What is a humanist funeral ceremony?

Humanist funeral celebrant, Trevor Molloy. Photo by Simple Tapestry.

With the growth in demand for non-religious services for weddings, funerals, and namings, it’s no surprise that ‘What is a humanist funeral?’ or ‘What happens at a humanist funeral?’ are popular questions on social media these days.

It’s likely you may have been to a humanist funeral yourself or know someone who has. With over half of people in the UK now saying they have no religion, it’s no surprise that as many as one in seven people already know a humanist funeral is for them.

But what is a humanist funeral? Simply put, humanist funerals are non-religious ceremonies that are about the person who has died, the life they led, and the relationships they forged. They are based on the humanist perspective that every life is individual and valuable.

The ceremony is conducted by a humanist celebrant and it is both a celebration of a life and a dignified, personal farewell. They’re the perfect option for families who want a sincere, personal reflection on the life of their loved ones.

This can be especially important if the person who died wasn’t particularly religious, meaning a religious funeral could feel inauthentic and not true to who they were in life.

Are humanist funerals a new thing?

Humanists UK’s members pioneered humanist funerals in 1896. Today, our celebrants are supported by a network and the wealth of experience the organisation has gained in the past 123 years.

In recent years in the UK, humanist funerals have become much more popular. In fact, they are becoming the mainstream choice, which is unsurprising given that 53% of the UK population now identify as ‘non-religious’. In England alone Humanists UK estimates that over 1 million people have now attended a humanist funeral.

What does a humanist funeral celebrant do?

A humanist funeral celebrant works closely with family members or close friends to write a personalised tribute, and to help plan the other aspects of the ceremony, such as music, readings, and time for reflection.

Over the course of several hours, the celebrant finds out about the person who has died – their history, their personality, their likes and dislikes. They then write a unique and personal ceremony based on this information, which is sent to the family or friends for approval.

On the day of the funeral or memorial service, the celebrant conducts the ceremony, including welcoming and thanking guests. If friends and relatives don’t feel comfortable speaking in public, the celebrant will deliver all the readings and the tribute.

The tone and format of a humanist funeral is entirely up to the organisers, and it will be a true reflection of the life of the deceased. Many humanist funerals choose to remember people with an upbeat or positive celebration of a life. Others can take a more solemn tone, appropriate to the deceased and the feelings of their family and loved ones.

There will often be time as part of the funeral for a silent reflection on the life of the deceased. This time is inclusive of people from all backgrounds. People with religious beliefs will often take this opportunity to say a silent prayer if they wish to.

Families receive a printed copy of the tribute and an invitation for us to host the tribute in our online archive.

Where are humanist funerals and memorials held?

Most humanist funeral ceremonies are conducted at a crematorium, cemetery, or green burial site. However, as funerals have no legal status, you are free to hold a ceremony wherever you choose. A memorial can be held anywhere: at home, in the garden, in a park or woodland, at the beach, in a theatre or community centre – anywhere of relevance to the people gathering to pay tribute to the person who died.

There is a growing interest in direct cremations. This is where the body of the deceased is cremated without the need for a coffin (and often with no one in attendance).

A memorial service may follow a direct cremation. In these instances, instead of the casket, the ashes may be present – or in some cases, a photo of the deceased. The memorial service following a direct cremation has the flexibility of being able to take place at any time after the death, making them popular with families who come together from all over the world and who may not all be able to gather immediately following a death.

Do you have to be a humanist to have a humanist funeral?

Humanist funerals and memorials are suitable for anyone who would be most appropriately remembered with a personal, non-religious ceremony.

The emphasis in a humanist funeral is always fully and completely on the deceased – the life they led, the relationships and stories and quirks that defined their identity. This makes a humanist funeral appropriate for anyone, including religious friends and family members.

What is humanism?

There are many ways of defining humanism, but broadly speaking, it’s a ‘worldview’. It’s not like a religion – instead, it’s a label that can apply to a range of views held by non-religious people who want to lead a good, ethical life. Basically, humanists are people who shape our lives in the here and now, because we believe this is the only life we have.

Humanism is an approach to life shared by millions of people who choose to put emphasis on the important things in life, like the value of family and the community, and always being kind and tolerant towards others.

Some people identify with humanist beliefs without even realising. The quiz on the Humanists UK website can give you a sense of how closely your views match up with humanism.

Planning a humanist funeral

If you would like to discuss planning a humanist funeral, your local celebrant will be able to help.

Photo: Simple Tapestry.

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