Twenty years ago my life changed dramatically. Having taken early retirement from a career in business, I wondered what I would do next when I attended a funeral that provided the inspiration I needed. It was a humanist funeral. I discovered humanism and I decided on the spot that I wanted to do a humanistic funeral.
Ever since I had abandoned religion as a teenager, I had often wondered why funerals and other ceremonies marking life’s milestones had to take place in churches. My break with religion was very simple: as a teenager in the Church of Ireland, I grew increasingly uneasy about the creed I had to recite in church every Sunday.
It was a statement of faith and the truth was I didn’t believe it. I found most of them literally unbelievable: “creator of heaven and earth”, virgin birth, resurrection, ascension, heaven, hell, eternal life – in short, to just about everything in the creed.
Most people, I found, just seemed to accept that. There was an old idea that you didn’t discuss religion; it could cause chafing, it could be dangerous. It was better to just accept what you were told. And I found that the majority of the people I talked to didn’t believe in those things either – but most of them chose to continue practicing a religion that they fundamentally didn’t believe in; they didn’t want to rock the boat.
After 40 years of living my life without religion, my discovery of humanism was, for me, my moment of illumination; he provided me with an anchor. Atheism, I felt, was simply non-belief in God, while humanism involved a positive ethical dimension.
Humanism was for people who based their understanding of existence on evidence of the natural world and its evolution rather than belief in a supernatural being; it was an ethical life stance placing human values at the center of its philosophy.
Rather than the 10 commandments, humanists have a statement of fundamental principles called the Declaration of Amsterdam which was adopted at the 2002 World Humanist Congress in that city. It affirms the value, dignity and autonomy of the individual and the right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom consistent with the rights of others.
The golden rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is at the heart of humanist thought, just as it is in Christianity.
My timing was good; Twenty years ago Ireland was changing and that change would be faster than anyone could have predicted. And one of the most notable areas of change was in religious belief and observance. The marking of births, marriages and deaths had been almost exclusively religious; why not humanist ceremonies to mark these important events?
I have spent much of the past two decades organizing and conducting humanist ceremonies. Humanistic weddings have grown significantly in popularity, with non-religious ceremonies now overtaking those held in churches. But the ceremonies dearest to my heart have always been funerals; I have found it extraordinarily rewarding to help families who have chosen to mark the death of a loved one in a very personal and meaningful yet non-religious way.
For years, the funerals of these people were rigged; everyone in Ireland was assumed to be Protestant or Catholic. The fact is now that many people are neither. In my early years as a celebrant, the demand for funerals was low; in my freshman year, I ran two. Now I lead almost one a week and there are many celebrants who offer this service. I have now conducted over 500 funerals.
Some people feel that a humanistic funeral is missing something, that something is missing. People naturally got so used to the religious aspect that it seemed strange not to have it. But my funeral still includes philosophical words where I talk about the continuum of life and how your influence continues through those you’ve touched in life after you’re gone; it is the legacy that someone leaves behind.
For non-religious people, these words ring true and are preferable to the promises of resurrection and eternal life which, for many, ring hollow.
Of course, things are not always black or white; there are always shades of gray. And if, to appease the family members, a prayer or a Bible reading is requested, I am always happy that this is included in the structure of a humanistic ceremony.
Churches will continue to bury their dead as their custom has dictated for a very long time. But, for a large and growing part of the community who subscribe to a non-religious outlook on life, it is important to provide appropriate ceremonies to mark the end of their lives with love, dignity and respect, and with integrity and honesty. .
Brian Whiteside is a layman and humanist funeral celebrant