Jennie Riley considers choice and variety in British funerals – two important themes which would have been much less familiar even a few decades ago.
We have come quite far from the popularised, potent funeral tableau, with families dressed in black, wearing correspondingly sombre demeanours, gathered in a church or around a graveside.
For example, the Co-op Funeralcare Service’s website explains that they will help bereaved families to ‘create a send-off most fitting for the person who has died. Whether that's a simpler funeral or something more unique, we’ll do our best to make it happen.’ Those engaging with the Funeral Services Guide are faced with a vast array of choices, from style of funeral (traditional? DIY? Green?) to finer details (what kinds of flowers, music, poetry, dress, dove release?)
While the stereotyped and sombre funeral remains an important option for some, against the broader landscape of contemporary British funerals and other death rites and ceremonies, it is just that – an option. In 2019, YouGov found that 32% of Britons felt funerals should be solemn occasions, designed to mourn a loss. But 44% felt they should be joyous occasions, chances to celebrate lives. Interestingly, 11% and 10% respectively opted for ‘neither’ and ‘don’t know.’
And then we could consider, for example, the style of guests’ attire. According to a study from 2016, just 22% of Britons surveyed felt that wearing black should remain the expectation at funerals, while 29% felt any colour was acceptable. The majority – 45% - opted for ‘dark and somber’ colours, suggesting that a particular mood remains widely expected.2 And yet I am reminded of my Dad – a lifelong and doggedly determined Tottenham Hotspur fan – donning a borrowed, bright red Arsenal shirt in order to say goodbye to a young member of his church football team (without, if I recall, too much objection.)
My Dad in the Arsenal shirt speaks to a much wider phenomenon: it is now quite common for someone’s final ritual to be shaped by their personality, preferences, passions and pastimes. If a formal ceremonial element is selected, then a ‘personal stamp’ might shape the music, readings, eulogies, or flowers. Gone are the days when many felt resigned to a service using a standardized and ancient Anglican liturgy, performed by a priest who may well never have met the person who had died. In view of this growing space for choice, it is revealing that another recent poll found that some 30% of Britons have planned at least aspects of their own funeral. Among the oldest age bracket studied – 65+ - that rose to almost half (47%). Thus, increasingly, bereaved British families are tasked with enacting a loved one’s final wishes and funeral choices, which may take any number of forms.
It is worth highlighting that such choice is relatively novel. A hundred years ago, even the choice between burial and cremation was, to all intents and purposes, unavailable to the average British citizen. Though the first cremation in Britain took place at the very end of the 19th century, it would be 1932 before 1% of funerals in this country involved cremation. For the 99% being buried, the 20th century offered slightly more choice than preceding eras, since the Victorians had witnessed the widespread establishment of civic cemeteries which were not attached to churches.
As such, even the first question with which many bereaved families are presented – burial or cremation? - would have been much less familiar just a few decades ago. Nowadays, some 58% of Brits want to be cremated, with just 17% asserting a preference for burial. In practice, cremation proves even more popular, incorporated in over 75% of funerals. In addition to civic cemeteries and religious burials, since the early 21st century Britain has witnessed the growing popularity of ‘eco,’ ‘natural,’ and ‘woodland’ burials, an innovation that grew out of the need and desire for simpler forms of funeral.
Of course, there is another crucial factor that can limit choice: finances. For many, the choice between burial and cremation is no choice at all, for cremation will almost certainly prove the more economical option. That’s especially true in cases of so-called ‘direct cremation,’ where there is little or no accompanying ceremony. The increasing cost of funerals in the UK – and, with it, a corresponding increase in levels of ‘funeral poverty’ – has been a source of concern for some years. While financial support is available in principle, concerns have been raised regarding how easily, equitably and effectively it is distributed in practice. In this article, student Cerys Edwards spoke to the BBC about having to borrow money from relatives in order to pay for her father’s funeral, after discovering students did not qualify for financial support. And the pandemic has not alleviated concerns about funeral poverty: in some cases, it has exacerbated them, with costs continuing to rise as many people’s incomes dropped. The video in this article from the BBC provides just two examples of bereaved families experiencing funeral poverty during the pandemic.
We must also not overlook those groups for whom cremation has been a preference for far longer than a couple of generations. As Professor Douglas Davies highlights in his 2015 book Mors Britannica, when Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and Muslim presences significantly expanded British religious and cultural diversity from the mid-20th century, the country was already well-equipped to accommodate diverse funeral preferences; while crematoria could assist with Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist cremation practices, civic cemeteries provided space for Muslim burial rites and requirements. There were – and remain – important discussions to be had about the extent to which these religious groups felt that British ‘death-styles’ accommodated their needs and desires, as this story highlights. The Coronavirus pandemic has heightened anew the pain felt by those who cannot fulfil religious rites as they wish when they are bereaved.
For those who do not consider themselves religious, having a Humanist celebrant assist with saying goodbye to loved ones is now a popular option. However, as Davies notes, while Humanist celebrants had been operating since the late 19th century, it would not be until the latter half of the 20th century that these became widely popular. Now, there are celebrants available for all religions and none, as well as those who might consider themselves somewhere in between. For those who continue to value the Church of England’s input in funerals, the publication of the Alternative Service Book in the 1980s captured the shift towards choice for Anglicanism. In my own experience, a CofE priest will also offer considerable space for choice and personalisation alongside the familiar words of the funeral liturgy. We live in a society which widely privileges individual choice, a significant social force that shapes death much as it shapes life.
And then, all of a sudden, as they have affected and shaped and curtailed so very many things, COVID-19 and its associated restrictions affected, shaped and curtailed funerals. If the funeral status quo before March 2020 was choice and variety, what happens – and with what cost – when significant and often painfully limiting restrictions are added into the mix? These questions lie at the heart of this research project.
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