Exit Strategy

Exit strategy – it doesn’t have to be religious

Increasing numbers of people in the UK opt for an alternative to religious ceremonies when it comes to births, weddings and funerals. George Broadhead takes a closer look.

For many years, I co-ordinated Humanist ceremonies for lesbian and gay couples on behalf of the UK’s only gay Humanist charity, the Pink Triangle Trust (PTT). These were “affirmations” of love and commitment and were conducted by Humanist celebrants all over the country.

Christian spokespersons interviewed in the media are fond of justifying their claim that Britain is still a Christian country by referring to the 2001 census, which indicated that 70 per cent of the UK population considered themselves Christian.

However, they refrain from mentioning that the 2010 British Social Survey – which is commissioned by the National Centre for Social Research and is one of the largest annual polls of opinion in Britain – revealed that this situation has now changed radically.

When asked which, if any, religion they belonged to, 50 per cent said they were Christian and 43 per cent said they had no religion. The latter figure is a good deal higher than the total number of Roman Catholics and all the minority religions (Buddhism Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism etc.) put together!

Totally secular

It is not surprising, therefore, that more and more ceremonies, such as funerals, which used to be almost always religious – mainly Christian, of course – are now totally secular.

There are various Humanist organisations that have taken advantage of the increasing demand for these, including: the British Humanist Association; Humani (the Humanist Association of Northern Ireland); the Humanist Society of Scotland; the Association of Humanist Celebrants; Tyne-Tees Celebrants; and various autonomous local Humanist groups, such as: Brighton and Hove, Coventry and Warwickshire, Liverpool, Suffolk and Somerset.

A Humanist secular funeral can take place at a crematorium, a cemetery or a woodland burial ground. It tries to capture the essence of the deceased’s personality so that it will be remembered as an occasion that uniquely and affectionately honoured the life that has ended.

Coffin in woodland
Coffin in woodland

There are no hymns or prayers, and this can be particularly appropriate if the person who has died did not have a religious view of life and death, or if members of the family and close friends differ in their religious views. In such cases, a Humanist ceremony can bring warmth and meaning for everyone.

Music

Each ceremony is different and highly personal, so it is helpful for the celebrant to get to know as much as possible about the person who has died. Family or friends may wish to participate by reading a short prose passage, or a poem, or to contribute their own reminiscences. They can also choose the music if they wish, perhaps some that was especially enjoyed by the deceased. The only constraint on all this is the time allotted for the ceremony.

The ceremony usually includes a short period of silence, which the celebrant will introduce as an opportunity for personal meditation or, for those with a religious faith, private prayer. It is both an appreciation of the deceased’s life and a way of bringing consolation to those whose lives are touched by the loss.

Humanist celebrants come from a variety of backgrounds. They are men and women who have experience at public speaking and are sensitive to the distress and the feeling of vulnerability felt by bereaved people.

Make preferences clear

They will wish to meet and talk with those responsible for arranging the funeral and to the deceased’s family and friends closely affected by the death. They are paid a fee, similar to that charged by clergy, and this is arranged by the funeral director, who handles the payment.

If you want to ensure that a Humanist or any other nonreligious ceremony is conducted and not a religious one, you can stipulate this in your will, but it is also essential to make your preference clear to whoever will be responsible for arranging the funeral – the executor(s) of the will, your spouse or partner, a member of your family or close friend.

A useful publication for prose and poetry for secular ceremonies is Seasons of Life: Prose and Poetry for Secular Ceremonies and Private Reflection, compiled by Nigel Collins and published by the Rational Press Association (it was reviewed by my colleague Andy Armitage in G&LH, Winter 2000–2001.

Related links
British Humanist Association
Humani (the Humanist Association of Northern Ireland)
Humanist Society of Scotland
Association of Humanist Celebrants
Pink Triangle Trust (PTT)
Tyne-Tees Celebrants
Brighton and Hove Humanists
Coventry and Warwickshire Humanists
Liverpool Humanists
Suffolk Humanists
Somerset Humanists