For Baby Loss Awareness Week, an important national event promoting awareness about pregnancy issues and baby deaths in the UK, humanist funeral celebrant Sue Baumbach writes about the difficult job of helping families navigate grief through a humanist funeral ceremony.
When an infant dies, many families who are religious will turn to religious ministers at a time of the most dreadful loss. Often there will be a hospital chaplain who with dedication and sensitivity will lead the funeral service. But what if you’re not religious, or if the awfulness of losing a baby either during pregnancy or soon after birth causes you to question what you believe?
Humanist Ceremonies celebrants are part of an organisation which is the longest-standing provider of non-religious ceremonies, conducting them since the 1890s. Together we bring all our many years of collective experience and skill to providing a fitting farewell for a much-loved baby. I say collective experience because as celebrants, we very often support each other in helping families at such dire times. It’s also because our training is not only extremely rigorous, but it leads on to a programme of continuing professional development to sustain our accreditation.
Fitting farewells for fleeting lives
I remember when I first began leading humanist ceremonies in 2004, the phone would ring and often it would be a funeral director asking me if I could make a certain date and time. Often I would quietly and silently hope that the person in question would be well over 80. Many of those whose funerals I’ve helped with have lived to a good age and there has been a lot to offer families in terms of celebrating full lives, well-lived.
The format for deaths of infants is similar in many ways, but families will often ask me: how do you make a fitting farewell for a life that has been fleeting? I believe that the answer lies to some small extent in the knowledge that each life is precious, no matter how soon it ends. Parents will tell you of the ways in which their baby was an individual; the effect their baby has had in their lives, changing those around them forever in just a short space of time. As celebrants, we help grieving parents to express the little personality that so often emerges in many ways very early on, as well as to talk to us about the brave struggle some babies have in the early stages of life. They share with us the hope, anticipation, and excitement that the prospect of new life brought to the wider family, and to friends as well. And of course, they share the cruel sadness. The heart-stopping moments of loss.
These are sometimes moments of bitterness, too. Times when everything hasn’t been as parents would have expected – perhaps a pregnancy has been going well and they now find its loss simply incomprehensible. As funeral celebrants, we encounter so many tragic circumstances, always different, always individually felt and experienced. It’s our responsibility to make sure that unique experience is reflected in the funeral ceremony itself, in a way that facilitates families to grieve and to mourn for their child, as well as their dreams and hopes for them.
While a humanist funeral cannot offer the promise of eternal life in another realm, it offers a great deal of comfort in many other ways. We provide a simple, heartfelt ceremony, often with carefully chosen music and a few moments for quiet reflection, in which we acknowledge the feelings people have at such times. The ceremony itself is a coming together of individuals that welcomes the non-religious and religious people of all kinds equally. Together we reflect on the effect the baby has already had in the lives of all those who come to the funeral. And we try to look forward to a future in which the memory of that precious but brief life will always play a part. Words of comfort can seem glib and superficial at such times, but warmth and sincerity, shared human understanding, and the imagination to create a special, individual ceremony – not to mention the strength to deliver the ceremony on the day – is something that families tell me really helps them during a difficult time.
Funeral directors and arrangers may themselves not know how effective a humanist ceremony for a baby can be, and so families may not always find their way to us. But if you ever need to discuss issues related to death or dying, including your own funeral or a funeral for someone you know, an accredited Humanists UK celebrant is always on hand, and we can be found easily through the Humanists UK website. You’ll find someone through our celebrant search who’ll be very willing to help think things over with you, even if you’re not sure whether to have a non-religious ceremony.