When I retired as a humanist celebrant I thought I'd stop writing this blog, but my fascination with all things death-related prompted more posts. They're just written from a slightly different perspective, that's all. Oh, and I still do the odd one, by special request.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

It's time to re-educate the funeral directors, again

Funeral arrangers are the people in a funeral director's office who interview clients and make the arrangements. They're the ones who contact us to ask if we'll do a funeral for a client who doesn't want a religious ceremony. At least, that's how it's supposed to work.

We send all the funeral directors in our area a newsletter every year or so, to inform them about our service and remind them what we will or won't do. With staff changes, some need re-educating periodically.

One of our biggest problems is the arrangers who book a venue (such-and-such a crematorium at 11am on Tuesday, say) before they contact us. When it's a fait accompli, there's not much we can do if all of us are already committed elsewhere. There've been times when I've had to tell an arranger, sorry - we can't help you.

Then there are the ones who don't really understand what a humanist funeral is. Their client might have said that they don't want a religious funeral, but they still choose to sing hymns, for example. I've known clients say, "But it's not really religious, is it?" about Abide with Me, Jerusalem, or Morning has Broken. Don't they ever listen to the words? If the arranger is doing his or her job properly, he or she should know better than to steer people like that in our direction. They need a civil celebrant, who's not much fussed about what we call "pick 'n mix" funerals, or one of the many freelance celebrants who'll do the same.

This morning I had an email from an arranger who'd asked me to do a funeral a few days ago. I'd queried whether the client had chosen any music. The email listed four hymns! I spoke to the client on Tuesday. I asked, "You do understand that I provide a funeral that's totally free from religion, don't you? No hymns, prayers, religious readings, or references to an afterlife?" "Yes," he said, "that's what we want. Mum wasn't religious." I haven't been able to get hold of him again today, so far, but what seems to have happened is that the arranger has handed him a list of recorded music and said, "You can choose from this." Not appreciating that they can have anything they want (and I mean anything - the new Wesley system means access to an almost unlimited number of recordings), the client opted for the hymns because he thought that was usual, or didn't have a clue what he wanted.

Meanwhile, I've been backed into a corner by another client, who insists that we sing Jerusalem because her husband loved the song. I can see that this is going to be one of those weeks.


Rob said...

Personally I don't see why a person who wanted to play religious songs would contact you. Perhaps they don't understand what a humanist funeral is.

Margaret said...

Turns out they didn't. They'd had a "humanist" funeral for another family member, somewhere in the London area, and said that the celebrant had no problems with hymns or the Lord's Prayer - no idea who that was.

No idea why they chose hymns, as they claim that the deceased was an atheist. The funeral arranger didn't see anything wrong with encouraging them to choose "Abide with me", "All things bright and beautiful", "The Lord's my Shepherd" and "Amazing Grace"! I said that if they really wanted hymns, the funeral director would find them another celebrant. They decided that they'd stick with me. As they don't seem to know anything at all about music, any music, I'm going to recommend some.

Charles Cowling said...

Um - 'You Ain't Goin Nowhere', Bob Dylan? 'No God', Darkest Hour? 'Heaven is a Place on Earth', Belinda Carlisle?

I know, I know: facetious.

Rupert Callender said...

No Jesus, no cry?

Lorraine Harding said...

With respect, I have to say I disagree with the rigidity of the approach. Human being are not totally rational or consistent. Hymns, music, poetry - isn't there an element of artistic license here? We might enjoy a particular hymn without for a minute believing literally what the words say. Also, isn't a funeral officiant by definition dealing with people who have been bereaved? Surely there's a case for some compassion, so that if a client says: We want a humanist funeral in general, yes, but this particular hymn would help some members of the family come to terms with their grief - this could be accommodated. I'm sorry if this puts me beyond the pale as far as the BHA is concerned (I am a member). I would want some George Herbert at my own funeral (in the unlikely event of there being anyone around with an interest in arranging a funeral for me) although I am a committed atheist and humanist.


Margaret said...

Lorraine, it isn't being "rigid", it's about integrity. If we routinely included hymns and other religious elements in our ceremonies, the clergy might ask what we're playing at, for one thing. This is why we take the trouble to impress upon the funeral directors that they shouldn't refer anyone to us who wants a pick 'n mix funeral. The civil celebrants or other freelance celebrants are happy to do them - we aren't. If I'm expected to sing a hymn, I'd feel deeply uncomfortable about mouthing words that mean nothing to me.

I've included a couple of songs from the Unitarian hymn book that are set to familiar hymn tunes but with non-religious words, and there might be some recorded music at the beginning or end from a religious source, but otherwise we avoid any religious content.

People choose our ceremonies because they are free from religion. There's usually a pause for reflection (either a silence or some quiet music) when people are invited to think about the deceased or to say a private prayer, if they are religious.

I've been doing funerals since 1991, and no one has ever said that there was anything "missing" (apart from the odd religious fundamentalist who's said things like, "It's a pity he didn't let Jesus into his life"), while religious mourners have often commented "That was the best funeral I've ever been to".

So we'll carry on being "rigid", as we must be doing something right.

Incidentally, our ceremonies team isn't part of the BHA network. We have an unbroken record for high standards and no complaints. They don't but, to be fair, it's harder to maintain standards in a large organisation where many work in isolation.

Margaret said...

Oh, and I forgot to say we do include poetry - often.

Charles Cowling said...

That label 'pick 'n' mix' sounds possibly pejorative. Is that what you intend, or am I misled by its vocabulary?

Margaret said...

Charles, it's a term used by quite a few of my celebrant friends to describe funerals that aren't religious in the traditional sense (certainly not liturgical) but include the odd hymn or religious reading. They're popular with many people who aren't members of any Christian denomination, but still like to have some Christian elements in their ceremonies. I believe that the civil celebrants in our area, and one freelance celebrant, are kept busy with them.

It's not meant as a pejorative term (by me, anyway), but as they seem to owe something to the influence of humanist funerals, with a bit of religion added, they're typically a mixture of this and that, just as you'd choose your favourite sweeties at Woolies pick 'n mix counter - a very personal choice.

I have no problem with them, just as long as no one expects me to do them. I happen to think that if a celebrant is going to sing hymns or say prayers, he or she ought to believe in what he or she is saying or singing.

I know that the clergy finds the development of this sort of thing irritating. I sympathise, up to a point, as I'd question the integrity of those who are willing to include religion without conviction.

Margaret said...

One local atheist funeral director refers to pick 'n mix funerals as "hybrids".

Charles Cowling said...

A number of interesting points here, Margaret. And before I start, let me tell you that I come to your blog to share in the sort exasperation I, too, am prey to; and to be jolted by your rigour, which rarely fails to invigorate me. Yes, and amuse me, too. There’s a world of sub-text to this phrase ‘pick ‘n’ mixer’. Hybrid sounds neutral enough, though I doubt whether it was meant so. I don’t know that I’d protest at garbled, or incoherent.

You state your case about integrity, by which you mean a defined existential position, and you stand your ground with Father Ed Tomlinson, that somewhat preposterous prelate who, nonetheless, made his own case for integrity where pick ‘n’ mix is concerned: “If this is your position, why invite me to the party?” I find no fault with either of your positions, polar opposites though you are.

I have misgivings about the quality of funerals being delivered by non-religious celebrants of all points of the compass. Not all of them, by any means. But the terribly nice tendency does get under my skin: the cloying manner, the little cabinet of emollients bursting with soothing words and mawkish verse and a hymn here and a Red Indian prayer there and a dollop good old Kahlil Gilbran – take your pick. Comfort ye, comfort ye my people. Thus is an existential event turned into a non-event or a doggerel event or just a terribly nice event, and I’m not at all sure that any of these are the sorts of event that answer the circumstances. This is a funeral, after all. Someone’s dead. But it might simply be the case that I am a snob.

That these funerals owe something to pioneer humanists is undeniable. Yet the Christian way of doing things remains the template for all: the procession (take out the priest, substitute someone in civvies); the essential shape and structure of the ceremony; the preparedness to settle for the constrictions of the crem. I’d have thought there was scope for a bigger break from the past and another bout of pioneering.

Having said which, the present way of doing things suits everyone pretty well. The pick ‘n’ mix ceremony suits a lot of people very well. You make a very good point about celebrants needing to believe the prayers they utter. But the spiritual beliefs of much of the population are unformed; they are happy with the incoherence of a ceremony which is neither here nor there, and why wouldn’t they be?

Intellectually, I set a pretty high price on rigidity or integrity or call it what you like. Emotionally, I am much more anarchic. I think that incoherence can sometimes get nearer to the truth than logic. Let a thousand flowers bloom, I say, or think I do. Just as long as they’re not silk!

Whether or not you choose to post this, thank you for the opportunity to let off some steam.

Margaret said...

Charles, I'll have to read your comment again when I'm awake. It's been a busy day. However, you did mention Kahlil Gibran. Did I tell you how much I loathe him? And as for the terribly nice tendency - euch!

Why shouldn't I have posted your comment? You're always polite, and you do joined-up writing.

scarlet reynolds said...

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Margaret said...

Thanks for the FD PR, Ms Reynolds, but I know that, and anyway, they choose me - I don't choose them.