For many people, the guidance of tradition is a comfort in times of loss. But while the customs of a traditional funeral are familiar to many of us, there aren’t actually any rules concerning how a funeral ceremony and reception should be organised. As time goes on, the idea that you can create a funeral your way is gaining ground, and many people are choosing arrangements that feel more personal to themselves, their families and their loved one.
As independent funeral directors, we very much believe in a “people first” approach to funeral planning, and this includes supporting people to make the choices that are best for them. As such, we can guide people in making arrangements that are as traditional or non-traditional as they want, according to their beliefs, personalities and preferences.
One of the important roles of being a funeral director is gently letting people know the options available to them. It can be the case that we are so primed to default to a traditional service (simply because it is the norm) that we don’t get a chance to really think through the non-traditional alternatives we may prefer. This is why understanding the modern funeral landscape is a good first step in creating a meaningful and personalised occasion.
What are the different options available for non-traditional funeral services?
While our friendly team are always the best placed to advise on individual circumstances, (and you can get in touch with them by calling 0800-731-1855) this is a brief overview of the main kinds of non-traditional funeral services.
Direct or Unattended Funerals
Direct cremation is being increasingly adopted by those planning their own or anothers funeral. In a direct cremation, the person who has passed away is cremated without a funeral service or any friends or family present. This is also known as an unattended funeral, although there is some scope to include ceremonial aspects even in the absence of mourners.
Unattended funerals were brought to the public’s attention when David Bowie chose one for his own funeral arrangements in 2016. They then became more common during the COVID-19 pandemic, where people were forced to think carefully about which aspects of a funeral are most important to them and drastically restrict the number of attendees. For some, it seemed better to wait and organise a memorial service when they could gather with their loved ones, or honour them privately to avoid the spread of the coronavirus.
The idea of an unattended funeral is to focus on the memorial and celebrate life, rather than hold a service to mourn a person’s death. With so many people affected by the cost of living crisis, it is also more affordable than a traditional funeral. By choosing a direct funeral and hosting a memorial somewhere inexpensive (like a beautiful place in nature, or their own home), families aren’t burdened with costs they can’t meet.
The aim of avoiding financial strain on their families is one of the reasons why, increasingly, people are requesting a direct funeral in their last wishes. Others feel uncomfortable about the idea of a traditional funeral for their own goodbye, and want to organise something more reflective of themselves as a person, with a focus on a memorial or celebration of life event rather than the funeral itself.
Bespoke and Personalised Funerals
Bespoke funerals offer individuals and families the chance to pick and choose the elements of a funeral service and reception they want to build a unique and personalised day. These choices can be anything from outlining a non-traditional dress code, to having the family lead the service, to picking an unusual venue for the reception – it really is down to the person or people in question.
With bespoke funerals, there can be as many or as few non-traditional aspects of the funeral as the family prefers. This flexibility and personalisation is making bespoke funerals ever more common, and it is not unusual for people to make requests in their last wishes that step outside of a strictly traditional service.
For many people, it is faith that guides the customs at a funeral. Much like marriages, funerals are also often a time where even those who aren’t necessarily religious want a religious official to lead the service – finding the traditions of belief both reassuring and meaningful. For others, however, a religious funeral simply feels at odds with their feelings concerning life and death, which is where the option of a non-religious funeral service can be more fitting.
Non-religious funerals often follow the structure of a religious service, with readings from family members and the playing of music, but they make no reference to any religious texts and they do not take place in places of worship.
Two popular forms of non-religious funerals are humanist and atheist funerals, which aim to celebrate a person’s life and honour their legacy. They do differ slightly, however, as humanists do have a belief system based on promoting ethics, happiness and welfare, and can be led by a humanist celebrant.
Humanist funerals are often chosen even amongst people who don’t identify with the term as such because their services are known for being poignant and personal. Atheist funerals tend to follow a similar pattern and are often led by a family member, with the purpose of celebrating someone’s life without making reference to belief systems or an afterlife.
Woodland burials are increasingly seen as the most eco-friendly kind of funeral, and they diverge from tradition in that, rather than getting buried in a graveyard, people are laid to rest in biodegradable coffins in a beautiful woodland.
The key aspect of a woodland burial is that it has a low impact on the environment through the use of cardboard or wicker coffins (which disappear entirely, unlike many traditional alternatives) and avoiding the energy required to hold a cremation. Most poignantly, however, it also helps to re-forest areas through the planting of a memorial tree, which is placed over the gravesite to grow in their honour.