Less than half of people want a funeral when they die according to the latest research. But in moving away from looking death in the face, we may be hindering our long-term healing, says Yvonne Tulloch
New research from Christian think-tank, Theos, has shown that less than 47 per cent of people want a funeral when they die. Instead, Love, Grief and Hope reports an increased desire for direct cremations and ‘celebration of life’ gatherings.
The steady decline in traditional funerals can, in part, be explained by declining religiosity and increased costs. Many people are now choosing to “go gently without fuss or fanfare”, preferring not to burden their family with the financial or emotional toll of organising a funeral.
Denying death is not helping people deal with loss, and less funerals will not help with this
But this is a worrying trend. Our society is one which, as the report says: “keeps death at arm’s length and out of sight”. People no longer see the point of funeral ceremonies - especially if they are not religious - and instead choose to avoid the sadness and trauma of seeing the coffin or the curtains close. Yet alongside good community and family support, these acts have traditionally helped us face the loss and finality of death. Acceptance is the first step of the grief journey, and acknowledging sadness is necessary. Death denial does not, ultimately, help us here.
The hard path
Grief is a hard journey, and one that many of us would, naturally, prefer to avoid. But only by “plunging ourselves into the darkness”, as Jerry Sittser says in his book A Grace Disguised (Zondervan) will we see the light of day. We need to travel the rough journey of grief so that we can, one day, be healthy in body, mind and spirit again. We need to reach a place of comfortable remembering, where recalling loved ones who have died, or revisiting situations devoid of their presence, is no longer painful; where the pain is no longer raw, delayed or suppressed.
In our course The Bereavement Journey, we encourage people to consider the role of the funeral in helping them say goodbye to a loved one. Where someone was not able to attend a funeral, grief can be delayed or complicated. We know that this was the case for many people bereaved during the pandemic who were not able to say goodbye in person. Dispensing with funerals will only serve to make matters worse.
Ask any counsellor and they’ll tell you that unresolved loss underlies many issues, including physical or mental ill-health, relationship breakdown, substance abuse, job loss and crime. The vast majority of young offenders have suffered significant loss, and most of the referrals to our website come from mental health services, with grief often cited as the problem.
It is clear that denying death is not helping people deal with loss, and moving away from funerals will not help with this. Our society needs to reverse its tendency to push death away and confront the pain of bereavement head on. Churches, and religious services such as funerals, are an important part of that.
How to help
Over the past two years, our charity has been increasingly called upon by the media to discuss the issue of grief – now on average three times a week – and churches are dealing with the fallout of people who are struggling in this area. The Bereavement Journey is now being run by churches of every denomination across the UK, as well as in prisons. One prison chaplain recently told us that many inmates are “facing their losses for the first time”.
Churches are also finding other ways to help their communities mark loss and express their grief, such as through annual services at All Saints or specific Christmas events designed for remembrance.
Acceptance is the first step of the grief journey
Isaiah 53:3 describes Jesus as a “Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief”. James 1:27 says authentic religion is “looking after orphans and widows in their distress”. Far from churches being irrelevant when it comes to dealing with death and grief, we are now at a point of change. Christians are stepping into the gap.