceremony was a tribute to her life that celebrated the vibrant person she was. It included a poem from her youngest grandaughter. And, because I was running the show, I took the opportunity to make reparation to my father’s memory for the betrayal that was his funeral, saying:

Thinking about her led me to also think about my father, Bill, and that I should include him in today’s tribute. I never felt the eulogy delivered at his funeral did justice to such a decent and such an accomplished man.

So I made the eulogy at my mother’s funeral about each of them and about both of them and the life they shared together. Thus, he too finally received a tribute that befitted him and properly expressed our feelings for him. That it took place 14 years after that production-line vicar’s ceremony means I can only imagine how my experience of bereavement at that time would have been helped, had he had a humanist funeral instead of one that Mr Tomlinson might reasonably describe as insincerely Christian in character.

In fairness, Tomlinson’s bugbear isn’t so much that more and more people are wanting to have less and less religious content in the funerals they arrange — though that obviously bothers him a lot too (snigger). It’s more that cultural Christians are still showing deference to religion by asking for vicars and then expecting them to conduct what are essentially non-religious funerals. On that I am in total agreement with him.

People who are attracted by the idea of a funeral ceremony totally unfettered by the dead hand of religion might like to check out the ceremomines information on the website of the British Humanist Association who today issued a press release in response to Mr Tomlinson’s rantings. Tana Wollen, BHA Head of Ceremonies, said,

Committing the dead to a god or gods that you don’t believe exists or sending them off to an after-life you believe is fictional, even with the accompaniment of a sonorous liturgy, doesn’t feel right. Humanists hold that we have just one life: this one. A humanist funeral which pays tribute to how someone has lived, to what they have done for themselves and for others, with music and words particularly fitting to them can be a joyous occasion.

OK, that was my bit to publicise the BHA. My absolute favourite response to the vicar’s hissy fit comes from another clergyman: none other than the Rev David Robertson of the fanatical Free Church of Scotland who, beneath Ed Tomlinson’s second post, comments:

Ed, Ed, Ed,

What business is it of yours what music is played at funerals? You’re just there to go through the motions. Who really wants the commemoration of their death to be marred by the tuneless caterwauling of the elderly adherents of some ghastly Middle-Eastern death cult, anyway? People have priests at these things only for the sake of tradition. You religion is not relevent anymore, nor are your opinions.

Amen. Well said, David.

2 thoughts on “In defence of humanist funerals”

Leave a Reply

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.