We've all been to godless funerals, even with the priest in all his feeble frippery, but how many to a humanist one? We've many of us been to funerals where the minister got the name wrong, where the conveyor ran on automatic pilot - dead man's handle, as a train driver might say - where the dust was indeed dusty and the worst left manifestly until last.

Don Wilcock - "incorrigible wit and raconteur" said his death notice in The Northern Echo - decreed that his should be a Humanist occasion.

Far enough removed to have been parted by Pickford's pantechnicon, we were distant cousins, Shildon lads, nonetheless. A prayer book being inappropriate, we attended Durham crematorium - by consent of all concerned - with a notebook, instead.

"A celebration of life," said Ray Wood, the British Humanist Association's regional ceremonies co-ordinator, whose small team has this week alone conducted ten funerals in the North-East.

Humanists, broadly, claim to be moral, thinking, people free of belief in gods, the afterlife and the supernatural. Mostly they are atheists, though some might cling to agnosticism. John Diamond, the celebrated columnist who died earlier this month, reckoned also to be an agnostic. "I'd say I was atheist," he wrote, "but I'm worried about what God might say."

Whatever Don was, he was a damn good bloke.

Proud of his birth in the cradle of the railways - his grandfather was an engine driver, his father an engineer - he attended Timothy Hackworth primary school, Bishop Auckland Grammar and Durham University, where he graduated in metallurgy.

He met Pat, his future wife, while they were young teachers in London, worked in foreign parts - Somerset, or somewhere - returned to head the maths department at Bowburn Comp.

His passionate interest was in local history and industrial archaeology. "Ginner" in his red haired youth, he became a familiarly grey bearded WEA lecturer, walks guide and over-zealous driver. An unusually high number of mourners appeared to be greybeards, too. Perhaps it is a mark of the fraternity.

Representatives from many of those groups overflowed the crematorium last Friday, a curiously small chapel with two unlit candles - but no cross - on what might otherwise have been the altar. "Our way of saying farewell with care, respect and dignity and in keeping with Don's wishes," said Mr Wood

There were, of course, no hymns, either. We awaited the coffin to a medley of North-East folk songs - Dance to thi' Daddy, Keep Your Feet Still Geordie, Hinny - heard later the strains of Rachmaninov, as Don had before he died, had something of Dr Zhivago as well.

There was no singing, at least not out loud. "A lot of people like singing at funerals but many tell us that they just mumble the words, anyway," said Mr Wood afterwards. Not of Thine be the Glory, they don't.

Nor, naturally, were there bible readings, rather tributes from friends and family.

Pat's, read by the officiant, recalled how Don had been an ideas man, loved the countryside, his cat, good food and good ale, helped set up Beamish Museum, never wanted to go anywhere - like his cousin however many miles removed - from which he couldn't get back to his own bed.

He inspired his children and his audiences, she said - and he was a "real Socialist", too.

Others, either personally or through Ray Wood, spoke of Don's generosity, his inquisitiveness, his infectious enthusiasm. They told how - appropriately for an industrial archaeologist - he was a mine of information and how he drove "with great despatch".

It was a rare moment of levity. Whatever else the Old Incorrigble's funeral, it wasn't played for laughs. "He would talk," said fellow archaeologist Peter Clack, symbolically, "about the little private bus company that used to run to Escomb. You get a ticket and at the end of the journey you had to hand it back to the driver."

There was a short time of reflection - the Rachmaninov moment - in which those so persuaded were invited to pray, and, aloud, a non-Christian North American Indian prayer:

Think of me sometimes, but not too much

Leave me in peace as I shall leave you in peace,

While you live, let your thoughts be with the living.

Then they closed the curtains and, wherever and whatever the journey, he was gone.

Across the road at the Mount Oswald Golf Club there were "nibbles" - very good nibbles - a display of smiling family photographs and a chance to reminisce.

John Armstrong, 45 years a Teesdale councillor, recalled how they'd cycled from different directions to see the bomb that fell on Cockfield Fell - "Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks Junior were on at Butterknowle pictures," - and how he and Don had rescued a sheep down a four foot hole.

"Just needed a bit of a shove," said John.

"We try to take the sting out of death," said Mr Wood. "I have never done anything that gives me so much intense satisfaction."

We left with happy memories of a rare man. God bless, cousin, anyway.

* The British Humanist Association - whose high profile supporters include Lord Dormand of Easington, Claire Rayner, Jane Asher and Newcastle MP and agriculture minister Nick Brown - will also arrange weddings, namings and affirmations. Ray Wood, who lives in Sedgefield, has a helpline on (01740) 657773.