“Now it is time to say our final goodbyes,” said the humanist funeral celebrant, a sour look on her face. “Hugo is gone. And we won’t see him again.” The curtain was pulled around the coffin. An uneasy silence descended.
I looked at my companion and he shrugged. I stifled a giggle, but I was laughing with nerves, for in truth the whole thing was so utterly disconcerting that I have rarely felt so depressed.
We had been subjected to an hour of poems and pop music, speeches and trite interjections telling us how to feel by this prim lady, the celebrant, in her strange business suit, standing on a platform that wasn’t a pulpit. She was talking down to us, only not with the authority of any higher being, which made her pompous attitude very hard to take.
Oh, the despair of a non-believer’s funeral. Surely, there is nothing so soul-destroying. I suppose that is exactly what these affairs are meant to do. Destroy any notion that we have a soul.
I have been to a couple of these strange occasions now, which seem to be growing in popularity. It always strikes me as deeply awkward when people attempt to give their loved one a send-off by proclaiming that they are not going anywhere. It’s much more convoluted than a conventional funeral with hymns and prayers.
And it doesn’t really work. In theory, I can totally understand why people might want to have a crack at atheism in this cynical world. But in practice, atheism does not deliver on any meaningful level and especially not once the chips are down. When push comes to shove, atheism is a fair-weather ideology.
It’s all very well rattling along not believing in anything while you’re alive and well. But the moment you’re dead, the whole concept of not needing God self-evidently falls apart.
As I sat in that echoing crematorium looking at a wicker eco-coffin, I was suddenly impressed by all the reasons we traditionally rely on the Church to guide us through life’s game-changers, namely birth, marriage and death.
The atheist can laugh all he likes at the religious explanation of the mysteries we cannot fully explain with recourse to science. But if you want a real laugh, listen to the grey-suited humanist celebrant’s version of events, which strikes me as entirely ludicrous.
I had presumed myself to have reasonably liberal views about those of no faith before I sat through that strange non-service. But after an hour of it, I found myself radicalised. This wretched philosophy has no answers to anything, I thought, with a growing sense of disdain.
And it’s not remotely intelligent. In fact, it’s hopelessly shallow. The joyless celebrant just sucked the meaning out of everything.
“The loss of a loved one can be shocking and leave us feeling bereft,” she said, totally missing the point that the sea of faces looking back at her had already worked that bit out for themselves.
What they needed from a death professional was a bit of extra info; you know, the inside track. But of course, atheists don’t have the inside track.
It was all very well listening to poems and readings, cheery stories and funny anecdotes. The problem came at the end. Oh dear, what now?
Where humanism really came unstuck was the moment the coffin was sent away and we were all sent off home.
That is when our po-faced mistress of ceremonies was reduced to intoning that our friend was gone. Say goodbye. He’s not coming back. And then, as everyone shifted awkwardly in their seats, we were told we were having a moment of silence to reflect on his life.
No we weren’t. I bet every single non-believer in the crematorium was silently sitting there wondering desperately whether there wasn’t something more.
“I want a full Requiem Mass,” I told my partner afterwards. “I don’t care how much it costs. I want a candlelit vigil with women in black lace veils saying the rosary around my coffin in the church the night before, followed by a sumptuous Latin Mass.”
And I’m going to leave specific instructions in my will to make sure no one plays pop music, makes a speech about what a life force I was, or reads out a poem by WH Auden.
Melissa Kite is a journalist and author
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.