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The death of traditional funerals

The death of traditional funerals

In light of her recent report, Ashes to Ashes, Marianne Rozario looks at the changing ways we mark death in society. 20/04/2023

How we mark death is changing. 

That’s one of the headlines from our recent Theos report Ashes to Ashes on attitudes towards dying, death, and the afterlife in the UK – and if how we understand death says anything at all about what we think of life, the shift should be understood as a key indicator of important social changes under the bonnet of British society and culture.  

Most obviously, traditional funeral services are in decline. The classic image of a church funeral is increasingly unrepresentative of British funeral practices on the ground. The latest data suggests that the Church of England conducts funerals for 23% of deaths, but even this share is decreasing. Statisticians report a sharp decline in Christian funerals from 1999 to 2019; the Church of England observed a 50% decline over the same period and other Christian denominations echo a similar pattern.[1] 

According to research by the Co–op in 2019, only 1 in 10 Brits now want a religious funeral of any kind.  

In place of a single (and so, shared) understanding of what a funeral should look like, a range of expressions – often reflecting the unique personality, values, and preferences of the deceased – have sprung up. Today, most funerals are led by independent civil celebrants – a trend that looks likely to continue as demand for religious services declines.[2] As one secular celebrant interviewed as part of our research commented:  

“I have done funerals in village halls. I’ve done funerals in back gardens. I’ve done funerals in very nice country house hotels…I have done a funeral in a really seedy bar. I’ve done a funeral in a car showroom…I have done a funeral that basically was, we walked around a field and there were posters with different aspects of the guy’s life. So we walked from poster to poster.”  

If church funerals are out, “celebrations of life” are in. Such “celebrations of life” are favoured for their flexibility, their ability to separate out memorialisation practices from what happens to the physical remains of the body after death, and their personalisation of music options and eulogies. One funeral director we spoke to described playing birdsong at the beginning of the ceremony, or “praying to Mother Earth, praying to the stars, or the moon, or power”. Another interviewee observed that people want to “feel able to wear yellow or have party poppers or everyone in the congregation gets [sic] a bar of chocolate”. Regarding choice of music, interviewees indicated that liturgical music is giving way to secular songs such as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “My Way”. Both songs featured in the top twenty most popular songs at a funeral in 2022

At first glance, this paints a bleak picture for the Church.  

Yet, celebrant–led funerals are not necessarily secular; and at the request of the organiser, many incorporate spiritual or explicitly religious elements.[3] Echoing this, our interview data also revealed that considerable spiritual – and often explicitly Christian – language and content were still desired even in “celebrations of life”. Numerous interviewees highlighted that The Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23 were requested in otherwise secular services, as well as the use of the language of “welcome home” or “going to a better place”. One celebrant said: 

“I think most of us actually do include the Lord’s Prayer at the very least in over half the services we do.”

Meanwhile, one of the funeral directors we spoke to reported:  

“We have had a number of people recently who said, “I’m not Christian, but I want to have my funeral in a church. Can you ask the vicar whether they can use bits from the Book of Common Prayer?”” 

Perhaps churches have an opportunity here to (re)communicate the meaning of Christian funerals.  

One of the criticisms of “celebrations of life” echoed by some interviewees was their heavy focus on “celebration” at the expense of acknowledging the complex emotions of grief. In contrast, religious funerals – through their rituals and aesthetics, spiritual encounter, and time of remembrance – can offer a space for sorrow and for recognition of our mortality, as well as a time of “celebration”.  

Of course, there is variation even within the Christian faith. Protestant funeral services blend remembrance and comfort for those grieving the loss and encouragement of the hope of a better life in heaven. Catholic Churches encourage a separation between the Requiem Mass and the reception where bereaved relatives can remember the deceased person in a personal way, and where burial is still favoured whilst cremation permitted. Orthodox Churches prepare the body, traditionally have a wake lasting 3 days, an open coffin funeral service, and where cremation is prohibited.  

Notwithstanding these theological differences, churches could better explain all aspects of funeral preparation. Catholic Churches could better explain the ritual of sprinkling holy water over the coffin and its symbolic link to baptism, or the lighting the Paschal candle signifying hope. Orthodox Churches could better explain the meaning of a bowl of koliva – a dish of boiled wheat with honey – placed near the head of the coffin with a lit candle. Protestant Churches could better explain the significance of certain scripture readings or the desire to have the Lord’s Prayer during a funeral service. 

In explaining these elements more pro–actively, churches do not merely create more accessible funeral services; more fundamentally, they communicate what their death rituals say about the Christian view of the world. After all, in their totality, the Christian funeral provides not only a space for the bereaved to deal with the complexities of grief, but expresses the hope that the dead person is entrusted into the mercy of God and will ultimately be re–united with Him in eternal life. 

Here is scope for churches and faith communities to re–weave the role of religion and death. There is an opportunity for churches and faith communities to (re)claim a role of religious funerals as spaces that offer meaningful ritual and spaces for grappling with the nuanced emotional complexities of death. Even more so, religious funerals provide an opportunity for the encouragement of wider conversation about the meaning of life and death, helping people to explore themes of hope and continued existence after physical death. They are, after all, spaces where heaven and earth meet.   


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[1] Clive D. Field (2022) Counting Religion in Britain: 1970–2020. Secularization in Statistical Context. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Peter Brierley (2020) UK Church Statistics No 4: 2021 Edition. Tonbridge: ADBC Publishers.

[2]  Also see: Clive D. Field (2022) Counting Religion in Britain: 1970–2020. Secularization in Statistical Context. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[3]; Holloway, M., Adamson, S., Argyrou,V., Draper, P. and Mariau, D. (2013) ‘“Funerals aren’t nice but it couldn’t have been nicer”. The makings of a good funeral’, Mortality, 18 (1) pp.30–53.

Image by cottonbro studio on Pexels

Marianne Rozario

Marianne Rozario

Dr Marianne Rozario is Senior Researcher and Projects Lead at Theos. She is the co–author of Ashes to Ashes: beliefs, trends, and practices in dying, death, and the afterlife. She has a PhD in International Relations exploring the notion of Catholic agency in international society through the University of Notre Dame Australia, and a MA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews. She is a Lecturer on the MA Social Justice and Public Service in the Faculty of Business and Law at St Mary’s University.

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Posted 20 April 2023

Afterlife, Church, Death, Religion


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