What is an Alternative Funeral?

Alternative funerals have been around for far longer than many are aware of, but what is an alternative funeral and what happens differently than in a traditional funeral?

Before this can be explored, a knowledge of what is deemed to be a tradition funeral is required. The definition of traditional is something carried out in a conventional manner; a habitual following or something of its time. Funerals as many know them today are still based on the Victorian funeral.

The Victorian Traditional Funeral

The funeral industry is steeped in Victorian traditions. The clothing a funeral director wears is very similar to clothing worn by Victorian undertakers.  In the Victorian era funerals were religious events resulting in the burial of the coffin in a churchyard or hallowed ground, with the service led by the parish Priest or local religious leader. Mourners was the given term to those attending as belief was the purpose was to mourn the death of the deceased in a sombre and religious way.

Religion not Comfort

The service was full of biblical or religious texts, psalms, hymns, and allegorical preaching to those present in the hope of preventing their souls in being condemned for eternity.

Comforting words were scarce and centred on a belief that the person had been taken by God to enter Heaven (if they were a law abiding and respectful person). Language was of its time.

Funeral Colours

Black was and is still the colour most associated with death and mourning in the UK for those from a Christian belief. Purple became associated with funerals for rich and wealthy people as purple cloth was expensive due to the correct colour mixing in the manufacturing process. Purple became associated with royalty, dignity and opulence and a black horse drawn carriage with purple plume wearing horses and fancy curtains showed to passers by the occupant was a well to do person.

When cremation became a funeral choice in 1885 (see here for further information on cremation), this was an alternative to a traditional burial. Funeral services were still mostly religious. Cremations would become the preferred choice over burial for many people.

Floral Tributes

Floral tributes have always been expensive, and many also had religious symbolism. Florists would ask if a floral tribute was to be for a burial or a cremation and ribbons decorating them would be purple for burials, yellow for cremations.

Cushions, hearts, ‘Gates of Heaven’, names and titles such as ‘Dad’, wreaths, books (to represent the Bible), praying hands and coffin sprays which cover most of the coffin were commonly seen. Many of these are still seen today.

The Traditional Funeral

A black shiny hearse containing a coffin and floral tributes, a funeral director dressed in black with a Victorian hat, gloves and sometimes a walking cane, attendees dressed in black, a funeral ceremony, hymns are heard and sang by mourners, a cremation or burial and what is incorrectly called ‘the wake’ are all things associated with a traditional funeral. When we talk about a traditional funeral, do we mean traditional as in the above, or traditional as in Victorian steeped in religion?

This kind of funeral didn’t suit many people who wanted a funeral ceremony which fitted their lifestyle and lack of Christian belief. This was the start of the alternative funeral.

The Alternative Funeral

The most important thing about alternative funerals is they do not follow any recognised or required agenda. Alternative funerals can be burials, cremations, or natural burials. Language changes to be more personal and respectful. Music heard during the ceremony is not always hymns, mostly they are songs from the person’s favourite artists, bands, films or tv programmes. 

Willow, bamboo, banana leaf, wool, felt, organic cotton, cardboard and other natural material coffins and shrouds, not just wood are chosen at alternative funerals. What makes a funeral alternative is the ceremony content as well as the aesthetics.

Image from Louisa Starr Funeral Celebrant Yorkshire

Celebrations of Life

Known as Celebrations of Life rather than funerals, the life story of the person who has died is told by a celebrant rather than a religious leader. Family members are asked by the celebrant for memories and stories about their person. Things they achieved, people who love them, music they liked, subjects of interest to them and much more are heard about during the ceremony not service. We refer to it as a ceremony as it is a ceremony. Created individually for each person. Services are associated with religious gatherings.

At Choice Celebrant Training we train our funeral celebrants to refrain from using outdated words and names. During a celebration we have guests and attendees, and the ceremony is for the name of the person who is referred to as ‘the person who has died’ not ‘the deceased’. Those present are mourning their death but are also celebrating their life.

Religion in Alternative Funerals

Religion doesn’t come as standard in alternative funerals. Not everyone wants a funeral service based on religion.  Many choose to include no religion at all, some like a small part, some prefer spirituality.

Alternative Funerals Can be Colourful

Black is still worn at alternative funerals, but so are other colours too. If it is a natural or woodland burial, green and brighter colours are worn and seen. Coffins can be printed with favoured images, characters, products, film scenes, photographs and more.

Flowers at Alternative Funerals

Floral tributes are themed to important things in the person’s life. Many attendees leave a single flower or a handpicked bunch from a garden rather than expensive floral tributes. It is a more personal and cost effective form of floral gift.

Subculture Alternative Funerals

Alternative has different meanings for different people. Alternative is something different to what is considered the average normal, but normal varies from person to person. 

For these people, an alternative funeral is one which pays tribute to the lifestyle. Those in subcultures such as Goth, Steampunk, Mod, Punk, Rockabilly, and others are seen as being alternative people, and their funerals will all differ from person to person. These are a different category of an alternative funeral.

What are Your Funeral Choices?

There has always been a taboo attached to talking about death, but we need to remove that taboo and talk. As the late Jon Underwood, Founder of Death Café said:

‘Just as talking about sex won’t make you pregnant, talking about death won’t make you dead’.

When we talk to our partners, children, families, and friends about our funeral choices, we can not only inform them of the type of funeral and end method we want, we are also taking the pressure away from them enabling them to grieve.

Is a traditional funeral or an alternative funeral your choice? Do you want the Lord’s Prayer said or much prefer a lighthearted poem? Do you want your wooden floral arrangement topped coffin to enter to a hymn, or would you rather arrive in a willow coffin with a single red rose from your garden from each family member on top to the sound of your favourite song?

Would you like the service to include religious belief which you may not hold too strongly, or do you want those in attendance to smile at a humorous story after which they say to each other ‘I remember that time’.

If you prefer the second options, you favour what is currently referred to as an alternative funeral.

The Future

Why do we have to label a funeral? In the future we can hope the words ‘traditional’ and ‘alternative’ are dropped and both become known as The Funeral of… or a Celebration of Life for… There isn’t any need to categorise a funeral by it’s content.