Humanists UK has broadcast a national memorial ceremony to mark three months since the start of the UK lockdown, to offer an opportunity to reflect on what we have been and are still going through, pay tribute to those we have lost, offer hope, and reckon with the grief, mourning, and anxiety so many of us have known these past three months.
The 30-minute video has been released to mark a long and difficult period in which over 60,000 excess deaths have been recorded. The ceremony is presented by well-known faces like Joan Bakewell, Mark Gatiss, Alice Roberts, and Jim Al Khalili, but also includes frontline humanist community service workers including funeral celebrants, pastoral carers from NHS chaplaincy teams, and community volunteers from across the UK who have been working at capacity during this crisis. It also features music and a performance by the London Humanist Choir.
Millions of people in the UK each year draw comfort from humanist funerals and this ceremony is in that spirit. It is principally directed at non-religious people but it is hoped that it will give comfort to those of different beliefs and it is entirely inclusive in nature.
The ceremony was welcomed by Communities Minister Lord Greenhalgh, who commented:
‘Covid-19 is the biggest challenge the UK has faced in decades – and we are not alone. All over the world we are seeing the devastating impact of this disease. It threatens to take both our way of life and our loved ones from us.
‘Three months ago, today, our Government put in place strict social distancing measures to slow the spread of the virus and help prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed, so that lives could be saved. We’ve seen so many communities, including humanists, support our neighbours and one another. It is with thanks to the hard work and extraordinary sacrifice of the British people, we are slowing the spread of Covid-19.
‘And now as we begin to look forward, we look to rebuilding the UK with our roadmap to reopening that provides us with hope. We must also reflect on, and mourn the impacts this terrible pandemic has had, and the remember the lives we have lost.
‘I would like to thank everyone for the Nation’s efforts so far, and over the next months ahead.’
In the ceremony, Humanists UK President Alice Roberts says:
‘You might ask yourself what kind of meaning there is to be found in facing life’s unexpected difficulties. When anxiety, even grief and loss comes knocking on our door, and life comes to a halt. These are times when we look for strength in ourselves and place our hopes in other people.
‘You may feel cowed and beaten, levelled by loss, laid low with grief. It’s important to acknowledge that. But we’ve seen astonishing things, too. Selflessness, generosity, and bravery. Individuals placing others’ wellbeing above their own. Facing the challenges with such courage and dignity and compassion. We’ve also seen unprecedented international scientific cooperation. Competitors becoming collaborators. A glimpse of how productive we can be when we work together, not against each other. Humanity is laid bare by laid bare in a crisis like this, and there is so much goodness there.’
Humanist pastoral carer Lindsay van Dijk, who leads the NHS chaplaincy team in Buckinghamshire NHS Trust, in her contribution to the ceremony, talks about working in her role during the pandemic, and what it has been like to support people at this time:
‘What I have experienced is the tremendous amounts of love in the room when lives come to an end. We don’t always think about expressing our love to those around us during our “normal daily routines’” If we learn anything from this pandemic it is that life is precious and it is short; to experience it fully as much as we can and to do this with the ones we love – and to not wait until we come to the end of our lives to express how much they mean to us. Let’s say that we love them – today.’
Humanists UK celebrant Audrey Simmons reads words by Humanists UK Vice President AC Grayling in the ceremony. She says:
‘We never quite get over the sorrow caused by losing those most loved. We only learn to live with it, and to live despite it, which makes living a richer thing. That is sorrow’s gift, though we never covet it.’
And All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group Co-Chair Joan Bakewell, in her contribution, leads a moment of reflection, for quoting Humanists UK patron Sir Terry Pratchett as saying:
‘No one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away, until the clock wound up winds down, until the wine she made has finished its ferment, until the crop they planted is harvested. The span of someone’s life is only the core of their actual existence.’
Michael Rosen, whose poem in tribute to the NHS is read in the ceremony by Mark Gatiss, paid his own tribute to health service workers:
‘The NHS has just saved my life, nursed me back to health and are now rehabilitating me to be able to walk and be strong. I will forever be a champion of the NHS.’
Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented:
‘In every part of the UK, people have suffered enormously with the weight of lockdown. Humanists UK’s national memorial ceremony is designed to bring together people from all nations of the UK to remember the lives we have lost and acknowledge the sacrifices we have made. This is a ceremony anyone can access and like all humanist ceremonies, its format is inclusive of attendees and listeners from all walks of life.
‘A humanist ceremony is typically characterised by its personalisation and its uniqueness to the situation at hand. Here, humanist celebrants have risen to the challenge of applying that same craft and care to create a ceremony that can speak to the whole nation at a time of grief and difficulty.’
Humanist Society Scotland Chief Executive Fraser Sutherland commented:
‘Throughout the lockdown period humanist funerals have continued, but we realise that not everyone who would have liked to attend a loved one’s memorial has had the opportunity to do so. This initiative allows people from right across the UK to join together in a common act of remembrance via an online ceremony. It also reflects on the changes to all our lives and the challenges we continue to face.
‘The inclusive ceremony draws upon shared values that humanists hold in common such as compassion, love, and our common humanity.’
For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 020 7324 3072.
Media are free to use any section of the ceremony on their own websites, so long as they attribute what they use to Humanists UK. Humanists UK has also made two short sections of the ceremony available as stand-alone files for media, namely Joan Bakewell quoting Terry Pratchett on death, and Mark Gatiss reading Michael Rosen’s tribute poem to the NHS that has just saved his life. We are also making available a composite image of four participants in the ceremony, namely Humanists UK celebrants Phil Walder and Audrey Simmons, Humanists UK President Alice Roberts, and Mark Gatiss.
Humanists are non-religious people who shape their own lives in the here and now, understanding the world through reason and science and living by a moral code based simply on empathy and compassion. Humanist ceremonies exist to meet the timeless human need to mark life’s turning points – such as deaths, births, and marriages – with an event involving others.
Even in physically distanced times, the essential human need for personal connection and to express and share grief remains undiminished. The National Memorial Ceremony is an attempt by humanists to help address this need among the non-religious community and the country at large.
This ceremony includes contributions from humanists across all four nations of the UK, and includes participants from Humanist Society Scotland, Wales Humanists, and Northern Ireland Humanists.
Humanist Society Scotland seeks to represent the views of people in Scotland who wish to lead ethical and fulfilling lives guided by reason, empathy and compassion. We provide a range of non-religious ceremonies and campaign for a secular state. HSS has over 15,000 members across Scotland.
Wales Humanists is a section of Humanists UK.
Northern Ireland Humanists is part of Humanists UK, working with the Humanist Association of Ireland.
Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 85,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.