Funeral study challenges death of religion narrative

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New research on the rise of independent funeral celebrants will challenge narratives about secularisation in the UK and the supposed decline of religion in end-of-life rituals.

Image shows three tealight candles, traditionally lit in churches to remember the dead

A content analysis of some 1,000 funerals, alongside interviews with those in the industry, will build a picture of how funerals conducted in a so-called secular or post-secular society are incorporating and adapting religious content in new ways. 

Led by Goldsmiths, University of London’s Dr Naomi Thompson and Professor Chris Baker, alongside independent celebrant Stephen Cheal, a two-year project will result in a new book and academic publications, alongside the creation of resources, training, networks and practical support for funeral directors, religious leaders and celebrants. 

The majority of funerals in the UK are now undertaken by independent celebrants rather than by clergy, with celebrants often assumed to be secular, or mis-labelled as Humanist.

Ceremonies led by celebrants are classified as civil ceremonies so fall into statistics around non-religious or secular funerals. Yet there is no consensus on what constitutes a civil ceremony, and no legal requirement as to how religious or secular a funeral ceremony should be. 

The research team suggest that an artificial divide has been created between secular and religious ceremonies: what a large section of the population wants and chooses for their own funeral or that of loved ones is often neither entirely religious nor entirely secular, but a blend of the two. 

The team will explore how celebrants cater to people’s desire for ritual and personalisation in modern funeral ceremonies and create meaning using religious and non-religious resources, as well as how social norms around funeral practices impact on people’s choices in designing funeral services. 

Dr Thompson, Senior Lecturer in Youth and Community Work at Goldsmiths, said: “Everyday civil funerals have received little attention from academic researchers, although some work has looked at alternative, non-religious funerals, these have largely tended to focus on particular examples, such as woodland burials, Humanist services, and home funerals. 

“Better understanding of the fusion of religious and non-religious resources in contemporary funerals and considering this alongside broader patterns of religious change is really important for those who work in the funeral business to help them better connect with the spiritual needs of people opting for a civil funeral. 

“In turn, it will help those families who are experiencing grief and loss in understanding what they want and what they understand is ‘allowed’, or possible, when saying goodbye to loved ones. The modern funeral does not have to be all or nothing when it comes to religious ritual.” 

Beginning in January 2022, ‘The use of religious resources in ‘secular’ funerals – challenging narratives of religious decline’, will explore broader patterns of religious change in relation to funerals, as well as the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic specifically. Focusing on time periods from 2019-2021, it will provide insight into how people’s religious choices in relation to funerals are impacted by times of significant personal loss within a global crisis. 

This work has been funded with a grant of £58,000 from the Sir Halley Stewart Trust, a foundation which supports social, medical and religious projects which “enable human flourishing and to prevent suffering”. Further in-kind support will be provided by the William Temple Foundation

Researchers will be working with the National Association of Funeral Directors, the Fellowship of Professional Celebrants (the two largest networks for funeral directors and celebrants in the UK), the National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors, who represent over 970 independent funeral directors throughout the UK, and the Diocese of London, to help develop training events and resources for the industry based on research findings.