Section Four: Death

From antiquity perhaps the most important life-cycle rite has been associated with the death of a person, and all kinds of ceremonies have been carried out in order to mark the end of the life of an individual. Such ceremonies tend to reflect the cultural customs of the society of the deceased and are most often of a religious nature.

But there are two important personal reasons why the demise of a person is accompanied with a ceremony. First, to allow life to pass away without remark or tribute of some kind has never seemed right to the human psyche, whatever the nature of the deceased person. Second, death often generates a feeling of the fragility and vulnerability of life. It is a time that can bring loneliness. It is a time for reflection on life and its meaning, our role in life, and the way forward after loss. It is also a time when the deepest psychological fears about death emerge. Given these factors, death is a gathering together of the living to comfort, support and to share grief. In perhaps no other life-cycle rite are so many dimensions of the deeper human personality called upon.

Humanists also believe that it is important to mark the occasion of someone’s death with a ceremony. But since humanists have no belief in life beyond death, and since they place such emphasis on the quality of individual life, a humanist funeral ceremony is a celebration of a life lived. It concentrates wholly on the deceased individual with warmth, depth of understanding, meaning, positivity, and dignity. Unlike a marriage, there are few legal requirements for a funeral ceremony, other than for the disposal of the body, and more and more people are planning the funerals of their deceased family member — and sometimes even their own funerals — at a personal level. Many people today do not have any religious belief, so a religious service that speaks of the resurrection of the dead and a life everlasting has little meaning.

Death and afterlife are important concepts in theistic religion, and they will, therefore, be the main focus around which a religious service is conducted. A humanist funeral is quite the opposite for it will focus positively, though sensitively, on life, honoring the unique personality of the deceased, offering comfort for the lives of those who are left behind, and reflecting on the precious nature of life in general. It severs relationships between the living and the dead gracefully, sensitively, and with dignity, but always positively.

A humanist funeral, then, is not a service offered to a deity, but a celebration of a life that has been lived and has come to an end. This is why, like Theravada Buddhists, humanists can speak of a funeral celebration. And the celebration of the life of the deceased will take the form of a personal look at the life that was lived. This will include referring to the deceased by his or her nickname, and accounts of his or her childhood, education, work, family, special interests, and special friends. It is the little things that are often particularly touching about the life of the deceased at such a humanist ceremony — the glass of wine by the fire, the walks with the dogs, the favorite sweater, the favorite armchair, and the funny anecdotes.

Countries like the United Kingdom have a long, long history of religious burial from pre-history and antiquity to recent times. Until the year 1880, all funerals were religious services, and all deceased people were buried until the mid-1880s. As the move towards non-religious burial services occurred, Anglican clergymen became so outraged that they used to turn up at the unlawful burial to read the Anglican service. Since the Anglican service related solely to burial, cremation was not possible until after 1880. But in 1884 an agnostic surgeon, Sir Henry Thompson, founded a Cremation Society and cremation became possible. Yet it was not until the 1960s that cremation became more widely evident than burial.

Today most U.K. humanists — indeed, most non-religious and even religious people — are cremated rather than buried, but humanist burials are also possible. In the latter case, a humanist may wish to be buried in a church cemetery — perhaps to be buried with a spouse, or to be in the familiar local cemetery — and this may involve a prior ceremony in a church or chapel. Then, too, some people may wish to be buried in the countryside, with a humanist ceremony.

Despite being public and not religious buildings, crematoria are often modeled on churches in interior design, and it would not be unreasonable to ask for a cross, prayer books or other religious symbols to be removed. This is not a difficulty providing there is time to replace them before the next cremation ceremony. What is important is that in saying farewell to someone who has died there is every opportunity to do so in the best possible way. When those close to the deceased are able to plan a ceremony suited to the life that has come to an end, then it is an aptly intimate and sensitive farewell.

So there is no reason why members of a family and/or friends cannot conduct their own funeral ceremony for a departed loved one. But since the occasion is a sorrowful one, it is often easier to have someone more removed from the grief to help plan and conduct the ceremony. Humanist officiants fulfill this purpose. They are well trained and understanding, and will not only help to plan a ceremony uniquely suitable to the individual, but will usually take charge of any part, or all, of the ceremony if requested to.

A humanist funeral is usually divided into five parts. First, there are words of welcome to those who have come, and perhaps a brief explanation about the nature of a humanist funeral. Some reflective words about life and death follow, and then the main focus of the ceremony — the tribute to the life of the deceased. The committal of the body follows, and then the closing words of the ceremony to conclude. Personal tributes in the form of poetry, prose or music can be accommodated. Though these may be placed at any point during the ceremony, they are usually more particularly relevant to the part of the ceremony devoted to reflections on life and death, but at the same time, would have some meaning for the life of the deceased.

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