I’ve been a celebrant for a dozen years now, and over that time, the character of funerals has undoubtedly changed.
Two years ago, the BBC ran this story based on an ICM survey, in which it found that 54% of people wanted a ceremony that was ‘a celebration of life’. Almost as many wanted to incorporate their favourite colour, football team, hobby or music. They wanted it to be happy.
And why not, you might say? After centuries of doom and gloom, it’s a wonderful thing that we want to meet death with a smile. But it’s not always appropriate.
I sense that the phrase ‘a celebration of life’ has become an unthinking response: the new normal, if you like. That’s a pity. Grieving and mourning are fundamental to the healing process for the bereaved, and it would be entirely wrong to approach every funeral with celebration at the forefront of your mind.
Yesterday I conducted two funerals for men who died before their time: one had lived with terminal illness for many years, but the other had been struck down completely out of the blue, leaving a wife and young family. He was that rare thing, a man of great kindness, genuine achievement and humility, and his death was so unfair. They say the good die young: certainly that described him.
I found myself saying this.
“If you’ve been to a humanist funeral before, you may know they’re often described as “a celebration of the life that has been lived” but today to be honest the shock of his death is so great and the pain of your grief so raw that the word “celebration” seems wrong. So in the midst of our deep sorrow let us simply take this opportunity to remember the man you love.”
This afternoon, I had a lovely conversation with a hospice chaplain about the way we approach death, and I found we had much in common.
Humanists do mourn and grieve, and the death of someone we love is no less sad and painful than it is for people of faith. If there is a difference in the way humanists respond to death, it is simply this: we believe that the people we love live on, not in heaven, but in our own hearts and minds.
The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore put it well, in the poem that a family friend read yesterday, when he wrote