Are people really turning off funerals? We don’t think so

05/12/2023   //   No Comments

Christian thinktank Theos’ latest report on funeral trends asks important questions about our final act in life. And the findings paint a picture as complex as bereavement itself.

Typically sensationalist, media reports about the study titled Love, Grief, and Hope: Emotional responses to death and dying in the UK have been quick to position the findings as the ‘death of funerals’. 

But what does the research actually reveal?

Gen Z and Millennials see the value in funeral services

Of the 2,569 adults surveyed, 58 percent of 18-24-year-olds and 57 percent of 25-34-year-olds said they wanted a funeral. 

The percentages only begin to drop when people reach middle age – but not dramatically. Forty-three percent of 35-44-year-olds and 45-54-year-olds and 44 percent of those aged 55 and older told researchers that they wanted a funeral. 

In our opinion this suggests people start to think less favourably about funerals in middle age as they start to grapple with their own mortality and become aware that their time on the planet is finite. But this doesn’t necessarily point to a decline in public support for ritualised mourning. 

Fascinatingly, of the average 24 percent of people who said they didn’t want a funeral, two thirds based their answer on the notion that the money could be better spent another way. Fifty-five percent didn’t see the point and 43 percent were against having a traditional service. 

Don’t forget, the respondents are being asked to contemplate their own funeral. You can bet that if one or more of their loved ones had been asked to give a perspective, the answers would alter dramatically. 

That’s because when families discuss mum’s or dad’s death, most children want to have the opportunity to meet with relatives and friends in shared grief. 

In some ways, this is all a bit like the end of life question: do you want to die in a hospice or at home surrounded by family? Understandably, most folk say they would opt for the latter. 

Yet when it comes to the crunch, people value the intensive care given in a hospice or hospital setting. That’s not to say dying at home cannot be a good experience. 

A celebration of life or a moment of spiritual connection?

In this secular era, it’s easy to think the rise of personalised ‘celebrations of life’ represent a rejection of religion.

Yet Theos’ research shows a much more nuanced reality. Respondents who attend church frequently and those who never grace the local pews with their presence both overwhelmingly favoured a celebration of life (77 percent among the general public). 

Religious and non-religious people cited stories or tributes as the most important element of a funeral. Poems and literary extracts were more or less equally valued by both groups too. 

Also important were periods of silence and reflection. Of course, elements such as prayers and hymns were less in demand in non-religious ceremonies. 

However, the common appetite for periods of reflection and readings show that funerals remain a deeply spiritual event, regardless of religious beliefs.

Why funerals matter more than ever

Another point of interest was the finding that sixty-one percent of people see funeral ceremonies as a space for mourning with others. And 52 percent agreed that funerals are a way to support the bereaved. 

In our opinion, these statistics pull the rug from under Theos’ predictions that direct funerals will continue to grow. 

While unattended funerals increased dramatically during the pandemic for practical and legal reasons, there simply hasn’t been a continued upward trend in subsequent years. Things have levelled out.

Sure, there’s been a shift. But with the majority of people understanding the importance of gathering to process grief, we’re not going to see the end of services connected to a cremation or a burial anytime soon. 

That said, funerals are changing rapidly. Families want greater flexibility and new methods of disposition are in development. These factors are forcing a change in funeral director business models – not the end of funerals.

In fact, we’re confident that funerals will remain a vital institution, offering human connection and comfort in a world transformed by technology.  

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