The secular funeral and what it means

By | 1 Dec 2010

Photo of funeral casket with pink and white flowers

This heart was woven of human joys and cares,
Washed marvellously with sorrow, swift to mirth .
The years had given him kindness. Dawn was his,
And sunset, and the colours of the earth.
He had seen movement, and heard music; known
Slumber and waking; loved; gone proudly friended;
Felt the quick stir of wonder; sat alone;
Touched flowers and furs and cheeks.
All this is ended.
[Adapted from Rupert Brooke]

As a Humanist, I live with the conviction that a good life deserves to be honoured. I think it is profoundly uncivilised to dismiss a lifetime of achievement in society and dedication to family in 10 to 15 minutes. I think a funeral is a weighty and serious responsibility and, given the limitations of the culture, should be done as fully and meaningfully as possible. Capitalist pressure is making this task increasingly difficult. Just as the substantive meaning for a secular marriage ceremony has been undermined by people in the government, similar forces have been at work undermining the secular funeral.

I am a celebrant of 40 years standing and have between 2000 and 3000 funerals on my CV. I am qualified to tell you that in the mid-1970s we did something very unique and very good in modern world history by establishing meaningful substantive civil funerals in Australia—especially in Melbourne. Those of you who have lived as long as me or longer will know that until we came along, there was no such thing as a secular funeral anywhere in the English-speaking western world—New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. We, the civil funeral celebrants of Melbourne, began something unique in our interconnected cultures. But, what has happened since then? Why are families now approaching catholic priests for secular funerals? The answer is disturbing.

Just as we have “religious” and anti-secular people in the government, who have undermined marriage celebrancy, we have even more powerful forces, based on the greed-is-good philosophy that our society so encourages, undermining secular funeral celebrancy. Established by the then Attorney-General Lionel Keith Murphy QC in the early 1970s, civil celebrants were a great leap forward for the dignity of secular people. It was the members of the Humanist Society of Victoria who had campaigned for civil celebrancy. At that time, secular people were being humiliated in a myriad of ways by a predominantly religious society.

It hasn’t stopped, but it has become more subtle. Our opponents have been very clever. They have adopted the classic motto, “If you can’t attack, you undermine.” The squashing, squeezing and exploitation of our group of funeral celebrants, once so constructive and prosperous, by the majority of Funeral Directors is a tragedy unfolding before our eyes. The Funeral Director scene has changed. Idealistic and community minded leadership of the past, Rob and John Allison, Des Tobin and a few others are now quaint history. Funeral celebrants are now up against at least one large corporation, and a number of lesser ones and, as is obvious to all, big advertising money. Invocare, a very large corporation, owns Le Pine Funerals, Simplicity Funerals, White Lady Funerals and many others. Thought you were getting competitive quotes, didn’t you? Silly you. Put “funeral celebrants” into Google and you will be directed to a Funeral Director site. Greed-is-good money now controls Google as well.

Funeral directors are misnamed. They don’t direct funerals. In fact, the funeral ceremony is of very little interest to them. They are disposers of bodies. The slab of money evidently required for carrying out this disposal is ginormous. As we watch the TV ads, we are presented with the long list of charges and expenses for which you must insure yourself. Notice they do not even mention the final tribute to the deceased, the Funeral Ceremony. It is not part of their money making scene.

And yet, to every intelligent person who knows about it or thinks about it, the funeral ceremony is the procedure after a death that most matters to most people. To whoever has listened to talk-back radio or engaged in after-dinner conversations or attended a funeral service, the only topic that is discussed is how good or bad was the ceremony (and the celebrant). How good (meaning authentic and moving) was the eulogy, how appropriate and honouring were the spoken reminiscences, the poems, the quotations and the people who read? Was the music appropriate and well delivered?

Home they brought her warrior dead:
She nor swooned, nor uttered cry:
All her maidens, watching, said
‘She must weep, or she will die.’

[Alfred Lord Tennyson: The Princess : Canto V]

The problem is that anyone can set themselves up as a “funeral celebrant”. The majority favoured by the Funeral Directors throughout Australia are uneducated and untrained. Funeral Directors in general (and there are some exceptions) unfairly take advantage of funeral celebrants. They control the whole death scene. And the tragedy is—it is you the general public—who allow them to do so. The vast majority of people wait until after a death has occurred before making arrangements. Then, under pressure of time, they go straight to the body disposer, and they trust that body disposer, against all the evidence, to be interested in the story of the person. They expect him or her to be interested in the eulogy, the music, the symbolism, the tribute, its appropriate presentation and accuracy.

We need to turn the tide – this is how to do it.

  1. Recognize the gift that the first Humanist of the Year, Lionel Murphy, gave to the non-believer, the freethinking people of Australia. Value it and defend it.
  2. The components of secular ceremony— inspiring literature, uplifting poetry and quotations, moving story telling, stirring music, energizing symbolism—do not belong to religion. Humanist secular ceremonies, creatively designed and delivered, with the added advantage of authenticity and honesty, have no equal.
  3. Do not allow, under any circumstances, the funeral director to choose a clergyman (for those times when a Humanist needs to arrange a funeral for a religious parent or relative) or a civil celebrant for you. Most will naturally choose someone who is compliant and brief. (The less time the three to four staff members have to hang around waiting for the service to end, the more money they make.)
  4. Do not allow the Funeral Director to determine the fee for a clergyman or a funeral celebrant. If not quoted to you, an hourly rate should be offered by you in accordance with the celebrant’s general education, funeral celebrancy qualification, and experience and reputation (from their website?) You can always ask to see examples of funerals on video (happens quite often) or in writing or references. Funeral preparation takes me between 10 and 30 hours. “A two day shonky marriage celebrants’ course doth not a funeral celebrant make.”) Demand the full attention of the competent celebrant by insisting on paying them a just hourly rate, no matter what the Funeral Director or even the Funeral Celebrant says. This is the only way in the end that is fair and will guarantee that the celebrant does not chase other funerals to make ends meet at the same time as he/she is co-creating the one you want them to do.
  5. Do seek out one of the few professional funeral celebrants who know what their job involves. Funeral Directors and some celebrants push “the family” to do all the work. The family contribution is invaluable but a family in grief is often not in the right state of mind to cover all the bases. Quite often in these circumstances, without the professional’s guidance, the genealogy is lost, the big picture is lost, the values and achievements are lost, but the fishing trip remains forever.
  6. Do not allow the funeral director under any circumstances to decide when the funeral should occur. For most people, at least five working days are necessary to prepare properly for a funeral tribute and to alert those who should be there for such an occasion to be there with sufficient time. Funeral Directors need to make a profit, so if they have a clear slot tomorrow and they have staff to pay, they want to slot your funeral into that time. It is backed by spin: “We have managed with difficulty to get a time at this chapel. We suggest you seize this wonderful opportunity” or, more commonly, “If we do this ceremony tomorrow it will be over and done with and everyone can get on with their lives.”
  7. Be aware of what is happening with a ‘service at the Funeral Parlour chapel only— the deceased will be cremated “privately” at a later time’. With this money saving device for the Funeral Director, I consider an important element of basic symbolism is lost. One of my close friends, Stan Jordan, in rejecting this suggestion from the big firm Funeral Director, curtly told him, “I will be accompanying my father (to the cemetery) on his last journey”. I so admired him for that.
  8. Man proffer the opinion that the funeral service is for the living. I strongly disagree. Every bit of experience I have ever had leads me to the conviction that the funeral service is about the person who has died. That is where my focus has always been. I have a life to honour – that is my task. The living—well they are still here with us. My observation is that the living want their loved one honoured, not themselves. Of course, honouring the main relationships is basic. Deep comfort comes from this tradition. But over-attention to the living is misplaced.
  9. Insist on dignity. This was Lionel Murphy’s most used word in this context. Some gimmicks are a form of denial just as the overdone “celebration of life” push is. It all depends on context. Harry Collier captained the Collingwood Football Team to victory in the premierships of 1935 and 1936. He was a club legend. When I officiated at his funeral from the centre of Victoria Park, Melbourne, in August 1994, club players formed a guard of honour for his recessional out of the park. Nothing could have been more sacred or appropriate as they sung “Good Old Collingwood Forever”.
  10. Do not get taken in by coffin talk. Funeral Directors make big profits on coffins, so they talk about them as if they are something really important. They are not. They are just boxes. One Melbourne Funeral Director became famous for saying to his clients, “The amount you spend on the coffin is the measure of your love for the deceased“!!
  11. In the unfortunate event of an impending death in the family, get your head together early. Research your celebrant and research your funeral company. Then alert them and everyone else concerned. Many Australian-owned companies are listed on the National Funeral Directors Association of Australia (NFDA) web site. But proceed with care. Some are excellent. Some are dreadful. It may sound confronting but you should plan your own funeral. If you don’t, someone else will!
  12. Consider the small Australian-owned funeral companies. Always contact your celebrant first. Ask the celebrant to recommend such a company and empower the celebrant by asking them to contact the funeral company on your behalf.

When a person dies in our community, their friends and family want to gather and remember, they want to honour, they want to pay tribute, they want to put the life on record. It must be done well. That is what is comforting for the closest bereaved. The comfort to the living could well be the hope that they too will be farewelled in a dignified loving way.

Dally Messenger III is the Principal of the International College of Celebrancy and author of
Murphy’s Law and the Pursuit of Happiness: A History of the Civil Celebrant Movement.

Copyright © 2010 Dally Messenger III