I’d been a humanist celebrant for ten years when I conducted a memorial ceremony for a lady who’d given her body to medical science. As there was no need for a cremation or a burial, more than twenty members of her family gathered in her home where around a dozen of them spoke; Muriel’s son and daughter, their spouses, her grandchildren, and great grandchildren. There were tears of course, but there was lots of laughter.
When it ended, one of her sons in law asked if he could have a private word. He took me aside and said, “I’m a retired GP, and I just want you to know that what you do is therapeutic.” That conversation happened seven years ago, and I’ve never forgotten it.
I once had to tell the story of a young woman who had fallen to her death while climbing in the Alps, the morning after she had accepted her boyfriend’s proposal of marriage. There should be no hierarchy of grief, but there is, and hers was a particularly tragic death.
Afterwards as the mourners filed past me, an elderly bearded gentleman seized me by the shoulders and said, “thank you, thank you – that was so uplifting!”
What he helped me realise was that no matter how awful the death, I could make it better simply by talking about it, openly and honestly.
Today, people are aware that’s what celebrants do but when I started my training in 2005, it was considered distinctly eccentric.
The comedian Ronnie Barker died that year, and the fact that he had a humanist ceremony made national news. Since then, humanist funerals have become, if not the new normal, then at least ‘a thing’.
Unlike marriage, where records are kept, there are no statistics, but anecdotally, humanist ceremonies account for about half the funerals in the UK. A few people choose them purely because they’re not religious, but I think the real reason they’re so popular is that they’re about the life lived, with all its joys and sorrows, triumphs and disasters.
‘Celebrant’ wasn’t a familiar word in 2005, let alone a job title. I hadn’t come across the word ‘humanism’ since university either. I thought humanism began and ended with Erasmus, so when I stumbled across the proposition that we can lead good and worthwhile lives guided by compassion and reason, it was a Damascene moment. I was inspired – until I discovered I’d have to conduct funerals first.
I didn’t like funerals. The few I’d attended had been doleful affairs, but the humanist attitude to death was different. Humanists didn’t mourn, they celebrated. Joyful not miserable, uplifting rather than depressing, humanist funerals were happy, not sad. If humanism got things back to front, that was good because so did I.
Fifty was late to find a vocation. It was also a bit late to get married for the first time, but I had deliberately avoided life until then. Having survived a boarding school education at the hands of Benedictine monks, I made myself a promise in the way that only a 16-year-old could. I would never allow myself to be unhappy ever again. I also decided that I would become someone else. Someone popular, someone attractive; someone interesting and successful. I would spurn responsibility, commitment, and convention and live for the moment, so when I graduated from university, I went to work in a Soho strip club and my career went downhill from there.
I became a night club DJ, opened a gallery, and did PR for a hairdresser. I wrote copy for design companies, did voiceovers and stand-up comedy, presented TV programmes and directed corporate films. My personal life was similarly unfocussed, so you will not be surprised to learn that after more than thirty years of desperately pursuing happiness, I had to admit I hadn’t found it. I’d failed in all my relationships and my dreams of success had eluded me.
For comfort, I occasionally opened my old copy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy just to read the publisher’s biography of its author, Douglas Adams. “Hospital porter, barn builder, chicken shed cleaner, bodyguard to the Qatari royal family”. Like me, Adams had done a lot of very odd jobs; unlike me, he was brilliantly funny. He’d also found the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. I was still searching.
I didn’t think that becoming a celebrant would be the answer to the Ultimate Question, but I reckoned that even if I couldn’t make sense of my own life, I could probably make sense of someone else’s. I had the skill set. I could walk, talk, think and write. The training wasn’t too demanding either. Unlike priests and ministers who study for years, the training took just two days, plus a half day a week later when we would deliver a script at ‘the crem’.
Better still, it was cheap. Celebrant training now costs thousands of pounds but in those days, the Humanist Society of Scotland was a charity run by its members and it was keen to spread the word. I think I paid just a couple of hundred pounds.
When I walked into the Isle of Skye Hotel in Perth on the first day of the course, I noticed a pile of postcards for sale, along with a book called “Funerals Without God: A practical guide to humanist and nonreligious funeral ceremonies”, by Jane Wynne Willson. As the back cover said, “There is a growing need for help with non-religious ceremonies, as our society increasingly abandons religion and adopts a non-theistic life stance.”
It looked a bit on the dry side, but one of the postcards caught my attention. It consisted only of a quotation I’d never seen from a man I’d never heard of; an 19th century American called Robert G Ingersoll. “Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so.”
I liked that idea, so I bought six.