Including Buddhist elements in a humanist funeral

Phil Walder, humanist celebrant

Four minute read

Following on from our previous blog about Buddhist funerals, we spoke to humanist celebrant Phil Walder (pictured above) about how elements of Buddhism can be included in otherwise non-religious funerals.

What is a humanist celebrant and why did you decide to become one?

I’m a humanist, which means I’m also an atheist.

Humanists are people who shape their own lives in the here and now, because we believe it's the only life we have. We make sense of the world through logic, reason, and evidence, and always seek to treat those around us with warmth, understanding, and respect.

I’ve been a member of Humanists UK for over two decades. About eight or nine years ago, I decided that I wanted to do something meaningful to show humanism in action.

Of all the roles I could perform, being a celebrant seemed to be the best, because it wasn’t just about reaching people who are already humanists, but largely those that aren’t.

I’ve always worked for myself. I still do, in publishing and technology, as well as being a funeral celebrant.

I always say that being a celebrant is the thing I do that’s least financially rewarding, but most personally rewarding.

Can a humanist celebrant include something religious in a funeral ceremony?

When I first started, I was far more ardent than I am now about not including anything religious.

Early on, I met with a woman whose husband had died in his 50s. We got on really well, and talked a lot about his life and about the ceremony.

I love meeting people. I used to be a journalist, so I’m used to sitting with my notebook, asking people questions about their lives and hearing their stories.

At the end of our conversation, she asked me whether it was okay to include a reading from a Buddhist text. I told her that if she wanted something religious, then she probably wouldn’t want me to do the service. She got very upset.

Later, my wife asked me gently if I thought I might have made a mistake. I was so grateful to her for pointing that out. I thought about it and realised, yes, I had. So I rang up the woman and said sorry.

I learnt that the funeral is not about me, it’s about the family.

Did this prompt any further interest in Buddhism?

Yes, it sparked my curiosity and made me look more at Buddhism and its origins. I’ve found that humanists and atheists are often well-versed in many different religions, whereas religious people just know about their own faith.

I discovered that Buddhism did not have a theistic base. It’s not necessarily atheist, there are elements of the supernatural, but there’s no concept of a personal God. It’s as far from the main monotheistic religions as atheism is.

The similarities between Buddhism and humanism relate to the importance of personal conviction and personal development. There’s a humanist phrase — thinking for yourself, acting for others — which in my opinion describes Buddhism too.

Buddhism includes appreciating that you are part of the planet. The planet wasn’t created for us, we are simply part of the ecosystem. Buddhism seeks to make you think about yourself as part of the whole. This is an area where Buddhism has a lot in common with humanism.

Many Buddhists believe in reincarnation — that something of you survives after death — that’s where we part company.

How have you included Buddhist elements in the funerals you have delivered?

At one funeral, monks came to do chanting and perform live music using bowls, where they run a piece of wood around the rim.

It’s a beautiful sound, which Buddhists use to help them meditate, but it can help non-Buddhists think and reflect too. In all the ceremonies I take, there’s a period of reflection, usually accompanied by music. This is a different way of expressing the same thing.

When people ask me to put something overtly religious in a ceremony, I usually ask if friends and family can lead that part. For example, with one man, his friends from the Buddhist community came and did a reading. It’s more genuine than me doing it as a non-Buddhist.

I’ve done funerals with other religious elements too. This often happens when there are a range of faiths within the family and they want someone ‘neutral’.

What have you learnt after delivering hundreds of funerals?

I appreciate that whenever I do humanist, or non-religious, funerals that a significant part of the mourners may be religious.

Likewise for someone leading a religious funeral, there will be mourners who are non-religious. It’s incumbent on me, or whoever leads the ceremony, to try to include everyone.

Tolerance is the way forward — walking with each other and talking together to better understand the many, many things we have in common, as well as the few which divide us.

Read more on Talking Death about what a humanist celebrant does and how to choose a funeral celebrant.

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