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.

Sunday, February 25, 2007


When funerals were all (or almost all) conducted by clergy, at least you knew what you'd be getting: a load of old cobblers about being with Jesus and anyone who'd predeceased the deceased; the Lord's Prayer; two or three dreary hymns; and so on. Many clergy did the same funeral for everyone. Some even forgot whose funeral they were doing and got the name wrong. It was all very predictable and irrelevant. An Anglican vicar, quoted in Prof. Tony Walters' book 'Funerals and how to improve them', said, "It's striking how little you have to do for people to thank you profusely - standards are so low they expect the funeral to be done badly."

Then some of us started providing a service for atheists and agnostics who didn't want God at the funeral. There weren't many of us to begin with but the numbers have grown. However, more doesn't necessarily mean better.

There are some 'humanist' officiants (mentioning no names) who seem to have an inflated opinion of their abilities and some peculiar ideas about their role. More or less anyone can set him or herself up as an officiant or celebrant, whether he or she is 'accredited' or not. It's not surprising that the prospect of filling this very important role in other people's lives, however briefly, should attract people who quite like the idea of being very important. Such people, however well-intentioned, ought to have a Government Health Warning stamped across their foreheads. One give-away is their use of a "Sunday voice" and an accompanying "caring" expression.

The client, why may never have had to arrange a funeral before, assumes that the officiant knows what he or she is doing. Some do, some don't, and some have a very clear idea of what he or she wants to do, which may not be what he or she ought to do. Dig a little deeper, and you'll probably find that he or she gets a perverse pleasure out of being with bereaved people. They enjoy being close to "real" emotions. Consequently, when the clients stubbornly refuse to share such emotions, they're rather disappointed. They're grief junkies. I knew someone who took this to such extremes that she only did a funeral every few weeks because it took her that long to "recover" from the last one. What's even more ridiculous is that she was appointed to train other officiants!

What an officiant ought not to do is to try and "help people to grieve". I've heard more than one officiant say that this is what they're aiming for, and groaned inwardly. Think about it; a crematorium funeral lasts about 20 to 25 minutes. Are you seriously expected to believe that the officiant should or could fulfil some wonderfully therapeutic healing role, so that everyone goes home having passed a significant stage in "the grieving process"? Give me strength! My advice to would-be officiants? Don't even try.

Walters quotes Roger Grainger, "The main purpose of a funeral is to signify the event of a death," and goes on to write, "It marks that something valuable, a human life, has passed. Whatever else a funeral does or does not so, it must do this."

To mark the end of someone's life, anyone's life, the occasion should be relevant and dignified. To have integrity, it should reflect the life and personality of the deceased, though there's no need to go into details about his or her less attractive qualities. It's important to get things right because there won't be another opportunity. This is why I always offer to check the details with the next of kin or someone he or she has delegated to check them with me. I've heard officiants say they never offer to do this. This is a form of arrogance. It's not their funeral; it's the family's funeral.

So what's the officiant's role? It's not "to help the grieving process". It's to get things right. The grieving will take care of itself.

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