ESRC release new research findings on Humanist funerals

17 May, 2012

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has released new research findings on Humanist funerals.  The research was carried out by Dr Matthew Engelke from the Department of Anthropology at the London School of Economics.  Dr Engelke is an anthropologist of religion, and his aim in this investigation was to examine how people who do not believe in an afterlife are commemorated, with a focus on funerals provided by the British Humanist Association (BHA).  Dr Engelke noted that Humanist funeral ceremonies have a strong emphasis on the individual, which is in contrast to traditional religious funerals.  The BHA has welcomed his research.

The information which the ESRC has released about Humanist funerals is based on early findings from ‘An ethnography of the British Humanist Association’, an anthropological study of the BHA conducted by Dr Engelke.  The aim of the study is to gain an understanding of what constitutes Humanism and similar non-religious beliefs, such as atheism.  It included the observation of campaigning activities in the BHA’s London office, the work of Humanist celebrants, and the activities of local BHA branches.  To carry out the part of the project which investigated Humanist funerals, Dr Engelke attended 16 Humanist funerals and six Christian funerals.  He also carried out a survey of over 150 members of the BHA’s network of celebrants, and conducted formal interviews with 12 of them.  He even trained to become a celebrant himself, in order to get an insider’s view of what the work involves.  He also spoke to people who attended Humanist services.

There are approximately 270 BHA accredited funeral celebrants, who conduct more than 7000 funerals a year.  Humanist funeral ceremonies are on the rise: according to a study by Co-operative Funeralcare, in 2011 12% of funerals in Britain are now Humanist or ‘non-religious’.  Dr Engelke found that the people who chose to have Humanist funeral services did not necessarily identify themselves as Humanists or atheists, but simply saw themselves as ‘non-religious’.  They covered ‘the entire spectrum from absolute atheist to a more general lack of commitment or belief, especially when it comes to organised religion.’  Dr Engelke often 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’.

The individual has often played a minimal role in ritual ceremonies which have existed throughout history, but Dr Engelke found that Humanist ceremonies do try to reflect the character and world view of the individual who has died.  Dr Engelke said that ‘the focus is almost exclusively on the person, which is often not the case with the more traditional religious ceremonies’.  Respect for the individual is one of the most important principles of modern western society, and this research demonstrates how Humanist ceremonies reflect the culture and beliefs of modern society.  Dr Engelke says that ‘it is in the ritual process that we often find the best sense of our values and social makeup. And in our rituals of death, we get a particularly good glimpse of the post-religious, post-secular condition.’


The ESRC’s press release on the new research:

More information from the ESRC on Dr Engelke’s study:

Dr Engelke’s page at the LSE:

Dr Engelke’s recent comment piece in the Guardian:

The Co-operative Funeralcare study:

Read more about Humanist funerals and memorials conducted by the BHA’s accredited celebrants:


The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.