The British are becoming a secular people. But when questioned, most prefer to say they that have no religion. Very few will call themselves an atheist. Perhaps, that is because the word suggests paganism and not being civilised. Blame the Romans for giving the pagans a bad press.
Prior to the 1990’s, the funeral of an avowed atheist was quite rare. Atheists were seen as eccentric and lacking a moral code. In fact, as rational people, disinclined to proselytize, few would have anything resembling a funeral ceremony. Perhaps they were aware of the comment, all dressed up and nowhere to go, which was attached to atheist funerals. It was a jibe that could be relied on to raise a smile. However, my experience of religion over 45 years working in cemeteries and crematoria, persuaded me to join their ranks.
I became a Humanist and a member of the British Humanist Association (BHA), a charity. Humanists might be non-religious but they do have a set of beliefs. They believe that it is people who determine the good and bad in the world, not supernatural beings; that our lives are guided by the laws of nature and scientific reason. However, Humanists are not immune to the beauty of church language, the hymns and the buildings. Unfortunately, these are outweighed by the control of church dogma, the bigotry, and subjugation of women.
As the incidence of both religious weddings and christenings decline, a person’s belief may only come to the fore at death. This is reflected in the kind of funeral service that is preferred. Few people realize that you cannot leave binding instructions on this before you die. If it matters to you, it is essential to appoint an executor or have a partner with legal powers through marriage or a civil partnership. These are the people most likely to carry out your wishes to the letter. I have experienced many funerals where the deceased did not have the religious or secular service they truly wanted. The family, often the parents, can ignore the fact that the deceased had a common law partner or even friends with differing beliefs. Such feelings can be very strong. The comment, “He came into the world a Catholic and will go out a Catholic”, was not unusual. I once had to discipline a crematorium supervisor, a Christian, who, after a secular funeral, or where there was no service at all, took to reading the Lord’s Prayer over the coffin before it was cremated.
Now, as a pensioner, and with a companion in my veins called leukaemia, I am aware of my mortality. Most days, I log on to a website related to my illness, which has many thousands of sufferers worldwide. When somebody goes into hospital, hundreds pray for them. Some send angels, which they claim will throw a protective shield over them. For certain, atheists find prayers and angels challenging. There must be many atheists like me on the website wanting to say that if god really cared for us then we would not have leukaemia in the first place. Knowing that over 50% of people in the UK profess no religion, it is interesting that there is no atheist response on the website to such outpourings. Like me, they must find it unwanted and perhaps even offensive. Because of this, atheists may feel they cannot participate or use the support the website offers. For certain, it is not inclusive.
Prayers, even angels, represent community cohesion, that sense of belonging. Atheists understand this valuable role of religion. As we grow in number, Humanists have had to offer their own funeral celebrants, prison visitors and people able to talk in schools about a secular agenda. However, unlike the Church of England, we cannot marry you or get a spot on BBC Radio 4, Thought for the Day. Humanists and atheists are not a ‘faith’ in the eyes of politicians.
When I introduced natural burial in 1990, it was intended that the environment and nature would embrace all religions, beliefs and spiritual needs. It was intended to be inclusive, not least because it is potentially low cost. However, funeral directors immediately labled it as pagan, intended as a slur. In truth, it did appeal to pagans, as well as tree huggers and druids. The local Baha’i faith was attracted because they believe in modest funerals. Beekeepers and birdwatchers were supporters as well as people who despised cremation or even the affectation of expensive cemetery memorials. But many vicars and priests also adopted it. The Church of England has set up its own natural burial sites, in which all religions and the secular are welcome. A more recent religious perspective considers natural burial sites as creating a Garden of Eden, an earthly paradise in a world struggling with pollution. For those in science it is perpetual, as one’s atoms create new life in the form of trees and wildflowers. The donation of the body to natural burial has been described as a gift to the community and future generations, similar to donating blood or an organ. Whatever, it is all in the eye of the beholder. So, whether you are religious, secular or pagan, natural burial offers a place to go, provided your body is all dressed up in biodegradable materials, of course.
The Pagan Pensioner