What happens when the lights go out? If your answer is “nothing, nada, zilch”, then you probably want a non-religious or humanist funeral.
According to the British Social Attitudes survey for 2019, 52% of people describe themselves as not religious. Interestingly, 66% of respondents said they don’t attend religious services except for hatches, matches, and dispatches. So why are religious funerals still seen as the norm?
Whether planning a non-religious funeral for yourself, or you have the responsibility of loved one's send-off, we've got everything you need. We're going to cover:
- What goes into arranging a non-religious funeral.
- How to set up a funeral plan for a non-religious funeral.
- General costs of a non-religious or humanist funeral.
- Words you can consider saying at a non-religious funeral.
What is a non-religious or humanist funeral?
People reject or never take up religion for all sorts of reasons. Your grandma probably told you never to talk about religion or politics with your friends. Still, it’s vital those you’ll leave behind know if you want a god or gods at your last hurrah.
As an atheist or agnostic, you don’t have to have bible readings, hymns, or prayers at your funeral. It’s fine to want a humanist service. You’ve got to trust that your family and friends will respect this. You can’t guarantee what happens at your funeral, but you can lay out your wishes. We’ll cover a non-religious funeral plan in a moment.
You need to consider some key elements when organising a funeral with no religious references. Here are the main ones you should be thinking about.
Finding a celebrant or officiant
Funerals aren’t prescribed in law at all, unlike weddings, so pretty much anyone can run or host a funeral. Some people work as celebrants and are well-practised when it comes to helping plan the memorial, finding readings, and liaising with the right people.
You can take a recommendation by word of mouth or find a celebrant online. Alternatively, a friend or family member might be well suited to run a funeral service. There are no hard and fast rules.
Venues for non-religious funerals
In theory, you can hold a funeral service anywhere. Practically, you need permission from any venue if you’re going to have a ceremony and have a coffin on site. You shouldn’t be too constricted, though. You can have a funeral at:
- The home of the deceased or any other house.
- A local community centre.
- The stadium of the dead person’s football or rugby team.
- A hotel or restaurant function room.
You can also keep it simple and hold it at the crematorium if that’s the funeral you’re going for.
Non-religious burials and cremations
When it comes to burials, there are two options for non-religious interment.
- Burial in a municipal or non-church cemetery.
- Burial in a natural or woodland cemetery.
Natural burial grounds have different rules. You should check with each burial site for issues such as:
- Embalming – some don’t allow it because of the chemicals used.
- Coffin material – it may need to be untreated wood or cardboard only.
- Trinkets – archaeologists will call them “grave goods” in a few hundred years, but natural burial sites may not allow them.
It’s best to contact each burial ground separately to check their rules. There can even be restrictions on the flowers allowed at the funeral. If you can get a spot in a cemetery – they’re pretty rare now – you’ll also have rules to follow, but they’ll likely be less restrictive.
Cremations without a religious element are entirely possible. Most crematoria are set up to be non-denominational anyway.
Can I have a non-religious pre-paid funeral plan?
If you’re a planner and want to have your funeral listed out blow-by-blow, you can sit down with a funeral director and set out your wishes. A pre-paid funeral plan will pay for most elements of your final goodbye.
Funeral directors and companies that offer pre-paid funeral will be well-versed in putting together non-religious funerals. They’ll know where your local natural burial grounds are and if there are any traditional cemetery spots available in the area, too.
It’s worth noting your funeral plan isn’t legally binding. This means that your chosen burial ground could be changed, your coffin upgraded, and even your chosen location switched out. Don’t plan your funeral in isolation, make sure people you trust know what you want.
How much does a non-religious funeral cost?
In general, a humanist or non-religious funeral is cheaper than one that requires, churches or temples, and ministers. For example, fees for a funeral celebrant are usually less expensive than a minister; expect to pay £150-£300.
Other costs such as your coffin, limousines, access to your body at rest, and cremation fees won’t change when you take religion out of the picture.
Burial plots in natural or woodland cemeteries can be much cheaper than traditional ones. A grave can cost around £500-800, compared to £1,000 or more for a local council grave.
Pre-paid funeral plans will cost the same, whether you have a religious or humanist funeral. This is because you’re paying for the big stuff like coffins and cars, which you’re going to need whatever you did or didn’t believe in.
What can I say at a non-religious funeral?
As long as you don’t disrespect the memory of the dead person, pretty much anything goes. There are lots of opportunities for people to speak at a humanist funeral – if you want to speak, then discuss it with the people making the arrangements or the celebrant.
To make a eulogy, you speak about your memories, thoughts, and feelings about the person who’s gone. Poetry works well at funerals. For something without religious meaning, consider:
- Don’t go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas.
- Stop the Clocks by WH Auden.
- Because I could not stop for Death by Emily Dickinson.
Christopher Doggett, Managing Director at The Natural Burial Company, told Pension Times: "Personalisation of funerals is becoming increasingly popular as people look for a fitting send-off. Music can be played with tributes and readings, what works for you is what matters. At many burial grounds, a picnic can be hosted around the grave, possibly with a toast of a favourite tipple."
Atheists and people who aren’t religious can have a non-religious or humanist funeral. You can plan a funeral without religion just like any other, with a pre-paid scheme or as the person left behind. Non-religious funerals are becoming more popular, and most funeral directors will be able to give you a range of options.