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.
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,