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Marking death, celebrating life: why I love being a humanist funeral celebrant

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.

Kate Hobson – humanist celebrant

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.

Further information
For more information about Kate Hobson, visit humanist.org.uk/katehobson. Contact Kate on 07971 015856 or email kate.hobson@humanistceremonies.org.uk.

Funeral settings should be more inclusive of all religions and beliefs, says Government

Humanists UK has welcomed a new Government report which recommends that funeral settings such as crematoria be suitable for all members of the community including those without religious beliefs.

In its response to the Crematoria Provision and Facilities Review, the Government recommended that crematoria in England should be equipped to provide both religious and non-religious ceremonies by having interchangeable iconography that can be removed if the funeral is non-religious, or for another religious type.

In England, many crematoria have fixed Christian symbols including crosses on walls, images in stained glass windows, and Christian symbols on the catafalque. Many also have hymn books placed on seats which is inappropriate for many funerals, especially when the funeral is a humanist one, or refer to their spaces as ‘chapels’.

Humanists UK, which provides non-religious ceremonies including funerals, weddings, and namings, has welcomed the Government’s steps to ensure funeral settings are more inclusive of all religions and beliefs.

Humanists UK’s Head of Ceremonies Isabel Russo said: ‘It is not reflective of modern Britain to have crematoria with such Christian symbolism. Most people in Britain aren’t Christian.

‘The Government’s move to provide more inclusive spaces for funerals is a positive step forward and will certainly make it easier for our own celebrants to provide humanist funerals for their clients which are in accordance with their loved ones’ beliefs.’

Humanists UK will be responding to the next stage of the Government’s consultation.

NOTES:

For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Press Manager Casey-Ann Seaniger at casey@humanism.org.uk or phone 020 7324 3078.

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.

Humanist marriages least likely to end in divorce, official statistics reveal

Photo credit: Ross Holkham Photography http://rossholkhamphotography.co.uk/

Couples married in a humanist ceremony are almost four times less likely to divorce compared with all other types of marriages, according to new official statistics on marriage and divorce data in Scotland released today. The data comes as a new poll, also released today, shows clear majority support and growing demand for legal recognition of humanist marriages in England and Wales.

Divorce rates in Scotland

The new official statistics on Scottish divorces were obtained by Humanists UK through a freedom of information request. The data covers all divorces in 2017-18 split into civil, humanist, Church of Scotland, Catholic, and other type of religious marriages. By comparing these figures to existing statistics on number of marriages, it’s possible to calculate the divorce rate for each group.

In all cases, couples who had a humanist marriage were the least likely to divorce – and by a significant margin. Overall, looking at marriages within the last fifteen years, 0.25% of couples who had a humanist marriage got divorced in 2017-18, compared to 0.84% of all other couples. This stark difference remains regardless of duration of marriage.

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Strong and growing demand for legal recognition in England and Wales

Humanist marriages have been legally recognised in Scotland since 2005 but are still not recognised in England and Wales. Today also sees the release of a new YouGov poll which shows that nearly 70% of the British public support legal recognition being extended to England and Wales as well. Humanists UK says the findings strongly support the case for extending legal recognition and puts pressure on the UK Government to urgently extend the right to access humanist marriage in England and Wales.

The YouGov poll found nearly seven in ten adults (68%) in England and Wales support legal recognition of humanist marriages in these countries. This is a higher level of support compared to when a similar question asked in 2013 (52% support). The strong support is found across religion or belief groups, while just over one in ten (13%) are opposed.

Support is consistent across religion and belief groups. 79% of those with no religion are in favour, as are 56% of Anglicans, 60% of Catholics, and 71% of ‘other Christians’ and 55% of ‘other religions’.

The ‘2013’ and ‘2018’ overall figures are for all English and Welsh adults. The breakdown by denomination is British adults.

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Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, ‘These figures show what a good start for couples a humanist wedding can be. Humanist weddings are deeply personal, with a unique ceremony crafted for each couple by a celebrant that gets to know them well and ensures that their script and vows reflect precisely who they are and the commitment they are making to each other. They are highly meaningful occasions and are increasingly popular.

‘It is no wonder that the public is so strongly in favour of legal recognition for our weddings in England and Wales. The UK Government has the power in law to do this immediately and should get on and do it. Their persistent and completely inexplicable failure to act is doing nothing other than preventing happiness and the improvement of individual lives and of society.’

Humanist Society Scotland Chief Executive Gordon MacRae commented: ‘Scotland should be proud of leading the way in allowing freedom for couples to choose a humanist marriage. In 2005 there was opposition in Scotland to allowing couples the choice of a humanist ceremony as a “passing fad”. The growth in popularity that now sees Humanist Society Scotland celebrants officiate more marriages than the Church of Scotland has closed any such claim.

‘These new government statistics on divorce also reveal that humanist marriages are the most likely to result in a couple staying together. Humanist ceremonies have a clear focus on the the people at the heart of the relationship and their own personal commitments.’

Zena Birch, a Humanists UK celebrant, said: ‘I’ve conducted weddings for over 260 couples and I’m still in touch with almost all of them. In eight years, I have only learned of three divorces. The low divorce rate for humanist marriages may well be because of the reflection and consideration that couples having these ceremonies put into preparing their wedding day. Humanist wedding ceremonies look at the reason behind choosing to get married and how to create a solid, thought-through foundation.’

Notes:

For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK press manager Casey-Ann Seaniger at casey@humanism.org.uk or phone 020 7324 3078.

About humanist marriages

A humanist wedding is a non-religious ceremony that is deeply personal and conducted by a humanist celebrant. It differs from a civil wedding in that it is entirely hand-crafted and reflective of the humanist beliefs and values of the couple, and conducted by a celebrant who shares their beliefs and values. Humanist marriages have long been legally recognised in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, and have had a transformative effect in both countries. They gained legal recognition in Scotland in 2005, and have risen in number from 85 in the first year to almost 7,000 in 2017 – some 20% of the total. Humanist Society Scotland provides more marriage ceremonies than the Church of Scotland or any other religion or belief group. In the Republic of Ireland, humanist marriages gained legal recognition in 2012. In 2017 around eight percent of legal marriages were humanist, placing the Humanist Association of Ireland only behind the Catholic Church and civil marriages.

More recently humanist marriages became legal in Northern Ireland in August, following a Court of Appeal ruling that concluded that a failure to do so would be a breach of human rights. Jersey also gave legal recognition to humanist marriages in July, with the first ones expected to be performed in due course, and Guernsey is currently considering doing the same thing.

In England and Wales, over 1,000 couples a year already have non-legal humanist wedding ceremonies, but such ceremonies cannot at present carry legal recognition, without the couple also going through the time and expense of having a civil marriage as well. Humanists UK believes this is unfair, and since religious marriages do carry such recognition, discriminatory. But the recognition in Ireland, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Jersey, and the ongoing proposals in Guernsey, surely means that the prospects of legal recognition in England and Wales, too, should become much more likely. Since 2013 humanist marriages have been on the statute books in England and Wales, but the UK Government hasn’t chosen to enact the relevant statute.

The Government recently announced a review of the law around marriage venues in England and Wales. It is presently unclear whether this review will include humanist marriages, but Humanists UK sees no good reason as to why humanist marriages need another review. Instead Humanists UK is asking the Government to urgently bring about legal recognition.

About the research into divorces

Read the new research into divorces: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Briefing-number-of-divorces-in-Scotland-by-type-of-marriage.pdf

The data on divorce rates by type of marriage and duration was obtained through a freedom of information request submitted by Humanists UK to the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service. The divorce rate was then calculated by comparing the number of divorces with the number of marriages that occurred each year. Marriage figures are published by National Records of Scotland.

For marriages which lasted between one and five years, 0.73% of civil marriages ended in divorce, as did 0.58% of Church of Scotland, 0.56% of Roman Catholic, 0.49% of ‘other religion’ and just 0.17% of humanist. For marriages which lasted between five and ten years, 1.24% of civil marriages, 0.68% of Church of Scotland, 0.9% of Roman Catholic, 1.08% of ‘other religion’, and 0.46% of humanist marriages ended in divorce. For marriages which lasted between ten and 15 years, 0.94% of civil marriages, 0.56% of Church of Scotland, 0.86% of Roman Catholic, 0.76% of ‘other religion’, and just 0.27% of humanist marriages end in divorce.

About the poll

Read the newly published YouGov results, and the previous survey: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Results-for-Humanists-UK-2018-Tracker-survey-2-OMNI_616-20.11.18-marriage-for-publication.xlsx

The new poll ran on 19-20 November and asked 2,038 British adults (of whom 1,858 were from England and Wales), ‘In the UK, both civil marriages (i.e. without a religious ceremony, held in a licensed venue such as a registry office, hotel etc.) and religious marriages (i.e. based on someone’s religious beliefs, typically held in a place of worship) are legally recognised forms of marriage. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, humanist marriages are also legally recognised. Humanist marriages are non-religious, can take place in any location chosen by the couple (i.e. it doesn’t have to be a licensed venue), and the ceremony can be more personalised to match the wishes of the couple (i.e. there is more flexibility over the structure of the ceremony). In England and Wales, humanist marriages are not legally recognised. To what extent would you support or oppose humanist marriages being legally recognised in England and Wales?’ It found 69% in support of reform, 12% opposed, and 19% saying they didn’t know. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all British adults aged 18+.

These figures stand at 68% support and 13% oppose, amongst those in England and Wales specifically.

The previous poll ran on 27-29 May 2013 was of 3,013 adults in England and Wales. It asked ‘In Britain, both civil marriages (i.e. held in a registry office) and religious marriages (i.e. based on someone’s religious beliefs) are legal forms of marriage. In Scotland, humanist marriages (i.e. based on someone’s non-religious beliefs) are also legally recognised as a form of marriage. Do you support or oppose the legal recognition of humanist marriages in England and Wales, in addition to Scotland?’ It found 51% in support, 14% in opposition, and 35% either having no view one way or the other or saying they didn’t know. The survey was carried out online. The figures were weighted to be representative of all adults in England and Wales (aged 18+).

Read more about Humanists UK’s campaigns around marriage laws: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/human-rights-and-equality/marriage-laws/

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.

Humanist Society Scotland promotes Humanist values to people in Scotland, campaigns for an ethical, rational and secular future and gives voice to the millions of people in Scotland who live without religion. We support a community of over 14,000 members working together for a compassionate, dignified and respectful vision of Scotland and the world. We provide services such as ceremonies which enable people to discover Humanism and live their lives as Humanists.

Push for legal humanist marriages gets more support in Parliament

Baroness Thornton called for legal humanist marriage in the House of Lords today

The push to give legal recognition of humanist marriages in England and Wales gained further support in Parliament today, after peers called on the UK Government to implement reforms around legal humanist marriages.

In a discussion on the second reading of the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc) Bill in the House of Lords today, Labour frontbenchers Baroness Thornton and Lord Collins and Labour peer Lord Cashman, who are all members of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, spoke in favour of legal recognition of humanist marriages.

In her speech, Labour frontbencher Baroness Thornton said the issue of humanist marriage was one of ‘inequality,’ and accused the Government of kicking the issue into the long grass. She said: ‘It’s been five years since Parliament said that humanist weddings should be made official and should take place,’ and that denying thousands of people a legal humanist marriage  was ‘unequal’ and ‘unfair’. She closed her address by calling on the Government to immediately resolve it.

Lord Collins of Highbury said: ‘In 2014, the Government held a consultation which revealed that over 90% of respondents were in favour of legally recognised humanist marriages. In 2015, the Law Commission reported that failing to grant humanists the same rights as religious people in marriage was fundamentally unfair. In June 2018, the Northern Irish Court of Appeal ruled that there is a human right to humanist marriage. I therefore hope that in her response today the Minister will say that, without any further prompting or delay, she will use the UK Government’s existing powers to legally recognise humanist marriages in England and Wales. I hope that will happen as soon as is practicable.’ Lord Cashman echoed his support for Lord Collins’ comments.

This latest pressure follows on from a debate in Parliament in November when peers from all sides called for legal humanist marriages. Humanists UK had briefed peers in the lead up to the debate.

Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson said: ‘We welcome these latest calls from peers who recognise this as a burning issue of inequality. There is growing pressure from within Parliament to address our unjust marriage laws which are denying people in England and Wales their rights to have a humanist marriage.’

In England and Wales, over 1,000 couples a year already have non-legal humanist wedding ceremonies, but such ceremonies cannot at present carry legal recognition, without the couple also going through the time and expense of having a civil marriage as well.

Humanists UK believes this is unfair, and discriminatory, since religious marriages are given legal recognition. But the fact that there is now recognition in Ireland, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Jersey, and ongoing proposals in Guernsey, surely means that the prospects of legal recognition in England and Wales, too, should become much more likely. Since 2013 humanist marriages have been on the statute books in England and Wales, but the UK Government hasn’t chosen to enact the relevant statute.

NOTES:

For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK press manager Casey-Ann Seaniger at casey@humanism.org.uk or phone 020 7324 3078.

Read our most recent news item on humanist marriage here: https://humanism.org.uk/2018/11/22/peers-from-all-sides-call-for-legal-humanist-marriages-in-england-and-wales/

Read more about Humanists UK’s campaigns around marriage laws: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/human-rights-and-equality/marriage-laws/

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.

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