I was delighted to have the opportunity to interview Jenny Lloyd on her work as a humanist funeral celebrant (accredited by Humanists UK). As rapid secularisation in the UK continues, humanist celebrants like Jenny are leading the way in creating life-cycle events within a humanist framework. Jenny specialises in funerals, while other celebrants endorsed by Humanists UK specialise in weddings and naming ceremonies, or a combination of these three types of ceremony.
Dr Anastasia E. Somerville-Wong, Editor of Secular Liturgies
Jenny had a career in education from 1970 to 2006, with a four year break (1975-1979) to bring up her daughters – returning to work when her husband took on the role as primary parent. Jenny taught secondary English and media studies and was head of an English department before moving into the advisory service with Devon Local Education Authority in 1989. As an advisory teacher and then as an advisor, Jenny worked in schools alongside secondary teachers (and later primary teachers), writing and trialling materials, training teachers, and reporting to headteachers, the local authority and the DfE. Jenny took leave of absence in the mid 1990s to do an MA in Children’s Literature, and returned to lead the National Literacy Strategy in Devon and then the Secondary English Strategy. On retirement, Jenny trained as a humanist funeral celebrant in 2007 and started practising in 2008.
1. What inspired you to become a humanist funeral celebrant?
Someone who I’d worked with on a community arts project suggested that I train in 1998 when the British Humanist Association (now Humanists UK) was looking for more people to become celebrants in Devon. I’d recently been appointed to a big job (leading the National Literacy Strategy for Devon Local Authority) so I couldn’t consider it but I knew that she’d given me the idea for what I could do in retirement (from 2006). She did me a big favour. I’d collected oral history from Exonions in the 1970s and knew I was able to give people a voice to tell their stories. That oral history work was inspired by Charles Parker who collaborated with Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl on the BBC Radio Ballads – the central premise being that everyone has a story worth telling. That was my inspiration.
2. What kind of training did you receive?
Five days, including two weekends, with BHA celebrant trainers. This involved practical exercises, including speaking, writing, listening, questioning, presenting; problem solving and exploration of tricky situations (e.g. ways of responding to requests for religious content); exploring the nature of humanism and our understanding of it; input on the scope of the work; practical guidance for family visits and leading funerals including music, readings, structures, language. The final weekend involved one day based in a crematorium for role play funerals with coffin, a behind the scenes tour of the Crematorium and a role play burial.
We also had four written assignments based on case studies with feedback, worked with a mentor (going on family visits; observing funerals), observed funerals by other celebrants, and were expected to do continuing professional development every year and be peer reviewed every three years.
3. What is your approach to funeral planning with a bereaved family?
I note the details of the person who has died (generally, though not always, received from a Funeral Director) and the main contact (generally a family member). I ring to make an appointment. I then prepare my blank page notebook with my checklist.I am there to listen. I need to be in a position to write a ceremony (or help the family write it) which captures the life and personality of the person and evokes the memories and stories for the assembled family, friends, colleagues as they say their goodbyes. I want to help them have a point of reference so they will continue to share memories and tell their stories after the ceremony. People often assume I knew the person well.
I establish how involved the family/friends want to be; how much work they’ve already done. I often start with a family tree to get a picture of the family in my head. I tend to ask whether the person who has died was ill for long, to give the family a chance to tell me the story of their death if they choose to. Sometimes this is told in great detail and needs to be said before they can move on to remembering their lives.
Generally, I give an outline for the ceremonybut stress that there are no ‘oughts’. If I am doing the main ‘tribute’ or an overview of the person’s life (before contributions from family and friends) I ask open ended questions about the person’s life. I need to get a sense of the kind of person s/he was; their life; collective family memories and stories. There is always a story to tell but when the family/friends can’t tell me much, I ask more questions to trigger memories and as a last resort ask, “Did they have a dog?” Several times I’ve been able to find an appropriate animal or nature poem when the narrative is sparse. In these situations, I also ask if there is anyone else I can talk to.
I also need to gauge the tone for the ceremony from the tone of the conversation with family/friends: what emotional dimension to convey; level of formality. If the family are going to do the main tribute I need to get a picture of the person first hand from our conversation (rather than wait for scripts from contributors) so I can write the opening and closing words and get the tone right.
I end the conversation by going through my checklist (unless things are covered earlier). I want the family to visualise the occasion and think about how they want to go in at the start; whether the curtains are to stay open or close. The final questions are about the important words I use: e.g. “We are remembering, saying goodbye. Are we celebrating, honouring, paying tribute to….?” The dress code question also helps me gauge the family’s vision for the ceremony: all black, dark colours, range of colours i.e. degrees of formality.
Sometimes the ceremony evolves over the period between the family visit and the ceremony. There might not be a formal committal. Sometimes I just do the opening, committal and the closing words. Sometimes the tone is conversational or even a conversation round the coffin (within a structure which acknowledges time constraints.) Sometimes the planning is done over the phone and via email – always more difficult to judge the tone with long distance planning!
4. Do you have a humanist liturgy or liturgies you use or a set form of choreography?
There is a structure for humanist ceremonies, which is flexible and often adapted to suit different families/groups of friends:
- Entry music (sometimes gathering music and then entry music). Sometimes people choose to follow the coffin in; others choose to be in the chapel/hall before the coffin comes in and stand when it does. In some chapels it’s possible to arrange for the coffin to be in position before people arrive.
- Opening words
- Thoughts about life and death(I generally don’t include this. I’m not there to preach.)
- Remembering X (my terminology; often known as tribute(s) or eulogy)
- Reflection, generally to music
- The Committal
- Closing words
- Music to leave by.
5. What resources would you especially recommend for humanist funeral planning?
- A collection of readings, poetry and prose, varied in tone and accessibility, from the popular to the more obscure, to offer families/friends, particularly for the committal i.e. short readings acting as words of farewell. Also useful to have (or to be able to find) are readings for particular interests e.g. gardening, wildlife, cycling, animals, sailing and the sea.
- A collection of readings suitable for burials and woodland burials.
- Some readings suitable for the deaths of babies and children and people who have killed themselves.
I was surprise in the early days that readings (apart from the one at the committal) are not generally of importance to most people.
- A collection of images for the front page of the script presented to the family. I mostly use a generic abstract motif but use favourite flowers or other relevant images. The script for the family must be well presented. I give the family a copy/copies after the ceremony is over.
- Knowledge of a range of music is helpful though not essential. I have often recommended a piece of music, particularly classical, when the family ask for guidance. I like to be in charge of the music and order it rather than the funeral director. I can arrange edit points where needed and choose appropriate versions. My musical knowledge has increased to cover genres I wasn’t familiar with before doing this work.
6. Do you carry out any secular/humanist rituals as elements of funeral services? If so, please describe them.
- Standing when the coffin is carried in; standing for the committal, the formal goodbye; the family approaching the coffin at the committal or after the closing words to touch it, for a private farewell, to place a flower on the coffin. Often just the immediate family but sometimes everyone as they leave.
- The committal is the most ‘solemn’ moment. I ask everyone to stand, use a form of words and then read a short poem or piece of prose chosen with the family at the family meeting. Then a pause before we continue. I sit people down for the closing words. Sometimes we play a piece of music instead of or as well as a reading.
- When I leave, which I do during the final music before anyone else leaves, I stand in front of the coffin with a very slight bow of my head. I think of this an act of respect and my last connection with the person whose life I hope I have captured so that people present have made connections, said their farewells.
- Greeting people before the ceremony and being present afterwards if anyone wants to talk to me. I don’t leave till the family go.
7. Since you do not offer hope of an afterlife, how do you bring comfort to bereaved relatives?
I emphasise the continuing bond between the dead and the living through shared memories and the stories the bereaved will tell about the person who has died. I talk about the ways people live on after their death through children, grandchildren etc; through what they have said, done, made, written (as appropriate); through the influence they have had; through their legacy e.g. of love and laughter; of passing on skills: DIY, gardening, cooking…..). Pericles’ words from 5thCentury BCE are useful: ‘what we leave behind is not what is engraved on stone monuments but what is woven into the lives of others.’
From feedback which families give me, I know that they find the process of talking to me in preparation and the ceremony itself a comfort. People have written to thank me for giving them the opportunity to reflect on a life, and on the wonder of that life.
8. Do you help the terminally ill to plan their own funerals or do you only work with relatives after a death?
I have done a number of such meetings and subsequent ceremonies with terminally ill people. I have also done ceremonies for people who want to leave a script behind when they die (they may have no family; want a non-religious ceremony but don’t trust the family to follow their wishes). The script is often attached to their wills to make their wishes clear.
9. What are the greatest challenges and most rewarding aspects of your role?
- The biggest challenge is when I discover that the person who has died was not liked or loved; this emerges during the conversation. It is very difficult to find the words to express such people’s lives. I have found a form of words to do this.
- Taking on the views of ‘combined’ or conflicted families. I share my draft script with the client (the person who has instructed the funeral director – sometimes a direct instruction from a client) but when they have shared this with others, coping with vetos on certain information is challenging along with negotiating a script which acknowledges and gives voice to a range of opinions.
- Funerals for babies and children.
- Funerals for people who have taken their own lives. I have to establish how explicit the family/friends want to be about what has happened (this has ranged from full acknowledgement of suicide; alluding to it; not mentioning it at all).
- Murder: I have done one ceremony for someone who was murdered and for someone who murdered his wife.
- Building trust with a family/group of friends so they talk freely. Telling the stories of people’s lives. Making connections with a person or a family at an intense level culminating with the ceremony. Feedback from people who appreciate what I’ve done. Knowing I have made a difficult experience rewarding for the family. Helping a family recall the person and helping with the continuing bond between the living and the dead.
10. How do religious attendees of humanist funerals respond to their experience?
People who have said they were Christians have volunteered various opinions: that they found the ceremony moving, with a spiritual dimension, serious, rather beautiful. The most negative thing (so far) was a thank you followed by a statement that they were Christians. Was the implication that my ceremony wasn’t legitimate?
11. While your clients are those who claim no religious affiliation, do some of them nonetheless have unorthodox beliefs in supernatural things or superstitions, which influence their approach to the funeral?
I have done a funeral for a spiritualist. Her friends painted a picture of her life, beliefs and involvement in spiritualism in their tributes but this did not shape the non-religious framing of the ceremony.
I am currently writing ceremonies for a couple in their eighties who are pagans. That part of their lives is covered in the narrative but the ceremonies are non-religious and not shaped by paganism. They approached me through my website and through conversation with me established that I would represent their lives in a non-religious ceremony. They don’t want a pagan ceremony.
12. How do you think we as a society could learn to better cope with loss and the prospect of our own deaths?
I think we should talk about death in conversation but also be practical and arrange both powers of attorney for health and welfare and Advance Decision Directives. Just completing these leads to conversations about dying and death.
These documents should be better known. Advanced Decision Directives come in various versions, some of which are very complicated. I recommend the version published by Compassion in Dying. I think these documents should be better known, perhaps through lawyers/Financial Advisers where people have them; through GP surgeries; through day centres; through secondary schools perhaps part of the Personal, Social & Health Education programme.
I think children should grow up knowing that people die and use the language of dying. There’s some good practice of making memory boxes for children when a close relation is dying or has died. Don’t cover death up with euphemisms. I don’t understand why ‘passed away’ has gained so much currency. I use the words “died” and “death” in my scripts. Occasionally the clients change this to “passed away” and “passing” when they review the script I send and I have to respect this.
My husband John’s death, two years ago, has given me a perspective on dying and death which I didn’t have before he died (discussed below). We had sorted out powers of attorney for health and welfare but hadn’t got round to Advanced Decision Directives. I have since completed my advanced directive.
13. What are your thoughts on assisted dying?
I am in favour of assisted dying. I often think that there has to be a better way to die when I hear searing experiences of painful and difficult deaths from my clients.
I also realise that assisted dying is not without difficulties. John was in terrible pain while dying of prostate cancer (locally advanced when diagnosed). Neuropathic pain caused when cancer metastasised to the lower spine is very difficult to control.
When it came to it, John didn’t want to die, certainly not before it was unavoidable. He had found it very difficult to move from treatment over 10 years to palliative care for the last 6 months of his life when death became a reality. He knew that the cancer would kill him and often said so when the cancer was under control. After it spread, he felt that the oncologist had abandoned him when palliative care took over. The cancer had spread to his lower spine so his mobility was restricted; his response was to ask for exercises to keep mobile (as he’d done in the past when recovering from running injuries). I think that having to follow the advice that movement would trigger pain so avoid unnecessary movement meant he no longer had control. On the other hand, I found his extreme pain very difficult to witness. Would I have wanted an assisted death in his situation? It would have shortened his life by perhaps 4 months.
Funeral Visit Checklist
Coffin in e.g. follow in; seated before coffin comes in; coffin in position first
Reflection words (do the family want me to mention prayer here)
Committal: curtains (open or closed); reading/music
Thanks yous (if appropriate)
Donations (if any)
Gathering (if there is one)
Entry music; opening words; remembering X – i.e. tributes; music for reflection; the committal; closing words; exit music; readings may be interspersed throughout and more music. Some ceremonies end with the committal.