A growing number of people in the UK would class themselves as having no religious belief. For many non-religious people, places of worship are utilised only for births, deaths, and marriages. But what if atheists, or people who think of themselves as Humanists, would prefer a non-religious ceremony? Joe Fearn decided to find out more, by interviewing East Sussex Humanist Celebrant Lesley Arnold-Hopkins.
Non-religious funerals were legalised in 1880, but it was approx 100 years before they started to grow in popularity. It’s in the last 15–20 years that the network has grown, and there are now approx 300 celebrants across England and Wales.
Whenever people ask Lesley what she does for a living, the answer can be quite a conversation stopper. “I conduct funerals”.
To many people, death is one of the last taboos. We all know it’s coming, but we choose not to think about it right now. This makes sense; it’s better to spend our time living rather than worrying about dying. This is why Humanist Celebrants also conduct ceremonies for the other important events; weddings, baby namings, coming of age, or anything else that marks a significant time. These Humanist ceremonies are an alternative for those who don’t want a religious ritual.
“It’s still important for people to publicly share the important occasions.” Says Lesley, who is accredited by the British Humanist Association.
“For centuries, religion has given us the rituals to mark these events. For those with a faith, this is the way to go. But a growing number of people are choosing to live without a religious belief and it is vital that they are also able to mark the happy and sad occasions of their lives with their family and friends.”
Lesley became a Humanist Celebrant after both the death of her mother and then a close friend caused her to rethink and reassess her life. She admits it was basically a mid-life crisis compounded by reaching the age of forty. She packed in her regular job, bought a drum kit, (which she still plays) and trained to be a celebrant. Now she has performed nearly 400 ceremonies, and has recently started to train other celebrants.
So what is a typical day in the life of a Humanist Celebrant?
“The simple answer is that there isn’t one!” Lesley says with a laugh.
“Time may be spent visiting families, and finding out what they want in their ceremony. The hours are irregular, conforming to whatever people find convenient, working families tend to arrange an evening meeting. I once held a meeting with a family on holiday in their caravan.”
Lesley emphasises that an important part of a Humanist ceremony is choice. People can write their own ceremonies and vows, and also choose the location and music. No two families are the same and so each ceremony is created individually. In naming ceremonies for example, the ‘Godparents’ make specific commitments, but these are not connected with a church. The commitments are personalised, something along the lines of “I promise to listen, be there for you”, etc. As Lesley says, “People can choose to say what they mean.”
What songs or script do people choose for a typical ceremony?
“There are some very popular poems and songs which are heard regularly,” says Lesley, “but the important thing is that they mean something to the people who have chosen them, rather than being slotted in because it’s expected.”
After the meeting, the ceremony then needs to be written and, if time allows, parts are shown to the family for approval.
“Some people like to hear it fresh on the day, but if folks want to know beforehand, I’ll try to get the eulogy to them, so that they can feel comfortable with what’s being said,” Lesley explains, “this is particularly important when people have had complicated lives, with a lot of light and shade. The ceremony should be truthful, but there’s no need to be over-critical. Part of being human is to make mistakes; the people who are perfect are usually very dull.”
Once the words are complete, the ceremony is conducted. Most funerals are held at the crematorium, but some are at natural burial grounds. Weddings and namings can be held anywhere; gardens, the beach, or even in the pub. (Due to the law relating to weddings, couples still need to register their marriage separately, but once that administration exercise is over, they can have their humanist ceremony wherever they like).
How much does a Humanist Ceremony cost?
“Usually prices for a funeral are a few quid more than the standard Church of England fee. Weddings are somewhere between £350 and £750, and namings are around £200.”
Lesley says she has personally never charged the top rate. This is because having the ceremony at home, in the field of a friendly farmer, on the beach or similar can save costs. Lesley smiles as she remembers once holding a wedding ceremony in the pub car park.
What’s the best bit about being a Celebrant?
“The people I meet and the stories that they tell. Those who feel that they are very unremarkable still have something fascinating about them. This is an opportunity to share that interesting information and to mark the important occasions in their life.”
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