Humanist Funerals: Respectfully and wonderfully unique

The relative falling away of religion with the UK has given rise to a number of alternative funerals; people today are seeking unique ways to celebrate lives and mourn loved ones as the traditional services fail to fill their needs.

Amongst these have been humanist funerals – something that emerges from a way of living and a school of thought that is neither against, nor for, religion. Instead it offers an alternative for spiritualism and rationalism. The growth in their popularity (which is being experienced the world over) may largely be due to the focus upon celebration and the, individuality of the deceased; yet for many such a funeral has yet remained largely unheard of.

The Humanist Funeral: Key questions

What is a Humanist funeral?

In short, humanist funerals maintain a focus on humans, rather than upon religion. Such a service may include a focus on life, nature and creative ways in which we may say our final goodbyes.

Where can a Humanist funeral be held?

Humanist funerals are most popularly held at private properties, crematoriums and in the outdoors – such as in a forest (for the latter of which you should note that whilst the service can be held there, burials must conform to legal requirements). Who can provide a Humanist funeral?

Today there are a growing number of companies and funeral directors that are catering specifically for Humanist funerals. The services that are offered provide a person who is known as a ‘Life Celebrant’ – someone who literally helps you to celebrate the life of a loved one.

What is involved in the role of a Life Celebrant?

A Life Celebrant takes on a role of facilitator and guider – they are there to consult with family and friends and assist them in honouring the deceased in a way that acts as a unique tribute. Celebrants are both trained and certified to undertake their role and can act as clergy during a service – although they are not linked to any religion.

Why should you consider a Humanist Funeral?

Humanist funerals, whilst having numerous advantages, offer one core benefit that seems to appeal to the most who choose this option; and this is the sheer flexibility that they offer in remembering a loved one in a suitable way.

Can there be other rituals outside of religious ones?

Humanist funerals are practically free from rules, and so there may be small rituals, such as laying flowers, releasing doves and lighting candles, that are undertaken during the service. There may also be live music and moments of silence. Equally the next of kin may have their own, very unique ideas that they would like to incorporate. The beauty of a Humanist funeral is that it is very much decided and defined by the family and sometimes the friends of those who knew the person best.

How to organise a Humanist Funeral

Typically it is the funeral director who is amongst the first to be contacted following a death; and whilst funeral directors are responsible for undertaking the funeral arrangements, you can specifically request an alternative officiant (who would be a Life Celebrant of either their suggestion, or as suggested by yourself, based upon your own research).

If you do choose your own Life Celebrant you should, however, ensure that they are part of the British Humanist Association’s Humanist Ceremonies network. They will then work hand-in hand, alongside both family and friends of the deceased, as well as the funeral director, to create a service plan that acts as a suitable tribute.

The five elements of a humanist funeral

1. There are little to no religious elements

Typically humanist funerals remove the need for religion, avoiding anything that may be deemed as worship. That said there may still be elements of religion in unconventional ways – such as the spoken hymn, rather than the sung hymn, where it may be particularly relevant to the deceased. Because of this it is rare for a humanist funeral to be held in a church or any other form of religious establishment.

2. There is flexibility for Spirituality

Humanist funerals may lack religion, yet this is not to say that there aren’t elements of spirituality. For example, there may be a natural burial (with an outdoor service, eco-friendly casket, and plantations); there may also be a cremation and preservation of the body through embalming or a casket. None of these are religious as such, but they do allow for mourners to be spiritual however they see fit.

3. There are many choices of care for the body

Religions each have traditions as to how a body is cared for; Islam requires that Muslims are buried within 24 hours, whilst Christians, Jews and Catholics are typically buried, rather than cremated. In comparison Humanist funerals are far freer from social and religious constrictions – allowing the free choice of how the deceased should be cared for.

4. They are comfortable occasions for people of every religion

Religious funerals can often be uncomfortable affairs for those either not of the same religion, or of no religion at all. There may be elements of the funeral where the congregation takes part – such as Mass within a Catholic funeral; and there may be sections of the service undertaken in another language. This compares to the humanist funeral where no religion is excluded and where the service is completely tailored around the deceased. Because of this these services often feel far more personal and open than the typical religious funeral.

5. They focus on individuality

The focus on individuality of a Humanist Funeral is undertaken by the ‘Life Celebrants’; they will typically speak at length to the friends and family of the deceased to discover fond memories and learn about the person who has passed. They do not impose nor suggest their own practices and traditions, and seek out guest speakers, music suggestions or other requests for ways in which the service may be tailored.

An example of a Humanist funeral ceremony

Whilst each and every humanist funeral is unique, here we provide an overview of what a typical service could look like.

1. Introductory music as the coffin arrives and mourners follow

2. Words to welcome the funeral attendees

3. Brief thoughts on both the meaning of life and the event of death (this would be from a non-religious viewpoint)

4. The tribute – a description of the deceased’s life, their loves and their personality

5. Readings of poetry and prose – these would have been selected by the family and/or friends, and may be spoken by either the Life Celebrant, or chosen family members or friends

6. A period of reflection – a few moments for private thoughts (that may be during silence or whilst music plays) in relation to the deceased

7. The committal – when the curtains are closed around the occasion, or the coffin is lowered

8. Closing words – this may be from the life celebrant, or from a family member or friend – these will include a thank you from the next of kin to the attendees

9. Final music

Further resources

For the UK, the BHA supports groups in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, whereby the HSS supports local groups in Scotland.

The British Humanist Association

The British Humanist Association (BHA) is a charity that assists others in following aspects of Humanism, whether this be in everyday life, or in death; they’ve been established since 1896 and today have 40,000 members worldwide.

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Humanist Society Scotland

Humanist Society Scotland (HSS) is a registered charity in Scotland, which was formed in 1989 in response to a rising demand for a nationwide Scottish organisation that was open to all.

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