How to make a funeral a celebration of life

A send-off doesn’t have to be sombre

How we mark someone’s passing has come a long way. While the type of funeral laid on can’t diminish the grief felt by those left behind, it can help make it more of a joyful celebration of someone’s life than a difficult day of sorrow.

So, here are some ways to make a funeral a little more uplifting for everyone involved.

What’s a celebration of life?

It’s a style of funeral that’s become increasingly popular in the UK.

In a 2020 SunLife survey, nearly half of funerals in 2019 were described as a celebration of life, with 79% of funeral directors seeing an increase in the number of celebration of life funerals 1. These included injections of humour and putting on more of a show, rather than sticking to established conventions.

So it seems we’re moving away from some of the more well-worn traditions of funerals – think mourners in black with bowed heads – to something more personal, with a little more warmth.

That might mean parents bringing children along, family videos, upbeat songs, funny speeches, or fireworks and a party as the wake, if that’s what feels fitting. Whatever makes for a more relaxed environment while people deal with their loss.

Choose a celebrant who’ll keep it light

The person who speaks at the funeral can help set the tone, and make sure it’s a celebration of life, true to the person who’s gone.

Professional celebrants can work with the funeral director, and the family, so the personality of the person who has passed comes through. That could include storytelling, their quirks and sayings, and anecdotes, ‘that time when…’. This doesn’t mean it has to be a non-religious funeral. It can still adhere to cultural, religious, and spiritual beliefs while paying tribute with uplifting songs and readings.

But if you are planning a secular send-off, you could consider a civil or humanist celebrant, so it’s about celebrating the person who’s died and what they meant to others, rather than a particular belief system.

You don’t have to use a celebrant, though. Family and friends can speak at a funeral. It might be a bit overwhelming for some, but it’s a way to speak from the heart and pay tribute. You can always share the task. Or you could ask the celebrant to speak on your behalf and read from scripts without the pressure of trying to hold it together.

You could also ask for films and cherished photos to be shown during the service, or run a playlist of their favourite songs, so everyone feels connected to the person they’ve lost, and to each other.

Add colour and some personality

A sure-fire way to help lighten the mood is to ask mourners to dress in a colour, or to theme the day. You may know their favourite colour because they had 15 shirts in various hues of pink, or perhaps you want to request wearing a flash of leopard print to cheer people up. It might make everyone feel less sombre than if they’d dragged out that black funeral number again.

The SunLife survey shows ‘the brighter, the better’, with 30% of people asking for bright clothes for their funeral in 2019, instead of traditional black.

You could go further and specify a theme – maybe Star Wars, Disney, comic book, or a football team they supported through decades of ups and downs. Just bear in mind you might want to give people the option of not doing that, if dressing up as a Stormtrooper isn’t their thing. It could just be as simple as asking them to wear a red rose.

Other personalisation could be out-of-the-ordinary coffins. You can customise a standard coffin with pictures and messages, or go further and commission a one-off that’s a little bit more creative, like a boat, a ballet slipper or a guitar, or whatever’s fitting for their life’s interests.

Get them from A to B

As everyone will need to get to the service, including the person who’s passed, another way to make things more unique is to go for transport away from the more traditional black limousine. If it’s what helped make them who they were, this can set the tone from the start.

So you could choose something idiosyncratic to that person, like a tractor, a classic car, a campervan or even a motorcycle sidecar hearse – or just colourful ribbons attached to the hearse.

Or as one survey respondent recalled: “My great uncle Percy, who only had one leg, wanted everyone to hop at his funeral so they could see how difficult it had been for him to get around when he was alive.” And if that didn’t raise a collective smile, at least Percy had the last laugh.

Don’t feel constrained when planning the memorial and wake

Where everyone gathers after the cremation or burial is just as important as celebrants, when you’re planning a funeral. It doesn’t have to be straight afterwards – maybe you want to wait until everyone can get together in person.

If you’re going for something informal and relaxed, rather than lukewarm tea and hushed conversation in a stuffy side-room, you could choose one of these memorable ways to gather together:

  • Release ‘doves’ – usually white homing pigeons that can safely find their way home – at their grave or at a location they loved, as a symbol of their onward journey.
  • Fly colourful kites together, when the wind is up. It’s a more sustainable and safer option than releasing balloons or lanterns, and can signify life and honouring the dead in a similarly colourful way.
  • Remember with fireworks. With or without ashes attached, the sky will burst into colourful life. You can even hire a memorial fireworks service to create a light show to music.
  • Plant a tree as a living, growing memorial. That could mean planting a sapling in your garden, or donating money to an organisation like the Woodland Trust to sponsor or plant a tree or woodland area. 
  • Name a star after them and get together on a clear night. Who doesn’t think of loved ones we’ve lost when we look up at the night sky, so this could be something specific to spot – binoculars and constellation app advisable.
  • Name a rose bush after them and plant it together, search for a plant by their name, or just plant something they were fond of in a garden you can visit and tend.
  • Hire a band to play their kind of music at a pub or at a party – or just any songs that will get people moving, if they feel like it, so they can park the sadness for a little while.

And remember, the funeral itself doesn’t have to be in a religious or traditional setting. If you have the full permission of the land or property owner, and your funeral director and celebrant is on board, you can consider anything from a lakeside to a sports ground for the service.

Bear in mind that, at the moment, there are some restrictions on funerals and memorial gatherings. Though funeral directors will be well-versed in what’s possible right now, if you’re planning a funeral that’s happening soon, check the government’s guidance for funerals during the coronavirus pandemic.

Scatter ashes somewhere special

You might want to talk to close relatives and consider a place where you’d all like to gather to scatter ashes, if the person who’s died didn’t tell you. Whether it’s into waves, at a woodland burial site, or at a viewing point over valleys, there’s something moving about releasing someone on their final journey somewhere beautiful and meaningful.

Is it legal to scatter ashes?

It’s legal to scatter a person’s ashes on your own land, but if it’s on land you don’t own, you’ll need to get permission from the landowner. That includes on beaches and in local parks and green spaces considered common land.

So that might just mean getting in touch with your local council, or an organisation like the National Trust, if you’re looking to scatter ashes on land at a historic location they loved to visit. The National Trust doesn’t have a formal policy, but families have been granted permission to do this. You don’t need a licence; you just need the formal nod.

You may want to choose a quieter time, with fewer visitors, if it’s a popular spot – perhaps early in the morning, or just before sunset.

Scatter ashes in water

If they were a wild river swimmer, loved boating, were in the Navy or had a favourite place to surf, something other than solid ground could be a fitting tribute.

You don’t need permission to scatter ashes in the sea or in rivers, but check the Environment Agency’s rules for scattering ashes. You should make sure it won’t cause any harm to the environment or wildlife, and won’t affect anyone else using that water. And skip casting out wreaths or memorabilia, unless they’re fully biodegradable. You could consider things like flower petals instead.

Scatter ashes from a hill or mountain

The adventurer’s option, perhaps. If the person who’s passed spent weekends tackling Lake District fells, you might want to make a day of it and release their ashes from up high. Just consider the climate, which might not be accommodating, the wind direction, and the flora. Some conservation organisations advise not to scatter ashes on mountain peaks, as it can affect fragile plant life. It may be best to choose somewhere lower down the mountain and away from other visitors.

You could choose more than one location and split the ashes, if some relatives can’t make it – or if they don’t fancy hiking up a hillside.

Secure a happier send-off

The task of arranging a funeral can be tough, as much as a funeral director will help. What did they like? How should they be dressed? Should we have a motorbike parade, a Harry Potter theme, or stick to something safer and more traditional?

In the midst of a bereavement, it can be an extra stress for loved ones to plan a funeral. That’s one of the reasons you might consider taking out a funeral plan. So you might be interested to know we’ve partnered with Dignity as our trusted provider of four funeral plans.

A plan gives you the opportunity to get the send-off you want, and make sure it’s celebratory and less stressful for your family to organise. It’s also where you can set down your exact wishes. Don’t want hymns? Tell your funeral plan provider – and your family. Want a peculiar form of transport to the chapel? See what they can do. That way, the services included will have already been chosen and set down, for when the time comes.

Bear in mind that if you want something a bit more out-there, it will most likely be in addition to your plan and may cost extra. Wakes and memorials aren’t usually included in standard funeral plans.

As buying a funeral plan is a big decision, it’s important to do your research and know exactly what’s included, before you buy. You might want to start with Funeral Planning Authority and Citizens Advice.

We need to talk about our goodbye

In the same SunLife survey, less than 1% of people who recently organised a funeral knew all of their loved ones’ wishes. That’s a reminder that opening up about our send-off can really help family out, and will avoid them second-guessing.

So set down what you want your funeral and wake to look like, or any special details to include. That will help guide your loved ones when it comes to the decision-making.

Opening up about what you’d like, or what you’ve already arranged, for when the time comes, can go a long way towards securing the joyful celebration of your life that you’re after. 

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