Vicars learn to smooth the path to Heaven

Tim Minogue on the non-believers putting polish into funerals
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CHURCH of England vicars have been taking tips from atheists on how to conduct better funerals.

Members of the clergy, sometimes criticised for being too impersonal and insensitive to the needs of bereaved families, have attended seminars at which members of the British Humanist Association, which offers "funerals without God", explain their methods.

There has been a growing demand for less stuffy ceremonies since the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, last September. Clergy attending seminars organised by the funeral reform group, the National Funerals College, have been impressed by the BHA's meticulous approach to the training of its accredited funeral "officiants". These contact families, friends and colleagues of the deceased in the days before a funeral in order to be able to deliver a rounded - and accurate - tribute to the life of the departed at the ceremony.

This approach, it is hoped, can help avoid some of the gaffes which can beset run-of-the-mill funerals - particularly those conducted by "duty vicars" working on rotas at municipal crematoriums. Instances of clergymen getting the name of the deceased wrong are legion. Errors are possible at church funerals when the vicar may not have known his parishioner personally. At one ceremony last year, a vicar praised the deceased for being such a good husband for more than 20 years - while the departed's wife and two mistresses stared stonily ahead.

The British Humanist Association has been conducting non-religious funerals for more than 100 years but, according to BHA director Robert Ashby, demand has only taken off since the association published its book, Funerals Without God, in the early 1990s. The BHA started a national training scheme in 1996 and now has 140 funeral "officiants" around the UK, mostly retired professional people, who between them conducted some 4,000 non- religious funerals last year. Training covers researching and writing biographical tributes, handling "difficult" deaths such as babies and suicides, crematorium practice, and reading poetry and prose. A BHA ceremony costs between pounds 60 and pounds 70, the same as a Church of England funeral.

Mr Ashby said: "Our funerals are not anti-religious; they aim to bring dignity, to make it more personal. The church has a problem. You get a 20-minute slot at most crematoriums and the Anglican liturgy will take up most of that. If you want a tribute to the deceased, music, prayers and readings, there's not much time left. In a traditional funeral, the vicar meets the family the day before and takes a few notes about the deceased, who he probably hasn't met. He then delivers a well-intentioned but short and not very personal address. The BHA spends hours building up a real picture of a person's life - we talk to colleagues, family and friends. We hope to say something really significant about someone's life. Church of England clergy who have seen our work have responded very positively.

"We tend to get a lot of 'difficult' deaths - suicides, babies, children, road accidents. Often, at a time of a really awful death, people cannot reconcile that with their religious faith. In the case, say, of a suicide, at a traditional funeral it might not be mentioned at all - we say that it should be faced in the ceremony. It should be possible to acknowledge that someone's life wasn't all a bed of roses." One BHA officiant, John Bosley, a retired drama teacher who conducts funerals in West Yorkshire, is famous for his bluntness. He began one tribute with the statement, approved by the deceased's family: "He was a lovely fellow, but he could be an awkward old sod."

The Reverend Dr Peter Jupp, a minister with the United Reformed Church at Stamford, Lincolnshire, is the former chairman of the National Funerals College and co-author of the Dead Citizen's Charter, published in 1996, which laid out 24 "rights" of the deceased and bereaved. A new edition is to be launched later this year. He said: "The BHA always attend our seminars. They do an excellent job. It would be a good thing if most training for the clergy was half as thorough."

John Pearce, a retired schools inspector, is the BHA's regional co-ordinator for East Anglia and North London. He said "quick on the uptake" clergy were learning from Diana's funeral, and the BHA approach that there was a demand for more "person-centred" funerals.

The BHA's Robert Ashby said: "Few people are able to challenge the authority of the dog collar. How would the average clergyman respond, I wonder, if someone went up afterwards and said: 'Awful funeral, vicar!' "