Secular Funerals and Memorials
For atheists, humanists, Brights, and other freethinkers who embrace a naturalistic worldview, death is understood as the end of personal existence. There is no soul or other supernatural component of the human personality that can in any way survive after physical death. Accepting death as part of the natural order, humanists view funerals and memorials as an opportunity for the living to celebrate the life of the person who has died.
Sometimes a person will outline the details of their funeral ceremony before they die. More often though, the decisions about the form and content of a funeral must be made quickly after a death, and at a time when people are dealing with their grief as well as myriad legal and logistical issues. At these times, a humanist celebrant can be exceptionally helpful in planning the ceremony.
A humanist celebrant will spend time with the bereaved family gathering information on the life and personality of the deceased before writing a tribute to the life that was lived. They will also work with the family to choose appropriate poems, prose and music for the ceremony, as well as helping organize family and friends to read personal tributes to the deceased.
Humanist celebrants are aware that among those attending the ceremony there may be people of faith and although prayers are not said, they will usually include a brief period when people can reflect or pray silently if they want to.
Of course there is no requirement to use a humanist celebrant. The family may choose a friend or family member to compose the ceremony and to preside at the ceremony. In the case of funerals, the funeral director is a great resource to help with practicalities of the funeral and may also be helpful with some of the details of a non-religious ceremony.
A funeral ceremony may be held at a funeral home or funeral parlour or at a crematorium or at the graveside in a cemetery.
In the US in particular, there is a strong tradition of memorials being the main ceremony, held some days after the body has been dealt with at a funeral. Holding a later memorial allows more time for planning and organizing a ceremony with many participants that can focus on celebrating the life and legacy of the deceased.
There is an excellent column about humanist funerals by the advice columnist Sweet Reason available here. It particularly addresses the question of how to explain a humanist ceremony to a Christian family.
Secular Memorial or Funeral Ceremony Content
A humanist funeral or memorial will include tributes and readings that reflect the life and values of the deceased. Most funeral and memorial ceremonies contain most of these elements:
The structure and content of a secular ceremony is entirely optional, so any of the above elements can be changed, moved to a different part of the ceremony or even skipped entirely. One of the best resources for help in composing a secular ceremony is a step-by-step practical guide book called Funerals without God: Practical Guide to Nonreligious Funerals which is available in the US and in the UK.
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Secular Funeral Celebrants
The celebrant, also known as the officiant, is the person who conducts the memorial or funeral ceremony.
Although it is certainly possible for a friend or family member to conduct the ceremony, funerals are emotional events and it often works best to have a trained celebrant who is emotionally detached from the deceased. For a reasonable fee, a humanist celebrant will help the family plan and compose the ceremony and then conduct it on the day.
Here are some recommended resources for finding humanist celebrants:
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