Home > atheism > The excruciating tedium of secular funerals?

The excruciating tedium of secular funerals?

October 20, 2009

Church of England minister Ed Tomlinson has made the news in recent days — see the Times and Mail websites for examples, and a pro-religious perspective — with an entry on his church’s blog lamenting the increasing secularisation of funerals, and his own conflicted emotions of conducting an event at which he feels unwanted, or where he feels his beliefs are undervalued. Here’s is an example:

I have stood at the crem like a lemon, wondering why on earth I am present at the funeral of somebody led in by the tunes of Tina Turner, summed up in pithy platitudes of sentimental and secular poets and sent into the furnace with “I Did It My Way” blaring out across the speakers!

To be brutally honest I can think of a hundred better ways of spending my time as a priest on God’s earth. What is the point of my being present if spiritually unwanted?

Aside from it being an inappropriately personal rant on a church website, he seems unaware that such events are not about him.

The Problem
In his zeal for ensuring that his religion has more involvement in the lives of the people in his community, he appears to have forgotten that a funeral is about the dead person and their family and friends. Not him. Not his god. It’s to pay respects to the departed, to honour their life, and to give their family and friends a point of closure, something to remember them by. Period.

That we have, throughout time, as a species attributed certain things to invisible and unprovable forces is neither here nor there. To my knowledge (I’m not an anthropologist), mankind has always marked the death of one of its own with respect. Before Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, or any of the religious rites, forms and doctrines we remember today (to say nothing of those lost to Prehistory — the 190,000+ years of modern Homo sapiens history pre-dating modern religions). “People of the cloth” weren’t a necessity then for the same reason they aren’t now, however any humanist will recognise the part of mankind that benefits from certain customs, habits and rituals. Having a wise or respected person (or elder) officiate at the departure ceremony of a member of the tribe maintains a sense of belonging, continuation and comfort.

But you don’t need a degree in theology, a seminary certificate, or a special book for it. You just need compassion, understanding and respect. I’m afraid the blog post about which I’m writing shows an absence of all of these qualities, instead replacing them with lesser qualities that will likely have hurt and offended people who have recently lost loved ones. I wonder how the families of his recent funeral ceremonies feel at his slap in their faces?

That we may have an opinion is not necessarily a justification for publishing it.

To make things worse, it appears that there have been some negative reactions to criticism of (Father? Vicar? Reverend? Minister? Let’s go with Mister…) Mr Tomlinson’s blog entry. Margaret, a humanist celebrant and the person behind Dead Interesting, posted a reply entitled They’re not doing it his way, to which some of his defenders have responded angrily. That will be their self-avowed cheek-turning at work, then — or is it the eye removal? It depends on whether you think that those who don’t share your beliefs deserve to be treated like human beings, I suppose.

The Solution

Part of the problem that Mr Tomlinson has unwittingly illustrated is that there is not widespread understanding that those who wish to have a non-religious funerals can easily achieve just that. He states the following:

I am equally troubled that pastoral care is being left in the hands of those whose main aim is to make money. And I am further concerned that an opportunity for evangelism is slipping through our fingers.

Atheists and secularists might delight in this fact but is it really the victory they imagine?

The implication here is that non-religious alternatives are about making money (we’ll ignore the collection plates, donation envelopes, tithing sermons, Direct Debit facilities and Gift Aid awareness present at church services), when in fact there are humanist celebrants and others who often have a normal career but spend their spare time performing weddings, namings, funerals, memorials and other events that provide a non-religious alternative to those offered by religious organisations. I understand that there are also people doing this full-time, though I still fail to understand why their costs should be ignored — or does a person of the cloth still have to beg for food, shelter and Internet connectivity?

The majority of non-religious people (even those that may have only gone to a church as a child) that I’ve spoken to have said that they have or expect to get married in a church, have or expect to name their child in a church and, if they happen to have thought that far ahead, expect to have their funeral service in a church.

But this does not have to be the case. There are alternatives and they are not — as many people may suspect — antagonistic, iconoclastic alternatives. They are the marking of important events in our lives without the constant reference to an invisible force, or subject to the dogma and doctrine of that invisible force.

Let me repeat: you can get married, name your child, and farewell a loved one outside of a religious environment. And the sky will not fall.

It won’t be performed in a cleaner’s closet or seedy back room somewhere, and in many cases it can even take place in a religious building, if that is your wish. To any pro-religious detractors who may read this and scoff — please recognise that this is the humanistic recognition of the importance of milestones in our lives. It pre-dates all religion.

It might interest you to know that the British Humanist Association (BHA) responded today to Mr Tomlinson’s blog entry with the following article: BHA defends humanist funerals.

More Information
If you would like to learn more, please have a look at the following resources in addition to the Blogroll links elsewhere on this page:

UK:

US & Worldwide:

Secular Humanism is not a religion, but it is a system of living that recognises the importance of ethics and morals — all without God, gods or superstition. You don’t need an invisible headmaster to make you a good person.

But don’t take what I say on faith… learn for yourself.

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