Planning your own funeral

“The human race is the only one that knows it must die,
and it knows this only through its experience.”

Humanist funeral celebrants are sometimes asked for advice about planning a funeral in advance. You might just want to get an idea about whether we can be trusted to do the job properly – that we’re reasonably personable, sensible people. You might want to know what is or isn’t possible. Or you might want to plan things in detail, so no one has to do much except follow a plan when the time comes.

The most you should expect is that those who arrange your funeral should do it respectfully and with integrity. If you’ve lived without religion it isn’t appropriate that your death should be marked with religious ritual. It might be helpful to provide your family with suggestions about music and readings, and you might book a burial plot, or pay for everything in advance. You might even write something to be read at the ceremony, along the lines of ‘Bye-bye, it was good to know you’. Otherwise, best leave it to those who’ll mourn you to do what needs to be done.

What sort of questions might you ask?

Are there any rules about funerals?
There are common sense rules about the safe disposal of a body and there are restrictions on the time in a crematorium or public cemetery, otherwise hardly any.
You don’t have to have a funeral at all – it isn’t a legal requirement – but if you do have one it can take any form. It’s up to you or your next of kin.

Can I plan it all myself?
Your funeral may be about you, but it’s not for you; it’s for those who’ll mourn you. If you plan your funeral in too much detail, leaving nothing for your family or friends to do, you’ll be denying them an important role. You might want to save them the trouble or prevent their distress, but leaving them little to do could actually make them feel worse, not better. I’ve known people who didn’t seem to trust their next of kin to do things properly, or who wanted to have the last word… but when we’re dead, everything’s out of our control, isn’t it?

What’s a Humanist funeral like?
A Humanist funeral is entirely non-religious, though there’s usually a pause for reflection when religious mourners are invited to say a private prayer if they’d like to. I wouldn’t expect to be asked to say or do anything as a celebrant that conflicted with my beliefs – no hymns, prayers, religious readings, or references to an afterlife.
Nothing is said or done at a Humanist funeral that might offend or upset a reasonable religious person. A Humanist funeral includes everyone, whatever their beliefs.
Most Humanist funerals are held in a crematorium chapel where the ceremony can take up to 25 minutes – usually about 20 minutes. My usual pattern is:

Entry to music
Opening words, referring to the celebration of a life
Thoughts on life & death, incorporating appropriate prose or poetry
A tribute to the deceased
A short silence or some quiet music – the pause for reflection
The committal
Closing words
Exit to music

You can have any music you consider appropriate. It might be solemn at the beginning, more upbeat at the end. People don’t usually sing at our funerals, but if you’d like to, we can help with secular words set to a familiar tune. If anyone wants to make a spoken contribution, we’ll need it in writing in case they become too emotional to continue and because we have to be conscious of the time at a crematorium. Your family will get a copy of the script afterwards. You can have live music, but it’s not always practical to get a lot of musicians into a small chapel – maybe one or two at most.
Your family and friends might conduct the ceremony themselves. The BHA  publishes a book, ‘Funerals without God’, that provides guidelines.

Where can my family hold the ceremony?
Other than in a crematorium or cemetery chapel, venues have included village or community halls, private gardens, and function rooms. I’ve held Humanist funerals in the Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House in Friar Street, which seats several hundred people and doesn’t have any obvious religious symbolism. Memorial ceremonies, after private committal ceremonies, have been in held in a pub and a school hall.
I’ve conducted ceremonies entirely at a graveside, in local authority cemeteries or ‘green’ burial sites.

Can I book a Celebrant to conduct my funeral?
None of us could guarantee to be available when you die, though one of us ought to be, provided your next of kin are prepared to be flexible about the date and time.

If you plan your own funeral, discuss your plans with those who’ll have to make the arrangements, or at least let them know where you’ve left your notes or instructions.