More choice, more confusion
How can you choose an appropriate funeral, and someone to conduct it? There’s an increasing choice of funeral styles, but also more confusion. Many still choose traditional Christian funerals, with familiar hymns and so on, but this isn’t appropriate for a significant proportion of the population. Various surveys indicate that only a minority attend church regularly and that few are interested in organised religion. Many young people aren’t religious, while many older people have developed unconventional personal religious beliefs. Many say that they’re ‘Christian’, but what they mean by that varies. Of those who say that they don’t believe in God, some will say they believe in an afterlife.
Because of these changing attitudes and beliefs, many are choosing funerals that are more personal, with modern music and family tributes, but with one or two familiar hymns and maybe a prayer as well.
So now there are traditional church funerals with the traditional liturgy (a prescribed form of worship), non-conformist Christian funerals, religious funerals in the manner of a minority faith, unconventional semi-religious funerals, and non-religious funerals.
Humanist funerals fall into the latter category, but to add to the confusion, there’s more than one type of Humanist Celebrant.
In the 19th century, the only people who were likely to be given secular Humanist funerals were atheist members of the labour movement and of the ethical societies, which sought social change without religion. The British Humanist Association was founded in the mid-20th century and its members were given Humanist funerals. They set up a ceremonies sub-committee in 1978, but until 1991, atheists and agnostics in Suffolk and N E Essex were unlikely to be given a Humanist funeral unless they did it themselves. When I started conducting funerals, I was the only secular celebrant in the area. Over the next few years, I covered most of Suffolk and Essex, as far south as Chelmsford, on my own. One of my first clients became a celebrant, concentrating on weddings and baby-namings.
The Suffolk Humanist group was founded in 1991 and began to raise awareness of Humanism in the local community. Meanwhile, the BHA ceremonies network was being run by a volunteer. As demand increased, it was decided that a more formal structure was needed, a training and accreditation scheme was introduced, and eventually a staff post was created. The two of us who were already providing ceremonies in Suffolk were awarded accreditation on the strength of our reputation. I, in turn, contributed to the training of other celebrants, acting as their mentor. We expected trainees to join our group and to work as a team, but in other areas, BHA celebrants worked independently of any group, though there were regional meetings a couple of times a year.
‘Accreditation’ means to be officially authorised to do something – in other words, with the approval of the parent body. BHA accreditation should ensure competence, high standards and adherence to a code of conduct. As far as the local funeral directors were concerned, we already provided high quality ceremonies. We’d built up a strong reputation and they were getting lots of positive feedback.
The BHA Ceremonies Network has had problems and over the last five years or so, many of its most experienced celebrants have resigned. Until last year, the BHA failed to acknowledge this, or to address the reasons for it. At the 2005 BHA AGM, a motion was overwhelmingly carried that directed the BHA to investigate the drain of experienced celebrants and to find a way to rebuild the network. A Ceremonies Working Party was set up, consisting of three people. They produced their report earlier this year, and it will be considered at a special meeting of the BHA in September. Some of us will be there.
BHA ceremonies have only been available to a small proportion of the population, as there are still only a small number of celebrants. We know that demand for non-traditional funerals will continue to increase, because of the demographic evidence. More and more people are keen to fill the gap in the market. An offshoot of the registrars’ service, known as The Institute of Civil Funerals, has been training celebrants to conduct funerals. Their website says that they offer “a funeral which is driven by the wishes, beliefs and values of the deceased and their family, not by the belief or ideology of the person conducting the funeral.” They will include some religion, such as a hymn, though we understand that they have guidelines about how much religion they should include, so that they shouldn’t be accused of trying to do the clergy’s job. There are peripatetic “ministers”, whose credentials are sometimes a bit vague, who go around doing funerals for anybody, anyhow. There are independent celebrants who’re either former BHA celebrants, or who started from scratch; some of them will do what we call “pick ‘n mix” ceremonies, with a bit of religion thrown in.
So how can you choose a celebrant?
If you want a non-traditional funeral with a hymn or two, your funeral director should be able to advise you. If you want an entirely non-religious funeral, you can choose a BHA or ICF celebrant, or one of us, or you can do it yourself – the BHA’s book, “Funerals without God”, provides useful guidelines.
How do you know if the celebrant is any good?
There is no nationally recognised qualification or standard. Funerals are not a legal requirement, so it’s unlikely there will be, at least in the short-term. Word of mouth recommendation can be a good guide, though some small funeral firms can be a bit lazy about referrals – they tend to direct most of their clients to a few favoured ministers, or just leave them to do their own research.
Since the problems with the BHA network began, some celebrants have joined The Association of Humanist Celebrants – the Suffolk team keeps in touch with them. However, the AHC isn’t a formal organisation but a loose network, without a constitution or accreditation scheme. Membership of the AHC doesn’t signify anything, as far as the client is concerned.
Confusing, isn’t it? However, if you’re in Suffolk or N E Essex, we can make things simple for you. Our small team is supported by the Suffolk Humanist group. We train people through an apprenticeship, after they’ve joined the group and we’re all happy that they’re reliable, trustworthy, and have all the right qualities. We have very high standards. In fact, we have an unblemished record for quality. One senior funeral director who’s known me a long time says that the feedback he’s had from clients about our service has been overwhelmingly positive. You can read about us on a separate page of this website and we’re always happy to answer any questions. We do what we do because we care about people and about promoting Humanism, though we never proselytise. We don’t do it to make money, and we gain great satisfaction from the thousands of unsolicited testimonials we’ve had from grateful clients.
The funeral directors’ professional bodies are: