Jeanne Rathbone


As a Humanist celebrant I do the rite of passage ceremonies of hatchings, matchings and dispatchings –  mainly funerals. I have given some thought to death. When I was filling in a form at Barts Hospital for people with ME there were questions on death. ‘Do you think about death? If so,  ‘How often’?  They were trying to make a psychological assessment, of course. I did honestly reply ‘frequently’ but explained why to the Doctor to reassure him that I was not suicidal. When I was an alcohol counsellor we had a similar question on suicide. ‘ If you have attempted suicide what was the method’? This was obviously to try and assess the mental state of the client. Of course, men usually go for the violent option and are more likely to succeed.

People die – it’s a most sure fact of life. We are all going to die but death is a bit of an embarrassment. When someone dies we say they have ‘passed away’ – this euphemism is such a big give away. When someone has died we should say/write they have died. Getting rid of the silly ‘passed away’ is the first stage in growing up and facing death without the con of a promise of a wonderful life in heaven above.

The Python Parrot Sketch reflects this. It goes  “He’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! He’s expired and gone to meet his maker! He’s a stiff! Bereft of life, he rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed him to the perch he’d be pushing up the daisies! ‘Is metabolic processes are now history! He’s off the twig! He’s kicked the bucket, he’s shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisibile!!  THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!!

From the Thesaurus can be added. ‘Launched into the eternity, gone to a better land, crossed the stygian ferry, gone to Davy Jones locker, given up the ghost, kicked the bucket, curled up his tootsies, snuffed it.

No more ‘passed away’. Simply say s/he HAS DIED.

Lesbiana Wharton, Beckenham Cemetery. What were her parents thinking when they named her!!

Lesbiana Wharton, Beckenham Cemetery.
What were her parents thinking when they named her!!

We didn’t used to have the phrase ‘passed away’ in Ireland but I think it has crept in there too. Back home people have a mantra like expression of condolence at the funeral  – they say: ‘Sorry for your troubles’.  When I heard this first at my Dad’s funeral in the 90s I just wanted to say ‘Which troubles might that be – the troubles up north or those down there, you know lady troubles?

Funerals in Ireland take place in stages but very soon after the death. Usually, the corpse in an open coffin will be laid out in a funeral parlour or at home first then the coffin is taken to the church that evening and some mumbo jumbo said and the next day there is a more religious ritual – mass- followed by the burial at a cemetery.


Cremations are up to 15% of funerals now in Ireland. There are now four crematoria  – three in Dublin and one in Rocky Island Cork. There were plans to build one near a village called Ovens. Honestly, you can google it. Ireland | Lewis Mates –

A firm proposal to build Eire’s second crematorium in County Cork did emerge….Not surprisingly, the proposal was subject to intense opposition and, fearing a possible health risk, local residents demanded an environmental impact study. Another unfortunate problem was that the proposed crematorium site was in the village of Ovens. As Dr Hugh O’Neill, chairperson of the village community group, articulated: ‘We are proud of the name Ovens. Are future generations going to think it is named after a crematorium?’ The centuries-old name was, apparently, related to the Gaelic word for caves.

Catholicism, at one time disapproved of cremation because of their crazy belief in resurrection and so historically they would only burn heretics!

There is often confusion about the Irish tradition of a ‘wake’. This was and is held the night before the funeral in the person’s home. Food, drink, conversation and often singing would occur as the people ‘kept vigil’ till the funeral happened the next day. We had a wake when my mother died in 2000. This was partly because my sister and family hadn’t arrived back from England so we kept her at home instead of going to the funeral parlour. We put a notice on the Church door to let people know and they came to the house instead.

In Britain funerals mainly take place in a crematorium- about 75% but they are invariably attached to an existing cemetery. Crematoria are places that try to conceal their purpose. It is for the burning of corpses- dead bodies. You will not see any flames and the chapels have been ‘no smoking’ premises for years. It also pretends to be a religious building calling itself a chapel and bearing the grim Christian logo of a cross depicting the means of death and execution of their main man Mr. Jesus Christ. Of course, if this schizophrenic who claimed he was God was around nowadays he would have been dealt with differently. In Britain he would have been sectioned, locked up and given serious drugs. Modern methods of execution might be the hangman’s noose or stoning in a Muslim country, a gun elsewhere or electric chair in America.

crucifixelectirc chair 2

Stoning to deathgun Hangman logo








It is the ‘cult of death’ religion -Christianity- that prevails in Britain and so crematoria have a crucifix which is a symbol of torture and death as their logo. However, Lewisham Crematorium has a statue of an angel hovering over the doorway.

Crematoriums are usually municipal buildings. They should not have any permanent religious symbols. So, the first thing I have to do when I get to the crem is to ask the attendant to remove the offensive religious symbol of torture. I resent that they turn me into a Dracula type vampire by requesting its removal. When I took the funeral service for Dave Allen I wondered what he could have made of this in a sketch.

Of course, I was also aware of the comic, theatrical potential of the crematorium curtains – re-opening for an encore. I have actually seen that at an actor’s funeral where they did reopen them to further applause and heard of a five year old girl running up to peep behind the curtains after they were closed and shouting to the mourners that she could still see the box that Grandad is in and inviting them all to come and see!


Pictures Peas Union Jack Flag Horse Racing Spitfire Stamps

The notion of a life after death was to assuage the reality of death especially when life was brutish and short. It is a scam. It is a great big con. Tell that to anyone who tries to sell you the weird idea of a life after death – an eternal life after death. Of course, they cannot tell you what form this life will take and what state you will be in when you get to the other side and wake up from your earthly death. Whichever they imagine would be spooky because you are no longer human only some kind of a ghost- of indeterminate age, identity, marital status, gender, sexuality, colour, personality, sense of humour etc. I think that we should, whenever we get the chance, challenge religious folk by asking them their thoughts on ‘the afterlife’ that they envisage for themselves.

A much loved Mum.

This belief in an afterlife is an in infantile notion- it is like a security blanket. Not alone are we asked to ‘respect’ those with such a supernatural belief but we have to affronted by the special place accorded to the state religion  the C of E. They have their Bishops in the house of Lords, their own schools, state and civic occasions in their churches, schools assemblies of a ‘mainly christian character’ all headed up by the Queen who is The Defender of the Faith in – her belief in a God, the three Gods- in-one derived from the bible and in a life after death in Heaven or Hell etc.

The Afterlife George Santayna, the philospher, writing of the notion of an afterlife in a lush garden in  his book : ” The life of reason’wrote : Amid such scenes a man might remain himself and might fulfil hopes that he had actually cherished on earth. He might also find his friends again, which in somewhat generous minds is perhaps the thought that chiefly sustains interest in a posthumous existence. But to recognise his friends a man must find them in their bodies, with their familiar habits, voices, and interests; for it is surely an insult to affection to say that he could find them in an eternal formula expressing their idiosyncrasy. When, however, it is clearly seen that another life, to supplement this one, must closely resemble it, does not the magic of immortality altogether vanish? Is such a reduplication of earthly society at all credible? And the prospect of awakening again among houses and trees, among children and dotards, among wars and rumours of wars, still fettered to one personality and one accidental past, still uncertain of the future, is not this prospect wearisome and deeply repulsive? Having passed through these things once and bequeathed them to posterity, is it not time for each soul to rest?”

People who believe in another life after death are not taking enough responsibility for this life. It is rather like the AA philosophy ‘take one day at a time’ which, in effect, means don’t plan for the future. Furthermore, they usually think that it is up to their God to decide when they die. It logically follows that if their death is in the ‘hands’ of their deity then there is nought they can do about it. Why therefore should they bother with medicine, doctors and science.

All living things die, including humans – we are no exception to the basic rule and this includes Jesus Christ.  We just ain’t that special. It is one of the causes and the problem of religion to think that we are the epitome of life. Humanism is about accepting that we are part of nature and therefore we will die. The imperative for us to accept this and get on with making the best of life. This means that we take responsibility for ourselves, for solving the problems of humanity through empathy, reason and science and that we appreciate the wonder and beauty of nature, the arts etc. Crucial to this is our empathy and the love of those in our lives. Getting on with life is our preparation for death – our death. Then when we die we have a funeral.

For Humanists a funeral is about saying goodbye to the person who has died, the opportunity to acknowledge and mourn the loss of someone whom we loved and cared about alongside others who also grieve but most importantly it is a time to celebrate and to commemorate the person who has died.   That is why I became a Humanist celebrant.

BEING A HUMANIST CELEBRANT.  I came to it having been to a few inappropriate and unsatisfactory funerals. In Ireland, funerals are much more part of everyday life with large numbers attending. They are smaller and quieter events in England. The first ones I attended in this country were my parents-in-law- these were simple C of E services. When I was in my forties I attended two inappropriate funerals because they were conducted by a C of E vicar for people who were not religious. After the second of these I decided to look into alternatives. I was vaguely aware that there were organisations for atheists. I contacted the British Humanist Association and immediately joined. In the bumph they sent I found a request for people to train as ‘funeral officiants’. This was a eureka moment for me as I realised that I had found what I wanted to be when I grew up and so I knew, that at last, I had grown up. So, thanks very much for that BHA.

Being a Humanist celebrant is a grown up job. The training is for people who have the relevant skills – in my case, having been a counsellor and a performer. The initial interviewing stage is to check that applicants are Humanists, have the requisite skills and don’t expect to make a living from being a celebrant! Inevitably, we are mainly people of a certain age.

The fee for celebrants is similar to that of a vicar. However, religious ministers are salaried people and the fee they receive is extra. The funeral trade, like other occupations, has its own culture. It is conservative and male. When I first started we were paid in cash in an envelope. This, I presume, suited the ministers who could pocket it undeclared to the taxman. As Humanist celebrants our hourly rate is nearer to that of the minimum wage rather that that of banker/politician/therapist/plumber. I reckon that being a humanist celebrant is a vocation.

It is, however, a very privileged and rewarding part-time occupation. There is no compulsory retirement age. We have the independence of being self-employed without the hassle of workplace politics.

Funerals are gradually changing and I think we should take some credit for this. There are simple ways of personalising things. You don’t have to use a hearse, or funeral cars, wreaths or flowers, etc. Humanist funerals could be held outside of the crematorium in people’s homes, hotels, community halls etc.

There is a greater choice of coffins from greener to quirky. People could get a flat pack cardboard coffin and decorate it themselves or make a drape to lay over a reusable coffin. I contacted IKEA  to inquire if they were planning to introduce a flat pack coffin, given that they were the leading brand in flat pack furniture. They indicated in their reply that there was no current plans to introduce the item mentioned. However, I suggest that if their was sufficient demand they would reconsider. So please do email them requesting the desirability of a flat pack coffin for no-nonsense no-frills customers like your good rationalist selves.

FLOWERS.  Wreaths, bouquets and bunches of flowers are wasteful. The increase of using flowers is partially due to the Diana effect. They are then left on the ‘terrace to be weather beaten before they have to be removed. The plastic, ribbons, oasis etc. are then a problem for composting and costly to dispose of.  Not sensible or ecological! Donations to charity are the rational/ Humanist alternative. I suggest a third way to families that instead can compromise and invite mourners to bring a single flower/piece of greenery from their own garden to lay on the coffin as a gesture of farewell. This is the simple alternative for those who want to do something tangible at the funeral. This can be all of the mourners of there are not many or family and close friends if it is a large gathering. Unfortunately, crematoria and cemeteries have a lot of hideous plastic flowers stuck on seats, strewn around flower beds, on the lawn etc. It is ugly and I reckon they should be banned. Ok, I can be a bit of an aesthetic dictator- a fashionista fascist but someone has to be as the local authority doesn’t forbid them. It is morbid to have this attachment to a place of death by placing articficial flowers and artefacts littering the place.

DRESS. Often with our funerals people would not choose to come in all black mourning clothes. Wear what you wish. Bright colours is the phrase people use sometimes. I do not wear all black myself – too gothic for me. I am sure the Victorian black mourning garb will, in time, fade away.

HEARSES. I do not want my coffin to be transported by a hearse but an estate car preferably purple and driven by a a family member not a grim reaper.

Hearse old hearse pink Hearse purple Hearse bike

FUNERAL CARS. Funeral cars were introduced at time when most people did not own a car. I regard it as rather expensive taxi service. At Humanist funerals chief mourners often choose to come in their own cars or are driven by friends/relatives.


Like taxi drivers we too can tell you who we have had in the front of our crematorium chapel. We hear tales from the crem from the staff. We have our own favourite crematorium because of the staff. Mine is Lambeth Crematorium near St George’s Hospital because of Fred and Alan. Others are preferred because of their location like the aptly named Mortlake by the Thames making it ‘la crem de la crem’. Celebrants encounter all sorts of situations at a funeral from someone fainting, drunks, prison warders with mourners in handcuffs, technical glitches, fights, heckling, the presence of a unacknowledged partner and /or child etc.

MUSIC.  Of course, there is no religious content or hymn singing at humanist funerals. There are some independent celebrants who do ‘pick and mix’ type funerals. These hybrids are for people who do not want a vicar but want a ‘bit of religion’ so as not to upset some people who are attending. Occasionally we find ourselves dealing with people who are a little confused as to the meaning of ‘non-religious’ and want poems mentioning God and an afterlife and want hymns because they were favourites of the deceased. For instance, some like Ava Maria but, as it is in Latin, they are not aware that it is religious. Religion does confuse folk! These confusions have to get resolved satisfactorily. Most of us have, however, had a bit of a hijacking by a speaker who slips in religious stuff. I was asked by a woman why I never mentioned Jesus.  I did not respond by saying ; ‘Weren’t you listening when I said it was a Humanist funeral and explained that it was non-religious.’ or ask  ‘Is he a friend of the family who can’t make it here today?’ I just said, through gritted, smiling  teeth: ‘This is a Humanist funeral.’

You will have heard of the funeral top twenty songs. The one I hate the most is ‘My Way’ which is usually chosen for a man and I reckon means ‘He was a selfish old bastard and did exactly what he fucking wanted to’. ‘Always look on the bright side of life‘ is a popular choice for exiting at our  funerals.

I would like Schubert’s Notturno played at my funeral.

There are other popular songs which are played at funerals whether they are religious or Humanist. There was an item about a vicar of Tunbridge Wells who complained that he felt like a lemon having to listen to certain songs, specifically Tina Turner.

Many families I have conducted funerals for have absolutely no desire for any Christian content whatsoever,’ he wrote on his blog.

‘I have then stood at the crem like a lemon, wondering why on earth I am present at the funeral of somebody led in by the tunes of Tina Turner. What is the point of my being present if spiritually unwanted?

He shouldn’t be prepared to prostitute himself by conducting funerals for people who obviously do NOT want a Christian one.

SAYING GOODBYE AND CELEBRATING A LIFE.  The most important part of our role as celebrant is to help people say Goodbye to the people they love, to encourage them to say what needs to be said. We are dealing with grief, anger, sometimes tragedy, bewilderment, guilt, family dynamics, divided families etc. Every life is interesting in its own way. There is usually laughter and tears. We have had fights, drunks, heckling, prisoners in handcuffs, children running around, people fainting, taken ill, unacknowledged wives and children in the chapel. We deal with it because this is a job for grown –ups and I love it. But like most of my fellow celebrants we could never have envisaged ourselves doing this when we were school children and asked what we wanted to do or be when we grew up. It took me a long time to  grow up!


Milligan stonesanta clausfunny headstone


One Response

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  1. Lesley A Connellan said, on February 3, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    Thank You for your light-side of death. My mother (87) has decide she would like a humanist funeral and I googled you by chance. I’m delighted I did and I hope my mum will get a kick out of planning her death. We are worn thin of the Ava-Maria’s sung by the 10 year old granchild and the crushingly sad dropping of single red roses by every memebr of the family into the cold earth, accompanied by the soprano singing something from Westlife (or worse, Danny Boy!). It was with great embarrassment that they buried by fraternal Grandmother in a graveyard after a religious service, she had a loathing of all things religious. Now I know what to do – thank you internet. lesley in dunmore east, co. waterford, Ireland

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