Monday, 31 May 2010

Fruitless arguments about secular celebrants vs priests

There's been a good discussion, thanks to the indispensible GFG blog, around the relative virtues and powers of "secular" celebrants (those who help with a non-religious funeral) and vicars/ministers/priests. It's interesting enough, and helpful, to kick around, but it seems to me yet another of the ultimately futile binary oppositions that seem to bedevil public discourse. Charles (GFG) makes the point that there's good 'uns and bad 'uns in both camps. He extols the power of a good old church funeral - rightly in my opinion, but that's not much use to a non-believer! I'm going to weigh in with a few (or even grossly over-) simplifications.

1. Funerals aren't artefacts for our aesthetic assessement and judgement. We may, as celebrants and undertakers, have the experience to make very well-informed judgements, and consider what a funeral "should" be. These insights may help us to guide families, and valuable changes to funeral practice may originate in such guidance, as well as in the views of the more creative, thoughtful, resourceful and strong-minded of bereaved familied we encounter.

2. Funerals are for the bereaved and the person who has died. Do what they want as well as you can, and if they want the standard so-called "traditional"secular job, get on with it and do it well. If they want a priest, they should have one, if they don't, fine, and don't fudge it. I've met priests who have turned down funerals because they were asked not to mention God, ditto secular celebrants who guide a family back to a priest if the family is unable to let go of God and an afterlife. I also know of priests in retirement who will turn in what they call a non-religious ceremony on request. Hope they don't have too much trouble at the pearly gates, encouraging atheism like that.... Of course, the discussion is often more complex (eg differing family views) than that. And I find it unattractive, the way some of us BHA celebrants sneer at "mix and match" secular celebrants who will allow a hymn or a reading from the Bible. Don't do such ceremonies if you don't want to, but I'm afraid the real reason for sneering is that we are worried about competition, fame and fortune for the "brand."

It's the family, stupid. The rest of it is irrelevant. However much you do or don't get paid, if you're not in it to serve people in front of you on the day, rather than the cause and the cash, then bugger off out of it, whether you are priestly, secular or somewhere in the middle.

3. Funerals shouldn't be a vehicle for you to spread The Word. Any Word. Many are the stories of priests who distress the bereaved at a funeral by banging on about going to church, "didn't see enough of him, hope to see more of the rest of you," etc. Conversly, the BHA is keen on the way funerals spread the word, serve a movement. This may be for the best of motives, but I relate that to the "mix and match" criticism. We don't help with funerals in order to increase our "market share" (shudder) of funerals we can help with. The proportion of secular funerals to people who declare via census and occasional opinion poll that they have no religion, assessed as the number of deaths nationally that might be expected to result in a secular funeral, might arguably suggest that there is still a job to do to inform people about their options - but that's about secular funerals as a whole, not neccessarily BHA or Secular Celbrants or any other "brand" (more shudders.)

Here's the paradox: if you are an atheist, then the form of words used by religious people shouldn't trouble you - they don't, in one sense, mean anything to you! I wonder how many atheist celebrants are happy to sing Christmas carols once a year, but get very sweaty at the request for one hymn at the end of a funeral, "because he always loved it, although he didn't believe it?" Seems to me the only sensible argument about "mix and match" is that it is confusing. You wouldn't expect a Hindu priest to start reading from the Koran.

I really can't see we're going to provide better funerals by quarreling over faith/not faith. I don't like fudges, and I would guide a family back to a priest if they wanted prayers and so on. That's not the result of a metaphysical allergy, it's about what I can do without feeling phoney, inauthentic etc, and the gathering would soon sense it if I was. It would begin to sound like someone else's job. Funerals need to be powerful and effective ceremonies - rituals, if possible - and they need to be detatched from the business of a movement, spreading or defending the word, of God or of Lucretius and David Hume. (Enbodying the words of God or Lucretius in the ceremony is, of course, not the same as being a missionary for either of 'em.)

OK, that's all rather opinionated, but I worry that in our culture we sometimes do two mutually opposed and wasteful things: we over-sophisticate simple enough issues, and yet at the same time we bang away at binary oppositions that needn't exist, certainly needn't dominate discussion and practice. And looking at the best things I've encountered on the internet, happily they often don't, so maybe I'm just toning up for the next time I encounter a self-serving celebrant, be s/he priest or atheist! Maybe it's just my aversion to zealotry in these matters.


  1. A very interesting subject for a blog.

    I don't think this over opinionated at all. It seems that you are putting forward an argument that is empathetic and encompassing (in the sense of allowing the family to choose).

    I think I pretty much share your views here.

  2. Thanks, Arkayeff, and welcome to the blog.Good to know you found some congruence with your own views. I have recently been blogging about funerals in some detail, and about arguments arising from funeral practice, because of my experience as a celebrant, but I hope soon to move back to broader thoughts on mindfulness and mortality - which themselves could feed back into the discussions about changing funeral practice, attitudes to bereavement and to the event of death, etc - because our attitudes towards death and responses to it are so often troublingly unhelpful.

    The other thing I hope to do, much sooner than all that, is to pour myself another glass of Cote du Rhone, so for now:

    Welcome aboard - your own blog is truly outstanding, visually interesting and very useful, I'm sure, to anyone who has dealt with your condition. Or undergone any serious medical treatment and surgery, come to think of it. So I hope the 2.1674 people a year who read my blog will also take a gander at yours.

    Yours a little squiffily,
    Gloria M

  3. ..and that's a full stop (or "period," as our ex-colonial cousins to the west of us like to say)after the 2, not, alas, a comma...

  4. ...nevertheless, I shall blog away undaunted, if somewhat over-irrigated by this really rather good C du Rh...

  5. I am just back from some hols. My mental gearstick has been waggling in neutral. This has got the grey matter revving, getting traction. This is GM-rich!!

    I suppose the greatest value of good writing is that it articulates what has been oft thought. When you say that a funeral is not an artefact you achieve 'ne'er so well expressed' status. This is a defining statement. Thank you. I never knew I thought that til I saw your words. It bursts. It makes perfect sense. As does "we have the experience ... judgements." Yes. A good celebrant can hold up the mirror to what a family proposes, and that can be very valuable. I'm with you there!

    As I am with your ruminations on brand. "Oh, you're one of those, are you?" There is a grave danger of bitchiness breaking out (see the highly inflammatory piece on the AOIC in the May Funeral Service Times). It's quality of human being that matters, not conformance with best practice. There's a lot to be said for no umbrella organisations - but in saying that I declare a temperamental fault: wherever two are three are gathered together I reflexively do a runner.

    As to confusion, I find no answering echo. I think it perfectly okay if a funeral incorporates an element of incoherence and illogic. It mustn't be too reductive. What's more, in a spirit of ecumenism, churches will often incorporate readings and prayers from other religions without necessarily tainting their (dread word) brand. No, I am all for a bit of bonkers.

    I may well come back to this. My wife is yelling at me that we must go shopping. You give me much to think about, GM. What you have written is the product of much condensed thought. Thank you!

  6. Obviously refreshed from a good holiday, Charles sharpens his quill and re-enters the fray - excellent! Many thanks, plaudits from you much valued, as of course are the challenges - food for further thought, as always.

    Yes, I think a bit of bonkers is good. "Fudging it" vs reductive conformity - am I being too prissy about mixing beliefs? Most of the ceremonies I'm involved in are fairly, or even very,conventional, and I'm not the most uninhibited celebrant in the land, I guess. I shall think on't.

    So:churches may be ecumenical about readings and prayers, but they have, perhaps, a mutual common denominator - belief in God/s - and since I don't share that belief in any way approvable by the World's Great Religions, maybe all I'm saying is that I would feel inauthentic were I directly involved at the Godly end of a ceremony.

    Do I mind if others run ceremonies with a mish-mash of beliefs? No, I don't think I do, why should I, provided it's what the family want, and the celebrant feels right about it. Though too much of a mish-mash might result in a sort of tepid bath of religiosity - I rather like the differences between faiths and philosophies, and their cultural powers and products, and I like reaching out across them rather than trying to merge them.

    But - that's me, not them, and "they" should have whatever is right for them, be it multi-cultural religiosity, tree-hugging, each-other-hugging, or just a good piss-up. It's a hard enough job "weaving his absence into the fabric of things" without zealotry of any sort getting in the way.

  7. I so take your point about mishmash. The Rerform Jews are going for a bit of mishmashery. Don't know that it has coherence: