Ian Willox explains why he started off doing humanist funerals

I conduct non-religious funerals. Why would anyone want to do that? A funeral director I know has a theory that everyone in the funeral business is a little mad — but in a good way. She may be right.

It all started about 15 years ago. A close friend and business partner dropped dead in her kitchen. It was a shock. She was my age. She had two daughters. Somehow I ended up conducting her funeral at a Quaker meeting house in Hampstead.

In front of her all her grieving family and friends I made a complete mess of it. Too much emotion and too little competence.

It bothered me so much that when I found out about the British Humanist Association celebrant training programme I was intrigued.

The programme is neither easy nor cheap. It took me a year to be admitted to the course and another six months of training and assessment before I got my accreditation.

I now conduct non-religious burials, cremations and memorials in and around Oxfordshire — sometimes two funerals a day, sometimes two a month. I’ll never earn enough to give up my day job (I’m a freelance radio producer) but it is possibly the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done.

The process is simple — a funeral director rings me up to see if I’m available for a particular date and time. If I am, then I get the contact details for the next of kin. It’s as basic as that. Then it becomes less of a business. I usually visit the family to discuss what sort of ceremony they want.

This is no a small thing. A religious funeral has a structure. You can, in extremis, just slot a name and a few details into a standard religious funeral service.

A non-religious funeral starts, every time, with nothing — a blank sheet of paper. This means each ceremony is specifically tailored to a particular deceased person and their family — and families can be extraordinary in the range and ambition of the ceremony they want.

I have helped families conduct a ceremony entirely on their own. I have conducted ceremonies entirely on my own (barring the organist and the coffin). I have seen mourners dancing in the aisles. I have watched an angelic child recite the filthy limericks her deceased grandfather taught her. I have watched families make up and break up. I’ve been at funerals where the coffin was almost too big for the hearse.

There have been ceremonies crammed with bikers in black leather sobbing their hearts out. There have been singalongs and heavy silences, teenage suicides and gentler deaths.

But this isn’t really why I do the job. The memory of that disastrous funeral in the Quaker meeting room has been expunged.

I do this job for the family visits. They can take anything up to three hours. I sit with the family and they talk about the person they have lost — ostensibly to give me the basis of a ceremony.

Most of what they tell me I never use in the actual funeral. Because once a family gets started, memory leads to memory. Photographs come out. Books that the deceased has written. Paintings they have made. There are gardens they cared for. Quilts they have sewn. Some of the anecdotes are old and well worn — some are a complete surprise. As each morsel of information emerges it feels as though the family are collectively shaping the memory of the person they have lost. Some of those memories are amazing — ground-breaking medical research, military intelligence, wartime valour.

As extraordinary as these life stories are I’ve found that the ones that stay with me are those people who apparently did nothing notable at all. Except they managed to enjoy their life.

Many of the funerals I conduct are for people like that — happy with a spouse, some children and a garden. It may be a statistically unreliable sample — but I now think human beings have a remarkable ability, on the whole, to appreciate contentment and, when it happens, happiness. We are much more wonderful creatures than I had ever imagined.

Which is rather addictive for a grumpy and cynical radio producer.

If you want to find out about becoming a celebrant or you want to find a funeral, namings or wedding celebrant near to you, visit humanism.org.uk