There Are Humanist Funerals

Zachary Bos of the MA Chapter of the Secualar Coalition for America put me onto an article by Peter Berger at The American Interest asking “Why are there no humanist funerals?”, questioning what Humanism has to offer in the aftermath of a crisis like the Newtown shootings. He ends with the following:

Yes, community helps people cope with grief—any community—even a few neighbors coming over with some hugs and a meal. Of course a group of humanists can serve the same purpose. But this will hardly make their message more plausible, though it may make a particular group of humanists more likable. Activity on behalf of a good cause can divert the mind from sorrow; there is nothing wrong with that. Also, it is possible for individuals without faith to face tragedy with stoic dignity. But one does not need a humanist church for that.

Where is Epstein wrong? Yes, of course a religious community can offer comfort of the same kind as any other community. But religion offers something much more central than community in the abstract: It offers a community gathered around the message that death is not the final word about an individual life and nothingness not the final destiny of the universe. At any rate this is the message shared by the Abrahamic faiths that came to Newtown. Whether this message is true or not, humanism in the sense of “no faith” cannot offer a plausible alternative.

I offered a response:

The question in your title rests on a false premise: that there are no Humanist funerals. In fact, there are Humanist funerals and have been as long as there have been Humanists. Humanist celebrants like myself can and do officiate at funerals as well as weddings, baby naming ceremonies, life-cycle celebrations – any significant moment in a person’s life, including their death. Even the death of a child.

What does such a funeral have to offer, if not the false consolation of a (highly implausible) commitment to life after death (a commitment that studies show is in reality scant consolation to the devout when facing their death)? Everything else a religious funeral offers.

First, a recognition of an individual’s life, a marking of it, an assertion of its significance. Second, the chance to consider together what a life has meant, a collective moment of storytelling to bring a community together to make sense of a life. Third, the opportunity for loved ones left behind to share memories of the deceased and receive the consolation of others. Fourth, a sense of psychological closure which can be deeply valuable, particularly in tragic circumstances. And finally, most important, a moment set aside to remind ourselves of the shortness and precariousness of life, to prick ourselves to live better and more fully.

The truth is, and has always been, that funerals – whether religious or not – are not for the dead or their “immortal souls”. They are for us. For the ones left behind. A Humanist funeral is therefore the most honest and powerful of all funerals – a funeral in which people refuse to lie to themselves or to others and look the fact of death squarely in the face, confronting their mortality with dignity and grace. A funeral for the living.


About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • Greg

    “a commitment that studies show is in reality scant consolation to the devout when facing their death”

    Try telling that to St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Migel Pro, St. Stephen, St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Andrew, St. Ignatius of Antioch, and I could go on, but I imagine you get the point. God Bless!

    • akapc

      Speaking for myself, even though I would not necessarily consider myself a total “non-believer,” the most consolation I have had over the Internet in these past eight months has been from secular, specifically non-religious sites. And the best comfort from friends has been that which avoided religious comments. Of all the comments that have helped help, the most effective has been “I miss him, too.” NOT “he’s in a better place,” “no longer suffering,” etc.

    • zaarcis

      Greg, do you have anything peer reviewed which makes Saints 1, 2, 3, 4, …, at least marginally related?

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  • Noshwat Somal

    I did a short humanistic eulogy for some friends whose infant had died. Many people thought it was the best thing they had ever heard at a funeral. A family member is in the deathcare industry, and I hear a lot of feedback from funeral attendees. They are always much more impressed with humanistic eulogies than the wishful thinking eulogies. People love honesty when they hear it.

  • Pat

    I’ve attended several funerals that I would describe as Humanist.
    They’re commonly referred to as “Celebrations of Life’, and can be quite moving.
    They concentrate on the dead’s past life, focusing on highlights both personal & professional ( these Celebrations seem to be more an upper middle class phenomenon ), with a sprinkling of humor to lighten the occasion. Whether or not they face death squarely is an open question, and probably a silly one. Whether they can offer much to the countless numbers whose life’s offer little in the way of celebration seems more pertinent.