Points of departure
More and more people are choosing humanist funerals. But what if you're after something a little more exotic? Sally Feldman suggests a new marriage of the secular and the sacred
White doves unfurled into the skies as the casket burns. A lorry driver's cortège proceeding down the M54 to his favourite café so his friends can enjoy a final fry-up with him. A suburban kitchen turned into a funeral parlour, the relatives pouring whiskey into the open coffin before burying the body in the garden.
Whether you're after a motorcycle hearse courtesy of Harley Davidson, a procession of horse-drawn carriages or a simple farewell with flowers and tears, the increase in customised funerals in the past decade has been unprecedented. A new national survey by Co-operative Funeralcare reveals a widespread desire for choice and involvement - a trend corroborated by the British Humanist Association which reports an exponential growth in requests for their services by those who are seeking a more personal and meaningful ceremony than is usually provided by the traditional channels.
But then funerals are humanism's stock in trade. There is no rite of passage that so clearly separates the devout from the damned. The promises of glorious rebirth, heavenly choirs, meetings with the Maker, being reunited with loved ones - all the false comfort blankets of faith designed to protect us from the cold void - are denied the unbeliever. All we have is the stark certainty that we're not going anywhere and there's certainly nothing waiting for us.
So, naturally, humanist funerals tend to be simple and unadorned, stripped of any ritualistic trappings. Instead, they concentrate on the tribute, ensuring a warm, loving portrait of the dead person and focusing on the memories of those left. The BHA's excellent publication Funerals Without God makes it clear that there need be no rules, that the whole point is to make the ceremony right for each occasion and each family.
But some officiants I spoke to sternly discourage inclusion of anything which might smack of religion - even a fondly remembered hymn. The implication is that rationalists should be concerned only with the here and now - that there is no place for a spiritual dimension. It's a thread of secular thinking that strikes me as deeply unimaginative - anti-humanist even, as it denies some of the most profound qualities that make us human in the first place.
"One of the challenges facing humanism is to convince people that things can be worthy of awe and reverence without being holy and blessed," writes the philosopher Simon Blackburn in a newly published series of essays, Is Nothing Sacred?, edited by Ben Rogers. And in his survey of the book (see p.28) Richard Norman identifies a hunger among humanist thinkers to find a common language to express what can seem an almost mystical, semi-religious experience.
A similar sensibility can affect even the most ardent non-believer at times of extreme suffering. UK funerals tend to be restrained, religious or not. We may weep a little rather than ululate, gnash our teeth or wail to the rhythm of a thousand drums. But our grief is as deep, and we all share that almost mystical awe which, no matter how rational or secular our beliefs, will hover round us at times of death. So why shouldn't humanists borrow from the funeral customs of other cultures and reshape them for our secular purposes?
Richard Dawkins describes how he was moved to tears by the funeral of Dr Eugene Shoemaker, a distinguished geologist who always wanted to be an astronaut but instead trained others. When he died, a former student, a leading planetary scientist, arranged for his ashes to be placed on board a moon shot. The almost mystical return to the skies of the lover of astrophysics was, for Dawkins, an embodiment of the sacred.
It's not so far removed from the practices of the Vikings, who would place the corpse in a ship and set light to the sails, sending the spirit back to the stars. The Co-op survey, Real Funerals, shows a growing appetite for such transcendental gestures - or for very personal ones. "At the funeral of my friend, her daughter gave a rooted snowdrop to all the mourners, to be planted in remembrance of her mother, as it was her favourite flower," remembers one respondent. "Years later people still say to the daughter that the plant is flourishing.
Another was moved by a funeral where everyone was given a little 'party' bag to take home, containing items that reflected the deceased's life. " There was a key ring with a car on it, as he loved driving, a mini of his favourite chocolate bar, a nice photograph of him, and the lyrics to his favourite song on a card. It was very personalised."
Now that cremation in so much more common than burial, the disposal of the ashes has become almost as meaningful a ritual as the funeral, with an astonishing variety of choices for the final deposit. You can have them turned into a zircon diamond or into a reef in Mexico. Football grounds have become so popular that some are having to turn away the remains of devoted fans, because of a danger of baldness in the goalmouth.
You may choose instead to donate your remains to science, though this isn't as straightforward as you might think. Science may not want them. I have a morbid fear of having my body refused by the medical establishment, probably on the grounds that I was not a sufficiently careful first owner. It would be as humiliating as the time someone broke into my car and then left all my CDs behind.
Burial in natural woodland is increasingly favoured by environmentalists who take comfort from the idea of returning to the earth and fulfilling the cycle of life. The Dead Good Funeral Guide tells you where to find eco-pods and biodegradable coffins -even how to construct your own, though unless you're really, really good with your hands it's probably not advisable to mess around with power tools while you're in a state of shock. It also suggests how you can customise the casket by painting it or even getting an artist to do it.
It's a practice well established in Ghana where they carve elaborate coffins to represent some aspect of the dead person, usually connected with their job. A master craftsman recently produced a perfect reproduction of a Mercedes Benz for a taxi driver. It had four doors, windshield wipers, mirrors, exhaust pipe and a number plate. I suppose it would be more difficult to recreate a similar artistic image for one of the newer kinds of job. A call centre worker, for example. Or a lap dancer.
There is also plenty of opportunity for imagination in the actual despatching of the body. The Chinese, in common with many other cultures, like to send the corpse on its way with gifts placed in the coffin. This may be to comfort the dead person or, for many faith-driven communities, to ease the passage to the afterlife. The Egyptians were of course a world class act in this respect, surrounding the preserved mummies with jewels and other symbols of wealth to take them into the next world as well as to underline their importance in this one, much like our own royal funerals, or those of world leaders. But these spectacular vaults, like the serried ranks of terracotta soldiers flanking the tomb of the Emperor Qin Shihuang in Xi'an, also serve as monumental examples of the hubris of those who believed themselves so invulnerable that they could elude death itself.
Such vanities are not available to humanists. Yet there is still among many of us an almost atavistic desire to send off the dead with material comforts - a favourite outfit, a photograph, a book and increasingly a mobile phone. You're meant to make sure it's switched off first - advice unlikely to be heeded by those in certain parts of Madagascar who will place a transistor radio beside the body and switch it on just before the coffin is closed.
The final outfit is also a matter of serious debate. "I would like to be wearing my white suit, which was my 'going away' outfit once before - after my wedding," suggested one of the Co-op's respondents. White, it seems, is the new black.
While traditional cultures make sure their dead have plenty of food for the journey to the next world, it's even more common to offer a feast to those remaining. In Borneo, a funeral may last several days, during which the dirge-like drumming will accelerate to a wild frenzy, mourning giving way to partying. It's not unlike the Irish wake or the Jewish shiva - designed not merely to comfort the bereaved but to celebrate the triumph of life.
The Co-op survey reveals a similar instinct. One respondent wrote: "For my wake I would like the mourners to continue to celebrate my life all night long, with champagne, chocolate-dipped strawberries and canapés in my favourite bar!"
So let's be more exuberant in seeing off the dead. Let the saxophones scream, the fiddles screech, release the white doves and cast off those weeds in favour of crimson silks or brilliant velvets. Bring out the whisky, throw some juicy red meat on the spit, soak in the flesh of mangoes, dole out the fruits of excess and rejoice in the sheer wonder of living for those who are left. Leave meanness to the Methodists, thrift to the thankless, parsimony to the Puritans.
Humanists may not have the luxury of believing in a life after death but we sure as hell can worship life, and we have our own version of the immortal. We live on in memories, in our work, in the difference we have made. And in the mischief we can wreak after we've gone. Like the loving father Hymie Cohen. At the end of the list of bequests being read solemnly to his weeping family came his final legacy. "To my brother-in-law Louis, who stayed with us for weeks on end, smoked my best cigars, demolished my good claret, wrecked the Jaguar and flooded the sauna. Louis who I promised to remember in my Will. Hello Louis."
Real Funerals will be published by Co-operative Funeralcare next month. To find out more about humanist funerals, visit www.humanism.org.uk or call 020 7079 3580