Opinion Former Article

Humanists UK launches first ever funeral tribute archive

The life stories of ordinary people who have their death marked with a humanist funeral are to be immortalised for all time, thanks to a new initiative from Humanists UK. Working with the Bishopsgate Institute, they have created the first national online archive of funeral tributes from the thousands of funerals conducted by their celebrants each year. The Humanist Funeral Tribute Archive is being launched today and will be accessible through the Bishopsgate Institute’s online Catalogue. Over 50 tributes are now online, with more being submitted all the time, and academics and several Humanists UK patrons have hailed the initiative.

Increasingly popular across the UK, humanist funerals and memorial services offer a personal and fitting way to say goodbye to those who have lived without religion. They bring people together to express sadness at the loss but also to celebrate the life lived. They focus sincerely and affectionately on the person who has died, paying tribute to the connections they made and left behind and the way they lived their life. Research published in 2016 shows that one in seven British people want a humanist funeral, when they die.

Humanists UK has provided humanist funerals since the 1890s, pioneering the concept of a non-religious funeral. Famous people to have had Humanists UK funerals include Terry Pratchett, Doris Lessing, Victoria Wood, Linda Smith, Warren Mitchell, Cynthia Payne, Ronnie Barker, Bob Monkhouse, Claire Rayner, and John Noakes.

Now, anyone who has a funeral conducted by a Humanists UK-accredited celebrant is eligible to have their story lodged in the Archive, with scripts submitted at the request of families. Photos are also being stored to give a full picture of the person who is being commemorated. Humanists UK celebrants conduct thousands of funerals a year, across the country, and estimates that maybe as many as a million people could have tributes to add to the Archive from funerals conducted so far alone. In consequence, it expects the Archive to rapidly become a significant repository of life stories from the 20th century and beyond.

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of Humanists UK, explained, ‘The most important part of a humanist funeral is the tribute or eulogy. It tells the life story of the person who has died. This new archive will preserve these stories and make them available to future generations, so that people can live forever with a humanist funeral.’

There has been widespread support for the new Archive and a recognition of the importance of preserving the stories of ordinary people’s lives. Maureen Duffy, author and Patron of Humanists UK, commented, ‘Humanist funerals are a celebration of the life that was lived. This digital archive is the perfect way to preserve and continue that celebration for many years after that life comes to a close.’

Kate Fox, anthropologist, author of the bestseller Watching the English, and Patron of Humanists UK, commented on how valuable these stories are: ‘Archives help future generations make sense of the lives that were lived before them. This archive brings a rich, personal tapestry, that shows not only the activities of this generation, but the meaning we attached to those activities.’

The new archive is also of considerable interest to the academic world. Callum Brown, Professor of Late Modern European History at Glasgow University stressed its importance to researchers: ‘The funeral and its tribute to the dead is a key part of the human rite of passage. The Humanist Funeral Tribute Archive provides a wealth of understanding of remembrance and memorialisation, and how it changes. For the historian it also provides a record of the rise of the distinctly humanist commemoration of well-lived lives of the early 21st century. It will mature into a well-tended and unique research resource.’

The Archive is the brainchild of Patsy Wallace, a Humanists UK celebrant based in Somerset. She commented, ‘I began working as a celebrant in 2012, and quickly learnt that the tribute is the central part of a humanist funeral. During my training with Humanists UK I learnt how important it is to get this life story right. Through my work I have learnt how rich and fascinating the lives of ordinary people can be.

‘There are some amazing stories already in the Archive: the soldier who escaped from a prisoner of war camp and spent five cold months hiding in a chapel perched on a crag in the Italian mountains; the young woman born in a workhouse, who went on to become a successful teacher and campaigner; the teenager - a member of the Communist Party - who wanted to fight the Nazis, but who was posted to the Shetland Isles in case he “infected” his comrades with his ideology; and the man convicted of murder just after the death penalty was abolished, who was cleared 17 years later.

‘As a celebrant I was fascinated by the stories that I heard about people’s lives when I was preparing their funeral. Individually they are an important part of family histories but, taken together, they form a detailed picture of everyday life in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.’

Notes

For more information please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at richy@humanism.org.uk or on 0781 5589 636; our Archive lead, Patsy Wallace at ceremonies-archive@humanism.org.uk or on 07788 817619; or our Head of Ceremonies at Isabel@humanism.org.uk or on 0207 324 3060.

If you’re interested in a humanist funeral for yourself or a loved one, or training to be a Humanists UK-accredited celebrant, you can find out more at https://humanism.org.uk/funerals

You can view the Archive at: https://humanism.org.uk/ceremonies/funeral-tribute-archive/

If a loved one has had a Humanists UK funeral and you would like their tribute added to the Archive, you can do so by contacting the celebrant who conducted the funeral. Or, if this isn’t possible, please email us at ceremonies-archive@humanism.org.uk, along with the name of the Humanists UK celebrant who took the funeral, a copy of the consent form (PDF/Word), the tribute or eulogy (taken from the funeral ceremony), and any photos you wish to provide.

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.

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