An Introduction to Humanist Funerals with Humanists UK 0

Humanist Funerals

We’ve previously looked at the funeral customs of the world’s major religions to get a flavour of how death and farewells are approached by different faith backgrounds. According to several reports, the number of people classifying themselves as having ‘no religion’ appears to be growing, and so we thought it was high time for us to speak with some funeral celebrants about how non-religious, or humanist funerals work.

We’ve previously touched on the topic of the humanist connection to death and end of life when in conversation with Hester Brown and Trevor Moore at a death café in East Dulwich.

At last month’s National Funeral Exhibition, we approached Mick Chilvers and Tag McEntegart from Humanists UK, an organisation which aims to further humanism as a philosophy and to advocate for secularism throughout the UK. Mick and Tag are part of Humanists UK Celebrant Network, which offers humanist and non-religious funeral ceremonies throughout England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands.

Humanist Funerals

This network aims to ensure that funeral ceremonies for those who live their lives without religion are as meaningful as funerals with a religious foundation.

We were just talking about how our approach to death, here in the UK, is a little skewed when compared with other cultures.

Mick: Death remains a taboo subject here in the UK – we are culturally conditioned to fear death. We have this obsession with the afterlife and as a result we don´t focus on enjoying the life we have. I think that’s what has always attracted me to Humanism – it’s not a set of defined beliefs but the idea that I can live my life by a set of good principles and hold a rational outlook based on scientific evidence.

Tag: I think this taboo is one of the reasons why a lot of unnecessary rituals around death have become popular. People are brought up with the idea that there are certain things that, legally and socially, they think they have to do when someone dies. However, when you start to strip it all away, there is actually very little that you’re ‘required’ to do, apart from having a death certificate signed by a person with the correct authority and making arrangements for the safe storage of the body – which, by the way, doesn’t have to be at a funeral parlour!

When it comes to funerals, almost everything is a matter of choice, but by tradition, people tend to avoid doing things differently because they are convinced that there´s a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way. We need to try and break through this set of assumptions and change our perception of what constitutes a meaningful funeral.

We do seem to have a very stiff upper lip when it comes to death and tend to brush the topic under the carpet. If you even mention the word ‘death’, people automatically attach negative connotations to it…

Tag: It hasn’t always been like this. For us as a country, the change came about in the Victorian and Edwardian times – when there was such a high level of infant mortality and a large number of health epidemics that there was a reason to be fearful and to try and distance ourselves from death.

It’s interesting to see the customs around death in communities and countries where it’s perfectly normal to keep the body of a loved one in the home, like, for example in Italy or Greece, and to compare that to the way in which we approach death here in the UK. In many parts of the world, beyond Europe, there are those who believe in a period of mourning where the body remains at home. It’s a perfectly natural thing to do. In fact, it´s our ‘arms’ length’ approach to death which has tended to alienate us from the reality of the end of life and the deep feelings it catalyses in us. This is best illustrated by the reaction to a recent story, where a grieving husband chose to look after his wife’s body himself, at home. People were so shocked by something that we all used to do before the funeral industry became so professionalised.

Mick: Indeed, our society’s approach to death is very sanitised.

I think avoiding talking about death can lead people to plan funerals that are very traditional and safe, with less of that person’s personality being reflected by the service.

Mick: I think it’s largely a matter of not knowing what is possible. If you don’t know or understand what’s on offer, you stick to what´s deemed normal and expected. One of the most heartening things anyone has said to me after a humanist ceremony is that it was one of the best services they had been to, even though they held strong Christian beliefs. Once people get a taste of something different, they’re able to say, ‘that’s what I’d like to do,’ whereas if they’ve always seen traditional ceremonies, they’re unlikely to consider anything markedly different.

How do you go about a service where the family is religious, but the person who has passed away wasn’t?

Mick: I had one occasion where we had a gentleman ask me if he could say a prayer, as his mother was religious and it was an important part of his childhood. Of course I let him say it because I was sure it would make him feel better about the service. I think the important thing that we (humanists) have to keep in mind is that we are not there to sell anything. My personal opinion is that I shouldn’t say anything with a religious connotation. But I will do everything I can to facilitate it if someone would like to. However, I establish my boundaries right from the beginning and make sure the family is eager to have a funeral that has no religious content.

Tag: We’re not there to proselytise, nor to be zealots on behalf of the humanist cause. That’s actually very anti-humanist. Personally, I wouldn’t read a religious text as it would be hypocritical for me to do so, but if those organising the funeral wanted a family member to do so (for instance an older relative, whose beliefs they wanted to respect and include), I would try to facilitate that. It’s important from the outset though to make sure that the family does want a non-religious ceremony and does want it to be led by a humanist celebrant, to avoid any confusion around the presence of religious elements in the ceremony at a later date.

Funeral Speech

I can imagine there’s a difficulty when the person who has died divided opinion. How do you avoid negative perceptions of that person coming to the fore during the ceremony?

Tag: It’s about setting boundaries, and making them clear to families from the start. If there are points of tension around family opinions of the deceased, and how his or her life is to be spoken about and remembered, I would try to find a way to address that with the family before the ceremony, to try and work that into the ceremony, into the life story, so that no one feels as though aspects of the deceased’s life have been glossed over. I’ll try to acknowledge that this was a contradictory or complex person. I would try not to leave what is to be said at the service only in the hands of people who might have been hurt, or who are bitter towards the deceased. Naturally, our funeral texts are approved by the families and, once they’ve seen how you can be both respectful and truthful, they’re normally happy with the content. I’ve had families say things like: ‘He was a great dad, especially when we were older, but he could also be very blunt and stubborn, so, when we were kids, sometimes he could be scary, and we want his life story to reflect both sides of the coin.’

People are complex, and you need to reflect that truthfully. As humanist celebrants, our role is to try and capture the story of the person’s life, and their qualities.

Mick: Sometimes you have to think on your feet. I had one occasion where a brother and a sister hadn’t communicated at all. She came to the funeral and asked to speak, and the brother wasn’t too keen on this. So I had to mediate and get an idea of what she was planning to say, and to then convince the brother that she should be allowed to speak at their mother’s funeral.

Tag: What we have to bear in mind is that we have a time slot in a crematorium. If we over-run, the family is charged extra. We therefore need to ensure that it’s planned really precisely; what people are going to say, when they’re going to say it and how long it will take. There’s always the wake if people want to talk more, and a little more freely.

Are there any things that you wouldn’t allow in one of your ceremonies?

Tag: There is very little we wouldn’t allow. We have to be careful when thinking about whether or not something might be seen as tasteful or not, but I believe that it is a very personal thing.

For example, I had a family who wanted to play a song called ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ at a crematorium ceremony. They were uncertain as to whether the assembled mourners might think it was in bad taste.   I asked them what the reason was for their choice of that particular track and they told me the story about how their loved one had been involved in bomb disposal work in Burma towards the end of World War II. He was part of a six-man unit and, as part of the war effort, the English Folk Song and Dance Society had sent them –and other units who were in out of the way places– a wind-up gramophone and six old-style bakelite records, which were nothing like as durable as the vinyl ones that replaced them. Ultimately, five of the records had got broken and the only one left was the one with that song, which the soldiers played until they wore the grooves off the disc. The music was absolutely intrinsic to this man’s life. So we played it at the start of the ceremony, as his coffin was brought in, and started the ceremony with the story about why this song had been so important to the deceased. If I’d simply had a kneejerk reaction and said ‘no, we can’t possibly have that song in a crematorium,’ we would have lost such a rich part of the man’s life story concerning the bond with his bomb-disposal comrades.

Do you have any final words about being a humanist celebrant?

Mick: Only that I am always humbled by families’ willingness to entrust their loved one’s farewell to a stranger and to let us walk alongside them. It´s a huge honour and what you come to respect over time is that the overwhelming majority of people really do lead the best lives they possibly can. A humanist celebration of life is exactly that – a celebration of the good that that person gave to the world and to their loved ones.

Thank you both, enjoy the rest of the exhibition.

When arranging a funeral, you can either find a humanist celebrant independently of your funeral director, or ask your chosen funeral director to recommend one.

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Behind the Scenes at Scattering Ashes 0

The team from Scattering Ashes hold up a mini Viking funeral boat.

With cremations now accounting for an impressive 76% of all funerals in the UK, more and more families are looking for creative – or even spectacular – things to do with their loved one’s ashes.

That’s where Scattering Ashes come in. Founded in 2009 by Richard Martin, this incredibly comprehensive site aims to help its visitors find the perfect way to say goodbye, whether that be a peaceful seaside scattering or going out with a bang in an ambitious firework display.

This month, we caught up with Richard to talk about scattering techniques, Viking funerals – and why you don’t want to leave ashes at Jane Austen’s house.

Hi Richard! Thanks for the interview. How did Scattering Ashes come to be?

Ashes being scattered from a vintage wartime Tiger Moth
Richard and the team can help you scatter ashes from a vintage wartime Tiger Moth plane, among other things.

I worked for the Environment Agency and DEFRA for many years, and it was looking like it might be time to change career. So, I thought, ‘What would I like to do?’

I’d scattered my dad’s ashes years before, and felt that we were left a bit at sea because the funeral directors didn’t have any information. We scattered his ashes at his golf course, and we weren’t made to feel very welcome when we went there –  and we certainly weren’t made to feel welcome when we wanted to go back. It all just felt a bit unsatisfactory.

So, I had the idea that perhaps I could help people by providing information about scattering ashes, because there was nothing out there online. I started blogging and then the business grew from there.

A Viking Longboat urn from Scattering Ashes
The Viking longboat urn from Scattering Ashes actually floats.

What’s your favourite scattering method on the site at the moment?

One thing that seems to have hit a chord with people is the Viking boat.

We do an almost metre-long Viking boat that holds a full set of ashes. You can set it afloat, set it on fire, and it goes up in a blaze of glory. We’ve tested them, and they’re pretty cool, I have to say. When we’ve seen them set sail, they’ve looked amazing! I quite like the fireworks too.

Why do you think people are looking for more exciting things to do with ashes now?

I think society has become more accepting of death. I also think that the old religious practices don’t suit as many people these days – maybe you don’t necessarily want a vicar speaking at your funeral because he never really knew you, and you’re not religious in the first place. And more people are thinking, ‘Well, actually, I don’t want that sort of faux-Victoriana, I want a bit more of a celebratory approach to my life’.

Ashes are scattered directly into someone's face in this scene from The Big Lebowski.
That scene from The Big Lebowski.

You run courses on scattering ashes for funeral directors. Do you have any top tips for a successful scattering?

Mind the wind is my main one.

There’s that scene in The Big Lebowski.

Exactly. Another is to be safe: a chap died last year scattering ashes after he got washed off shore in Cornwall, and the year before that a couple died in Spain doing it, and the year before that a lady fell off a cliff doing it in Ireland. Don’t go to these extreme places, because you’re putting yourself in danger.

A biodegradable water urn shaped like a turtle
This floating turtle urn from Scattering Ashes is completely biodegradable.

The third thing is probably to be aware of the amount of ashes. People tend to think it’s going to be light. In movies, like The Big Lebowski for example, there’s literally a few handfuls. But in reality, there’s something like six pounds of ashes.

So, people often end up scattering for quite a while, then they upend the urn and get this little conical pile of ashes, and it looks odd. Then they realise, ‘Oh god, we’ve got nothing to move it around with,’ and they’re using their feet, and then they go, ‘This is undignified.’

But with a bit of thought, you can make it quite a poignant, memorable ceremony, which is what we try to educate people about.

You keep a (really very comprehensive) record of places that allow scattering – do people often say no?

More and more often, now. When we first started a lot of football clubs were saying yes, and now many say no. Some are trying to cater for it with memorial gardens instead: they realise the demand, but they don’t want it impacting the pitch.

The more people scatter ashes in one place, the more troublesome they find it?

Jane Austen's house in Chawton
Jane Austen’s house in Chawton, where visitors have been asked to stop secretly scattering ashes. Image by Joaotg, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Absolutely. Two particular places come to mind. One is the top of Ben Nevis: a lot of Scots will have their ashes scattered at the top of Ben Nevis. The ecosystem up there is relatively fragile – mosses and lichens. It might look barren, but it’s not.

Ashes are rich in calcium and phosphorus, so when you put a lot of ashes there, you’re changing the ecology of the place. So, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland has asked people to stop scattering at the summit.

They had to put a press release out for Jane Austen’s house because people were sneaking over the wall at night and upending the urns on the weekend. The gardener might come back on Monday morning and find three piles of ashes that had been dumped, and of course, a rose bed can only take so much.

A panoramic view from Ben Nevis, where people are no longer supposed to scatter ashes.
The view from Ben Nevis. Image by Leo Hoogendijk courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

You won Best Bereavement Resource at the Good Funeral Awards in 2015 – what’s your secret?

Honesty, really. I try not to be partisan, and to look at both sides and just use the facts. I don’t have any particular drum to beat about this; I think people should have the right to choose what they do with ashes, as long as it doesn’t impact others. Also, it’s pretty comprehensive: I’ve phoned up and emailed virtually everyone. There must be getting on to 800 posts on there now.

Impressive! And what’s next for Scattering Ashes?

We’re offering training courses for funeral directors and crematoria staff and celebrants, which is new. We’ll also be increasing our trade offer, putting wholesale options on the site. And we now have a sister site here called My Pet’s Ashes, which offers similar services for pet owners, because they’re part of the family too.

If you’d like to find out more about Scattering Ashes, head on over to the site at And if you have your own ash scattering story to tell, we’d love to hear it! Share your thoughts in the comment box below.

Meet the Maker: Cremation Glass Jewellery 1

Glassmaker Kenny Scott of Ash Glass Design.

Pendant with flecks and swirls in the glass made from the ashes of someone who has died

What do you see when you look at this pendant? To the untrained eye, it might look like … a pendant. But to those in the know, it’s something unusual, and completely unique: those flecks and swirls in the glass are made from the ashes of someone who has died.

In fact, the necklace is just one item in a range of mourning jewellery and sculpture created by glassmaker Kenny Scott and his team at Ash Glass Design. Based in the picturesque village of Clovenfords in the Scottish Borders, Kenny and co. craft bespoke cremation glass jewellery for families who want a subtle way to carry their loved one’s ashes with them.

So, how does one become a cremation glassmaker, exactly, and how is cremation glass actually made? To find out more about this relatively new answer to the question of what to do with ashes, we had a chat with Kenny …


How did Ash Glass Design get started?

Kenny Scott and his team at Ash Glass DesignKenny began his career at the tender age of 16, leaving school to take on a five-year apprenticeship in making glass from scratch. 20 years later, he was creating glasswork for museums and clients when he received an unusual request:

“One of my friends who’s a funeral director approached me and asked if I would make a memorial pendant for someone using ashes”, Kenny told Beyond. While at first Kenny wasn’t sure (he describes it as “a wee bit of a Marmite moment”) the family was so pleased with the result that he immediately realised that he wanted to do it again.

“After I made the pendant and met the family, it was the best feeling I’ve ever had when making something for someone”, Kenny explained. “They were so happy, and it’s such a precious thing that you’re making for them, that I thought, ‘Oh, I really like doing this.’

“Basically, that was it: I put a wee range together, and from there it’s kind of grown. I love doing it.”

“Nobody would know what it was other than them, and I think that’s the beauty of it.”

Why do people like cremation jewellery?

CreAsh Glass Design's cremation glass mourning ringmation jewellery isn’t for everyone ­– but while some find the concept morbid, others like the idea of keeping a loved one close in a subtle way. “I speak to all the customers, and I think for them the nicest thing is the fact that they can have their loved one with them all the time, and it’s not in your face. It doesn’t have a big sign saying what it is – it’s just a lovely piece of jewellery”, Kenny said.

“Nobody would know what it was other than them, and I think that’s the beauty of it. Everybody says that they get so much comfort out of having it.”

In Ash Glass Design’s range, rings are the most popular option: “Somebody said to me, it’s like they’re still holding my hand.

“We do lots for weddings as well, my goodness. For somebody who has maybe lost a parent, it’s like [their loved one] can be there on their wedding day. It’s a lovely way to have them with you.”

“There’s always something you want to try and create differently and try and adapt.”

How is cremation glass jewellery made?

Making cremation jewelleryThe process of making cremation glass jewellery is long and somewhat delicate, with great care taken to make sure the right ashes (“labelled, bagged, boxed, bagged again”, Kenny reports) are used.

At Ash Glass Design, everything is made in-house. After a discussion with the family about the design, Kenny melts their required colour of glass to make a base. He then carefully adds the ashes before sealing it over with clear glass to make a perfect finished surface.

After some time spent in the kiln – it takes a day and a half to gradually cool the hot glass down – the glass is polished down with diamond tools and set into the gold or silver using a traditional technique. Any ashes left over are returned to the family along with the finished piece.

“You have to know the procedures for cooling glass down, how to heat it up, how compatible it is with other materials, so it’s quite a wee science on its own,” Kenny said, adding that “there’s always something you want to try and create differently and try and adapt. You’re always making new designs as well, to stretch the boundaries a bit.”

“I still get phone calls three or four months down the road from some of my customers saying how happy they are, and what it means to them”

Do you take requests?

Because Ash Glass Design is a small company (Kenny, his wife Emma and “amazing” goldsmith Joanna) the team are able to take requests to make each piece of glass unique: “If somebody wants a bespoke colour in their jewellery, we never charge any extra … We do what we can to help folk get what they want. If [a customer] wants something to be adapted somehow, then we look into it for them”, Kenny explained.

“Sometimes it’s not as feasible as they might think initially, but we can talk them through it, and find the best option for them.”

Customers appreciate this personal service: “I still get phone calls three or four months down the road from some of my customers saying how happy they are, and what it means to them. Even a couple of years down the road, we still get them phoning back, asking how we are. It’s lovely.”

Want to find out more about Ash Glass Design? Check out their website,, give the team a ring on 01896 850447, or contact Kenny at [email protected]

About mourning jewellery …

A Victorian mourning ring with hair sealed into the gold.
A Victorian mourning ring with hair sealed into the gold. Image by Charles J Sharp, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mourning jewellery dates back as far as the 1600s, when stern memento mori-themed rings (‘remember that you must die’) were gradually overtaken by more personal tokens of grief. Examples from the British Museum demonstrate how gruff messages like “learn to dye” were replaced by kinder tributes, such as “not lost but gone before” and “not dead but sleepeth”.

At its peak in the Victorian era, mourning jewellery was worn as part of a strict dress code for the bereaved. Mourning rings were joined by broaches and lockets, and were often made with jet (a precious stone that, being black, was thought to be mourning period-appropriate). Many contained a lock of the hair from the person who had died, or a miniature portrait.

Popularity eventually declined as life expectancy increased – by World War One, mourning jewellery was out of vogue. But the desire shared by bereaved families for physical mementos of their loved ones never really went away.

Now, the rise in cremation – 70% of people in the UK choose it over burial – and increasing openness about death are leading to a rise in interest, with companies like Ash Glass Design offering a more contemporary take.