Sunday, 18 September 2011

To Be (HA) or not? A celebrant changes his spots

A funeral celebrant I know well recently sent me this, and has agreed to let me put it up here, as a matter of general interest to those occupied in what Monseignor Cowling, high priest of The Good Funeral (Guide,) describes as The Dismal Trade.

Dear xxxxxx,

I hope this letter doesn’t add to the pressures of your work as the co-ordinator for the area humanist celebrants’ network, and before I go any further I want to thank you for your help and support, and the humanity, honesty and good humour with which you have led our efforts. I have learned a great deal from you.

I think it best if I leave the BHA celebrants’ network. This is not because I have fallen off my horse on the way to market blinded by divine revelation, nor is it because of any dissatisfaction with the team, nor is it because I object to the levy etc. or even the team meetings! It is rather that the experience of working with many different kinds of family over recent years has made me unhappy with the BHA profiling of the celebrant’s belief. I’ve come to think that the beliefs of the celebrant should be of no great importance in deciding the best kind of funeral for a family.

We have what seems to me a historically unique opportunity to develop and deliver new kinds of funeral ceremonies for people of any or no faith, who don’t want a “church/mosque/temple” funeral but who still may have elements of religious belief, spiritual need, superstitions if you like. Many or most of the families I’ve worked with are not humanists, atheists or agnostics in any collected sort of way. Shades of belief, requests for hymns and the occasional prayer seem to me all part of the job. I feel we should be expert ritualists, not belief-advancers. And of course I’m more than happy to take a ceremony which is entirely atheistical.

I don’t really regard humanism as a belief position c.f. religious dogma, and to be honest I don’t like the implicit idea the BHA seems to have of using funeral ceremonies to advance both a humanist position and the Association itself. As you know, I don’t use the feedback form, partly because I don’t agree with the way it culminates in an invitation to get in touch with the BHA if people want to know more about it.

I’ve never agreed with making belief statements about humanism in ceremonies. I also have trouble with the relentless urging to improve “market share.” Sorry if this sounds whatever is the humanist equivalent of pious but all I want is for families to have whatever funeral suits them and the person who has died, whether the celebrant is a BHA person or not. I really don’t care about BHA market share. (Though as we all agree, a good funeral is an excellent way of opening people’s eyes to the alternative we offer. That should suffice.)

I will always be happy to pass funeral directors on to good BHA celebrants when I need to, or if a family asks for a specifically BHA funeral for a member. I’d be very happy to keep in touch if you or other members wish to do so.

I’m grateful to the BHA for setting me off on this road, and for training me. Although I’m afraid I still think the training could and should have been considerably better – perhaps it is now, I hope so. Please accept that as a reasonably objective view from someone who, like you I expect, used to do quite a bit of training in a former life.

So this isn’t a “splittist” effort, I neither want nor expect anyone else to agree with me or to join me in an alternative network, it’s just me being awkward. Or maybe fed up with feeling a hypocrite if someone asks me for a hymn or a prayer, and either saying no, or saying yes and then worrying about saying I’m from the BHA. I particularly dislike the practice of telling the family meeting that if they really want a hymn, then the celebrant won’t take part and will say why; one forum correspondent wrote recently “That usually changes their minds,” meaning that the family then drops the hymn. It’d certainly change my mind; I’d use someone else who showed more compassion. The practice of going ahead but declaring in the ceremony that there will now be a hymn, “but as a humanist I will not be taking part” now seems to me amusingly po-faced. There is a very large middle ground between “the vicar/minister” and “the BHA” and that’s probably where I belong.

I shall explain to the funeral directors I work with that I’m no longer in the network. But I shall remain a member of the BHA – I believe in a secular society, and I support the BHA’s actions in advancing the idea, in a context other than funerals. Sorry this is so long. To paraphrase Mark Twain’s shrewd observation, I didn’t have time to write a shorter letter; more importantly, I felt I owed you a half-decent explanation, which I hope you feel this is.

Should you be heading this way, do let me know, and a pint of the best will be on the bar for you. With gratitude from me and very best wishes for the future to you and the rest of the team,




  1. Ooh, this is a very big decision for your celebrant friend/acquaintance. It must have come after some considerable wrestling.

    John Gray on BBC R4 this morning perhaps described this celebrant's position from a different and most interesting (I thought) standpoint. Basically, in matters of belief and nonbelief he says, What the heck? More precisely, he says 'We’d all be better off if we stopped believing in belief.'

    It's great stuff, and there's a transcript here:

    I feel for this celebrant -- but I have to say that I can absolutely see where he/she is coming from. As a nonaligned celebrant myself, I'm inclined to say Welcome!

  2. Thanks Charles, it's a really interesting "Point of View" prog and one I'll recommend my friend to have a look at. I think yes, there probably was a degree of wrestling in the old brain-box of said celebrant - I'll pass on your welcome!

  3. A big decision, but one which has not been arrived at lightly. As Charles says, your friend has obviously spent a lot of time (not to mention emotion) considering his/her options. I think their reasons are to be applauded – loudly, enthusiastically, and preferably standing on a chair. Religious and humanist funeral ceremonies are both led by the beliefs of the person conducting the service. It's not about them though, is it? It's the beliefs and wishes of the family that should shine through.
    Well done that man/lady...

  4. I'm sure the celebrant concerned will take much comfort and encouragement from your words, CH, which are as encouraging and helpful as always - and my pal does read this blog so I don't need to be post-lady! One or two BHA celebrants, in fairness, point out that it's a pretty broad non-church, and that my pal could've carried on, but I reckong said pal just has developed a particular view of the role of celebrant, and that's what's sticking a bit these days. Anyway, we soldier on, BHA or not!

  5. When I first thought of becoming a celebrant, Gloria, the only non-religious ’ministers’ I had heard of were Humanist ones.

    I knew my own feelings about the spiritual life were very complicated, so I spent a lot of time looking at humanist sites to see if their church was broad enough to accommodate me. In the event, before I had signed up to anything, I was fortunate enough to meet a good and very enlightened funeral director (Philip Tomlins in Evesham for the record) who talked about civil funerals and their open, interpretive approach.

    It made immediate sense to me and I've never looked back. It's so interesting to hear of your friends decision. Such a brave and honest one too, when the easiest thing so often seems to be to quietly backslide and enjoy the comforts of structure without facing the consequences of dissent.

    But I believe it is a good decision - there will always be the need for services based on and asserting particular beliefs, but the families who need them are far rarer than might be imagined. Most people, most of us are still trying to work things out (as my son once said, ’on the run up to the leap of faith’ (and atheism is a faith too)) - and that is where the civil funeral operates.

    Pass on good luck and best wishes, will you?

  6. I sure will, Vale, and I'm sure me pal'd say "cheers, Mate", or "ta very much," or somethng like, because you are very encouraging.

    I think many people only really grasp the idea of a Humanist vs a vicar, which is a bit of a shame, perhaps. And of course there are many more BHA celebrants than the other organisations, at present.

    Anyway, on we all go, what?

  7. I really respect this letter and the way it is written. I have to say I'm with yyyyyy on this.

  8. Yyyyyy appreciates that Arkers, and having browsed your blog, reciprocates the respect. Thanks.

  9. Mmm. Interesting. I've heard similar points of view before, of course. However, what I don't understand is how a celebrant who doesn't have a religious faith might be willing to include any religion in a ceremony. If I were to do it, it would mean saying things I regard as nonsense. Shouldn't you believe what you say? If not, you're being a fraud.

    When I hear anyone defending this "inclusive" approach (such as the Civils), it's usually Christian elements they're talking about, as we live in a culturally Christian country, so I'm told. Would they be quite as willing to include elements of other religions? I doubt it.

    I don't regard humanism as a "belief" either, as many within the BHA seem to do. That's one of the reasons that I quit doing ceremonies for them and left the organisation altogether. I certainly wouldn't do any humanist proselytising during a funeral. For me, it's all about ignoring the potential minefield of what other people may or may not believe, and simply talking about the people involved, their lives and relationships, how they influenced others (for good or otherwise), and how they'll be remembered.

    When I first make contact with a family, whether it's about a wedding, naming or a funeral, I usually say something like "You do understand that our ceremonies are entirely free from religion, don't you? There are no hymns, prayers or religious readings?" Almost all will say yes, that's exactly what they want. If not, I refer them back to the funeral director, with apologies for the misunderstanding. This rarely happens because most funeral directors know better than to refer clients who might want any religion to us. My colleagues (all three of them) agree with me.

  10. Well, that's nice and clear, thanks Margaret.

    I think you can be reasonably certain that my pal has considered the points you raise, and all I'll say is that I don't think said pal feels a fraud, because the premises you two work from are different.

  11. S/he's not a fraud if s/he believes what s/he says or, like a lot of people, s/he's not sure.

    I know a lot of religious people, not just Christians, through my involvement with Suffolk Inter-Faith Resource and the East of England Faiths Agency. Through SIFRE, I shall be MC at the Mayor of Ipswich's multi-faith Celebration of Community in November; I'm regarded as neutral, in religious terms. I'm fascinated by what people believe, and how they came to believe it. While facilitating a study group earlier this year, I met several people who'd developed very personal beliefs that owe little to any orthodoxies. I'm not anti-religious. However, I wouldn't expect a Zoroastrian to parrot Muslim words and phrases, or a Pagan to intone Sikh words that have special significance for my Sikh friends, any more than they would. What's so different about someone who lives without religion using religious terms that are meaningless to him or her?

  12. And interestingly too, though even I don't agree with all you write. But then why should I expect to? "In my humanist house, there are many mansions. Were it not so, I would have told you." To paraphrase and distort the words of Another....