Updated: May 31, 2019
Here's an interview I did this week with Linda James when I was about half way through my celebrant training. Click the microphone to listen to the interview (transcript below) and send me questions in the comments.
Hi. I'm Linda James. Today, I am going to be talking with Alex Collis, a humanist celebrant in training. Alex has a background in community development, social justice and charity as well as experience in end-of-life care.
We are going to delve into what brought Alex to go down this new path as a celebrant and what a humanist celebration might look like. We're also going to talk about how to have a conversation about death and dying in a positive way.
Linda: Welcome, Alex. For the audience benefit, I should say that you and I are friends and that I have been helping you work on your website for your new business, Alex Collis Celebrant. It has been an interesting process for me as I'm learning a bit about humanism and about becoming open to talking more about death and dying. So, to start things off, what is humanism?
Alex: That's a great question, and one I get asked quite a bit. I think increasingly people are becoming interested in humanism, rather than religion, but aren't really sure exactly what it is. I can certainly you what it isn't - a lack of faith, as is often assumed. Quite the contrary, in fact. Humanists have incredible faith in people, in humanity and community, and the potential for positive action. There's a lot of crossover here with many religions, but the difference is that we don't refer to a supernatural authority or a particular doctrine - we rely on evidence and what we can see. A lot of humanism is concerned with scientific evidence, and a lot of scientist have been humanists.
Humanists believe that we only have this one life, and that we should live it as well as we can with compassion, kindness, reason and faith in our common humanity rather than another world beyond this one. As humanists, we value each and every human being, and living our lives well means trying to increase human happiness and well-being in this world.
For me, Mary Shelley summed it up really well when she said 'Live, be happy and make others so'. That simplicity really appeals to me.
Linda: I love that. Definitely words to live by. So, I can see why humanism appeals to you. Could you tell us what led you to training as a humanist celebrant?
Alex: Partly it was my father having a humanist funeral eight years ago. That was the first time I had even heard of humanism. My youngest sister also had a humanist wedding – her mother in law was a humanist funeral celebrant – and I found the underlying ideas and focus on people really appealed to me. I've always worked with people, either in health care, community development or education settings – and it just fit. Fast forward a few years and I found myself looking for a career changes and the rest, as they say, is history.
Linda: You are currently training to be a funeral celebrant and looking to add weddings and naming days down the track. Why did you decide to do funerals first?
Alex: Largely because of my experience organising my dad's funeral. I'd also been to several funerals with a default religious element that always felt a bit empty and unsatisfactory and didn't really reflect the person who had died. As soon as I wen to a humanist funeral, I knew that it was something I wanted to learn more about. It just seemed right. I've always had an interested in ways of death and dying, as well as working with terminally ill patients, so it just made sense.
Linda: You are also an advocate for talking more openly about death and dying. This is a topic that we often shy away from or are even afraid to have. Some people might say it's quite a morbid thing to think about. what do you think the benefits are of talking about death while we're still young and healthy?
Alex: Why on earth wouldn't you?! I think having a more open conversation can only be a good thing - it'll start to demystify it and make it less remote. Death has become so medicalised and hidden. And people will begin to understand it more, and what their options are for a good death. It's a natural part of life, and we shouldn't' be afraid of it. The impact when some we live dies will still be there of course, but we'll have the emotional tools to process it.
Linda: That really resonates with me. I think we could all definitely benefit from more tools to deal with loss, which can feel quite lonely.
Since I started working on your website, I have found so many positive resources to help people talk about death and dying. The idea of the Death Cafe is one that you introduced to me. I've since found Death Over Dinner, which is a similar concept. Can you explain a bit about what a Death Cafe is and what happens at a Death Cafe event..
Alex: Death Cafes are so fantastic - they are basically events where any group of people come together as people who are dying (some imminently, some in the future) and discuss what we feel, how we see a good death, what is important in ensuring that. Anything goes really. It's all part of breaking down those conversational barriers and demystifying death - bringing it out into the open. The conversation is usually loosely guided by a coordinator who will suggest themes for discussion or throw in a few prompts, but it is very much a community, self-guided initiative. Everyone should go to a Death Cafe.
Linda: How do people find a Death Cafe?
Alex: Go to my resource page – there is a link there for the Cambridge Death Cafe but you can search for other groups from there.
Linda: So how do I start a conversation with family or friends about death and dying? And should I?
Alex: Just start talking! Of course, it'll depend on who is in your family, and what their level of understanding is. You'd probably want to have a different conversation with a child, for example, although they often understand more than we think, and we shouldn't underestimate that. And allow plenty of chances to ask questions – people shouldn't feel that anything is off limits. And whoever you are talking to, allow them space if they are finding the conversation difficulty. But they are such important conversations to have – everyone should be talking about death.
Linda: From some of the reading I've now done, it seems like attitudes to death and dying are embedded quite strongly in culture. In some countries death, while sad, is also cause for celebration. The example that comes to mind is Mexico's Day of the Dead. while cultural events like this are often spiritual and so not really aligned with humanism, what lessons do you think we can learn from the way other cultures view and respond to death and dying?
Alex: There's always something to learn from others and from different cultures. I particularly like that Day of the Dead is focused on celebrating the lives of those who have died, not on mourning their loss. That seems to fit very well with my humanist beliefs. I've also heard of cultures where mourning a death becomes a social occasion, often centred around food and hospitality – I'm thinking here of sitting Shiva in Judaism – rather than hiding ourselves away with our private grief, it can be seen as something to be shared. To me this is an important way of opening up dialogue around death – and that can only be a good thing.
Linda: Funerals and end-of-life celebrations seem to be evolving. One new thing we've talked about recently is the idea of people taking photographs at funerals, which would surprise a lot of people. I'm also really interested in the idea of coffin design (I like wicker ones). What other changes have you seen, or do you see coming, to end-of-life celebrations that make them more personal?
Alex: All sorts of things – anything goes these days, which is great to see. People are feeling less constrained – even within religious funerals – by convention and are choosing different music or less traditional readings. My father, for example, was buried to the strains of The Rolling Stones' Brown Sugar, which fit perfectly. They're feeling more able to personalise funerals, and they're also becoming more collaborative – people feel more able to join in with the ceremony rather than just sitting and listening.
Linda: You are just starting out as a celebrant and expect to launch your new business soon. Who will be looking for a humanist celebrant and what can they expect that will be different from other celebrants?
Alex: One of the main attractions heading down this path for me is that it brings the unexpected – I never know who might want a humanist funeral, and it's a great opportunity to connect with a whole range of people. Generally, it's been the case that people who have a less traditional outlook on life would opt for a humanist funeral – often younger people – but that's changing now. Lots of older people are choosing a humanist funeral too. Really, it could be anyone you're going to see at a family meeting – and that makes great sense.
I think what I bring that is different is my community-building background, and my experience in supporting vulnerable groups. It's taught me a lot about communication, listening and understanding. That's going to be invaluable as a celebrant. I also don't look that traditional – about as far away from a serious-looking vicar or priest as it's possible to get. I'd hope that that would encourage people to ask me to arrange their celebration. They know they are going to get something creative, collaborative and well crafted.
I am also trained as a non-religious pastoral carer – think hospital chaplain without the dog collar – and I think this adds an extra layer of understanding.
Linda: Thank you for talking to me. I really encourage people to go to your website to find about your business and also look at the resources you are sharing about humanism and positive conversations about death. Just remind us of your website so people can find you.
Alex: Thanks - it's at www.alexcolliscelebrant.co.uk.
Linda: Thank you!