Death and taxes may be the two inevitable things in life, but increasingly the former is now celebrated rather than mourned. More and more loved ones are holding celebrations of life instead of traditional funerals. Why?

While traditional funerals mark the passing of the deceased from the world of the living to the world of the dead, the celebration of life offers the bereaved a chance to rejoice in the past – in the happy memories of the departed’s successes, relationships, and the things that they loved, from music, film, sports, books and more. The tone of these events is joyous rather than sombre, and guests are invited to celebrate rather than mourn. The tradition of wearing black is often frowned upon, and guests are more likely to hear Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” (the most popular song played at UK funerals, according to a 2014 survey) rather than Verdi’s “Requiem”.

The Shift to Positive Celebrations

This shift to positive celebrations instead of sober funerals is becoming more pronounced in recent years. An ICM survey of 2,000 people revealed that 54% wanted their funeral to be a “celebration of life”, with 48% stating that they wanted their funeral to include or pay homage to their favourite “hobby, colour, football team or music”. Today, nearly 75% of UK funerals end at crematoriums, almost all of which are now equipped with audio visual systems that can play video clips and/or the chosen music of the deceased.
For those who wish to arrange a celebration of life, thousands of web pages are available to provide suggestions and help plan the arrangements. These ceremonies can be tailored in every way with mementoes and rituals specific to the departed. The funeral industry has likewise expanded their offerings to keep up with demand.

Celebrities have paved the way for these new celebrations of life. Much-loved actress Lynda Bellingham’s funeral was described by one paper as “all-singing, all-dancing knees-up”, while Svengali Malcolm McLaren of the Sex Pistols was transported by hearse through north London, accompanied by an exuberant crowd who sang along to Sid Vicious’s rendition of “My Way”. In America, Joan Rivers’ funeral began with a performance by the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus of Broadway show tunes.

Indeed, in the United States, vibrant ceremonies of life have been well established, not only by celebrities but by the general public. Some members of the baby boomer generation began planning their own joyous or unusual send-offs well back in the 1970s. Perhaps this is more understandable in a nation with an expansive new-age movement, a strong tradition within the south of cheerful New Orleans jazz funerals and a large Hispanic population that brings their celebration of the Mexican Day of the Dead. However, in the UK, the traditional funeral has remained strong until recent years.

The Somber Ritual

Many still prefer the somber ritual of a traditional, church-based funeral, or even a secular service that features the same mournful traditions. Yet increasingly, death is seen as the final occasion to let one’s personality shine.

Malcolm Brocklehurst, a retired aircraft engineer living in Cleveleys, Lancashire, is now 81 years old. He’s planned his own funeral down to the tiniest detail, and it’s one that captures his unique personality – indeed, he’s already staged a dress rehearsal. After he dies, his body will be transported to Bloomfield Park, home of the Blackpool Football Club. His coffin has already been built, and is shaped like aeroplane and painted tangerine orange to match Blackpool’s home strip, which he will also be wearing.

Once the aeroplane-shaped coffin has been brought to Blackpool Crematorium, guests will listen to tributes to Brocklehurst before they will be invited to “spin my propeller to fly me to the moon”, as he describes it. Most of all, what Brocklehurst doesn’t want is tears. He says the idea is to rejoice in his life as he lived it, not to dwell on his passing. “I don’t want them mourning”, he says. “I want them laughing.”

A Radical Departure from the Traditional Death Rituals

The idea of laughing, rather than crying, one’s way through a funeral is a radical departure from the traditional death rituals that have until recent years been ubiquitous across the UK. Eulogies held in traditional Christian funerals have focused on the future for the dead and the promise of everlasting life with God. One of the most frequently read lines from the Book of Common Prayer states, “He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.” Catholics and other Christians pray for the immortal soul of the deceased.

For traditionalists who favour the sombre funeral, celebrations of life miss the point. Alexander Lucie-Smith, Catholic priest, doctor of moral theology and a consulting editor for the Catholic Herald, states that the backward-looking nature of celebrations of life, and their focusing on happy memories rather than grieving the sense of loss that is nevertheless profound for the departed’s loved ones, is indicative of modern society’s inability to deal with grief. He believes these happy, tailor-made ceremonies do not well serve the deceased. “If you airbrush out the fact we are all sinners, you flatten out the funeral,” he states. “It becomes insipid.”

However, the increasing numbers of secularists and the decreasing numbers of those who believe in the immortal soul would indicate that new ways of remembering the dead, that extend beyond the traditional church funeral would be required. Every year the number of secular funerals increases, with 12% of all funerals being non-religious in 2011. The increasing costs of dying – with the cost of funerals averaging around £3,500 and estate administration fees averaging an estimated £4,000 – also make it understandable that the bereaved would like a personalised service for their money.

Bespoke Ceremonies that are Tailored to Our Lives

The British public’s stiff upper lip has also fallen by the wayside when it comes to displays of grief, with Princess Diana’s funeral being cited as the watershed moment. Never before had the British people banded together to mourn so visibly.

Perhaps this is why we’ve grown to feel more comfortable with breaking away with tradition, and to demand – and even take it upon ourselves to create – bespoke ceremonies that are tailored to our life, our relationships and our interests. Ultimately, whether we choose a traditional funeral or a unique celebration of life, the important component that is central to all ceremonies is our chance to honour the dead in keeping with their wishes in and a way that allows us to mourn their death – or embrace their life.