As the funeral industry starts to focus more on choice and personalisation – innovations in ceremonies that have largely been driven by humanist celebrants – we’re shining a spotlight this month on bright, colourful, and unconventional humanist funeral celebrant Alex Collis, who is based in Cambridgeshire.
A few years ago, Alex Collis was working with young offenders and adult prisoners as part of a research project on ‘the role of faith in rehabilitation’, when it became clear to her that the pastoral provision for people of no religious faith was not keeping pace with the growth in numbers
‘The prisoners didn’t always feel listened to, so I went away to read up more and that’s when I discovered humanism. As a result of this chiming with me as a non-religious person, I undertook training with Humanists UK to become a pastoral support worker,’ explains Alex (who still volunteers once a week in the chaplaincy team at her local hospice).
Becoming a humanist celebrant
In 2019, Alex trained to become a Humanist Ceremonies funeral celebrant.
‘I learned so much from conducting my first funeral: how to talk to families, how to ask questions and prompt conversations, and how to recognise what is going unsaid. Of course, you cover all this in the training, but that’s theoretical; it’s not until you’re actually out there, doing it, that you really learn. In fact, I never stop learning! Each ceremony I’ve led has taught me something.’
First funeral ceremony
Alex says she was nervous about conducting her first funeral ceremony and conscious of the need to ‘get it right’ for the family.
‘The person who had died was in his nineties and had been ill for some time, so his death was expected – but still devastating for his friends and family. Partway through the tribute, I looked up from the lectern and was surprised to see smiles and nods as they recognised him in my words. That was so encouraging, and I’ve never forgotten it since. When you see that, you know you’ve played your part well.’
Lockdown funeral ceremony
During lockdown, Alex conducted the funeral of a well known DJ, graffiti artist, and skateboarder who had died suddenly and unexpectedly in his early thirties.
‘It was at a time when the rules had been slightly relaxed, but it was still so hard for his family to choose who to invite as he had hundreds of friends.
‘Watching his sunflower-covered coffin being carried in by six of his friends – all young themselves – and sitting watching the video tribute they had made for him was one of the most moving things I’ve experienced.
‘That ceremony was at the same time both the easiest and most difficult one I’ve written. I’d never taken so many notes before. His family’s love for him shone through in their every word. They were pleased with what I wrote and how well the tribute reflected him and his life. I’ll never forget that day, and I was so honoured to be able to be a part of it.’
Alex finds the most rewarding part about being a humanist funeral celebrant is the story-telling.
‘Writing a ceremony and telling someone’s unique story is a creative act unlike any other I’ve experienced. You meet people at such a strange and difficult but important time in their lives, and it’s both a real privilege and a huge responsibility to be able to support them. When you get it absolutely right for the family and friends, you just ‘know’.’
Alex is available to conduct humanist funerals in Cambridgeshire and East Anglia.
‘People tend to like the fact that I am bright, colourful and not particularly conventional – perhaps an unusual thing to look for in a funeral celebrant, but I think the funeral industry is really catching up to weddings in focusing more on choice and personalisation. And humanist celebrants are the ideal choice for families looking for something personal and unique.’