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.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Religion lite funerals, or pick 'n' mixes

The subject's been aired here before, and it's been aired again on Gloriamundi's blog; is it OK for humanist celebrants to conduct funerals that include a bit of religion?

When I wrote previously that I won't include any religion in my funerals, though I take pains to avoid clients who expect me to, one of the comments I attracted was,
"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."
"I've come to think that the beliefs of the celebrant should be of no great importance in deciding the best kind of funeral for a family.

"We have what seems to me a historically unique opportunity to develop and deliver new kinds of funeral ceremonies for people of any or no faith, who don’t want a “church/mosque/temple” funeral but who still may have elements of religious belief, spiritual need, superstitions if you like. Many or most of the families I’ve worked with are not humanists, atheists or agnostics in any collected sort of way. Shades of belief, requests for hymns and the occasional prayer seem to me all part of the job. I feel we should be expert ritualists, not belief-advancers. And of course I’m more than happy to take a ceremony which is entirely atheistical."
Isn't it interesting that when this subject is raised, by "religion", most people mean Christianity? The British are remarkably casual about Christianity. Last September, Julian Glover wrote in the Guardian that the typical Briton is a "fuzzy believer", which has always been my impression. Their fuzzy belief is fuzzy Christianity, since we live in a culturally Christian country. People pick and choose the bits of Christianity they like and ignore the rest. So they go for the Christmas and Easter myths (both hijacked from earlier Pagan ones), they like to think that being Christian means you're essentially a good person, and even if they say they're not very religious, they still imagine that there's some sort of life after death (an idea that I find deeply unattractive) where they'll be reunited with their loved ones. Most nominal Christians would have a hard time explaining what the church teaches about virgin birth, resurrection, original sin, and so on. They never go to church, except for the occasional wedding or funeral, and most never say their prayers.

You don't hear about requests for a bit of Sikhism, Islam, Zoroastrianism or Jainism to be included in a "humanist" funeral. That's because the followers of these faiths mostly take their religion seriously and expect the people who lead their rite of passage rituals to do so as well. Nor should you expect a Jain to conduct a funeral with a bit of Islam thrown in, or a Sikh to stand in for a Zoroastrian. I'm not willing to utter religious words or phrases, or to sing Christian hymns, because I think that you should only do so if you actually believe in these things.

This isn't just about being a humanist, which isn't a belief system equivalent to a religion.  It's about integrity. If I say things I don't believe, it's an insult to the people who do. I have no problem with a religious minister, or anyone else, conducting a non-religious funeral. All he or she would be doing is what I do - leaving religion out of it. I don't think that I, or any other celebrant, has any claim on the non-religious market (for want of a better word), though the BHA seems to think it has. A few years ago I was approached by an Anglican hospice chaplain who wanted to know if he should train as a humanist celebrant because sometimes atheist patients' families asked him to officiate at their funerals. I told him no, because he wasn't a humanist  and because he was already an experienced officiant. I didn't regard him as a threat and understood why some families would want someone they regarded as a friend to help them.

When I first started conducting funerals, over twenty years ago, I was the only non-religious celebrant in Suffolk and N E Essex. Now there's a much wider choice; not just other humanists (some genuine, some not), but Civil celebrants, who are willing to sing hymns, etc., and others whose personal beliefs we never know, who are willing to do what one funeral director I know calls "hybrid" funerals. An increasing number of people are choosing vaguely Christian funerals without any liturgy, with hymns and references to an afterlife. That's fine. Just don't expect me to do them. If you call yourself a humanist and you're willing to compromise your lack of faith to meet demand for this sort of work (I know of one who's told funeral directors that he'll do "anything the client wants"), I'm sorry, but that's not humanism.

Humanism isn't a belief system, like religion. It's a way of thinking based on our uniquely human experience, without superstition or supernaturalism. It's for independent thinkers, or freethinkers, who look for comfort to other human beings, not silly stories that don't bear close examination. As human beings, we are all capable of love, of empathy, of understanding (though that often takes effort). I pride myself on being able to demonstrate that you don't need religion for a funeral that will leave mourners feeling that they've done right by their loved ones, and that they'll leave feeling better, not worse, for the experience.

Photo: Crematorium between funerals, after the crucifix had been removed for a humanist ceremony.


gloriamundi said...

How confident, how usefully clear, and how sad you should decline into calling the beliefs of others "silly stories." And it's such a relief, isn't it, to call other people's way of looking at things as "fuzzy."

I too find the idea of eternal life repellent, and of course to the rational part of us, Bible stories don't bear close examination - but that is not necessarily a final argument about who should or shouldn't take a ceremony.

I don't think you need to defend and define humanism, Margaret, and I don't think anyone will or should ask you to take a ceremony that is "religion lite." Each to their own. Seems to me that what really matters is that celebrants are good at what they do.

Incidentally, I have taken a funeral for an ex-Muslim which had in it some echoes of Islam from members of his family (poems in Farsi - Omar Khayam I seem to remember) If religion is a human construct and culturally deep-rooted, it can be hard to totally avoid it.

His wife and I both still regarded it as a humanist funeral - until, right after the burial, one of his relations from the sub-continent whiipped out his little book and started praying in Urdu, at a little distance from the grave, it's true, but the prayers were obviously related to the dead man. His wife was far from happy, but what could either of us have done? It was a selfish thing to do, he hadn't asked her or me about it.I suppose you could see it as a superstitious pollution of the purity of a humanist funeral...?

Margaret said...

No, I'd have no problem with a relation praying in Urdu, just as I've had no problem with Jewish mourners saying the Kaddish at the end of one of my funerals. The important thing was that they said it, not me. That's happened a couple of times, most recently when a coachload of small Jewish men (they'd all been malnourished in the ghetto as kids, before coming here with the Kindertransport) turned up at a funeral I did for a humanist/Jewish friend. Afterwards, the queued up to kiss me before they got back on the coach, saying they liked the funeral.

Maybe you think it's "sad" that I call what some people believe silly, but I'm afraid I do find a lot of it absurd. Some lovely people believe very silly things. As for fuzziness; it's how people see things.

gloriamundi said...

Love the story about the Jewish/humanist funeral! And of course I take your point about who says what, who prays and who doesn't.

Margaret said...

Had a brief discussion with some religious friends about this recently. It was pointed out that my example of an officiant of one faith being unlikely to include elements of another in a ceremony was wrong, as Hindus, for example, wouldn't have a problem, and nor would Bahá’ís. However, I doubt that a Christian minister would feel comfortable about including elements of any religion that he or she wasn't familiar with.