Sunday, 24 July 2011

Funerals and beliefs: choice of celebrants, polarised views

This is long, and a bit specialised, but I want to cover a few points about celebrancy and then leave the issue alone.

As a chronic non-joiner, there's plenty of things I don't like too much about the BHA celebrants' arrangements, and I am BHA accredited. We sometimes talk as though it's us against the rest of the world. But it's not "BHA or the vicars," there are other choices!

On the other hand, there are many good things about the network. One thing it suffers from, perhaps as a result of the above, is a crude, polarising sort of caricature, and I want to point out two examples.

It grieves me to criticise Green Fuse, an excellent organisation; or rather, to criticise someone they quote in their information. From their leaflet about training celebrants:

"the humanist model, resting on a single celebrant with minimal input from others, will increasingly be felt too controlled and directive," wrote (apparently) John Pearce, in "Pharos," the Cremation Society magazine, as quoted by Green Fuse.

I'm afraid that's a gross misrepresentation of a complex and varied situation. I take ceremonies in which I say everything that gets said, because that's what the family has requested; I take other ceremonies in which I say very little. I think other BHA celebrants would agree. I have taken ones in the middle ground, where I've worked with two or three family members who gave the tribute - hardly "minimal input." I don't think that's just me, I know that other BHA people would say the same.

So let me be plainer: what you write is untrue, Mr Pearce. There isn't one, compulsory humanist model. And there is often plenty of input - from other speakers but also including music: as well the CD player and an organist, a brass band, several pipers, solo singers, and a string quartet. And we have people handing out daffodils round the audience, we have pictures, a bottle of (sadly, unopened!) wine, candles...sometimes. If that's what the people want.

"If secular celebrants are to keep up with the demand for more participative funerals they will have to abandon their "lead speaker" model in favour of one closer to that of producer in a theatre."

Now that I agree with, provided it is what the family want. People with strong views about funerals (other than me, of course...) tend to forget that their vision of what a funeral should be may not coincide with what this family, in front of me today, actually want. My job is to help them realise what they might be able to do, by discussing, listening, suggesting. And finally, doing what they want.

I thin Green Fuse should take that statement out of their leaflet. They are too good to need knocking copy. There isn't a humanist model. There's a traditional "shape" to a secular crematorium ceremony, what Charles at GFG calls "religion sans," and many families fall back on that. They are used to it, they've seen it before, it helps them. Other families abandon it completely, or modify it considerably.

The real choice is between 1) what some BHA people rather snottily sometimes call "mix and match." That's a non- Christian ceremony, but with elements that come from the view that there is a life after death - a hymn, or a prayer, or some other religious ritual element. And 2) ceremonies which do not feature any religious ritual. That may be the real choice. (Apart from a completely religious funeral witrh a priest/minister/rabbi etc, of course.)

But look at this, from the Institute of Civil Funerals:

"Humanist Funeral: A funeral taken by an officiant of the British Humanist Association. Such funerals are entirely secular and will not include hymns or prayers, nor any spiritual reference, and there will be no reference to an ‘after-life’."

Are all humanist celebrants members of the BHA celebrants' network? Of course not. First bit of nonsense.

Clever of them to use the term "officiant," which suggests to me someone officious, dry, bureaucratic etc. Few people use the term these days - as IoCF will know! Me, groovy celebrant; you, fusty old officiant!

BHA celebrants argue and think over the matter of hymns quite a lot, because people like singing, and hymns are often powerfully nostalgic, even for non-believers. Some BHA-ers are very uneasy about this area, and would do all they could to avoid a hymn, maybe by suggesting the family talks to the vicar after all, or at least making it plain in the ceremony that this hymn has nothing to do with them... Let's call them the "contagionists," those who think a hymn is the thin end of a sanctified wedge aimed at the purity of their atheism!

Many of us are less anxious, and have the occasional hymn, right at the end of the ceremony, usually. On a few occasions, in a funeral I've helped with, a family member has said a prayer, also towards the end. It's usually because of a sharp difference in the beliefs of different family members. I always ask such families if they are sure they don't want a Christian ceremony, with a vicar or minister. If they are sure they don't, I'll do what I can to give them what they want, provided it doesn't put me in a position in which I feel inauthentic.

"nor any spiritual reference..." the IoCF goes on. Nonsense. Many of us will have quoted words by religious leaders, philosophers or writers that have a spiritual reference. The Dalai Lama on compassion, the Book of Ecclesiastes, etc.

"And there will be no mention of an after-life." More nonsense. No mention by me, perhaps, but many a time a family speaker will refer to the dead person being in "another place," or wondering "where Bill is now," and all those other wondering and puzzled statements bereaved people quite naturally come out with. Of course, I leap up with a referee's whistle and try to silence them...."Stop all this nonsense, there's to be no mention of an after-life in humanist ceremonies," I say, "or you will disrupt the IoCF's comfortable categories."

Judging from content, I'd say the purely atheist ceremonies I've taken would come out as a clear minority. Many people are (Charles again) "probabilists," or "possibilists." BHA celebrants may not always share this supernatural uncertainty, but we work with and support families who think thus.

There is one salient difference between BHA people and other secular, civil, non-Church celebrants: they do make what they believe (e.g. "only one life") a defining factor in whether they take a funeral on or not. But that doesn't seem to me a matter for criticism by other celebrants, or for feelings of superiority by BHA people. One is entitled to follow one's beliefs. I wouldn't expect a vicar not to mention God, I wouldn't expect a member of the BHA to read you the Creed.

However, personally, I don't think BHA celebrants should explain, however briefly, what "humanism" is. I agree with those who say that it is a kind of preaching, or publicising of a view - unless of course the dead person was a self-declared humanist, or perhaps even a member of the BHA. But we're not there to preach anything or convert anyone. Yet many in the BHA celebrants network expect us to do so. Many others of us (straw poll at a conference group a couple of years ago) do not, and will not. See? We vary.

I think maybe we cause resentment and attract criticism perhaps because 1) there's a lot of us; 2) BHA were the first organised set-up in secular celebrancy, as far as I know; 3) no doubt some of us are not very good - some vicars are not very good; perhaps some IoCFs are...etc

It takes, as granny used to say, all sorts to make a world. All that really matters is: that the funeral is what the family wants, and that it's a good funeral. We need a variety of GOOD celebrants on offer - that's all that matters. Trying to increase your "market share" (yuk!) by crudifying what your "competitors" (more yuk!) do, is unnecessary. It creates the wrong sort of context. BHA shouldn't do it, IoCF shouldn't do it, Green Fuse shouldn't do it. Amen.

Because the real point is that all three organisations train celebrants properly! Vive la difference, not yah boo down with you!


  1. Bravo GM! You cannot see me but I'm giving you a standing ovation. I am absolutely sick to death (excuse my choice of phrase) of this need to neatly define and label everything, resulting in the 'us good, you bad' scenario.
    I'm with granny on this one – it takes all sorts to make the world. And it bloomin' well takes all sorts to see us out of it.

  2. Well, thanks to you CB, much appreciated. Maybe it either comes down to a "market share" mentality, or people who suffer from a lack of confidence in their own position and need to buttress it by defining it in oppostion to a frequently misrepresented "other."

    And welcome back from your biking expedition.