What does a typical funeral look like to you? Maybe it’s a traditional place of worship attended by mourners in black, based around established religious traditions.
While that’s still a go-to for some, something different, away from any particular faith or belief system, is what we’re increasingly leaning towards.
So here are some of the more relaxed ways to pay tribute to someone, in a way that’s authentic to the way they lived.
What’s the difference between a non-religious and religious funeral?
While not having a particular belief system to follow can offer more choice and freedom for the ceremony and burial, the options aren’t hugely different.
Secular can still mean traditional in style, or it can be a bit more out-there and involve a horse-drawn hearse or asking mourners to wear tartan – whatever’s fitting for the person who’s passed.
If you don’t want religious texts, hymns or prayers to be part of a service, you can still have a burial, cremation or service at these typical venues:
- a crematorium
- a cemetery chapel
- the funeral director’s premises
- a woodland burial ground
- a community centre
- a hotel
- your own home.
Funeral directors are well-practised in all kinds of services, so it’s a case of talking to them about the vision you have for loved ones who have passed away, or for your own goodbye, when the time comes.
Are non-religious funerals popular?
Attitudes do seem to be shifting, with non-religious funerals becoming more common.
A 2020 SunLife survey showed that in 2019, just 21% of funerals that took place were religious 1. And most funeral directors they asked (68%) said they’d seen a drop in traditional religious services.
Things are just getting a bit more personalised and relaxed. As one funeral director said about the kind of requests they get: “A lot of them are non-religious, and it’s more specific to the person such as letting off balloons, doves, or ashes in fireworks.”
It’s about creating a send-off that’s in keeping with the life that was lived – and if that didn’t include religion, making it reflect that.
Can you have a non-religious service?
If you’re looking for a secular service, there are plenty of people who are qualified to prepare and deliver a funeral service, known as celebrants, to choose from.
They’ll work with the funeral director on behalf of the family and talk to those closest to the person who’s died, to get a picture of what made the person who died unique – their quirks, interests and achievements. They’ll then create a fitting eulogy they’ll read on the day.
The service can contain poems, readings or music the person who died loved, just like any funeral.
If you’re choosing a professional celebrant, a funeral director can give you recommendations. And make use of testimonials from former customers to see which one sounds right for the life you’re paying tribute to.
If you don’t want to use a celebrant, close family and friends could lead a service, to make it even more personal. It can be emotionally hard, but incredibly touching for mourners to hear someone talk about their connection to that person through special memories.
This is a non-religious funeral that supports families in celebrating the life that person led. It recognises the grief of death, the relationships the person had, and the legacy they left.
Humanism is an approach to life based on reason and shared humanity. So a humanist funeral won’t talk of afterlife (‘We’ll Meet Again’ is unlikely to feature on the playlist), or that they’re in a ‘better place’, but will pay tribute to the life that’s passed in a very personal way. This can be done through readings, memories and tributes. You can still have rituals, like candle-lighting and moments of silence.
To choose to a humanist celebrant, ask your funeral director for their recommendation, or you can find a humanist celebrant online.
A civil funeral is driven by the wishes, beliefs and values of the person who’s died and their family, and not the ideology of the person conducting the funeral. The ceremony can be entirely non-religious, and not present any particular standpoint or approach. You can find a civil celebrant online.
If you’re taking out a funeral plan for your own goodbye, you can indicate the kind of celebrant you want. You may be able to name a particular celebrant, though bear in mind they may not be available when the time comes. The funeral director will find a suitable replacement, based on the preferences you set down in your plan.
Don’t assume your family has a clue
In the same SunLife survey, less than 1% of those asked knew all their loved one’s wishes for the funeral before arranging it.
And it may be surprising to know that just 38% knew if their loved ones would prefer a non-religious or religious service. So whether or not you have a funeral plan in place, it makes sense to talk to your family and explain the type of funeral you’d want – and not assume they know you’d want to steer clear of scripture, if that’s the case.
What about a non-religious way to be buried or cremated?
A cremation or a burial can happen without religious rituals or officiants. Here are some non-traditional options that religion doesn’t have to play a part in – but remember, most services can be adapted along secular or religious lines.
According to SunLife, only around 7% of funerals in 2016 were eco, green or woodland funerals 2. Three years later, this had risen to 11%. So what does this more sustainable and increasingly popular option look like?
Woodland burial sites are often in acres of woodland and surrounded by fields, farmland or meadow. This way of being laid to rest could be suited to a nature lover, or just someone who wants to reduce their carbon footprint.
You can choose a plot where the coffin or ashes will be buried. For a burial or a cremation, coffins can be made from biodegradable materials like cardboard, willow or even wool.
Attendees can take a walk in the woods and share moments of remembrance with close family and friends, or there can be a service with readings – or no service at all, and just the sound of the birds and some peace and quiet to reflect.
This is probably the most pared-down, secular send-off you can choose. There’s no ceremony, and generally no service beforehand – it’s simplicity itself and, as a result, low in cost.
Friends and family can still have a wake and pay tribute, but this is a no-frills way to say goodbye, with absolutely no bells or whistles.
How a prepaid funeral plan can help
If you’re thinking about your own non-religious funeral, there are a few reasons why a prepaid funeral plan might be worthwhile.
You get the funeral you want
Whether you’re close to your loved ones or not, you can’t assume they’ll be tuned-in to your funeral preferences. So it’s a way of choosing the services you want, rather than family second-guessing.
Part of the plan could be setting down your wishes for a non-religious funeral, and a particular type of celebrant, even down to the songs you’d like played and the dress code.
It takes the pressure off loved ones at an already difficult time
In the midst of a bereavement, it can be an extra stress for loved ones to have to plan a funeral. So it can help take this pressure off, because the services included in the plan will have already been chosen and set down by you and your funeral plan provider, for when the time comes.
You pay for the plan’s services ahead of time
Funeral plans will usually include funeral director services for a cremation or burial funeral, and payment towards crematorium or cemetery costs. The idea is you pay today’s prices for those future services – which is worth knowing, bearing in mind the rising cost of funerals. You can usually pay the whole sum up front, or in monthly instalments.
If this sounds like something you’re interested in, you might like to know we've partnered with Dignity as our provider of prepaid funeral plans. They’ve been looking after families for generations.
Tell your loved ones you want a non-religious funeral
Talking about death and funerals isn’t always the easiest thing to do. But telling your loved ones about what you’d want for your goodbye – or that you have, or are considering, a prepaid funeral plan – might offer peace of mind for all.
As buying a funeral plan is a big decision, it’s important to be informed before you commit. A good place to start your research is the Funeral Planning Authority or Citizens Advice. And always check the details of the plan in full, so you know exactly what’s included.