More than 30,000 funerals in Britain last year were nonreligious, as families turn increasingly to “celebration-of-life” ceremonies rather than church services, according to new figures.
The rise is being attributed to people’s growing willingness to admit that they are non-believers, and to their desire to avoid “hypocrisy”.
Ten years ago, a funeral without a minister of religion and reference to God was virtually unheard of but increasingly, services are presided over by a “celebrant” and involve poems instead of psalms, while mourners are often asked to wear something bright rather than black.
One in 20 families now rejects a church service in favour of a celebration of life, according to the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD), which represents 85 per cent of the industry.
Most of those choosing non-religious funerals were brought up as Anglicans or Presbyterians but have stopped going to church and no longer believe in God, said Dominic Maguire, a spokesman for the association.
“Years ago, people thought they needed a minister of some religion,” he said. “They were concerned about what the neighbours would think. Now they are saying there’s going to be no hypocrisy in death.” Lapsed Roman Catholics are more likely to be “dragged” into church by their families, he added.
Christine Frain, 62, from Chiswick in west London, decided on a non-religious funeral for her husband Ron, a photographer who died of cancer in December. She said the 75-year-old jazz fan had not believed in God or an after-life, so a more personal affair “with plenty of Miles Davis” was more true to him.
“He was born a Catholic but was deeply suspicious of religion,” said Mrs Frain, a retired secretary. “We had poems and I wrote something about his life. It was not religious at all.”
Caroline Black, 50, a British Humanist Association celebrant, organised Mr Frain’s funeral. When she finished her training six years ago, there were 120 humanist celebrants in England and Wales. There are now 220.
Referring to herself as the “atheist vicar of Dibley”, she said: “Every ceremony is unique and reflects the character of the deceased. The minister or God doesn’t own the funeral, the family does.”
Miss Black conducted the funeral last year of Linda Smith, the comedian and a former president of the British Humanist Association. The funerals of comics Ronnie Barker, Bob Monkhouse and Dave Allen, and of John Curry, the ice-skater, were humanist.
Robert Bolt, the writer and director who wrote A Man For All Seasons and the screenplays for Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter, had a secular funeral in 1995.
Part of the appeal of non-religious services may also be the increased cost of conventional funerals. Britons spent £1.3 billion on funerals last year and the average cost has risen by 61 per cent from £2,048 in 2000 to ?3,307 last year. A celebrant from the British Humanist Association charges an average £130, about the same fee as an average clergyman.
Most non-religious services take place in crematoriums. Up to seven out of 10 bodies are cremated, which is the cheaper option.
Many cemeteries will run out of space within 10 years, forcing councils to consider unpopular solutions such as “double-decker” graves, with coffins buried on top of one another. However, cremation also poses problems. The fumes from vaporised dental fillings make up 16 per cent of mercury emissions, according to government figures.
More Britons are opting for coffins of wicker and cardboard. The NAFD estimate there are 2,000 “green” funerals every year and that there are now 214 “natural” burial grounds across Britain, compared with 52 in 1997.
The Church of England carried out 207,300 funerals in 2005, down from 228,000 in 2001 and there have been calls for all churches to modernise services to boost numbers. The Rev Paul Sinclair, the founder of Motorcycle Funerals, which uses side-car hearses in place of traditional vehicles, said it was already happening.
“Most church ministers I know will happily have music the deceased liked and will not insist on hymns,” said the Pentecostal minister. “We need to get the message out to people that the church has come a long way.”
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