Even for those not overtly religious in their everyday lives, the three rites of passage (birth/baptism, marriage and death – or, colloquially put, hatching, matching and dispatching) have traditionally been a point of contact with institutional religion.
Church of England and other religious statistics have long charted a decline in infant baptisms, while Government data (separately recorded for England and Wales and Scotland) have shown a decrease in weddings solemnized according to religious rites.
Now there are signs that the most long-standing ecclesiastical near-monopoly, over death, may also be eroding, partly in the face of a shift of focus in funerals away from an act of mourning mediated by a religious professional to a more participatory time of celebration and commemoration.
The established Church of England has experienced a fall of 19% in eight years in the number of funerals its clergy conduct, from 232,550 in 2000 to 188,100 in 2008. Expressed in terms of total deaths, the 2008 figure translated into a 39% market share.
The latest evidence about funeral customs and practices comes in a report today from Co-operative Funeralcare, the UK’s largest provider (100,000 funerals a year).
Entitled The Ways We Say Goodbye: a Study of 21st Century Funeral Customs in the UK, the document is mostly based on data gathered from funeral directors at 559 of Co-operative Funeralcare’s network of 850 funeral homes.
67% of Co-operative’s funerals still take a traditional form, in accordance with the rites of a particular religion, and generally including a service led by a recognized minister, followed by burial or cremation.
However, 21% are characterized as contemporary, where the emphasis is on celebration of an individual’s life and personalization of the funeral service, albeit an element of religion (such as a hymn or prayer) may still be retained.
12% of funerals arranged by Co-operative Funeralcare are classified by them as ‘humanist’, entirely without a religious component. They may be led by a humanist official, or by family and friends of the deceased.
In the words of one funeral director: ‘People don’t just want religion spoken about – they want the person spoken about. They’re making more of a day of it … more of an occasion.’
But the report highlighted that, such is the pace of personalization of ceremonies, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain these somewhat arbitrary distinctions between funeral types.
Following this trend, only 36% of funerals now have purely religious music, the remaining 64% using contemporary music, classical music or a mixture of styles. So, in this and other respects, even religious ceremonies are being modernized and ‘secularized’.
The top three funeral songs in 2009, according to a separate Co-operative study, were My Way (Frank Sinatra, Shirley Bassey), Wind Beneath My Wings (Bette Midler, Celine Dion) and Time to Say Goodbye (Sarah Brightman, Andrea Bocelli).
Additional information came from an online poll conducted by ICM Research on behalf of Co-operative Funeralcare among a representative sample of 2,002 Britons aged 18 and over interviewed on 22-24 September 2010.
This revealed that 54% of respondents would prefer their funeral to be a personalized celebration of their life, with just 27% opting for a traditional funeral such as a church service with hymns. The latter figure ranged from 20% in the case of the 18-24s to 40% of the over-65s.
In a separate question, 49% wanted their funeral to be individualized in a specific way, most commonly in terms of their favourite music but, for some, even to reflect their favourite hobby, colour or football team.
The Ways We Say Goodbye can be downloaded from:
There is also a Co-operative press release, containing topline findings from the ICM poll, at:
This is by no means the first piece of research by Co-operative Funeralcare in this area. For instance, in October 2001 its forerunner produced a report Taking Fear out of Funerals, informed by a survey from BMRB the preceding March.
This showed that, even at that point, Britons sought funerals which were more cheerful, colourful and personal, with seven-tenths saying that non-religious ceremonies were perfectly acceptable.
One of the last major studies of attitudes to death more generally was by ComRes for Theos in April 2009 in the wake of the early death from cancer of Jade Goody, the ex-Big Brother contestant. The tables from this study are still available at:
37% then expressed a wish for a Christian funeral, 4% for another form of religious funeral, 17% for a non-religious funeral, with the remaining 43% having no clear preference.
30% of the ComRes sample agreed that their religious faith helped them to deal with the death of a loved-one or to prepare for their own death, but 38% disagreed, with 32% undecided or refusing to answer.