What is a humanist funeral?

Barbara Foggs funeral led by Simon Bull photo Richard Hackett

Six minute read

Over half the UK population now identify as having no religion, which means that many people are seeking alternatives to religious funerals.

Deborah Hooper — humanist funeral celebrant and Director of Ceremonies for Humanists UK — talks us through what a humanist funeral is (and is not), how to plan a humanist funeral, and what inspires her when she takes funerals.

Some people might not know what humanism is. How would you describe what it means to you?

As humanists, we believe that we have one life, which is here on Earth, so we should make the most of it. When we die, our legacy comes from having lived a fulfilled life, and from how we’ve connected with other people and with nature during our lives.

Sometimes people ask whether humanism means the same thing as atheism. Humanism is a positive term for the things we do believe — about people, about right and wrong, about what gives life colour and meaning — rather than defining ourselves by what we don’t believe in. It’s a positive approach to life and to finding meaning and happiness in the here and now.

How is a humanist funeral different from a traditional, religious funeral?

A humanist funeral is non-religious. It’s different from a religious funeral because it is not an act of worship. Instead, it is centred around the person who has died.

Humanist celebrants work hard to make sure that family members and all those attending feel a part of the funeral, whatever culture or religion they come from. Some families want certain traditions included, and we do what we can to help them do that.

In a traditional religious funeral, during the committal, you might hear words about a person 'being returned to God'. A humanist funeral is different, but no less poetic or full of meaning.

Instead we might talk about someone returning to nature or their atoms, which came originally from the stars, becoming part of the universe once again. A humanist celebrant will work with families to find and create readings which speak to the life of the person who has died. In my experience, families find that these words and ideas have a real resonance.

Would you talk us through how you plan a humanist funeral with the family or friends of someone who has died?

A humanist celebrant will try to make the funeral as authentic and unique to the person who has died as possible. This means it can take a while to plan and create. It’s a collaboration between the celebrant and family and friends.

I spend time with them, finding out about the person: what they were like, what they enjoyed; what was important to them.

In some ways, it’s a big ask at a difficult time. However, it can trigger a lot of happy memories. Often there’s laughter as people remember things about the person they love. Sometimes, as memories are shared, they even find out things they didn’t know before. It can be a positive and comforting shared experience.

Next, I’ll write a script covering everything I’ll say during the ceremony, and send this to the family. They can change any wording they like but, because I have already spent time with them getting to know the person, it’s very rare for someone to want to make a change. The script means that on the day they know exactly what to expect.

If I wanted a humanist funeral, would I have to define myself as a humanist or sign up to any particular beliefs or values?

Anybody who wants a ceremony which celebrates our lives and individuality, without religious worship, can have a humanist funeral. They are based on universal, human values.

For families and friends with a mix of different beliefs and traditions, a humanist funeral can be a wonderful, extra-inclusive umbrella celebration that includes everyone.

It’s like that across all kinds of humanist ceremonies. Sometimes couples from different traditions will choose a humanist wedding because it’s an inclusive way of celebrating the values that they share.

Not everyone is familiar with humanist funerals. What reactions do you tend to get from people going to one for the first time?

A humanist funeral can be a very positive experience. It leaves families feeling that they have made the best of a difficult day and they have done the right thing by the person they love.

People don’t always realise there’s an alternative to a traditional religious funeral. They can be relieved to find out that there is another way. They are genuinely pleased to have done something authentic and fitting for the person they love, something which has reflected that person’s uniqueness and individuality.

What drew you to becoming a humanist celebrant?

My career before I trained to be a celebrant was in marketing, but I had a humanist wedding twenty years ago and have been interested in humanist ceremonies ever since.

You’ll find there are humanist celebrants from all backgrounds. Teachers, actors, scientists, healthcare workers, plumbers, cooks, civil servants — you name it.

What gives you most satisfaction about being a humanist celebrant?

Often I will come home from meeting a family and reflect on how extraordinary all our individual lives are. Getting to hear those stories is really amazing.

As celebrants, we’re not bereavement counsellors, but we are empathic and kind. I always try and put myself in the shoes of the family that I’m working with. It’s wonderful to be able to help families navigate through what can be a really grim and difficult time, and to craft and create a personal and authentic celebration with them.

I did a funeral recently that was so heart-warming. There was so much laughter and so many tears. You could really feel the love in the room, almost like a physical force.

What’s it been like for you, as a celebrant, to work with Poppy’s on a funeral?

Poppy’s tend to think a little more outside the box more than a traditional funeral director would. They help people explore their choices. Simple things like thinking to book a double slot at the crematorium so that there is more time to craft a personal funeral. This makes it easier to include rituals which can be so meaningful for people.

What do you mean by ‘rituals’?

These are rituals with a small ‘r’, you could also call them collective experiences. For example, last summer I led a funeral with Poppy’s for a person who had loved gardening; everyone was encouraged to bring a flower from their garden to lay on the coffin. It was so personal.

It’s so satisfying to find something which is fitting, and which can help people express their connection to each other and love for the person who has died.

And finally, where would people go to find out more about humanist funerals and humanism generally?

You can find more about Humanist Ceremonies, our non-religious funerals and how to find a celebrant near you on our website and blog. There's also a short video which shows what happens at a humanist funeral, and a short video from Stephen Fry about Humanist Ceremonies in general. People can connect with us via Twitter and Facebook.

Information about Humanism can be found on the Humanists UK website

Photo credit: Barbara Fogg's funeral led by humanist celebrant Simon Bull (photo Richard Hackett).

Check out our interview with celebrant Aama Sade Shepnekhi on Rastafarian funerals or find out what a celebrant wants you to know during Covid-19

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