Alternative and humanist funerals

Nowadays, more and more people are aware that the 'traditional funeral' is just one of many possible funeral options available to them. And with more people than ever taking the progressive decision to plan their funeral years ahead, there's a clear trend away from black clothes, black cars and traditional coffins. There's also much more likelihood that they'll be opting for a non-religious or humanist funeral and alternative burial instead. Indeed, even the name of the ceremony is changing as people increasingly opt for a 'celebration of life' or a 'thanksgiving' instead of a conventional religious or secular funeral.

What's more, with many people choosing not to live according to religious principles, or to hold accepted views on life and death, there's increasing demand for the humanist funeral with its focus on the life of the deceased rather than a passing to an 'afterlife'.

Alternative funeral services are legal

You're not alone if you think there are strict legal constraints on the format and procedure for your funeral. Though many people still think they can't deviate from a 'standard funeral procedure', this simply isn't true:

  • You do not actually have to hold a funeral ceremony
  • You aren't legally required to have a specific type of ceremony
  • Licensed buildings aren't required (except for Anglican services in England)
  • Burial is allowed on private land with the landowner's permission
  • A clergyman isn't required
  • You needn't have a traditional pine coffin

And if, as many people do, you have strong environmental concerns, the latest alternative funeral ideas offer all sorts of 'green' possibilities for a religious or non religious funeral service. Even the range of burial containers has increased, with biodegradable shrouds, wicker coffins and bamboo caskets now readily available and more than 200 woodland burial sites currently operating in the UK.

Humanist funerals

A humanist funeral or memorial ceremony is much more appropriate for people who chose to live without religious principles and without holding accepted views about life and death. With a non religious funeral, there's no preoccupation with the 'afterlife' that is an intrinsic part of other beliefs. Instead, the ceremony allows family and friends to concentrate on a joyous celebration of a life well lived and the connections made during the deceased's life.

Typically led by a humanist celebrant, a humanist funeral service contains nothing that should cause offense to anyone with religious beliefs. Instead, the ceremony is a heartfelt celebration of the deceased's life and a marvellous opportunity for loved ones to share their experience and express their feelings in a positive way.

Suggested reading about humanist burial and funeral planning:

A Humanist Funeral Service
Corliss Lamont
ISBN-13: 978-0879750909

Funerals Without God: Practical Guide to Nonreligious Funerals
Jane Wynne Willson
ISBN-13: 978-0901825148

The Pagan funeral

According to Pagan belief, birth, growth, death, and rebirth form a cycle that determines the underlying order of the universe. Because there are no universally accepted rites or traditions to unify different forms of paganism, it's very difficult to find a 'standard' order of ceremony for a pagan funeral. There are, however, many resources on the internet and the general consensus of online opinion seems to be that the following stages should be present:

  • Understand which pagan tradition the deceased followed
  • Find a person to officiate (often family or friends who are pagans)
  • Locate an appropriate (usually outdoor) venue
  • Determine how the deceased would have wanted their body to be disposed of (many pagan traditions prefer cremation)
  • Call 'the corners and watchtowers' at the beginning of the ceremony. The four corners, to be called in order, are east (air), south (fire), west (water) and north (earth). The watchtowers protect the participants in the ritual
  • Set a suitably reverential mood with music, colours and other decorations (flowers, candles, incense) that are appropriate to the ceremony
  • Pay tribute to the spiritual being that the deceased honoured during their life (perhaps Mother Earth or another entity) with suitable non religious readings

For further information, you might find it useful to research on the internet or obtain a copy of the following publication, which, at the time of writing, appears to be one of the main published guides to Pagan burial and funeral services:

The Pagan Book of Living and Dying: Practical Rituals, Prayers, Blessings and Meditations on Crossing Over by 'Starhawk'.

Burial at sea

Sea burial, an alternative to traditional or alternative land burial or cremation, offers another way for a person to return their body to nature and continue the unending circle of life.

Be warned, however, that sea burials are among the most complicated of alternative funeral services to arrange in the UK. They're not cheap either, with a typical sea burial costing up to £3,000 plus boat hire and other associated costs.

Several important steps must be taken before a sea burial can take place. These include:

  1. Register the death with the Registrar of Births Deaths and Marriages
  2. Request a burial at sea
  3. Complete special forms (including the coroner's Out of England form)
  4. Obtain a license from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)
  5. Prepare the body for burial to strict standards specified by DEFRA
  6. Source a suitable biodegradable coffin (to DEFRA standards)
  7. Organise a ceremony at one of the two approved UK locations

Given the very specialised nature of sea burial, anyone interested in this form of alternative burial is strongly advised to contact DEFRA for advice and information.

How will your loved ones know your preferences?

A desire for burial at sea or a humanist funeral is a perfect example of the kind of specialised funeral wishes that can be documented and securely stored using The Well Planned Funeral's  Your Funeral Plan and Wishes product.By researching, planning and documenting your wishes in advance you can ensure that they're fulfilled. What's more, because your loved ones will know exactly what you want to happen after your death, you'll spare them from unnecessary anguish at an already emotionally demanding time.

Other Factors Determining How to Proceed

If you are arranging someone else's funeral, their beliefs will determine how to proceed. For example, what form would a jewish funeral take? If the person served in the forces would he qualify for a military burial? Being cremated is currently the most popular option.