What is a humanist funeral service?

Feb 23, 2017


You may have heard the phrase 'humanist funeral' but do you know what it means or what a humanist service involves? If you've been the one delegated to sort out a loved one's service and their wish was to have a humanist funeral, then it is important that you do your research and ensure the service is as they would have wished, especially if they haven't left specific instructions before their death.

A non-religious service
First and foremost you should know a humanist service is one that does not involve religion in any way, shape or form. A humanist service is for someone who lived their life without religion, so there will be no need to sort out a church, hymns or a vicar. The whole idea of a humanist funeral is to celebrate the "human" life in question instead, paying tribute to the life they have lived and to focus affectionately on those they have left behind, making the whole service personal to the person and their family and friends.

Funeral celebrants
Instead of a priest, a Celebrant will be the person who leads a humanist funeral. You don't have to have one, but it is often a good idea as it takes the stress away from a family member or friend having to take centre stage whilst dealing with their own grief.

A celebrant will be available from the first planning stages to get to know the family and friends, understand any wishes the deceased left behind, discuss the options for the committal of the body and will if required write the whole ceremony down from start to finish to ensure it is unique, fitting, and captures the essence of the dearly departed.

Cremation or burial options
As with a church led service, there are options as to whether the body can be cremated or buried, but obviously the burial will not be in a church yard. If burial is the preference, then a woodland or natural burial site will need to be found where the body can be interred properly in a coffin following the service. There are many natural burial sites across the UK; you can search for one in your area using our website search function. These are countryside areas in often rural and scenic locations that have been specially relegated for such burials or ash interments and are either run by local authorities or landowners such as farmers.

It will be important if you opt for a natural burial that you understand the rules that govern the site of your choosing beforehand, such as whether a memorial stone or feature can be placed on the site (a lot don't allow this), opening times etc.

Where does a humanist service take place?
If the body is going to be cremated then the service typically takes place at the crematorium. If they are to be buried, then it will take place at the graveside in the natural burial place chosen.

How is a Humanist service structured?
A typical Humanist service consists of at least 7 elements; these are:

    • Introductory music (not hymns). This can either be live (such as a violinist or suitable band) or pre-recorded.
    • Welcoming speech or words from the celebrant or the person leading the service. This may include general thoughts on life and death but will not refer to anything religious throughout.
    • The tribute itself - this will include reflection on the life of the person who has died, their personality, likes and dislikes, and can be tailored to be as solemn or more cheerful as you'd like. Some people who know they are going to die write their own tribute to be read out at the service.
    • Family and friends can now be given the option to step up and read poetry and prose if they would like to, or to recount personal memories.
    • This is then followed by a period of reflection, where all present can sit to think their own thoughts about the deceased. Some choose to play music at this point.
    • The committal of the body is next - either the coffin is moved through the curtains to begin the incineration process, or lowered into the ground if being buried.
    • Closing words are now said by the celebrant and the final music is played as the mourners leave.

    Poetry & music inspiration
    You may struggle to think of ideas for poetry for a funeral that doesn't allude in some way to religion, especially if the deceased has not left specific wishes behind. Good examples include:

    • S/He Is Gone - David Harkins
    • Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep - Mary Frye
    • Death Is Nothing At All - Canon Henry Scott-Holland
    • Let Me Go - Christina Rosetti
    • Remember - Christina Rosetti

    If you are struggling for song ideas, these are quite popular at humanist services:

    • Somewhere over the Rainbow - Eva Cassidy
    • Wind Beneath My Wings - Bette Midler
    • I Will Always Love You - Whitney Houston
    • High - The Lighthouse Family
    • Unforgettable - Nat King Cole