A funeral is an opportunity for friends and family to meaningfully remember the recently deceased. Mourning is of course a key part of this process but are we now seeing more of a shift towards celebrating a life? Certainly there has been a noticeable increase in the number of personalised funerals in recent years, and today almost half (48%) of the population would like to have their favourite music, hobby or even sports team featured in their funeral. This article explores how funerals are changing, why this is the case and serves to offer some ideas for what you might want to include in your own funeral or the funeral of a loved one.
What type of funeral?
Traditionally the key purpose of a funeral has been to mourn the deceased. However, the amount of funerals where the main focus is to in fact celebrate someone’s life is increasing. And whilst the trend has moved dramatically towards celebration in recent years, adding personal touches to the funerals of friends and relatives is not a recent thing. It has been happening for centuries as shown in the magnificent public funerals of the Duke of Marlborough in 1722, the Duke of Wellington in 1852 and of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965, to name a few.
Celebration and personalisation are not the only major issues when it comes to arranging a funeral. How religious the service should be, or even whether it should contain any religious elements at all is also an important factor. A recent report titled “The Ways We Say Goodbye” shows that funeral services are still largely based around religious content, but that contemporary and humanist funerals are becoming more popular. Contemporary funerals often contain religious elements – hymns, prayers or the services of a minister, but with personalised elements as well that focus on
celebration. These vary from the choice of music, readings and poems to whether or not to include flowers, what the dress code should be and whether or not the coffin should be decorated. Humanist funerals on the other hand are services for people who have led their lives without religion and so do not include any religious elements. They focus purely on paying tribute and celebrating the person’s life.
The impact of the media and high profile funerals
There is an increasing amount of people wishing the focus of the funeral service to be more about the deceased themselves with less emphasis on religion. Ultimately, people are beginning to realise that they can have a funeral which is unique to them, with or without a religious aspect involved. The modern progression of funeral services could be directly connected to the media coverage of the funerals of certain high profile individuals.
Undoubtedly the most high profile funeral of recent years was that of Princess Diana in recent years. This featured tribute readings from both of her sisters and a re-worked performance of “Candle in the Wind” by Elton John. Her brother, Lord Spencer, also memorably addressed the congregation, describing Princess Diana as the “very essence of compassion, of duty, of style, of beauty”. The grieving Earl pledged to protect Princes William and Harry after blaming the media for Diana’s death, stating that she was the “most hunted person of the modern age”. His eulogy also famously included veiled criticism of the Royal Family. His controversial statements were received with spontaneous applause by the crowd gathered outside. It is estimated that around 2.5 billion people watched Princess Diana’s funeral and her death lead to an incredible amount of grief. The level of bereavement shown and the amount of exposure her funeral service received had never been seen before in the UK. Interestingly, toward the end of the day, a private ceremony was conducted where Diana was finally put to rest in the heart of her family estate in Althorp.
High profile funerals may be a contributing factor to individual changes in funeral services. However, another argument is that funerals began to change when religion started to play less of a role in people’s lives. These days, people are less likely to leave their funeral plans in the hands of their local church or vicar because many people’s lifestyles are moving away from religion. Previously people felt that they had to include religion in their funerals, even if they weren’t religious, but an increase in awareness of what other people are doing is encouraging more people to have their funeral the way they want it.
During “The Ways We Say Goodbye”, funeral historian, Dr Julian Litten says: “Everyone is unique and everyone is special. Similarly, the same should apply to the funeral, whose rituals are one of Britain’s most treasured customs. At a funeral, only one person is the focus of attention: the deceased. This alone is sufficient reason for each funeral to be, like that individual, unique in both concept and creation.”
The degree of personalisation in modern day funerals varies from person to person. Choosing favourite pieces of music seems to be the most common choice but funeral personalisation extends far beyond this.
One of the biggest decisions to make when arranging a funeral is whether to choose burial or cremation should that decision not have already been made for you by the deceased.
There has been a significant increase in the number of cremations in recent years, with around 75% of people now choosing cremation over burial. This has only happened in the last century, since a public appeal to legalise cremation was first addressed at the end of the 19th century. There was a demand for cremations to be allowed in the UK because the increasingly limited burial space that was available was becoming more expensive and because of health and hygiene reasons. The shift from burials to cremations was a very gradual one until 1968, when the number of cremations in the UK surpassed the number of burials; this escalation was partly propelled by the Pope lifting a ban on cremation for Roman Catholics in 1963. Since 1968 the popularity of cremations has continued to grow.
One reason for the increase in cremations may again be personalisation. The notion of visiting a loved one’s favourite spot where their ashes are scattered to reflect on memories appeals to a great number of people. Compared to visiting a graveyard which is a generally sad experience, cremation can provide a more comfortable environment for reflection.
A conflicting subject for some is the impact that the cremation process can have on the environment, especially when you consider that one cremation uses the equivalent energy of a 500 mile car trip. On average, cremators reach temperatures of up to 1,150°c and run for around 75 minutes. Add these statistics to the growing environmental awareness of the general population and you will not be surprised to learn that the popularity of environmentally friendly funerals is on the rise.
‘Natural’ or ‘green’ funerals are not too dissimilar to the physical process of a traditional burial with the exception of location and material used to make the coffin. These funerals are conducted in a field or woodland specifically designated for these kinds of burials. The coffins used are made from environmentally friendly, natural materials which are biodegradable. The burial location is less likely to be marked but it is possible to plant a tree or shrub in some designated sites.
Aspects of a traditional funeral service
A common feature of most funerals is a eulogy. This is an opportunity for the speaker to say a few inspiring words about the deceased. Traditionally, a eulogy would be read by the vicar or minister, many of whom will have never met the person in question, but eulogies that are instead written and read by friends and family members are a popular way to capture the personality of the deceased. A favourite poem or extract is often used but some people wish to prepare their own eulogies and everyone’s approach is unique. If you are thinking about writing your own eulogy you should consider who is attending, ensure any humour is tasteful, think carefully about the length of your speech and keep to the subject to the life of the deceased.
The use of music
Music has always played a big role in funeral services, for example through well-known hymns such as ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’, but recently there has been a shift to people selecting contemporary pop music or even a live musician over religious hymns. Selecting a piece of contemporary music is another way of personalising someone’s funeral and many people choose to have their selection played at the end of the service as reminder of their personality. Popular choices include: Frank Sinatra – My Way, Eric Idle/Monty Python – Always look on the Bright Side of Life, Eva Cassidy – Over the Rainbow and Celine Dion – My Heart Will Go On.
One traditional aspect of funerals that seems to be prevailing more than most is dress code. Historically in the United Kingdom it is tradition to wear black clothes to a funeral but even this custom is beginning to evolve as societies become increasingly more relaxed. There are no strict conventions or rules to adhere to when deciding on a dress code and fashion trends or themed funerals are becoming more common. The deceased or their family and friends may request attendees to wear brightly coloured clothing to visibly show that the funeral is a celebration of life, or incorporate a pink theme to symbolise a fight against breast cancer. Breaking from tradition is particularly popular with the younger generation but as with most changes in our modern age, people of all ages are beginning to become more accepting of diversity.
Floral decorations are still a popular choice for many funeral services but there has also been a rise in popularity for personalised floral sculptures. From arrangements spelling out the deceased’s name to floral sculptures representing a pint of ale, car or sporting equipment, these individual touches can be an effective symbolic gesture and can form a terrific representation of a loved one’s life. However, there has also been a rising trend to request that only the family are to leave flowers, and that if other mourners which to make a tribute they could instead leave a donation, perhaps to the charity relevant to the cause of death, or to a hospice that cared for the person who passed away at the end of their life.
Selecting a coffin or casket
When it comes to choosing a coffin or casket there is generally a huge amount of choice available, with the only restriction often being budget. Commonly, high quality wood is the preferred material for a coffin but they can also be made of bamboo, wool, wicker, cardboard, willow or recycled materials. They are also generally available in a wide range of colours, patterns and designs, and so this is another opportunity to personalise a funeral if so desired. It is common for the deceased’s loved ones to place sentimental items in the coffin, such as treasured love letters or poignant photographs. There are no restrictions, other than size, to the kind of objects you can place in a coffin. The only exceptions are items made of glass or metal if the deceased is being cremated. Items made of these materials are not allowed to be with the deceased during the cremation but can be present during the service.
The closing farewell
If choosing a burial, the graveside is usually the final part of a funeral service where attendees have the opportunity to perform a final memorable act. Traditionally this would involve throwing soil or petals into the grave. However, there has been an increase of creativity for this final farewell as it provides a pivotal chance for loved ones to say an uplifting goodbye. To give you some examples, we have seen inspirational live music, firework displays, aerial fly-bys, doves and balloons being released.
The reception after a funeral service is commonly referred to as a ‘Wake’ and is an opportunity for friends and family to reflect on memories of the person who has passed away. Traditionally the wake has been held at the home of the deceased but other venues are now more frequently used to suit the moment, such as pubs, social clubs and village halls. It is becoming increasingly common to use this part of the day to celebrate the person’s life instead of mourning their passing.
It is clear that funeral services are evolving and people are becoming more aware of how funerals don’t always have to be restricted by tradition. There has been a gradual shift to celebration rather than mourning the deceased and most funeral directors are happy to facilitate the personalisation of funerals. You may like certain aspects of a traditional funeral service but there is nothing to stop you from tailoring a service to represent your personality or that of a loved one.