Forthcoming research on non-religious funerals … stay tuned!
A few months ago, in an article for The New Humanism, “Spitting with the Wind: The Sociology of Irreligion and Ritual,” I opined that it was “time for scholars and community leaders alike to start paying attention to the emerging traditions of non-religious life-cycle ritual all around them.” My own dissertation focusses on just such a tradition, but at the time I knew of no other research like it. How things have changed. I am now familiar with several ongoing projects centered around non-religious life-cycle ritual. In fact the research phase of one of these projects, conducted by London School of Economics anthropologist Mathew Engelke, was recently completed.
With the assistance of funding from The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Engelke spent all of 2011 conducting “an ethnography of the British Humanist Association.” While his ethnography did not focus exclusively on humanist ceremonies he did train to become a humanist celebrant, and consequently spent a great deal of time as a participant-observer researching non-religious funerals. He has written modestly about his research experience in the Guardian:
The idea of a good death is not new. Anthropologists, historians, and other social scientists have long documented the variety of ways in which a good death is achieved. Crucial to this is not only how someone dies, but how that death is commemorated. In many cases, to include Britain today, a good death has to involve a good funeral. Ritual, even in this postmodern age, is flourishing. And whether or not we identify as religious such ritual, it seems, still counts.
I spent last year conducting an anthropological study of the British Humanist Association (BHA), an organisation which on first thought might not bring to mind a commitment to rites de passage. For the association, however, providing funerals to those who do without God is a major aspect of its work. There are close to 300 humanist celebrants, and they conduct more than 8,000 funerals a year. It’s a burgeoning service. As Linda Woodhead noted here last week, “the churches’ hold over birth, marriage, and death has weakened dramatically”. According to a major study by Co-operative Funeralcare, in 2011, 12% of funerals in Britain are now humanist or otherwise “non-religious”.
As an anthropologist, one of the reasons I wanted to study the BHA is because of this commitment to the experiential and embodied side of being non-religious. As an increasing number of philosophers within the atheist and humanist ambit have stressed, much of the god debate over the past six or seven years has been dominated by a hyper-intellectualised version of what it means to do without Him. But godless dons have funerals – most of them do, at any rate. And so do other non-religious people.
To be sure, a good BHA funeral is a carefully scripted event: words matter to the celebrants, and ought to “capture the person”, as some of the celebrants put it to me – and as I learned the hard way, training to become a celebrant myself. (As an anthropologist, I had to go native as much as I could.) The scripts I wrote during the training – a three-month process – were deconstructed by my teachers, word for word. I felt like a student all over again. Yet humanist funerals are also, like all rituals, carefully scripted performances: sensuous events in which the semantic content of what is said is often eclipsed by what exists beyond language.
My own research also suggests that attempting to “capture the person” in ritual performance is likely the hallmark of the modern life-cycle ceremony, and especially so in the non-religious realm. But what does that mean? The ESRC digs a bit deeper into the issue in a press release on Engelke’s funeral research:
One of the most striking aspects of BHA funeral ceremonies is that they strive to be true to the individual, to reflect as best as possible the character, world views and the sensibilities of the person who has died. “The focus is almost exclusively on the person, which is often not the case with the more traditional religious ceremonies” says Dr Engelke.
This emphasis on the individual is an increasingly important phenomenon in modern Western life, suggests Dr Engelke. In many societies, and in ritual ceremonies down the ages, the place of the individual in the ritual is often the least important consideration.
In humanist ceremonies, being true to the individual is most central. Dr Engelke commonly came across family members and friends who said: “We told the funeral director John did not go to church so we did not want a vicar to take the funeral”.
“This gives an intriguing glimpse into the extent to which modern citizens feel it important to express their uniqueness and individuality”, says Dr Engelke.
As the ESRC points out, the individual has rarely played as central of a role in ritual as s/he does today, in the contemporary West. Yet, as I am finding in my own research there is a complex set of relationships at play in even the most personalized of ceremonies. I hope that Engelke’s more detailed analysis of humanist funerals goes beyond mere personalization and attempts to decipher to what end ritualized individualism plays out in contemporary non-religious ceremonies. Without giving too much away about my own research I can say that something quite connective if not collective seems to abide under the veneer of the rugged ritualizing American individual. Is this also the case among British Humanists? We’ll have to wait and see, and of course no matter where Engelke’s analysis takes him this is exciting and timely research. Keep it coming, please!