What is the Humanist Funeral Tribute Archive?

Humanist celebrant Tamiko O'Brien dressed in black with black framed glasses in her studio

Five minute read

Local humanist celebrant, Tamiko O’Brien, introduces us to the Humanist Funeral Tribute Archive and the great range of life stories that it holds.

What is the Humanist Funeral Tribute Archive?

Several years ago, a Humanist UK celebrant, Patsy Wallace set up the archive, recognising that humanist tributes are very particular and distinctive.

As humanist celebrants, we are committed to capturing the authentic story of the person’s life, which means each tribute that we write and deliver will have unique content and a slightly different tone.

The archive is a public website which brings together tributes from funerals conducted by Humanist UK celebrants from all over the country. It was originally run by a team of volunteers, and there’s something like 400 tributes already collected and available there.

Whose tributes can go in the Archive?

The fact that a tribute is written by a Humanist UK celebrant means that it's eligible to go in the archive. It’s not like submitting an obituary for a newspaper, where only a few might be selected. There’s no judgement.

I always mention to people when we first meet to plan the funeral ceremony or memorial that this service exists. It's free and there’s no cut off date to include a tribute.

There's no obligation either, so it's really up to the family and friends of the person who has died. Some people prefer to keep the tribute private.

But often people feel really happy that it’s there. It gives them something they can share with those who were unable to attend the funeral, it’s something to look back on, but it’s also for the future. They like the fact that it’s also a resource for researchers and social historians.

It’s part of the Humanist Heritage project — I think it’s pretty amazing that humanist funerals were first formalised over 120 years ago, since the late nineteenth century. There’s some wonderful material on the heritage website about the earliest ceremonies.

Why is the Archive significant?

It sounds obvious, but everyone is unique. There are extraordinary stories hidden in the everyday. There are hidden gems in everyone’s story.

The Archive shows the wide range of what’s possible for a funeral tribute. It also shows that you don’t have to be a Nobel Prize winner to have lived an interesting and valuable life. I’ve been so impressed by discovering the things that people do, things that they might not have thought very much of, but were nonetheless powerful.

The tributes are not originally written to be published, but to be read out loud. They may sound a little like a speech when you're reading them off the page, but there’s real value in capturing and sharing these stories after the ceremony.

How do you go about writing a funeral tribute?

We are trained as humanist celebrants to listen very deeply. I know from my own experience of bereavement that being heard and not being told what to think is valuable in itself. Not being judgemental is really important.

When I meet people, and hear their reminiscences of the person who has died, there are always lovely illuminating moments. It’s a great privilege, and I enjoy and really value those deep conversations.

When appropriate I will do some research as well, so I might find things that the family weren’t aware of, or clarify things — some people are really modest about their achievements.

The context is also important — something that might not seem so impressive now, but when considered in relation to the time it happened, like maintaining a relationship long distance before the internet and mobile devices, that can say a lot about a person.

A tribute isn’t just a CV. I like to get beneath the surface to find out what the values of the person were and what mattered to them, what story would they like to tell. The tribute is an opportunity to celebrate the full arc of their life.

I’ve had the privilege of working with all kinds of people. Some are very defined by one thing, a great passion — they're principally a musician or a writer, an architect, a computer programmer or an artist. But many people don’t feel defined by their job. It might be something quite different that motivates them, like their family.

I led a memorial ceremony for someone recently who had, maybe, fifteen different jobs, but the thread that ran through everything was their activism and their deep commitment to social justice.

Each person is a complex, unique individual, and with the complexity come things that might be awkward or difficult. A tribute can include recognising that the person may have had real difficulties in their life. In this way it can be more rounded than an obituary which often only focuses on the highlights.

What motivated you to become a humanist celebrant?

I got into it in a way which, I would say, is very typical — I went to funerals which I didn’t feel reflected the person, especially if I knew that person hadn’t been religious.

Then, some years ago, my mother died. Even though, to the outside world, she was a ‘housewife’, she had quite a remarkable life story. I felt compelled to capture that story, along with something of her spirit and her great determination, and to celebrate that at her funeral.

I found it a powerful thing to do, and I saw what it meant for the rest of my family. That experience really sowed the seed.

Then I found out about Humanist UK funerals. Having been to some beautiful Humanist weddings I was really interested to learn more, and the training course didn’t disappoint – it was an exceptional experience. Working as a Humanist UK celebrant you become a member of a very supportive network, and collectively we hold a great deal of knowledge and experience.

Funerals have such an important role to play and, it’s clear that Poppy’s are committed to getting them right, valuing the uniqueness of each person. I've appreciated working with Poppy’s because you can witness that sense of taking time, respect, compassion and understanding from all the people I’ve worked with there.

I've been lucky in my work life with a career in higher education as well as a creative practice and I’ve worked with some amazing people and had all sorts of interesting projects along the way — but I have to say, working as a funeral celebrant has provided some of the highest job satisfaction. It’s really rewarding work to do, inevitably it impacts your sense of mortality, but it’s also life affirming.

Find the Humanist Funeral Tribute Archive or read more about humanist funerals.

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