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What we leave behind

Watch humanist celebrants describe how something of us can survive our deaths
A humanist funeral is a very profound experience and also it manages to encapsulate two what might seem to be quite opposing factors, the first being that we recognise that this is the end of a life, we don’t believe they’re going on somewhere else, this is the end, this person is dead and we are saying goodbye to them and a humanist funeral is able to really capture the profundity of that.
At the same time as celebrating the fact that this person lived, that they created so many profound relationships, so many memories, they have a profound legacy that they’re leaving in the children possibly that they created, in works they’ve left behind, and when we commit somebody within a humanist funeral ceremony, we’re not committing them to god, we are committing them to the hearts and the minds and the memories of those people who loved them and whose lives they impacted, and whose lives they will continue to impact and for us, in a sense, that’s the afterlife in that, although the person has died, a humanist is very strong in believing that they can still have an impact on your life through the relationship that they had on you and through the influence that they had.
We are beings who are connected and in that sense through the funeral we’ve been able to bring the connection together and for people to see not just an opportunity to release grief and things like that which will happen in many cases but more frequently for people to actually see joy in the fact that somebody has been part of their life and has changed their life indelibly. So the focus obviously essentially is on the person who has died at a humanist funeral but second to that, the focus is then on the community of the person who’s died and the relationships that each of them had with that person.
What I would hope to bring out in working with them on the words that will be said during the funeral ceremony is that every time the family comes together for every marking of a family moment, be it a birthday or a Christmas or some kind of festival, that they are where the family are, the wider family or the community is coming together, that the person that they’ve lost through death is going to be able to be there with them if they make that possible insofar as they are the living embodiment of the impact that that person had on the world, or if their children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren, they are carrying the genetic material that means that that person lives on, that the ripples of that person’s life, physically and in terms of the memories that everybody carries of them, is in the room every time that those people come together and so that as long as they acknowledge the being and the impact of that person in those events, then that person is going to live on.
And every time we tell the stories, that’s how we stay alive because every time the characters that played are brought back to life and with that we live on in the minds and the imaginations of those who remain after our days are done. I have a very personal experience of this in that my best friend died earlier this year and I took her ceremony and before she died she’d wanted me to take her ceremony and we discussed it for weeks beforehand and she decided that she wanted me to transcribe something that she wanted to say to the people in the room at the end of the ceremony which of course I did and it was tremendously powerful in that her message to those people in the room was that she thanked them all for having helped her to have an incredible life and thanked them all for their love and their care during her journey through cancer but most importantly she said I really hope that the experience of my illness and death has taught you to enjoy your life even more, to take even more relish and importance out of each moment in the day and to be inspired by the friendship that we shared and the moments that we shared and to let that blossom in your lives and it was very very very powerful because the people went away terribly sad because she’s died but almost everybody said they felt hugely uplifted and hugely reignited in terms of a recommitment to life, recommitment their values, recommitment to their goals, and I think that’s a wonderful thing that a humanist funeral can provide.
‘Death destroys a man, but the idea of death saves him.’
E M Forster, author and humanist


  • The collaborative nature of our species and our capacity to share ideas means the impact of our lives can live on after our deaths through the connections we made and the relationships we held, through the contributions we made to society, and through the memories we leave behind in others
  • Joy can be found in recognising the influence someone had on our lives
  • We can keep other people ‘alive’ by retelling their stories
  • Awareness of death as the end of life can motivate us to make the most of the one life we have

Question: The impact we have on others can survive our deaths. How might this influence both the way we live and the way we approach death?

This article is from the free online

Humanist Lives, with Alice Roberts

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FutureLearn - Learning For Life

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