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Form versus substance (and inclusivity)

It has not been a good year for me so far and I have been to too many funerals. The expectations and acceptance of some people with regard to religious content have surprised me.

At a secular funeral for a secular person, there were those who were outraged that there was to be no religious content, for their comfort.

Yet the same outraged voices later said they don’t believe in a God but they draw comfort from the familiar forms: words, music, surroundings.

Yet others who had resisted pressures for religious content for the secular person’s funeral and have no religious belief found comfort in those same forms at another person’ funeral, while professing no religious belief themselves.

I have been quite irked by clergy conducting funerals using a form of words that infers “you are sitting in front of me now so you are mine” in the way they talk about “we Christians”. Sorry? When did I say that I was one, and how many others in the room would put their hand up to those beliefs either?

I was told by the organisers of the church funeral that where they were offered choices, they always chose the least religious option. I shudder to think what more they could have done to put religion in it.

Do clergy ever discuss with families how to make services inclusive of those who do not wish to be bracketed with the religious, yet want to be part of an important family occasion?

I certainly found myself quite alienated by the religious language and assumptions, whether implicit or explicit. I resented even more the cleric who stalked me over two days, despite my obviously trying to avoid him, to offer me “comfort” and scuttled away before I could tell him where to stick his blessing. I am sure he meant well but to me it was unwelcome and impertinent.

By what right do they do that? Would a Satanist get away with it?

Does this mean that published religious head-counts get significantly over-stated?

Do others find comfort in form, without caring for the substance?

7 comments to Form versus substance (and inclusivity)

  • Linda

    Interesting. And sad.
    We did a religious funeral for my Dad last year, even though he wasn’t particularly religious, because it was what he would have wanted and what his contemporaries expected. We were told we “did him proud”. We were lucky, the vicar was really nice and didn’t push the “comfort” angle to us; he just basically did the job we paid him to do, and did it very well. We weren’t asked how much religion we wanted; there was god-bothering, but I expected that and ignored it the best I could. I think the fact that it was in his church gave him some right to preach. (Similarly, if you marry in a church you can’t complain about the religion).
    I went to a humanist funeral about a month later and didn’t personally hear any complaints about that one. I hope the family didn’t get any stick for it; it was a lovely occasion and very fitting for the deceased.

  • I’ve been conducting Humanist and non-religious ceremonies for BHA for several years. I think that one of the reasons they’re becoming so much more popular is that, unlike the traditional funeral you describe, we make no assumptions about the faith or lack of it of our audience. Everyone is welcome and no-one is judged. What we have in common is that we’re just human beings and that’s plenty. Help us spread the alternative word!

  • William

    I appreciate that you wanted the plug, but that wasn’t the point. It was specifically about where families want a religious service, out of their own conviction, or that of the deceased, but failing to recognise that some of those who want to attend the funeral of the person not sharing those beliefs.

    When my wife died, we opted not to have a Humanist™ funeral. It did reflect our absence of belief. The celebrant was an ordained Anglican priest but has the humanity to conduct funerals based on the wishes of the family including, as in this case, leaving out religion if requested, or tempering it to the audience. We had attended a Humanist™ wedding, which was nicely done but we were less than impressed by the plugging of the Humanist™ brand message, which seemed like a direct borrow from a religious “follow us” message.

    We had also attended the talk by Andrew Copson in Winchester SitP and came away considerably less impressed with Humanism.

    For me absence of religion needs no apology, and leaves no gap to be filled by something else.

  • An interesting article – the nicest (if there is such a thing) funeral I have attended was a humanist one. I have appreciated religious ceremonies for people I have known to be religious, to ignore that aspect of their life would seem wrong. I have been most uncomfortable at heavily religious ceremonies
    for people I know to have had no or limited religious beliefs.

    As for consulting families – well i think we know the families are hard to define and may disagree.
    I guess usually just one person will shoulder most of the arrangements, they may even be following instructions in a will
    or other clearly expressed wishes. I suppose most often people feel it is the social convention to follow,or are guided by undertakers/vicars
    with an element of lets pretend like singing carols at Christmas.

    Could people conducting ceremonies be more thoughtful ? Undoubtedly, is it an issue to get too worked up about ?
    probably not. I would think from the ‘secular’ music at wedding and funerals many churches have already moved some way
    in accepting that many people aren’t fervent believers.

    For my own funeral, I have already set out the readings, music and humanist ceremony I would like – I just won’t be about to enforce it.

    I too have found myself alienated by religous language and assumptions, I suppose it’s abit like thought for the day – a reminder of why I don’t have faith.

  • Pamela

    If I were to go to the funeral of a religious person with religious people I would expect religion. If they were not religious I would not expect religion. I guess you just have to go with the majority, though that does become awkward when, as you say, people are claiming a religion they don’t really hold.

    The most recent funeral I went to was conducted by a humanist and I think he did an excellent job and the family was very pleased.

    You seem to also be saying that you don’t like the idea that people seem to be just replacing traditional religion with humanism and then kidding themselves that they’re not being sheeple – I know those are my words interpreting you, not yours, so let me know if I’m misunderstanding your meaning. You seem to feel that religion doesn’t really occupy a useful niche, so why replace it?


    If people do want traditional funerals then someone needs to conduct it. Alternatively we can chuck out the old style funeral altogether. We could hire a hall and have a party (like a wake, but fun) to celebrate the life of the deceased, or sit in a room with the coffin and have friends and family get up and talk about them, or we could hold a traditional style funeral but nominate a family member to run the service. I don’t see anything wrong with any of those.

    Some want to hand over the conducting bits to a third party organisation whether that be the traditional church or someone else. You went with handing it over to a traditional service provider, but asked them to cut out the god bothering. That is fine but a humanist could well have done the same. If there were people at the funeral who really wanted religion to comfort them but didn’t get that then I’m sure they could easily have gone off afterwards and prayed privately and found their comfort that way.

    Do you have any ideas for what would be best for a genuinely mixed group of mourners? If you don’t want a god botherer putting us all in the ‘my children’ basket, but some religious people do want to be there then the only thing I can think of at a traditional funeral would be to split the group and have the religious sit on one side, the secular on the other and then the vicar would know what he could and couldn’t direct at each side of the congregation. Or let the preaching happen whilst the non-believers wait outside and then bring the non-believers in for the family messages and poems, the lifestory, the music etc.

    What do you think?

  • I am a Humanist Celebrant in Hampshire and I am happy to have a prayer or a reading in one of my ceremonies but I will not read them. I ask the family if one of them or a friend will assist

  • William

    It seems the point of my original post was not clear. Of course if you have a service in a church conducted by a religious minister you are going to have religion.

    If you have it in a crematorium or non-religious venue you can have, within reason, what you like.

    My issue is with ministers of religion who assume by the words they use (eg “we as Christians”) that all those sitting in their pews share their beliefs. For a funeral that may well not be the case, and to do so is somewhat unsympathetic.

    I chose not to have a Humanist celebrant for my wife because in our experience they always plug Humanism, almost as a surrogate religion or belief system.

    Maggie and Roy have rather underlined this point by jumping in and plugging Humanist ceremonies.

    An absence of religious belief needs no label.