Friday 19 January 2018

Humanism: the faith that doesn't need a god

John Costello

John Costello finds out why more of us are choosing humanist funerals

The simple wicker casket carrying the body of journalist and broadcaster Mary Raftery entered the Great Hall of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham last week, as the latest high-profile humanist funeral took place.

Family and friends gathered as a string quartet played in celebration of the life of the 54-year-old States of Fear documentary maker.

Actor Mick Lally and politician Justin Keating are other well-known figures who have joined the growing number of people choosing a non-religious rather than a church burial ceremony.

"I met Mary on a number of occasions after she asked me four years ago to conduct her father's funeral," says Brian Whiteside, the humanist celebrant who conducted the ceremony.

"In the later stages of her illness, her husband David Waddell contacted me and said she also wished to arrange a humanist funeral.

"Like other such funerals, we marked the sadness of losing the person but balanced that by celebrating a life well lived, which was certainly the case with Mary. We try to capture the essence of the person with words and music."

Whiteside is one of nine Humanist Association of Ireland celebrants. He says: "The closing words focused on the continuum of life -- that you go on living through those you have touched in life.

"This is hopefully somewhat comforting because while we are celebrating the life of someone who was not religious, people are still looking for something more."

Humanist philosophy centres on an ethical belief in humanity and the individual, and is defined by justice, reason and the search for human fulfilment.

Its roots lie in ancient Greece and the philosophies championed during the Renaissance, placing faith in the natural world and its evolution rather than the existence of a supernatural power.

"Interest in humanism is growing and funerals are becoming more and more commonplace," says Whiteside.

"I've been doing this since 2006 and in my first year I did three or four. Last year there were 51. It's not a huge number, but it's growing."

The British Humanist Association conducts around 8,000 funeral services each year.

"If you adjust that figure for population size, it suggests we should be doing about 600," says Whiteside, who is the director of ceremonies for the Humanist Association of Ireland.

"Remarkably, I was recently told that in Australia only 30pc of funerals are religious. That is a point that will take us sometime to get to, if we ever do. But we only want to get to where people want to get. We are only there for people who want us to be there."

The latest available figures suggest that the non-religious in Ireland are a fast-growing group, with 186,000 saying they have no religion and a further 70,000 choosing not to indicate any religious belief. When the results of the 2011 census become available, these figures are expected to rise.

"If you take all the religions outside of the Catholic church, there are more non-religious in this country than any other religious grouping," says Whiteside.

However, while the voice of the non-religious is growing, choosing a humanist funeral can still cause difficulties.

"Of course, there is conflict sometimes within families," says Whiteside. "You have to realise, for someone who is not religious to have a religious funeral is inappropriate, at least, and likely to be hypocritical.

"But it is important to note that the ceremonies are not anti-religious, and they are very dignified and respectful. I conducted a service where the family approached me and said they wanted to say the rosary. So at the end of the service I handed it over to them and I have no problem with that."

But while there may be a growing acceptance of humanist funerals, humanist weddings are still not legally recognised. "Because our ceremonies do not carry legal status, anyone wishing to get married with us has to go to the registry office beforehand," says Whiteside.

This is expected to change later this year, when an amendment to the Civil Registration Act, which governs civil marriages in this country, goes in front of the Dáil after passing the Seanad.

"Between all our celebrants we conduct around 150 weddings a year, which has doubled over the last six years," says Whiteside.

At present, the Humanist Association of Ireland has 500 members and, while not claiming to be 'the' voice for the non-religious, it sees itself as 'a' voice.

"The reason our membership is so low is that many people who don't believe, nor belong to a religious grouping, think, why would they want to belong to something else," says Whiteside.

"But for some strange people, such as myself, it is nice to belong. I was brought up in a strict religious Church of Ireland background. I decided to become a humanist after I attended a funeral in London 10 years ago. I was struck by how people who knew this man simply came and celebrated his life in a very open and honest way.

"I get phone calls every week from people who may not necessarily want to become a humanist, but say that when they die they don't want to be brought anywhere near a church."

For more information on humanism and humanist ceremonies, visit

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