By Kate Domaille, university lecturer and British Humanist Association trained celebrant
Telling your friends and family that one of your midlife ambitions is to help grieving families have the ceremony they want and deserve for their loved ones isn’t an easy conversation to have. My family were confused. My father presumed I would be involved in embalming bodies and my son asked if this meant I was some kind of ‘undercover vicar’.
Until I was in my forties, I had never been to a funeral. My grandparents died when I was quite young and my parents are still going strong! My first introduction to the howling grief of losing someone you love was losing close friends who were also in their forties. Both my friends had humanist send-offs.
The Celebrant acted as a background prop to a family and crowd of grieving friends who all had plenty to say themselves. As mourners, we laughed, we spoke, we cried, we sang. Without God, we showed our love, our respect, and our ability to celebrate the fantastic lives they had lived.
The path to becoming a Humanist Celebrant
I’ve spent my working life in public service as a teacher and lecturer. I have occupied many roles in my life. So, in my mid-life it was that combination of experience (howling grief) and a reflection of how my various roles combined into a coherent way of living that brought me to humanism. Or delivering humanist ceremonies in particular.
I wouldn’t describe myself as an ardent Humanist. I like that humanism affords my political and social beliefs, but does not define them, constrain or restrict them. My strap line is this: We have one life and we should live it ethically, lovingly and in consideration of the needs of others.
I chose to train through the British Humanist Association (BHA). I was in touch with them through networks and had supported some of the campaigns they were involved in. I was looking for like-minded people and I didn’t want to operate entirely independently. I was pleased to train to become part of a network. I represent the BHA but in all sorts of ways they also represent me in helping promote the work through the celebrant network and holding my practice to a strong set of standards.
I undertook training in 2012. The Funerals Training was a 5 day course over 3 months interspersed with reflections and mock ceremonies to write. The ceremonies I wrote in training were about a young woman who died in a motorcycle accident at the age of 25, an alcoholic who had let his family down, and the death of a young man who was volunteering overseas and had contracted a rare disease. All of them difficult deaths leaving lots of unanswered questions for the bereaved.
The BHA training shows us clearly that loss and grief comes in many guises. Our tasks in training were focused on how you might assess the emotional mood of the mourners, how to balance the demands of family and belief with friendship and hope, and find the story. And the emphasis is the life story. Then these services are rehearsed in crematoria and the ways of working with funeral directors and chapel attendants are explained, as these are the partners in the delivery of any funeral.
Few people know what humanism is – more commonly I am asked to perform a non-religious service – but working on behalf of the BHA I do try to incorporate a brief explanation of humanism. Depending on the audience, this could be a complex philosophical definition supplemented by quotes or readings, more often it is a much simpler definition – we humanists are capable of living good lives without God. As I’ve gained experience in giving ceremonies I have moved forward to try to personalise these explanations. I do this in response to a detail given about the deceased.
In Southampton, where I live, and for men of a certain age, this is frequently a tale of a life spent in light engineering, in making and building. Men who spent time apprenticed to a company, learning a craft or trade, and this can translate into an aspect of Humanism: lives that were defined by science and reason rather than faith and belief.
For women – and let this be said here that this is in addition to marking the careers they have held too – this is frequently through not just the role they may have provided as caregivers and homemakers, beloved mothers and grandmothers, but often through a role in the community, helping others which also provides a clear link to humanist thought. Few people define themselves as humanists though many people live by humanist principles.
Language of funerals
The conventions of religion in people’s lives is still very powerful even when they profess themselves to have no clear link to religion at all. Recently, a husband requested that I read The Lord’s Prayer at the moment of committal, he told me he didn’t want to risk his wife ‘going off’ without the blessing. You know, just in case!
Even professed atheists will find themselves writing short eulogies suggesting their loved one is ‘safely upstairs, looking down on them all’, or ‘in a better place’ or now reunited with their pre-deceased husband/wife/brother/sister. What’s difficult for us as celebrants is to keep returning to the idea that we believe there is no place this body is going to, well, not one with angels and cherubs.
There is understandably fear of the idea of ‘nothing’ after death. How do any of us process that devastating thought? Instead funerals are most often conducted with a clear nod to social conventions and using hymns and prayers remain strong in the public mind. I can’t just wade in and disabuse people of these widely held ideas.
It is important to be sensitive and listen to what you are being told. But to be clear, I may accommodate space for private prayer in a ceremony, whilst never leading a prayer. Most recently I have been working on how to acknowledge these widely held views on funerals and use the references to explain an alternative way of thinking about the afterlife.
The ‘after life’ can be your thoughts of the person, the way their expressions are reflected in yours, the physical resemblance you might see in close family, or habits that have been passed down, the sayings they have.
The church is still powerful in public discourse and it’s therefore not surprising that concepts of heaven and hell prevail in the collective consciousness. Just because we Humanists don’t believe in heaven doesn’t mean we think dying means the person is tipped into an abyss. A Humanist concept of the afterlife means the person stays with you (not as a spirit/ghost) but within your thoughts and memories as part of the rich life you continue to live.
Learning about the city
I’ve learned much through this work. I am quite new to my home city – Southampton – and I live a particular kind of life in it. But this work has given me insights into the social and political history of the city. I have learned that many men who have grown up here didn’t fight in World War Two but rather reserved in reserve occupations.
I’ve met the husband of a woman who worked on The Enigma project in WW2. I have learned of communist cells in the docks. Most of these heroic tales are pretty unimaginable from the clipped hedgerows and neatly cut lawns defining the pathway to someone’s home. One man’s grandson was so inspired by his grandad’s communist party activity that he himself joined the local Socialist Party.
In other tales, I’ve found out about venues and companies that have come and gone, and additions to the landscape of the city, and of cricket teams, and football support, and notable pub landladies, of scandals in the council, and the role and value of the docks. The New Forest gets a very special mention. The Dorset coast and camping holidays too.
Until I did this work I never much liked the city but the people who I have written ceremonies for have overwhelmingly loved it. That’s been illuminating! Learning about your city in this way is a real revelation. It’s a great side-effect of the work, an insight into the life of the city, as lived.
Learning about people
I’ve also learned more about people. I’ve learned that they love each other in all kinds of ways. Big, working class families who frequently lack the confidence to speak in public or proof read your script can inform an incredible ceremony based on deep love and laughter. They are avid storytellers and place enormous emphasis on the truth of the life being told, and the need to honour it.
Equally, I’ve sometimes found the over-attention to specific details of music playing or a version of a poem, the attention to the grammar, can sometimes be used to mask the lack of warmth or love or family cohesion in apparently quite well-to-do families. We meet families in grief, of course. But we also meet families who may have been in conflict for years. I’m not surprised to learn that love manifests in different ways but I’d like that message to be spread further and wider.
Coping with sadness
Is it sad being a celebrant? If a fictional Uncle Albert or Aunty Betty have lived a good life, haven’t suffered and were loved, then no, it isn’t sad at all. A Humanist ceremony is about celebrating the life lived. And, I have conducted ceremonies where there has been a lot of laughter amidst the tears.
But this is where the training was so valuable. Sometimes we are required to work with younger mourners who’ve lost a partner, or people who have lost a loved one to drugs or alcohol, a man who hung himself in custody, the loss of a child, essentially people who have died too young or unexpectedly. These ceremonies present challenges of how to still look for the positive in a life that’s been brought to an end and which may have left the bereaved angry and confused.
We knock on doors to sometimes meet people in a profound state of grief and have stories to tell that they have never told another person. We aren’t counsellors and we can’t resolve their feelings. But what we can do is find the story that will make it alright to begin to say goodbye. Everybody has lived a life that has touched someone at some time – through their work or in their personal interactions. Our job is to dig deep, find it and celebrate it.
I have experience of different kinds of services: some small and intimate, others where not all the mourners can find a seat. All the stories we hear matter. Our care with the grief of people is a vital part of our service. Everyone we meet, whether we like their story or not, deserves our respect and our best efforts. In amongst the portfolio of work I do in my mid-life I am very proud to say I am a BHA celebrant. I have rarely done anything more rewarding or worthwhile.