What’s an alternative funeral in the UK?

An alternative funeral is any type of send-off that isn’t entirely traditional or conventional.

It may be something quite straight-forward such as asking people to wear bright colours for the ceremony. Or, it may be something that really makes a statement, for example having an eco-friendly burial.

Traditional funerals can be moving and beautiful, but if you’d prefer to add or express individuality, it’s definitely worth thinking about an alternative funeral.

Curious to learn more? If so, continue reading this in-depth guide by award-winning life insurance and funeral plan broker Reassured…

Changing funeral trends

Alternative funerals are growing in popularity in the UK as funeral trends are changing.

Key trends that were observed in 2020 included:

  • Use of social media for funeral invitations
  • Funeral services taking place at alternative venues
  • More non-religious funerals
  • More celebration of life ceremonies
  • Increase in personalisation and special requests
  • Changes to funeral music and readings
  • People trying to keep costs down (e.g. choosing a cheaper coffin)[1]

Funeral directors are used to receiving unique and unusual requests, as send-offs become ever more tailored to the individual.

According to the ‘Changing Face of UK Funerals’ report by Co-op Funeralcare, it’s very common for their funeral directors to modify their services to suit individual demands.

For example, a traditional black hearse has been swapped for a canal boat and they’ve even held a funeral service at a Mcdonalds Drive Thru[2].

It’s possible to create a unique and personalised day that reflects the life and loves of the person who’s passed.

Alternative funerals and cremation

Cremations are far more common than burials in the UK today.

In fact, in 2020:

  • 59% of funerals were cremations
  • 14% of funerals were direct cremations[1]

Cremation services are less expensive than burial services, which is why many people choose this alternative.

Also, the process of cremation may seem a little less complicated as there’s no need to organise a suitable burial plot and memorial.

A cremation funeral can be as personalised as you like, for example, it could be humanist, themed, celebratory, and/or held by family members.

Alternative funerals and burial

Traditionally, a burial funeral included a ceremony held at a church or cemetery chapel.

Nowadays, there are alternative venues to choose from including woodland or natural burial grounds.

An alternative burial service may be humanist, themed, celebratory and/or held by family members.

You would just need to consider the additional cost of a burial plot, memorial and gravedigger fees.

[Source: Sunlife]

Ways to personalise an alternative funeral

An unconventional send-off may not take place at a church or crematorium, the hearse may not have four wheels and the coffin may not be wooden.

Aspects of a funeral that are typically traditional, such as having a long black hearse and an oak coffin, can be swapped out for less traditional alternatives to create a more personal way to say goodbye.

Here are some examples…

Alternative funeral songs:

  • Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here
  • The Hooters - Heaven Laughs
  • Jane Siberry with K.D. Lang - Calling All Angels
  • Green Day - Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)[3]

Alternative venue ideas:

  • A town hall
  • At a hotel or pub
  • A boat
  • At home
  • At the burial site

Alternative hearse ideas:

  • Horse-drawn hearse
  • Bicycle hearse
  • Motorcycle hearse
  • VW hearse
  • Vintage lorry hearse

Alternative coffin ideas:

  • Cardboard coffin
  • Bamboo coffin
  • Willow or wicker coffin
  • Wool coffin
  • Bespoke / personalised coffin

There’s also the option of a shroud which is usually made from natural materials, such as cotton or woollen felt. These are more common for eco burials but can be used for cremation as well.


Alternative floral arrangements:

  • Bright or multi-coloured flowers
  • Bespoke named tribute e.g. Grandad, Dad
  • Bespoke personalised tribute e.g. football, teddy bear
  • Pillow or cushion-shaped

Alternatives to funeral flowers:

  • Charity donation
  • A tree or plant (planted at a special location)
  • Memorial bench or plaque
  • Memorial book or album
  • Food platters

Keep reading to learn about each of the different types of alternative funerals in the UK…

Humanist funeral (or atheist funeral)

Key takeaways:

  • Includes a non-religious ceremony
  • Led by a humanist celebrant or family member
  • No restrictions as to where it can take place
  • May incorporate celebration of life ideas

An atheist, humanist, or simply secular? If so, then a faith-based funeral may seem like an inappropriate way to say goodbye to a loved one.

Alternatively, you can have a traditional funeral that includes a non-religious ceremony, also known as a humanist funeral.

At a humanist funeral there may be readings, poems and speeches but there won’t be any mention of God or faith.

It allows more time to be spent paying tribute to the person who’s passed and reflecting on the life they led.

You can have a humanist celebrant conduct the ceremony (it’s easy to find a local celebrant using this online directory), however, there’s no stopping a family member or close friend from leading the service if this is what the family want.

A non-religious humanist funeral normally takes place at a crematorium, cemetery chapel or burial site. However, it could take place at any location of your choosing.

For example, if the deceased loved football then you could have a humanist funeral at their favourite football ground.

Celebration of life

Key takeaways:

  • A ceremony that celebrates the life of the deceased
  • Usually held separately to the cremation or burial service
  • Led by family members or by a humanist celebrant
  • No restrictions as to when or where it can be held

Many people like the idea of their family and friends getting together to commemorate their life and have a good party, instead of attending a formal funeral service. Especially if they have lived long and happy lives.

This is known as a celebration of life, the joyful alternative to a sombre traditional funeral.

Usually, a celebration of life memorial is held as a separate event from the funeral itself. Or, it may replace the funeral altogether.

For example, many people choose to arrange a celebration of life following a direct cremation (as there’s no funeral service before the cremation).

This type of send-off allows family and friends to get-together in a casual setting, such as in someone’s garden or down the local pub, to talk openly about the life, personality and accomplishments of their loved one.

At a celebration of life ceremony you may have:

  • Bright colours and clothing
  • Music and dancing
  • Food and drink
  • Sharing of memories and photographs
  • Light-hearted speeches

You may also choose to scatter the ashes or plant a memorial tree at this time, depending on the location of the event.

For a slightly more formal ceremony, a humanist celebrant or religious officiant could be appointed, depending on your preference.

Themed funeral

Key takeaways:

  • Can be part of a non-religious funeral
  • Coffin, hearse, venue and music can be tailored to a particular theme and/or colour scheme
  • Guest dress code may be unusual

Themed funerals are certainly growing in popularity in the UK. There have been superhero themed funerals, Only Fools and Horses, Christmas and Star Wars themed funerals.

From the hearse to the flowers, every element of the funeral can be made bespoke. There’s really nothing off-limits, as long as the chosen theme reflects the personality of the person who’s passed, or held special meaning to them.

In 2019, lottery winner and transgender rights campaigner, Melissa Ede had a rainbow coloured themed funeral. Even the civil celebrant wore a rainbow suit.

A survey of Co-ops funeral directors has revealed that in the last 5 years, 15% of their funeral directors have arranged a super-hero themed funeral and 31% have tailored entire ceremonies around a deceased’s hobby, from football to ballroom dancing.

Direct cremation

Key takeaways:

  • An unattended cremation
  • There’s no funeral service at the crematorium beforehand
  • A separate celebration of life or memorial may be held afterwards
  • Simple and low-cost

A direct cremation is an unattended cremation that takes place without a funeral service beforehand. David Bowie, Anita Brookner and John Lennon opted for this type of send-off.

Whilst loved ones can’t attend the cremation, they can arrange a private memorial at another time and place that’s convenient for them. Perhaps this would be a celebration of life held at the location where the ashes are scattered.

In 2020, 14% of all funerals in the UK were direct cremation (up 10% from the year before).

Of course, Covid-19 had an impact on this number. However, even before the pandemic hit, this type of send-off was becoming a more popular alternative funeral choice because of its practicality and low-cost.

The average cost of a direct cremation is just £1,554, whereas a traditional funeral could set you back more than £4,000.

It’s also possible, but less common, to have a direct burial. Whilst the concept is the same as a direct cremation, it does require a little more planning and a burial plot must be purchased.

Do It Yourself (DIY) funeral

Key takeaways:

  • Family members arrange the funeral instead of a funeral director
  • Can include a religious or non-religious ceremony, led by family members
  • May be cheaper than having a traditional funeral

A DIY funeral is essentially a funeral arranged by family members instead of a funeral director.

A family may choose to have a DIY funeral because it saves money on funeral director fees, and/or because it feels like a more personal and memorable way to say goodbye.

Arrangements you’d need to consider for a DIY funeral:

  • Caring for the deceased at home
  • Transport
  • Buying a coffin or shroud
  • Booking the crematorium or cemetery
  • Arranging the funeral service (and decide who’s to lead)
  • Organise the wake (if having one)

For lots of people, taking on all the arrangements for a funeral may be too overwhelming, especially during an already difficult time.

As mentioned, the average basic funeral costs £4,184 in the UK, however, a DIY funeral could cut this cost in half.

For more information on how to arrange a funeral yourself, head to our DIY funeral guide.

Eco-friendly funeral (eco-burial)

Key takeaways:

  • A burial at a woodland or natural burial site
  • May include a religious or non-religious ceremony held outdoors or at a nearby venue
  • Coffin must be made from biodegradable materials
  • A natural memorial may be permitted
  • May work out cheaper than a traditional funeral service with burial

Environmentally friendly funerals are increasingly popular in the UK, as people become more concerned about their impact on the environment.

A natural or woodland burial is the most eco-friendly alternative to a traditional burial funeral.

There are 270 natural burial sites in the UK - you can find a list of these on the Natural Death Centre website.

The ceremony for this type of funeral may take place in an outdoor setting, close to where the body is laid to rest.

To protect the environment as much as possible, the coffin or shroud would need to be made from biodegradable materials such as bamboo, cardboard or wool. Although, some other more unusual options are available.

For example, in 2019, late actor Luke Perry was buried in a shroud made completely from mushrooms.

Whilst an eco-friendly funeral could work out cheaper than a traditional funeral service and burial, you’d still have to purchase a burial plot which could cost a few thousand pounds depending on the location.

We have written a comprehensive article on the pros and cons of woodland funerals if your need more information on eco options »

Sea burial

Key takeaways:

  • Permitted in 3 offshore locations (5 including those in Scotland)
  • Requires a self-service marine license from the MMO
  • Can include a ceremony on board the boat
  • The coffin must meet specific requirements
  • Similar cost to a traditional funeral

Burial at sea is possible for anyone, not just for those who served in the navy.

However, it’s a little more difficult to arrange a sea burial than other types of burial because there are specific rules and regulations.

Firstly, you must apply for a self-service marine license from the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) which costs £50.

You’d also need to hire a boat and crew, find a funeral director that’s experienced in organising sea burial and purchase a suitable coffin.

There are only three locations off the coast of England and Wales where it can take place. These are:

  • The Needles, Isle of Wight
  • Between Hastings and Newhaven
  • Tynemouth, North Tyneside

Companies such as Burials at Sea based on the Isle of Wight can provide all the services you need and can help you with all the arrangements for the funeral.

Sea burials aren’t very common at all and are more likely to take place if someone specifically requested it before they died.

Prepaid funeral plans (get the funeral you want)

A prepaid funeral plan is a sensible way of ensuring that your final wishes will be met when the time comes and that your funeral costs are covered ahead of time.

It also allows you to avoid rising funeral costs by freezing today’s prices, potentially saving your loved ones thousands in the future.

Reassured can help you arrange a funeral plan for a cremation or burial, with a humanist or celebration of life service.

Whether you choose an extravagant final farewell or opt for something simple, with a prepaid plan in place you can have peace of mind that your loved ones are protected from the stressful task of making all the arrangements themselves.

You can pay for a funeral plan in full from £3,020 or in monthly payments from just £19.11* a month.

To compare different funeral plan options, make the most of our FEE-FREE, FCA-regulated broker service today.

Sources:

*£19.11 per month pricing includes a £75 discount only available to Co-operative members and is based on a 50-year-old purchasing a Co-operative Simple Funeral Plan at £3,020 over the maximum term available of 25 years (total amount repayable £5,733.40) as of 1st March 2021

[1] SunLife (2021), Cost of Dying Report, sunlife.co.uk/costofdying2021

[2] https://www.coop.co.uk/funeralcare/funeral-trends

[3] https://www.legacy.com/advice/top-funeral-songs/#alternative-funeral-songs

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