Alternative and non-traditional funeral ideas

Alternative funeral services are more common than ever in the UK.

In fact, most funerals are described as non-traditional or non-religious, as people choose more unique and less formal ways of saying a final goodbye[1].

For many, arranging a funeral service that doesn’t follow tradition or have religious undertones is a better way to pay tribute to the life and personality of a loved one.

In this guide, we look at 7 alternative funeral ideas to help you understand more about the different options available, as well as provide tips on various ways you can personalise a send-off.

  1. Celebration of life »
  2. Humanist funeral (or atheist funeral) »
  3. Themed funeral »
  4. Direct cremation (or direct burial) »
  5. Do It Yourself (DIY) funeral »
  6. Eco-friendly funeral (eco-burial) »
  7. Sea burial »

Help your loved ones arrange your alternative funeral

If you’d like something unusual or elaborate for your own send-off when the time comes, then you may consider taking out an over 50s plan to help your loved ones cover the cost.

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  • Pay out up to £20,000 to help towards your funeral (amount depending on your age, smoking status & budget)
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What’s an alternative funeral in the UK?

In the UK, an alternative funeral is any type of send-off that isn’t entirely traditional.

It could be a funeral that’s more personalised, or it could be a funeral that’s completely different to the norm, such as an eco-friendly burial.

Most alternative or non-traditional funeral services are described as a celebration of life. This is where the ceremony focusses more on the individual life of the person who’s passed, rather than religious aspects.

It’s also very common these days for mourners to wear colourful clothing, upbeat music to be played instead of hymns, and for there to be light-hearted readings or speeches from loved ones instead of Bible readings.

These details can help to create an alternative funeral service for a loved one that truly symbolises their unique life and personality.

There are no rules or obligations when arranging a funeral, and there are plenty of alternative options to choose from.

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According to Uswitch, it’s estimated that 23,000 people in the UK will still be paying off their mortgage by age 75.

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SunLife’s Cost of Dying 2023 report found that the average cost of a basic funeral is £3,953, with the overall cost of dying totalling £9,200.

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Ways to personalise an alternative funeral

An unconventional send-off can be tailored to suit your needs and honour the life of a loved one in the best way possible.

You can choose non-traditional funeral alternatives to personalise the service and celebrate the person’s individuality

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:

  • Rolls-Royce
  • 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 some of the different types of alternative funerals in the UK…

1. Celebration of life

Key takeaways:

  • A ceremony that celebrates a person’s life
  • Can be held separately to the cremation or burial service
  • Led by a humanist celebrant, friend or family members
  • No restrictions as to when or where it can take place

According to the Cost of Dying report, half of all funeral services in the UK are described as a celebration of life. This type of ceremony has a more celebratory tone compared to a traditional or religious ceremony and it can be held in a less formal setting.

Many people like the idea of family and friends getting together to commemorate their life and have a good party, instead of attending a formal service. Especially if they’ve led a happy and healthy life.

Most alternative funerals incorporate a celebration of life element, but a celebration of life service (or memorial) is slightly different as it may not follow any traditional format at all.

For example, many people choose to arrange a celebration of life following a direct cremation (as this type of funeral doesn’t usually include a ceremony beforehand).

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

For a slightly more formal ceremony, you could appoint a humanist celebrant or religious officiant to conduct this, depending on your preference.

2. Humanist funeral (or atheist funeral)

Key takeaways:

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

A humanist or atheist funeral is simply a non-religious funeral.

This type of ceremony is typically led by a humanist celebrant, or even a close friend or family member, instead of a priest or vicar.

This means it doesn’t include religious readings or hymns and doesn’t refer to the bible or a particular faith.

A humanist funeral service could have a set format like a traditional funeral, but it’ll have more focus on celebrating the life of the person who’s passed, with non-religious eulogies, readings personalised tributes.

It can take place at a crematorium, cemetery chapel or burial site depending on whether it’s a cremation or burial. Although there’s often no restrictions as to where you can have a humanist or atheist funeral service.

There’s an online directory to help you find a local humanist celebrant if this is the type of ceremony you’d like to have.

3. Themed funeral

Key takeaways:

  • Can be part of a non-religious funeral
  • Coffin, hearse, venue and music can be tailored to a particular theme
  • 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[4].

4. Direct cremation

Key takeways:

  • An unattended cremation with no funeral service
  • A memorial could be held separately at a time and place to suit loved ones
  • Can be simple and low-cost

A direct cremation is an unattended cremation that takes place without a funeral service beforehand. Loved ones don’t usually attend the cremation, but you could arrange a separate memorial at another time and place to pay your respects.

For example, this could be a celebration of life service or ceremony held at the location where the ashes are scattered.

In 2023, 20% of all funerals in the UK were described as direct cremation[1].

Popularity and awareness of direct cremations have risen exponentially since the Covid-19 pandemic, when social distancing rules affected traditional funeral services.

However, even before the pandemic, 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 £1,498, 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.

5. 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.

You may choose to have a DIY funeral as it could help save money, and/or because it feels like a more personal and meaningful way to say goodbye to a loved one.

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

  • Caring for the deceased at home
  • Transport to the crematorium or burial site
  • Buying a coffin or shroud
  • Booking the crematorium or cemetery
  • Complete the legal paperwork
  • 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 can be overwhelming, especially during an already difficult time. Although, for some people, it could be an important part of the grieving process.

For more information on how to arrange a funeral yourself, the Good Funeral Guide has this complete step by step guide to DIY funerals.

6. 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
  • Could be 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.

7. 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’re only three locations off the coast of England and Wales where a sea burial 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.

Changing funeral trends

Funerals in the future may be very different to those in the past as UK funeral trends and attitudes are changing.

According to the SunLife Cost of Dying Report 2024, key trends observed in 2023 included:

  • More celebration of life ceremonies
  • Fewer traditional religious funerals
  • Increase in personalisation and special requests
  • Mourners wearing more colourful clothing
  • Use of social media for funeral invitations
  • More people streaming a service online
  • Personalised and unique coffins
  • Changes to the type of music and readings

In recent years, people prefer to add or express individuality when arranging a final farewell. This means UK funeral directors are used to receiving unusual send-off requests, as well as modifying their services to suit individual demands.

For example, in one case an American rig lorry has replaced the traditional black hearse, and a funeral director has dressed up as Darth Vader for a Star Wars themed funeral[2].

Help pay for your funeral [Compare over 50s life insurance]

Hopefully this alternative funerals UK guide has provided some non-traditional funeral ideas for you to consider and helped raise the discussion with loved ones.

If you’re thinking about your own send-off and have an idea of how you’d like to be celebrated when you pass away, you may consider over 50s life insurance.

Over 50s life insurance is a simple and low-cost way to leave some money behind for loved ones so they have a helping hand towards your funeral costs.

Through Reassured, you could secure up to £20,000 of cover depending on your age, smoking status and budget. There’s also guaranteed acceptance if you’re a UK resident aged 50 - 85.

We offer free, no-obligation quotes for top UK over 50s life insurance policies. Premiums start from just £5 a month.

Sources:

[1] https://www.sunlife.co.uk/funeral-costs/

[2] https://www.sunlife.co.uk/articles-guides/funeral-planning/weird-and-wonderful-funeral-requests/

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

[4]https://assets.ctfassets.net/iqbixcpmwym2/5v6n2gA1yGR5BCDRJ4kNKu/93696c8e8e2f9e260795c941fa96c6c9/3876_1_Funeralcare_Media_pack_artwork_SML_v4.pdf

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