Humanists UK Head of Ceremonies Isabel Russo had the privilege of taking the humanist funeral of Terry Jones, the much-loved comic writer and actor who became famous for his work with Monty Python. Here she writes about the experience of constructing the perfect farewell for someone who meant so much to so many.
Terry Jones had a massive heart. Not, to my knowledge, medically, but in the traditional sense. He was a man who loved boundlessly, and was boundlessly loved.
It was in one sense therefore easy to take Terry’s funeral ceremony. Love generates love. People actively want to give, to gather, to share. To speak without guile or self-concern, to express and support. All perfect ingredients for a richly layered, authentic, and moving funeral ceremony.
Easy to take his funeral on the one hand – and yet – so hard to take it on the other.
I knew Terry. A little. He was great friends with my step-father, Miles Kington and he was a gentle support to my mother when Miles died 12 years ago. One of my best memories of Terry is of playing ‘Celebrity Boules’ with him and Miles on a summer’s day in Bath, the cherry on top being resoundingly beating my hero, Peter Gabriel.
However, my enduring memory of Terry is of an irrepressible, ebullient man, who radiated creativity and joy of life wherever he went – at the same time as radiating a sense of being a thoroughly decent bloke. When my mum stepped out of the crematorium after saying goodbye to Miles, blinded by the February sunshine and by her absolute grief, it was Terry who came to her side and gently took her arm and guided her first steps into the waiting world.
‘Terry, as we all know, wasn’t religious. So it was clear from the beginning that vicars and priests would remain relegated to his films and Monty Python sketches.’
Terry, as we all know, wasn’t religious. So it was clear from the beginning that vicars and priests would remain relegated to his films and Monty Python sketches. I offered his family support with organising the funeral – and was blown away when they asked me to actually take it.
A humanist, non-religious, funeral ceremony focuses entirely on the person who has died and on the community of family and friends around them. The aim of the ceremony is to walk the invisible line between remembering and celebrating the person, at the time as allowing a safe space to fully acknowledge and grieve the loss of them.
We do that by carefully weaving threads of stories and memories, pulses of music that contributed to the soundtrack of their life, a palette of readings, prose, poems, and whatever else is appropriate. Especially when a person has suffered a long illness, the funeral is an important time to recreate who they were before the illness stripped so much of that away. When the time for ‘committal’ comes, in a humanist funeral, we are not committing that person to Christ, but committing them to our own hearts and minds.
When it comes to someone like Terry Jones, our hearts and minds have to be mindbogglingly enormous – perhaps the size of Mr Creosote himself – to retain all that he had to offer. His legacy of anarchic creativity, considered medieval academia, lyrical fantasy, and progressive questioning of the status quo is simply immense.
Taking Terry Jones’s funeral was an immense honour, and the experience of it has stayed with me and informs my practice. To paraphrase the humanist philosopher Seneca: we can make the best of our loved ones while they are with us, and we can make sure not to bury our love with their death. Whether you knew Terry personally or not, if you were a fan of his work and haven’t already – then maybe take a moment to pause and reflect. Remember who he was – and who he will continue to be for you – and bank it. And remember that his preferred wafer was thin and minty, not sacramental.
Head of Ceremonies, Humanists UK
Humanists UK provides a network of trained and accredited celebrants to take non-religious funerals, weddings and naming ceremonies in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the Channel Islands. It provides world-class training, which has been awarded an OCN Quality Mark for excellence, with 98% of clients rating their celebrant 5/5. You can contact a humanist celebrant via the Humanists Ceremonies™ website.
Humanist Ceremonies funerals, baby-namings, and weddings are attended by over one million people each year.
A humanist funeral is a non-religious service that is both a dignified farewell and a celebration of a life. It recognises the profound sadness of saying goodbye whilst celebrating the life and legacy of a loved one. One in seven people now say in YouGov surveys that they would like a humanist funeral when they die.
In recent years, Humanists UK celebrants have taken funerals for well-loved figures such as Claire Rayner, Keith Floyd, Linda Smith, Ronnie Barker, Bob Monkhouse, John Noakes, Lyndsey de Paul, David Nobbs, Doris Lessing, Cynthia Payne, Rhodri Morgan, Terry Pratchett, Victoria Wood, and Dale Winton.
In 2018, Humanist Ceremonies launched the Humanist Funeral Tribute Archive, a unique historical collection of funeral scripts to immortalise our memories of the ones we love and support future research into the lives of 20th and 21st century humanists.
At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.