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Secular Funerals & Memorials:

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:

  1. Opening Words: Everyone is welcomed, and thanked for coming to share their love and support for the deceased and the family. Because many attendees may be unfamiliar with a secular ceremony, the celebrant conducting the ceremony may wish to explain why a secular ceremony is appropriate and what it will include. This is the time to explain that a humanist ceremony celebrates the life lived and does not include religious readings.
  2. Thoughts on Life and Death: A time for more philosophical reflections, usually including poetry or prose readings addressing themes of life and death.
  3. The Tribute: The heart of a humanist ceremony, the tribute honors the life and character of the deceased. It is an opportunity for mourners to talk about the qualities and experiences that made the deceased so important to them.
  4. The Committal: In a funeral, but not a memorial, the committal is when the coffin is buried or conveyed into the crematorium. It is often preceded by music or a pause for reflection or silent prayer (for religious mourners.)
  5. Closing Words: A few final words to end the ceremony and thank everyone on behalf of the family for their presence at the ceremony.

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.

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:

  • The Humanist Society, an affiliate of the American Humanist Association, runs a network of certified humanist celebrants who are licensed to officiate in their states. This site includes geographic directory of celebrants who may perform weddings, unions, baby namings, or funerals. Other sources at the same site include a listing of state laws on who may perform weddings.
  • The British Humanist Association (BHA) offers humanist funerals, weddings, baby-namings and other non-religious ceremonies. They offer a large network of trained, accredited celebrants as well as guidebooks for baby namings, weddings, and funerals.
  • The Humanist Society of Scotland maintain their own network of celebrants. Scotland is the only part of the UK to allow humanist celebrants to conduct legally binding weddings.
  • The International Humanist and Ethical Union's "Humanist World" page lists other organizations worldwide. Look for an organization in your country, and if they don't list ceremonies, consider asking them maybe yours will be the first they perform!