Helen didn’t fit a box or a label: How a humanist funeral was a fitting way to remember a unique trans woman

Helen didn’t fit a box or a label: How a humanist funeral was a fitting way to remember a unique trans woman

For many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, and the bereaved family and friends making the funeral plans, it is especially important that the ceremony is a fitting and authentic way to say farewell. A humanist funeral, which focuses entirely on the unique life of the individual who has died, is a totally personal goodbye, custom-made for them. Here, Sharon explains why her family decided on a humanist funeral for her aunt Helen.

A red race car driving at high speed on a track

“Oh my goodness, how do you describe someone as multi-layered as Helen?” wonders Helen’s niece, Sharon. The two of them shared a close bond for as long as Sharon can remember.

“She was everything to me and to my brothers – her nieces and nephews. She was strong-willed and determined – part and parcel of growing up in Scotland in the 1950s and 60s. It was an attitude that helped her make her way in life. In the hundreds of family photos that there are of her as a young person, she always looks cheeky and vibrant. She had a very close relationship with her brothers, but she knew from an early age that she was different.

Helen was transgender, but more importantly, as Sharon explains, ‘Helen was simply herself, her own person. She didn’t fit in a box or a label.’

‘The complex thing for Helen was that it wasn’t until her parents and their siblings had died that Helen felt able to be fully herself,’ continues Sharon. ‘Myself, my brothers and our children, we’d been aware of Helen for a long time, but she didn’t feel able to be completely open with all the family until the mid 2000s.’

‘Helen was there – in each and every one of us’

Vintage dresses hanging up, all different colours and patterns.

‘Helen’s interests, and her friendships, were very diverse,’ remembers Sharon. ‘She loved vintage clothes and spent lots of time at vintage festivals up and down the south coast and in London. She also loved cars. Formula One was always a big topic of conversation with her.

‘Helen had a lot of friends that she kept in close touch with over many years. Not just a Christmas card, but seeing them and staying with them. When it came to the celebration of Helen’s life, we were limited by Covid restrictions on who we could invite. But we could livestream it, so friends, family, colleagues and neighbours all over the country were able to watch.

‘Those of us who came to the funeral, all knew of each other, even if we hadn’t met before. I knew exactly who was who, as soon as I saw them – Helen had described them so well. She was a great storyteller! It was lovely to meet them all. It was sad that Helen wasn’t there, but in a way she was there – in each and every one of us.

“It is good to have an end to journey towards, but it is the journey that matters, in the end”

Ursula Le Guin from The Left Hand of Darkness – a quote used in Helen’s funeral ceremony

‘She wouldn’t have wanted a religious funeral’

‘Her death was so unexpected that we had no idea what she might have wanted for her funeral. The only conversation we had was a week before she died. Helen was spending a few days with my daughter in Edinburgh. They went to the place where Helen had gone to school and where she had fond and happy memories. Helen said, ‘I’d love to have my ashes scattered here’. That was all we knew.’

When Sharon and her brothers discussed the funeral, they came to a decision quickly – Helen would not have wanted a religious service. She had been part of a church community as a young person, but not as an adult. Sharon’s daughter suggested a humanist funeral – which would be a celebration of Helen’s life, rather than a religious event – and the whole family agreed.

‘The funeral directors knew Helen was transgender,’ explains Sharon. ‘Some official documents were in her old name, which meant that the death certificate had to be in that name. But in everything else, including the celebration of her life, she was always Helen. Given this, we asked our funeral directors who they thought might be appropriate as a celebrant. They recommended one of the celebrants they often work with, who was trained and accredited by Humanist UK.

‘A humanist funeral meant that her story was at the heart of the ceremony’

‘My daughter and I told our celebrant as much as we could of Helen’s story. At the end of the ceremony, many of the people told us that they had never attended a service where someone’s story was so central. For us, it was as if Helen was there, telling her story.

‘Everything about the ceremony was a family decision. Everybody had to contribute so that it felt right. My brother planned to say something, but he was too emotional on the day, so our celebrant kindly read his words. Patrick, who had worked with Helen for over 25 years also spoke.’

As well as these tributes, the funeral ceremony included music and readings. And, of course, Helen’s beloved motor-racing wasn’t forgotten, with the inclusion of the Formula One theme tune at the end of the ceremony.

Scattering her ashes brought closure

Months later, Sharon and other family members went up to Scotland to scatter Helen’s ashes as she had wanted. They wandered around the places where Helen had grown up and where she had been so happy. ‘It was closure for us to be able to take her ashes to rest in the remembrance garden in her old school grounds,’ says Sharon.

Today, when Sharon looks back, she believes that the family made absolutely the right choice in opting for a humanist ceremony. ‘It’s shown us that we can do things very differently,’ she says. ‘We were not told, this is how it should be. We did it exactly how we wanted. Helen’s celebration of life was about Helen – she was the complete heart of the whole ceremony.’

Our thanks to Helen’s family for sharing her story with us.

Images: Tim Carry and Chuttersnap

Humanists UK and LGBTQ+ Communities

Humanists UK have a long history of campaigning for LGBTQ+ rights, and of creating beautiful ceremonies to honour life’s milestones for lesbian, gay, bi and transgender people. All of its community services are totally inclusive.

Humanist celebrants performed same-sex wedding and commitment ceremonies for many decades before they were legally recognised and Humanists UK was instrumental in the successful campaign for gay marriages.

We also offer people who have transitioned the option of having a humanist naming ceremony to affirm their new identity, and mark this moment in their personal journey with supportive friends and family.

For many LGBTQ+ people a non-religious funeral is preferable. Humanist funerals are a popular choice because they focus on the story of the person who has died, the family and connections they made for themselves across their life.

About Humanist Ceremonies

Humanists Ceremonies is a network of trained and accredited celebrants leading non-religious humanist ceremonies in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Channel Isles. They share the humanist values of kindness, respect and fairness, and are considerate, compassionate and sensitive celebrants for families at the key moments of their lives.


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