Census data suggests that the UK is increasingly irreligious, as more people under 40 in England and Wales now declare “no religion” than profess to be Christian. While many irreligious people still wish to hold ceremonies that reflect their cultural belief structure during the most important moments of life (birth, death and marriage), increasingly, others are looking for advice for planning a non-religious funeral.
Traditionally, funerals are held in a religious venue and led by a figure or figures who holds a spiritual role in their community, for example, a Catholic priest, Muslim imam or Buddhist monks. However, this doesn’t have to be the case, and if a person didn’t identify with any religious beliefs in life (or was indeed a strident atheist) it can feel inappropriate to say goodbye to them in a religious way.
Why choose a non-religious funeral?
When organising a person’s funeral, it’s important to take the time to reflect on what they would have wanted and take in any last wishes they may have had. This may all be clearly set out in a pre-paid funeral plan, in which case many important considerations will already be taken care of, or your loved one may have left a letter or discussed their funeral plans before they died. In this case, the choice of a non-religious funeral would simply be a matter of abiding by what your loved one had explicitly requested.
For many reasons, however, a person may not have left a funeral plan or last wishes to guide you, in which case you may choose a non-religious funeral because it better suits your memories of their personality and preferences, while fulfilling your needs as a family. If religion has never been part of your lives together, your loved one held actively anti-religious views, or a non-religious funeral simply feels more emotionally aligned to what you need out of the ceremony, then it could be the right choice for you.
Planning a non-religious funeral can also allow families to shift the focus of the event from spiritual beliefs about the afterlife to a celebration of life itself. For some, there is a sense that religious funerals (while very comforting for many people) are more about the belief system in question than the person who has passed. In this case, they may feel that a non-religious funeral gives them more scope to honour their loved one in a way that better suits their needs.
What to expect from a non-religious funeral
In the UK, the only laws around funerals are centred on the Births and Deaths Registration Act, which states that the body must be disposed of in the correct way. This means, while various institutions have their own customs and rules, your options in funeral planning are actually extremely broad – to the extent that people aren’t required to have any funeral at all.
This means a non-religious funeral can be completely bespoke and tailored to your preferences, although generally speaking, they tend to follow the format of a traditional ceremony. The main difference lies in the fact that a non-religious funeral will avoid all reference to God, an afterlife or spirituality, and acts of worship (such as singing hymns and saying prayers) are replaced by readings and other forms of music.
It is a common misconception that only religious leaders or licensed individuals can preside over a funeral, but this is not the case. There is no obligation in the UK for anyone leading a funeral to hold a licence or have any form of qualification. However, while friends and family members do occasionally choose to step into this role, for the most part, people tend to want to engage someone who has experience in conducting funerals.
For this reason, a non-religious funeral tends to be led by a funeral celebrant, who can conduct both religious and non-religious funeral services, or a humanist minister, who are often trained and accredited.
Organising a non-religious funeral
To some extent, we know what to expect from a religious funeral, and have some idea of how to organise one. As non-religious funerals are more unusual, however, this may feel more like a step into the unknown, but you shouldn’t feel intimidated by the prospect. Your funeral director will have experience in organising both religious and non-religious funerals, and will be able to guide you in the process.
While it is possible to organise a funeral entirely to your own wishes, both humanist and civil funeral ceremonies give you the option of a predetermined structure. Humanist ceremonies, for example, will focus on celebrating the life and legacy of the person who has passed away, while funeral celebrants at a civil ceremony can suggest an order or service and guide the proceedings.
A non-religious ceremony can also take place in a variety of venues, and include either a burial or cremation. For example, a family may choose a woodland burial and conduct the ceremony in the open air, before hosting a “celebration of life” in a local restaurant or hotel. People often feel freer to conduct a more tailored funeral outside of the traditions of a religious ceremony, which can lead to more personalised choices.
These choices might include a colourful or otherwise unorthodox dress code, a non-traditional coffin, a unique order of service or even throwing a party. As time goes on and bespoke funerals become more popular, people are feeling emboldened to ask their families to organise last goodbyes that are happy and uplifting, with the first step in moving away from a religious service pushing them to consider how they really want their life to be remembered.
If you are considering a bespoke or non-religious funeral, the team at Harold Wood Funeral Services have the experience, empathy and expertise to help you organise the right day for you. Get in touch to find out more.