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  • The Secular Funeral And What It Means

    “The Australian Humanist”, No.100, Summer 2010

    Reproduced with permission 


    By: Dally Messenger

              Foundation President of the Funeral Celebrants of Association of Australia (1977)

              Principal of the International College of Celebrancy

              Author of the text - Ceremonies and Celebrations (Hachette Livre)


    This heart was woven of human joys and cares,
    Washed marvellously with sorrow, swift to mirth .
    The years had given him kindness.  Dawn was his,

    And sunset, and the colours of the earth.

    He had seen movement, and heard music; known

    Slumber and waking; loved; gone proudly friended;

    Felt the quick stir of wonder; sat alone;

    Touched flowers and furs and cheeks. 
    All this is ended.

    (Adapted from Rupert Brooke)


    The pronouncements of the Archbishop of Melbourne, one Denis Hart, for a few days in September 2010, cast the spotlight on the secular funeral.  In Melbourne, I am sure it was paralleled elsewhere, the Herald Sun, the Age,  the television and other media went totally hysterical.  They gave the Archbishop quite a bad time.  His Grace had decided to lay down the law on Catholic funerals.  The purpose of the Catholic Funeral was to assist the soul on her journey towards the Particular Judgement before the Almighty.  It was definitely not a Good old Collingwood forever - celebration of the life event.


    Before I go on I had better make one thing clear.  I live with the conviction that a good life deserves to be honoured.  I think it is profoundly uncivilised to dismiss a lifetime of achievement in society, and dedication to family, in 10-15 minutes.  I think a funeral is a weighty and serious responsibility, and, given the limitations of the culture, should be done as fully and meaningfully as possible.  Capitalist pressure is making this task increasingly difficult.


    Just as the substantive meaning for a secular marriage ceremony has been undermined by people in the government, similar forces have been at work undermining the secular funeral. 


    I am a celebrant of 35 years standing, and have between 2000 and 3000 funerals on my CV.  I am qualified to tell you, that in the mid 1970s, we did something very unique and very good in modern world history by establishing meaningful substantive civil funerals in Australia – especially in Melbourne.  Those of you who have lived as long as me, or longer, will know that until we came along, there was no such thing as a secular funeral anywhere in the English-speaking western world - New Zealand, the United Kingdom, & the United States.  We, the civil funeral celebrants of Melbourne, began something unique in our inter-connected cultures.  But what has happened since then?  Why are families now approaching catholic priests for secular funerals?  The answer is disturbing.


    Just as we have religious and anti-secular people in the government, who have undermined marriage celebrancy, we have even more powerful forces, based on the greed-is-good philosophy that our society so encourages, undermining secular funeral celebrancy.


    Unfortunately, Humanists, Rationalists and generally secular people I know have, in the main, not quite grasped what a gift Lionel Murphy bequeathed to us when he established marriage and funeral celebrants.


    Established by the said Murphy in the early 1970s, civil celebrants were a great leap forward for the dignity of secular people.  It was the members of the Humanist Society who had campaigned for civil celebrancy.  At that time secular people were being humiliated in a myriad of ways by a predominantly religious society. 


    It hasnt stopped, but it has become more subtle.  Our opponents have been very clever.  They have adopted the classic motto - If you cant attack, you undermine.  The squashing, squeezing and exploitation of our group of funeral celebrants, once so constructive and prosperous, by the majority of Funeral Directors is a tragedy unfolding before our eyes.  The Funeral Director scene has changed.  Idealistic and community minded leadership of the past, Rob and John Allison, Des Tobin and a few others are now quaint history.  Funeral celebrants are now up against at least one large corporation, and a number of lesser ones, and, as is obvious to all, big advertising money.  Invocare, a very large corporation, owns Le Pine Funerals, Simplicity Funerals, White Lady Funerals and many others (1).  Thought you were getting competitive quotes, didnt you? - silly you.  Put funeral celebrants into Google and you will be directed to a Funeral Director site.  Greed-is-good money now controls Google as well.


    Funeral directors are misnamed.  They dont direct funerals.  In fact, the funeral ceremony is of very little interest to them.  They are disposers of bodies.  The slab of money evidently required for carrying out this disposal is gianormous.  As we watch the TV ads, we are presented with the long list of charges and expenses for which you must insure yourself.  Notice they do not even mention the final tribute to the deceased, the Funeral Ceremony.  It is not part of their money making scene.


    And yet, to every intelligent person who knows about it, or thinks about it, the funeral ceremony is the procedure after a death which most matters to most people.  To whoever has listened to talkback radio, or engaged in after-dinner conversations, or attended a funeral service, the only topic which is discussed is - how good or bad was the ceremony (and the celebrant)?  How good (meaning authentic and moving) was the eulogy, how appropriate and honouring were the spoken reminiscences, the poems, the quotations, and the people who read?  Was the music appropriate and well delivered?


    The scene has been further complicated by well-meaning but ignorant people.  For example, the Archbishop recognised that the over emphasis on celebration of life is really a denial of the death.  He is quite right.  All the really good civil celebrants I knew, most of whom have been financially squeezed out of the industry by financial exploitation by funeral directors, knew that the first objective of the funeral was to assist people to grieve. 



    Home they brought her warrior dead:

    She nor swooned, nor uttered cry:

    All her maidens, watching, said

    She must weep, or she will die. (2)


    The problem is that anyone can set themselves up as a funeral celebrant.  The majority favoured by the Funeral Directors throughout Australia are uneducated and untrained.  Funeral Directors in general (and there are some exceptions) unfairly take advantage of funeral celebrants.  They control the whole death scene.  And the tragedy is - it is you the general public - who allow them to do so.  The vast majority of people wait until after a death has occurred before making arrangements.  Then, under pressure of time, they go straight to the body disposer, and they trust that body disposer, against all the evidence, to be interested in the story of the person.  They expect him or her to be interested in the eulogy, the music, the symbolism, the tribute- its appropriate presentation and accuracy. 


    We need to turn the tide this is how to do it.


    1.  Recognise the gift that the first Humanist of the Year, Lionel Murphy, gave to the non-believer, the freethinking people of Australia.  Value it and defend it. 


    2.  Help me get through to our fellow humanists that the components of secular ceremony - inspiring literature, uplifting poetry, moving story telling, stirring music, energising symbolism - do not belong to religion.  Understand that secular ceremonies, creatively designed and delivered, with the added advantage of authenticity and honesty, have no equal.


    3.  Do not allow, under any circumstances, the funeral director to choose a clergyman (3) or a civil celebrant for you.  Most will naturally choose someone who is compliant and brief.  (The less time the three to four staff members have to hang around waiting for the service to end, the more money they make.)


    4.  Do not allow the funeral director to determine the fee for a clergyman or a funeral celebrant.  (4) Demand the full attention of the competent celebrant by insisting on paying them a just hourly rate, no matter what the Funeral Director or even the Funeral Celebrant says.  This is the only way, in the end, that is fair, and will guarantee that the celebrant does not chase other funerals to make ends meet, at the same time as he/she is co-creating the one you want them to do. 


    5.  Do seek out one of the few professional funeral celebrants who know what their job involves.  (5) Funeral Directors and some celebrants push the family to do all the work.  The family contribution is invaluable but a family in grief is often not in the right state of mind to cover all the bases.  Quite often in these circumstances, without the professionals guidance, the genealogy is lost, the big picture is lost, the values and achievements are lost, but the fishing trip remains forever.


    6.  Do not allow the funeral director under any circumstances to decide when the funeral should occur.  For most people, at least five working days are necessary to prepare properly for a funeral tribute, and to alert those who should be there for such an occasion to be there with sufficient time.  Funeral Directors need to make a profit, so if they have a clear slot tomorrow, and they have staff to pay, they want to slot your funeral into that time.  It is backed by spin - “We have managed with difficulty to get a time at this chapel - we suggest you seize this wonderful opportunity” or more commonly “if we do this ceremony tomorrow it will be over and done with, and everyone can get on with their lives.”


    7.  Be aware of what is happening with a “service at the Funeral Parlour chapel only - the deceased will be cremated “privately” at a later time”.  With this money saving device for the Funeral Director, I consider an important element of basic symbolism is lost.  One of my close friends, Stan Jordan, in rejecting this suggestion from the big firm Funeral Director, curtly told him - “I will be accompanying my father (to the cemetery) on his last journey”.  I so admired him for that.


    8.  Religion editor, Barney Zwartz, writing an opinion piece in the Melbourne Age (6) proffered the opinion that the funeral service is for the living.  He quoted Archbishop Frier in support of his opinion.  I strongly disagree.  Every bit of experience I have ever had leads me to the conviction that the funeral service is about the person who has died.  That is where my focus has always been.  I have a life to honour - that is my task.  The living - well they are still here with us.  My observation is that the living want their loved one honoured - not themselves.  Of course, honouring the main relationships is basic.  Deep comfort comes from this tradition.  But over attention to the living is misplaced.


    9.  Insist on dignity.  This was Lionel Murphy’s most used word in this context.  Some gimmicks are a form of denial just as the overdone “celebration of life” push is.  It all depends on context.  Harry Collier captained the Collingwood Football Team to victory in the premierships of 1935 and 1936.  He was a club legend.  When I officiated at his funeral from the centre of Victoria Park, Melbourne in August 1994, club players formed a guard of honour for his recessional out of the park.  Nothing could have been more sacred or appropriate as they sung “Good old Collingwood Forever”.


    10.  Do not get taken in by coffin talk.  Funeral Directors make big profits on coffins, so they talk about them as if they are something really important.  They are not.  They are just boxes.  One Melbourne Funeral Director became famous for saying to his clients - “The amount you spend on the coffin is the measure of your love for the deceased “ !!


    10.  In the unfortunate event of an impending death in the family, get your head together early.  Research your celebrant, research your funeral company.  Then alert them and everyone else concerned.  (7) .  It may sound confronting but you should plan your own funeral - if you don’t, someone else will ! (8)


    11.  Consider the small Australian owned funeral companies.  Always contact your celebrant first, ask the celebrant to recommend such a company, and empower the celebrant by asking him/her to contact the funeral company on your behalf.


    When a person dies in our community, his/her friends and family want to gather and remember, they want to honour, they want to pay tribute, they want to put the life on record.  It must be done well.  That is what is comforting for the closest bereaved.  The comfort to the living could well be the hope that they too will be farewelled in a dignified loving way. 


    1.  Who owns what in the Funeral Director scene is set out on p.231 of the mostly excellent book by Barrister Robert Larkins: Funeral Rights: What the Australian death-care industry doesnt want you to know: Penguin, Melbourne.  2007

    2.  Alfred Lord Tennyson: The Princess : Canto V

    3.  I am presuming that sometimes a Humanist needs to arrange a Funeral for a religious parent or relative.

    4.  If not quoted to you, an hourly rate should be offered by you in accordance with the celebrants general education, funeral celebrancy qualification, and experience and reputation (from their website?).  You can always ask to see examples of funerals on video (happens quite often) or in writing, or references.  Funeral preparation takes me between 10 and 30 hours.  A two day shonky marriage celebrants course doth not a funeral celebrant make.

    5.  From my personal website I recommend a number of funeral celebrants -    > celebrant friends - OR - (  - > Find a Celebrant - OR -

    6.  The Age of Melbourne Church Rules on Funerals Rights and Wrongs:  Barney Zwartz, Sept 14, 2010

    7.  Many Australian owned companies are listed on this site  - - but proceed with care.  Some are excellent.  Some are dreadful.

    8.  cf -  -





    In the distant past, each community only had one way to do this - in a culturally accepted form of a funeral, almost always within a religious tradition.  If a non-believer tried to do something different, he or she was likely shunned. 


    Humanists have been working to change this for a century.  Now as in many other aspects of our lives, we have SO MANY CHOICES.  And we are asked to make these choices at a terrible time of grief and confusion when our loved one dies.


    But nothing about birth or death is simple and society continues to push and pull the average person with conflicting messages.  Here’s the latest.  A funeral is not a celebration of life.



    As many gurus are wanting to point out, our personal happiness, which, as the Americans tell us, we are wont to pursue, depends on “more than bread alone”.


    Or, as my father used to say - who we are is “between our ears”.  Our level of happiness is how we think about ourselves, how we think about our immediate world, and how we perceive the world thinks of us.


    The renowned psychologist and activist, Roger Pryke, even went so far as to teach his students (I was one) that sanity actually depends on “the esteem of significant others in our lives”.


    How does our own network of friends, or the wider community communicate esteem? One of the main ways and, perhaps the main way, is through ceremony– the Nobels, the Oscars, the Brownlow, the Dally Ms (forgive me), the Australian of the Year, the Humanist of the Year are very publicised ways in which we communicate esteem, not only to the winners, but also to the nominees and all associated with them.


    It seems to me that ceremony is one of the main ways that human beings have evolved to communicate love, appreciation, esteem, and other important messages, in a very powerful way.  One of the few really great statesmen in Australia’s history, the first Humanist of the Year, member of the Rationalist Society, and defender of the people, Attorney-General Lionel Murphy, understood this.


    He established a group of people to ensure that secular persons were able to give and receive these “messages of esteem”.  At the time the deprivations targeting non-religious people, were organised subtly (it is out in the open now as the Pope openly attacks secularism – but let that go).  Which brings me to the point I wish to discuss – the secular funeral.


    Readers of this esteemed magazine may be surprised to be informed that given his beliefs and parameters, I agree with His Grace.  If you are a Catholic believer there would be no better way to look at it.


    Paraphrasing Bob Maguire, the colourful Roman Catholic parish priest of South Melbourne, appearing on the 7PM Project – “it looks like things will have to change in my church.  We will have to have the other part in the parking lot.”


    But what you might well ask is the Rev Bob Maguire doing–officiating at a secular ceremonies in his church or image parking lot?


    The question is a very serious one and members of the society should be appraised as to the reasons.


    As you would have gathered from the numerous super expensive ads on television, the funeral director takes a huge slab of money to process the corpus to die and they want to make sure you have saved up for it.  General directors tuna roll generally speaking do not director-general–i is a misnomer–they dispose of the body immersed in a dignified, albeit expensive, way.  But they do not direct the funeral.


    If you have any familiarity with these events you will know that the general ceremony is kind of postscript, and out of pocket expense, a mere trivial addendum to the main task of disposing the body.  The clergyman, the general celebrant, has hardly any financial status whatsoever–and here lies the problem.


    In former times the churchgoer, who contributed to the church collections all his or her life, was entitled to expect, and next to nothing charge when they can’t keep–as part of the deal.  This is now a fiction is a great majority of Australians–92% do not attend church at the funeral directors doggedly impose this fiction onto their clients, because it suits them financially.  Clergy and funeral celebrants have to be kept in their place.


    And I am telling you something you know is true the most important part of the general ceremony is the funeral ceremony.  I was on talkback radio with Angela could turn some years ago about all aspects of Google goals.  The switchboard lit a like a neon signs in King’s Cross or Times Square.  Angry callers, one after another, complained about mistakes and inadequacies in their loved ones funeral ceremony.  Clergy and civil solvent is work all clowns and fools.  The question is all about the $180-$440 element of the general which cost between 6000 and $10,000. 


    Darren Pants Millane was one of that clubs lionhearted megastars.  He had been named as a member of the Collingwood Team of the Century, was a member of Collingwoods 1990 Premiership Team, had represented Victoria in 1986, 1988, and 1989, and had won the Most Courageous Player and other club trophies.


    He was a wild man on the football field, but he was also wild off the field.  One night, in 1991, he was out drinking.  Despite the efforts of friends to put him in a taxi home, he stumbled into his car, and on the way home drove it under a truck and killed himself.  His brother Sean Millane was a friend of mine, and so I was asked to handle the funeral. 


    I will jump ahead and tell you that there were 8500 people, Collingwood fans, who turned up for the funeral.  It was held in the Dandenong Town Hall[1].  The people filled the Town Hall, filled the galleries and flowed out into the street and blocked the traffic in Dandenongs main thoroughfare. 


    The Sun-Herald, Melbournes most popular daily newspaper, had more death and bereavement notices than they had ever had for any one person in the history of the paper the notices went on for pages and pages.  Collingwood supporters, children carried on fathers shoulders, and other fans and grievers, thronged around the funeral procession.  Hundreds pushed and jostled to touch the coffin, draped as it was in the black and white Collingwood colours and Magpie emblems.


    So this funeral ceremony was quite a challenge.  Behind the scenes, preparing for the funeral was a football match in itself.  Without going into the difficult and sensitive details, I had to deal with several factions of the family.  I had to deal with disputing people within the administration of the Collingwood club.  I also had to talk to and organise Darrens team mates, and assist captain Tony Shaw who spoke a eulogy for the team.  I had to deal with the Police and the protocol officers of the Dandenong Council.  I had to prepare and check and correct and change a eulogy, which satisfied the family and the others, and brief and organise the other speakers.  I also had to liaise with the Funeral Directors, Tobin Brothers.  In short, I had to stage, arrange, and manage and pull the whole performance together. 


    The Funeral went most successfully.  Ill go further than that and rank it as one of my proudest achievements.  It was like producing a Broadway play with only half of one rehearsal and a cast of amateurs.  I received many hundreds of compliments and the Newspapers quoted my eulogy on the front-page reports.  (This was an achievement in itself).


    It was easily a week out of my life to say nothing of the recovery period afterwards. 


    But here is the downside.  Michael Tobin, the Funeral Director, handed me a cheque for $150! I looked at it, stunned.  I was speechless.  To any other professional I know, it would have been the fee for an hours work not 50 plus hours.


    A few days later I received a lovely letter from Michael Tobin, congratulating me (a rare occurrence and, given the mentality, I appreciated it).


     the Larkins and Melbourne barrister has written a book called funeral rites subtitled what the Australian deaf care industry doesnt want you to know in it he details the changes which have taken place in recent yearsthe main one being the buying up of Australian companies and incorporating them into the big multinational.  invoked here proprietary Ltd in Victoria owns the pine generals simplicity kennels white lady generalsand in other states a vast list of cemeteries and a Tory and general directors all owned by this one company.


    But I have deeper reasons than this for agreeing with him.  There was a time in Melbourne when Funeral Celebrants and Funeral Directors had leadership.  Idealist funeral directors like Rob and John Allison and Des Tobin, and a few others, really took pride in honouring life - and the contribution they were making to our Melbourne community.










    I have been distressed when friends of mine in the Humanist Society and declared the rejection of “froth and bubble” in their wedding ceremony and similarly  in funeral ceremony – they have seen it as their rejection of religion.  But the two minute ceremony is really a rejection of Humanism, the Humanities, Human communication and a whole world of poetry, storytelling, literature, music, symbolism – cultural components which all come together in the secular ceremony - and which belong to us.


    My friends, we are squandering our inheritance the inheritance which our first Humanist of the Year used the power and prestige of the state to bequeath to us.  He thought you would have “get it”.  But like the Attorney-General and his minions of today, many of you preoccupy your time with the legal words of the marriage vows and even in that mind numbingly limited area they don not know what they are talking about.  In these moments Lionel Murphy’s ghost within me want to scream out “it’s the culture, stupid.”

    [1] Dandenong is a satellite city – about 30 kilometers (18 miles) east of Melbourne.



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