By Robert Bruce 3-30-2016

As a mortician, I’ve been involved in a variety of funerals. As a religious person, I view them from a unique perspective — how we care for the body, and how this intertwines with one’s personal faith.

Recently, I’ve seen firsthand a growing preference for humanist funerals, one interesting echo of the rise in non-religious belief around the world. In America, the percentage of those choosing no religious affiliation has jumped from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent in the last eight years. Even if you’re not a humanist yourself, the likelihood that you will attend a humanist funeral will increase as time goes on.

I see this from a professional standpoint, as humanist services become more popular and openly available. From a religious viewpoint, of course, they can be hard to understand if you have never been involved in one. How different are humanist funerals from religious ones, and what do people gain from a humanist approach?

As a social concept, humanism isn’t a threat to religion, nor actively working against it — humanism is simply a growing alternative in terms of spiritualism and rationalism. These six burial practices of humanist funerals can help us understand why.

1. There’s an Absence of Religion…

The most notable feature of a humanist funeral is that there is no religion involved, although a few religious items may still be found. Humanist funerals avoid anything that acts as worship. I have seen hymns spoken aloud, for instance, when they hold significance for the departed, but not actively used as a form of worship. As such, prayers and other direct forms of religious practice are not included. For this reason, churches and other religious buildings are rarely used.

2. …But Room for Spirituality

Despite the lack of religion, humanist services do have plenty of room for spirituality. By removing religion, one also removes the traditional restrictions. For instance, instead of a church burial, humanists can incorporate natural burials (such as those involving outdoor services, biodegradable caskets, and growing trees), cremations (with a range of possibilities for the remains), or preserving the body through traditional means (such as embalming, caskets, and crypts). While this isn’t religious, it allows people to indulge their spiritual views and needs.

3. Choices in Care for the Body

Speaking of religion and spirituality, humanist funerals are also free to use traditional means of caring for the body. Many people wish to bury or preserve the bodily remains. In my experience, I’ve regularly seen bodies embalmed, preserved, and put into a casket.

Many of these methods, such as burial, are some blend of social tradition and religious custom, though the religious requirements can often change. Embalming is not a legal requirement unless you’re crossing certain state lines, but all the same it’s simply something we have accepted as part of the standard funeral experience. Christians used to burn the deceased but now bury them, typically within a coffin. Muslims believe the body must be buried within 24 hours of death, while Jewish traditions emphasize burying the body over cremating. How we take care of the dead is often down to religion, tradition, and the times we live in — and humanist services have access to any current means.

4. It’s a Multi-Religious World...

We live in a multi-religious world and often interact with those of another faith. As a result, it’s understandable that people may feel uncomfortable attending a funeral in a faith other than their own — you are saying goodbye in a manner unfamiliar to you. Humanist funerals, on the other hand, have no religious overtones, so nobody is excluded. Perhaps more specifically, every humanist event is unique and tailored to the person in question. This arguably makes the event more accepting of those from different backgrounds, be it a different religion, agnosticism, or atheism, as attendants only need a personal connection to the deceased.

5. ...With an Individual Focus

By far the biggest appeal of a humanist service is that these events often have a heavy focus on the individuality of the deceased. A large part of this is down to the work of “life celebrants.” These are professionals who lead the service and go to great lengths to help plan the service, speaking to close friends and family to gain a personal insight into the life of the departed. They do not impose their own traditions and will work with the family to plan the memorial service, whether it includes guest speakers, favorite music, or anything else that they want.

6. No Religion, Not Against Religion

It’s worth noting that humanism is not against religion. As a religious person, I have always been made welcome at these funerals and, in turn, I accept the personal beliefs of the deceased. Regardless of the religion or non-religion of the funeral, making the attendants feel welcome is important for making any differences feel minute and acceptable.

Ultimately, there are a number of differences when attending a humanist event, but how much this varies will depend on the event in question. While it can be argued the rising popularity of humanism is related to the increasing rates of atheism and agnosticism, I would argue it’s not the direct cause. Humanism allows people without strong religious beliefs to have the funeral they want, complete with any spiritual needs or rational criteria they may desire.

Have you attended any humanist funerals and how do you feel about them? How do you reconcile your religious views in a non-religious environment? Let us know!

Robert Bruce is an American mortician who has worked in all aspects of funeral service with Great Lakes Caskets in the state of Ohio.

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