'Here was a life stance I finally agreed with'


A funeral ceremony struck a chord with a businessman who changed career path

Former businessman Brian Whiteside (63) saw the light during a humanist funeral he attended almost a decade ago in London. He calls it a moment of enlightenment and there and then he decided he wanted to conduct humanist ceremonies.

Having sold his share in an office furniture business while in his early 50s, an unlikely second career as a humanist celebrant began. That career looks set to evolve further next year, as humanist weddings will for the first time have legal status in Ireland, under a secular groups addition to the Civil Registration Act 2004.

Whiteside is also director of ceremonies for the Humanist Association of Ireland.

“I was brought up Church of Ireland but I never quite got it. When I came across the funeral in 2002, I thought it was extraordinary that here was a life stance I finally agreed with.”

Whiteside calls humanism an ethical life stance that places human values at the centre of its philosophy. Humanism is based on reason and science, and some humanists are happy to call themselves atheists also although they would prefer to be defined by something they believe in, rather than something they don’t believe in.

In the 2011 census, the total number of non-religious in Ireland increased by 45 per cent, with close to 270,000 people classifying themselves in this category.

Sole focus

Whiteside estimates there are a dozen humanist celebrants in the Republic, and while most of them have other employment, this is his sole focus. “For some, it is a sideline at weekends, but workwise I don’t do anything else other than this,” he says. “I did 104 humanist ceremonies this year so far, and these would include weddings, funerals and naming ceremonies.”

The Humanists Association of Ireland has about 500 members in Ireland, but Whiteside says they feel they are a voice for all the non-religious in the country. While Whiteside was raised a Protestant, his four children have all been raised in the humanist tradition and he expects next year to be exceptionally busy once legal effect has been given to humanist marriage ceremonies.

One of those couples that have already booked Whiteside for their marriage next year is Sarah Brennan (34) and James Earley (31). The couple looked at the option of getting married in an Irish Catholic church, but as neither of them are practising Catholics, they felt it would be hypocritical to go through with a traditional religious ceremony. They also wanted a big hand in the ceremony themselves. “We wanted a large say in the creative side of things and a humanist ceremony provides us with that,” says Earley.

Legal changes

The upcoming changes in the legislation appealed to Brennan and meant they don’t need a separate registry office appointment, as they would have before the legislative changes.

“We had booked a registry office for the Friday before the wedding, just in case,” says Brennan. “I always felt doing it in an office gave away a certain amount of uniqueness of the actual wedding as technically we would have been already married. I come from a family of actors and two of my bridesmaids are actors and so we have to have the wedding on a Sunday so that everyone is available.

“We couldn’t get a church on a Sunday. With the humanists, it felt right, although I’ve never been to one of their ceremonies myself. Going for a pagan ceremony would have been too far out for us.”

While neither Brennan nor Earley are practising humanists, the basic tenets of humanism appeal to them. “I’m very much on the side of reason and logic and all that,” says Earley.

“To be honest, I think we are the first generation that are really starting to say publicly we don’t have an interest in the religion we grew up with anymore. The church doesn’t have the grip over us it had for past generations.”

Having said that, for some family members the couple’s wedding plans did take a little getting used to. “While my parents are not that religious, my grandparents would be. I’d say they might have felt our decision a little more, but they are accepting of the fact now,” says Brennan.