Tim Maguire: A celebrant’s role is not always about celebration

'We're having a celebration of life' has become a cliche at funeral services, and is not always appropriate, says Tim Maguire.
'We're having a celebration of life' has become a cliche at funeral services, and is not always appropriate, says Tim Maguire.
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It’s not always appropriate to celebrate a life, and it would be wrong to think that’s what a humanist funeral ceremony has to be.

I’ve been a humanist celebrant for a dozen years now, and over that time, the character of funerals has undoubtedly changed. When I started, the general expectation of a funeral was that you’d leave it sadder than you arrived, but thanks to the popularity of humanist ceremonies, that’s no longer the case.

Two years ago, the BBC ran a story that said 54 per cent of people wanted a funeral ceremony that was ‘a celebration of life’. Almost as many wanted to incorporate their favourite colour, football team, hobby or music. They wanted it to be happy.

And why not, as the late Barry Norman might have said? After centuries of doom and gloom, it’s a wonderful thing that we want to meet death with a smile.

Even The Archers is catching up: it seems that vicar Alan won’t be involved in the memorial for Caroline Sterling, whose unexpected death by her swimming pool in Tuscany left Ambridge reeling last week: they’re having ‘a celebration of life’ too. It’s great to see fiction reflecting social change, but celebration shouldn’t be an automatic response to loss.

‘We’re having a celebration of life’ is in danger of becoming a cliché. It’s good we’re learning to express our emotions, but it would be a shame if we’ve finally relaxed our stiff upper lip only to feel we have to grin and bear it instead.

Humanists believe we should celebrate the one life we have, but we also believe that grieving and mourning are fundamental to the healing process. Celebration isn’t obligatory, and it would be wrong to think that’s what a humanist funeral has to be.

Recently I conducted two funerals for men who died before their time. One had bravely lived with terminal illness for many years, and that really was a celebration: one of Ram’s last wishes was that there should be ‘positively no Ed Sheerin’ on the playlist. Andy, however, had been struck down out completely of the blue, leaving a wife and young family. He was a man of great kindness, genuine achievement and humility, and his death was so unfair.

In my introduction to his ceremony I said: “If you’ve been to a humanist funeral before, you may know they’re often described as ‘a celebration of the life that has been lived’ but today to be honest the shock of Andy’s death is so great and the pain of your grief so raw that the word ‘celebration’ seems wrong. Instead, in the midst of our deep sorrow, let us simply take this opportunity to remember the man you love.”

The character of the ceremony was still recognisably humanist: we talked about Andy’s life and his character, and there were moments of joy and laughter, but there was no attempt to ignore the universal feelings of shock, loss and sadness.

A few days later, I had a conversation with a hospice chaplain about the way we approach death, and although she is religious, I found we had much in common. Of course, humanists mourn and grieve, and the death of someone we love is no less sad and painful for those of us who live without religion than it is for people of faith. If there is a difference in the way humanists respond to death, it is simply this: we believe that the people we love live on, not in heaven, but in our own hearts and minds.

Tim Maguire is a celebrant with the Caledonian Humanist Association, and an honorary chaplain to the University of Edinburgh