Funeral 2: to humanist or not? A history.

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It was several years ago now. The  village doctor had died tragically early. As to ‘faith’, he was an avowed and passionate atheist. The local vicar, broadly a traditionalist who had been in post for over 30 years insisted that his humanist funeral be held in the parish church, only having the Lord’s Prayer as the dying doctor insisted because it was ‘your church’.

This wasn’t quite a ‘road to Damascus’ moment for me, but it came close. Someone (the vicar) was so sure of his faith and thought his God was big enough to encompass even the absence of faith.

I’d experienced a growing feeling of being unsure that when it came to funerals, sometimes people seemed to be ‘christianised’ by the ordained person. I’d become aware that people wanted some element of Christianity, but not the full package. Also that as you were a ‘known person’ in a community, you wanted that person to take your funeral, even if you had no faith.

Gradually, from that day, I began to say ‘yes’ if a ‘humanist’ funeral was requested. Many times what was intended by ‘humanist’ meant some acknowledgment of Christian faith: a prayer, The Lord’s Prayer, but nothing more. Sometimes the family came with negative experiences of religion: the church or a religious figure had put them off, but still wanted ‘something’. They didn’t want their loved one drowned in a ‘one size fits all liturgy.’ I still remember conducting a funeral with no apparent faith content & when I bumped into the family several months later being acknowledged, without irony, as ‘Here’s our vicar’.

The vast majority of church leaders seem to be good at leading funerals: there are a minority though, if stories are to be believed, who are not. Their ‘no’ is remembered long after the event. Digging deeper into the stories that you hear, ‘no’ seems to sometimes owe more to the need for personal power than any desire to uphold orthodoxy. Sometimes the best evangelism when people are incoherent with grief is simply to be kind without conditions.

I realised that I had fully crossed the rubicon when, with a retired bishop I conducted a humanist funeral in a village chapel, because the family wanted something in their community led by people that they trusted.

Now, as a chaplain, and not minister in a church, I’d be expected- if asked- to do whatever it took at a funeral as long as it did not breach my conscience: but to be honest- that has never happened.

My name is Graham: I’m a heretic (see part 3)


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