Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £29.99 £19.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

Stories and Sadness

Watch humanist celebrants describe how stories can help us to cope with the grieving process at humanist funerals
I suppose it’s true to say that a humanist funeral is almost completely guided by the humanist philosophy that this is the one life that we have. From start to finish there’s no sense that there’s an afterlife. There’s every sense that the life that was lived was precious and there to be remembered and there to be paid tribute to and there to be celebrated and there to be admired and there to be respected and there to be laughed at, and there to be, to have compassion with for the struggles.
I think what I always love about a humanist funeral is that we can be tremendously honest about how a person has lived their life and the challenges that they faced because we’re not dressing them up for god, we’re almost kind of revealing them as to who they really were and that by the end of their life you get a sense of the trajectory of that life and the people in that room who love them are listening to that story and in telling that story there is comfort and there is healing as well or there is, there’s help with the grieving process, and that’s another key thing about a humanist funeral, I think, is that it successfully facilitates the grieving process because it’s authentic.
I’m aiming to try and create an event which is going to be memorable in a positive way so that even though it may be sad, it may be grievous if the loss is terribly sudden, that when those people who attended that funeral look back on it they are able to look back and say yes, that was appropriate, that was the life of the person that I’ve lost. We’re effectively publicly acknowledging the importance of that life before we finally accept the mortality of the person and let them go. I had the great privilege of conducting a celebration of life for my friend’s funeral.
She sadly died of cancer and one of the things that she had done during her recovery was travel to Peru and a friend of hers in Peru had told her about a Peruvian fire ceremony and the fire ceremony is basically you take a log for every year of someone’s life and give it to someone important and ask them to share a story and add the log to the fire and for my friend Laura she was 38 so there were 38 logs and 38 stories, some of which were anecdotes, some of which were just funny little quips about her personality, some of which were people’s real heartfelt need to say something since her departure and as all of those stories were shared, so the fire grew and as the fire grew so everyone became warmed and it was an extraordinary experience and exchange between everybody there.
It was a very visceral expression of grief as well and I think again when asking what context ceremony has in these things, grief requires a good starting point and I think if that starting point can come from conversation, from storytelling, and from sharing, then you are becoming less enclosed and more expressive and it gives you somewhere to place those things so there are so many different rituals that exist there are so many things you can make up that will serve that same purpose but that will never not be a very significant moment in my life remembering that that was something that could bring everyone together rather than push everybody into their own quiet pockets of grief.


  • Humanists do not believe in an afterlife – they believe there can be value in accepting our mortality
  • Humanists believe the telling and sharing of stories about a person’s life can support the grieving process

Question: What comfort can be found following the death of a loved one for those who do not believe in an afterlife?

This article is from the free online

Humanist Lives, with Alice Roberts

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now