For many of us, the term 'funeral' brings to mind a traditional ceremony, with mourners gathered in a church or other place of worship wearing black, listening to a pipe organ and singing hymns. In reality, there is a huge variety of options out there when it comes to planning a funeral ceremony. Even between one religion and another, we can see huge differences in the ways that a person's life is celebrated — and with fewer and fewer people following religious customs in modern society, the options for how a funeral can be conducted are more varied than ever before.
While there are a range of funeral options, planning and organising a funeral can be overwhelming, and many people are only aware of the more traditional funeral arrangements. In this article, we will explore some options for alternative funeral services as well as the role of a funeral celebrant.
What is a traditional funeral?
When discussing 'traditions' in any sense, it's important to define what this actually means — tradition is entirely culturally dependent and even within a culture, traditions can change over time. While the majority of people in England and Wales are either Christian or do not follow a religion, there are many other religions with a large presence in the UK. Followers of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism make up over 10% of the population in England and Wales, according to the 2021 census. Each religion has its own traditions which can vary even by region — Christians in the UK can have completely different customs to Christians in West Africa, for example
In the UK, tradition is generally associated with Christianity, whether Catholic or Church of England, and so Christian funeral customs are most often seen as the 'traditional' option. As such, this article focuses on the British idea of a traditional funeral as defined by Christian beliefs and customs.
What can I do instead of a traditional funeral?
If you don't feel that existing funeral traditions are right for you or your loved one, there are other options out there. From venue to officiant to guest list to order of service, every part of a funeral service can be personalised or opted out of. There is nothing that you need to include in a funeral service — unlike a ceremony such as a wedding, there is no legalities around a funeral and so you can choose which components you want or don't want to include.
For example, including a Catholic's favourite religious passages or hymns could be a great way to personalise their funeral service. For those who are either not religious, not practising, or follow an alternative religion, however, traditional perceptions of how a funeral is arranged can leave them feeling uncertain how to have a personal and meaningful send-off.
Considering each element
The first thing to remember is that virtually every aspect of a funeral is optional. While you may need to transport the coffin or casket to the venue, this doesn't have to be in a hearse. Similarly, you don't have to have a funeral procession, eulogy, music, or wear black — you could ask guests to wear colourful outfits, or even ask them to dress in the deceased's favourite colour.
In terms of readings and music, you may still choose to include these, but instead of a more traditional option you could choose a passage from their favourite novel, a poem they liked, or their favourite song. It is not uncommon to do this at a funeral, but often readings and music, even when not religious, are still often about life and death. Opting to include music and readings that are unrelated is a less traditional option that makes the service incredibly special and personal.
There are also less traditional options when it comes to what happens after the funeral, such as being buried at a natural burial ground. These options are all things you can consider when deciding how to organise a funeral service.
Religious and spiritual
There are many people who might call themselves spiritual rather than religious. There are also many religious people whose beliefs fall outside of the mainstream, and who want their funeral practices to reflect this. Whether you or your loved one identifies as spiritual, religious, or both, it is very much possible to tailor a funeral service to alternative religious and spiritual beliefs.
Perhaps the easiest way of doing this is by having a service created by a funeral celebrant with personal or professional experience of spirituality or alternative religious practices. We will delve more into the role of a funeral celebrant later in this article, but they are generally used in place of a religious leader who would otherwise officiate a funeral. Having a funeral celebrant who either shares or understands your beliefs is a great way to have a funeral service that is both less traditional and incredibly special.
How to honour a loved one without a funeral
Another less traditional option is to not have a funeral at all; it's not necessary to have a funeral in order to honour someone's life. Many people instead opt for a memorial ceremony following the burial or, more commonly, cremation of their loved one. Having a cremation before a service takes place is known as a direct cremation, and is the cheapest option when it comes to funeral and memorial planning. This doesn't make it any less special, though — having a direct cremation allows you to choose where the memorial service is held, as you can take your loved one's ashes with you anywhere. It also doesn't mean you can't have a service, just that you don't have a traditional funeral with the body present.
Some people choose to have a wake-like memorial at a venue or at home, and others choose to have an ashes-scattering ceremony as their memorial. There are many options for ashes-scattering out there, but if you're looking for something more unique then maybe a one-of-a-kind space memorial would be right for you. We scatter ashes in space, where they travel the globe for up to six months before returning to the Earth as raindrops or snowflakes. Certainly a less traditional memorial option, a space scattering is perfect for lovers of nature, travel, or space.
You could also honour a loved one without a funeral by having an intimate meeting with those closest to them. This could be at someone's home, in a public place such as a gardens, or really anywhere you want. Some funeral celebrants will also officiate a memorial service, so this is worth researching if you think it's something you'd like.
What is a funeral celebrant?
As well as understanding the different ways you can have a less traditional funeral, it's helpful to be aware of the role and function of a funeral celebrant.
A funeral celebrant is an officiant of a funeral service. While they can officiate any kind of funeral, they are especially helpful for those who want to have a less traditional service, as they can tailor a funeral service to fit your needs.
What does a funeral celebrant do?
The core role of a funeral celebrant is to write and deliver a funeral service. They will start by meeting with friends and family of the deceased to get to know their personality and interests, and any wishes for the service. They write the service which, once completed, is shared with friends and family in case any changes should be made. On the day of the ceremony, the celebrant communicates with staff at the funeral venue to ensure everything is in place and that everyone is familiar with the schedule of the day.
There are funeral celebrants out there suited to virtually any faith or spiritual beliefs. Humanist funeral celebrants conduct non-religious ceremonies; a civil celebrant can conduct either a non-religious or semi-religious service; and there are funeral celebrants with interfaith backgrounds as well as backgrounds in New Age Religion, Paganism, and many other religious or spiritual beliefs.
There really is an almost infinite amount of choice in how you want a service to be conducted, and this is generally the biggest draw to using a funeral celebrant. If you want a less traditional funeral, whether you are religious, spiritual, or a total atheist, a funeral celebrant can tailor a service to the needs of yourself or your loved one.
Who can be a funeral celebrant?
In short, anyone can become a funeral celebrant. You don't need any qualifications or certification to be a celebrant, but there are training courses which can make it easier. As well as funerals, many celebrants also officiate memorials, weddings, and vow renewals, among others. There are organisations such as Humanists UK and Celebrant Directory which you can use to find a celebrant.
Because there are no legal regulations surrounding funeral arrangements, you do not have to be a funeral celebrant to officiate a funeral — anyone, including loved ones of the deceased, can officiate. This means that if someone you love passes away, you can actually officiate their funeral yourself. It can be a meaningful touch to have a funeral officiated by someone who was personally close to the deceased.
The difference between a funeral director and a funeral celebrant
Both a funeral director and a funeral celebrant can officiate a funeral. A funeral director, however, has a role in the organisation of the entire funeral, including the venue, flowers, and even the coffin or casket you choose; a celebrant, on the other hand, just creates and delivers the service itself.
Some people choose not to use a funeral director at all and instead make all arrangements independently. Funeral director fees generally make up most of a funeral cost, so choosing not to use one can save you a lot of money. It is totally up to you whether you use a funeral director or not, as you don't have to — when it comes to funeral celebrants, a funeral director can help you find one, and can communicate with them on your behalf, but you can also do this yourself.
Due to the all-encompassing role of a funeral director, they are much more expensive than a funeral celebrant. A 2020 report cited a funeral director as costing around £2,000, whereas a funeral celebrant usually costs around £200.
Choosing an alternative funeral
If you are considering your own end-of-life plans, it's incredibly important that you share your wishes with your loved ones, or at least get them in writing. This not only makes things a lot easier when the time comes, but also ensures that your wishes are honoured and you have the send-off you want.
A funeral is, at its most simple, a celebration of life, and a way to honour and say goodbye to someone we love. Whether you have a funeral that is entirely traditional, has some traditional elements, or is wholly non-traditional, what matters is what feels right for you.
If you want any more information on making funeral arrangements, burial and cremation, scattering ashes, or sharing your wishes with family, you can read our other support articles.