What is a Humanist funeral ceremony?

A Humanist funeral could be the right choice when you want a unique and non-religious ceremony.

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Arranging funeral services when a person has died involves making a series of decisions. They may have dictated some choices, having bought one of our funeral plans in the UK, or left explicit instructions for cremation or burial, but if you’re looking for inspiration for a ceremony that is inclusive and non-religious, a Humanist funeral might be the right choice for you. 

An estimated one million people have attended Humanist ceremonies in the UK, and this type of funeral is growing in popularity. Not to be confused with other kinds of secular ceremonies, a Humanist ceremony typically celebrates the deceased person’s life without hymns or prayers, but it could also be a good choice if you want to combine elements of a traditional funeral with a more contemporary celebration.

What is Humanism?

‘Humanist’ is a label often applied to people who believe in human agency (rather than deference to a supernatural power) and try to live a good, ethical life centred on the rights and responsibility of each individual. Humanists believe in values like kindness and tolerance, family and community. 

You don’t have to be Humanist to organise a Humanist funeral: this type of ceremony is appropriate for anyone who wishes to focus on the identity and character of the person who has died, rather than ascribing to a specific religion. But there are many reasons why a Humanist ceremony could still be an appropriate choice, even if you have religious beliefs.

What is a Humanist funeral?

We’re all unique, and a Humanist funeral recognises the legacy of the person who has died, giving value to their individuality by focusing on the way they led their life. It doesn’t have to follow a set order and you can add your own touches, reflecting their personality. You might, for example, want to include a video montage of their life, play their favourite music, collect for their favourite charity or include a symbolic act, like planting a tree or drinking a toast to their memory.

A Humanist celebrant conducts the ceremony, which takes the form of both a celebration and a farewell. If the deceased person wasn’t religious, a Humanist funeral could be a fitting way of staying true to who they were. 

Your celebrant will work closely with you to create a personalised tribute, including readings and music. They’ll take the time to find out about the person who has died and create a unique ceremony based on their life. You’ll be involved at every stage of the process to ensure the funeral ceremony is exactly what you planned.

A Humanist approach is one way to personalise the ceremony and make it unique to the deceased person, though it’s important to remember that you don’t have to hold a Humanist ceremony to ensure the service is tailored to the person who has died – your funeral director can help you design the ideal service to fit your beliefs and requirements.

What happens at a Humanist funeral?

Though the concept of a ‘traditional’ (non-Humanist) funeral service is increasingly fluid, a typical format might usually start with a piece of music and a procession of the coffin with close family following behind, after which a minister or celebrant would offer a few words of welcome to those in attendance. A series of eulogies, readings and hymns would follow before a final farewell is said and the congregation departs – usually to another piece of music.

At a Humanist ceremony, you can choose to follow the format of a traditional funeral service or you can create a bespoke celebration, however it’s important to bear in mind the earthly nature of the Humanist ceremony: this means that your choice of service content ought not to contain overt references to a religion or god. Instead, you may wish to include words or music that meant something to the person who has died. Essentially, you can create the format and tone of the ceremony to reflect the deceased person’s life. 

The centrepiece of any Humanist funeral is the tribute to the deceased person. This could include stories and anecdotes from friends and family and is typically read by the celebrant. You’ll receive a printed copy after the funeral, which you can choose to host online if your venue is able to offer this facility.

Another essential part of the ceremony is a time for silent reflection. This is an inclusive opportunity for religious believers to offer a silent prayer and non-religious attendees to remember the person who has died in their own way.

Where can I hold a Humanist funeral?

Because funeral ceremonies have no legal status (and no legal requirements if the coffin is not present) they can theoretically take place whenever and wherever you would like, allowing plenty of flexibility when family and friends have to travel long distances to attend.

Humanist ceremonies are no different: you can choose to hold one wherever you like, within reason. For example, if you wanted to hold a service with the coffin present, the ceremony could take place at a crematorium, cemetery or green burial site. Or you could opt to have a Humanist ceremony in addition to a more traditional funeral to embrace every aspect of the deceased person’s life. 

If you’ve planned a direct cremation and want to arrange a Humanist ceremony any time after receiving the ashes, you might prefer to choose a location with a special resonance such as the person’s home, a park, beach, woodland or community centre. Anywhere where you can gather to commemorate the deceased person’s life is fine, so long as you have the relevant permissions for a large group to assemble if meeting in a public space or on private land that is not your own. Consult your local council if you’re not sure how to go about this.  

Are Humanist funerals a good choice?

Humanist ceremonies were first performed in the 1890s and have grown steadily in popularity ever since. As more people in the UK identify as non-religious, a Humanist ceremony is becoming a mainstream choice. For example, if the deceased person had no strong faith or religious belief, you may feel that such a service would be inappropriate or hypocritical. Similarly, if the deceased person (or their family and friends) held a variety of world views, a Humanist ceremony may be a good way to include everyone without discomfort. 

If you think a sincere and personal Humanist ceremony would respect the deceased person’s wishes and create a fitting tribute to their life, contact Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors today.


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Written by Jennifer Bolt

Funeral Support Assistant

February 15, 2023

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