For Dying Matters Awareness Week, a national week dedicated to promoting healthy conversations about death and dying, humanist celebrant Kate Hobson talks about the privilege of conducting humanist funerals.
When people ask me what I do, I am proud to say I am a humanist funeral celebrant. It’s not the only work I do, but it is by far the most important. I don’t usually like labels, but as this one defines me so well, I embrace it.
My first Humanists UK funeral ceremony was in May 2017, after training that spring. I still remember the thrill as I plunged into it, the amazement that this was me, finally, doing it. The training stood me in excellent stead. It was very comprehensive, hands-on, and shared with an enthusiastic and talented cohort of fellow trainees. I had been working up to it for quite a few years before that, particularly in the years I spent working for a disability charity.
It was a slow burn – from the day I talked to a friend who sang in a choir with a humanist celebrant to the day I attended a funeral led by another humanist celebrant. The idea lodged in my head and wouldn’t go away. By happy chance, the first celebrant I spoke to later trained me and the second became my mentor.
I can honestly say that I’ve never enjoyed any work I’ve done in the past as much as being a celebrant. It is ironic, but immensely satisfying, that just as my friends are starting to think about retirement, I am just coming into my own. I love every aspect of it, from the family visit right through to delivering the ceremony on the day.
I have worked with funeral directors all over North London. They, and the chapel attendants, make everything go smoothly on the day and, in my experience, have always been unfailingly polite and professional. I liaise with funeral arrangers over practical matters, and some of them also go out of their way to help me give the family what they want, from putting together music CDs to tracking down people who can contribute to the ceremony.
Bringing people together
For me, the interaction with families is particularly special. I am sometimes privy to very intimate thoughts and experiences, and I feel very privileged when people I’ve never met before are willing to entrust these confidences to me. Every person is unique; every family is different; and every ceremony is absolutely itself. However many I do there is always something new, always something to learn. It is a cliché to say that ordinary people have extraordinary lives, but it is true, and it bears no relation at all to how many obituaries there have been in the papers or how many people come to the funeral. A great leveller indeed.
The families I speak to are amazingly eloquent, but they often don’t think they are. Usually, when I look back through my notes, I find some wonderful phrases describing the person they have lost and the relationship they had with them, and I always use them in the script. This is one of the things that makes a humanist ceremony unique. The ceremony is for them, about them and the person who has died, and created largely by them. I think of myself as a guide, an enabler, if you like, and sometimes a chance comment from a family member can lead to new ideas on how to illuminate the life of the person who has died.
Some people have achieved great things, become experts in their field, travelled the world: for others, their family and local community are their orbit. Some people have great opportunities in life, which they take up enthusiastically: others face the most difficult challenges, yet manage to meet them while keeping their dignity, humour and respect for others. All these are things to celebrate. For me it matters not a jot whether a funeral is attended by two people or 200. What matters is what each person there gets out of it individually, and that together we have marked the end of a life in a loving and dignified way.
Words matter. Words have always meant a lot to me, and finding just the right one is challenge I relish. I was lucky enough to be exposed to good literature in my teens, but didn’t realise then that one of my favourite novelists, George Eliot, was a humanist. Her approach to, and her descriptions of, ordinary human relations are second to none. Her insights into some of the things that drive us as humans are profound.
Personal, intimate, bespoke
I do of course feel I have an important role to play as a humanist. We believe in inclusivity and respect for others, so a ceremony can include an element from other belief systems or religions if it has a particular resonance for the person who died or for a member of the family. It matters to me that people go away thinking about their own lives and how they might live them in the future. The act of occupying the same space and remembering someone together has a special significance, and is a great reminder of the importance of life and of living it to the best of our ability. Occasionally, a ceremony can act as a catalyst to finding ways to heal wounds which have never quite closed.
Some ceremonies can be crafted around a distinct unifying theme – it could be anything from sport to embroidery, or, in one case, stars. One of the most poignant funerals I have done was for a man in his thirties who left a wife and young son. Father and son shared a love for stars, so we read passages from books that they had read together, and the boy decorated his father’s coffin with stars that he had drawn. His father will forever be associated in his mind with the stars.
Sometimes a theme is reflected simply by the people who attend. In one ceremony lots of people came wearing odd socks; and in another, they were wearing shorts – in both cases a personal tribute to their friend. At a ceremony with ashes for an artist, all her friends got together and decorated the whole hall with her artworks.
Some people are in pieces before the ceremony yet rise majestically to the occasion on the day. And it’s because they are doing it for their loved one. It is love that unites all ceremonies. Love takes all sorts of different forms and sometimes squeezes itself into crevices. I like to winkle it out and let it breathe the air; let people breathe its air. I hope to go on delivering funeral ceremonies which can celebrate all its manifestations for a long time to come. I have finally found my vocation.