Death, Bodies and Changing Attitudes to Funerals Debated

A wide-ranging conference highlighting rapidly changing attitudes to death, bodies and ashes was held last month at the National Memorial Arboretum, in Staffordshire. It was attended by 130 delegates, including clergy, celebrants and other funeral professionals.

Organised by the Church of England Life Events team, which supports and promotes the church’s ministry around birth, death and marriage, the conference ‘Just put me in the bin’; contemporary issues around ashes and bodies, addressed the cultural changes surrounding death and bereavement that will challenge all involved with death and funerals in the coming years.

Head of Life Events, the Revd Sandra Millar said: “Death is the ultimate life event for us all. We might hear people being dismissive about their farewell moment and even jest by saying ‘just put me in the bin’, but the fact is that their body and how it is treated after death matters a great deal, especially to grieving family and friends.

“The funerals industry is already reflecting some big changes in attitudes to death and memorialisation. It’s really important for church ministers to be aware of the changes and the challenges, and be ready to respond.”

Professor Douglas Davies, Director of the Centre for Death and Life Studies at the University of Durham has supported the work of Church of England Funerals since 2013. At the conference, he brought an insight into how the complexity of being human, with emotions, a sense of self, relationships with others, symbols and ritual, all impact on the way people view ashes and what is done with them.

He said: “Contemporary innovations, commercially-framed options and greater choice around funerals and memorialisation are challenges for the church, but it’s also a moment to creatively engage with research, to think and act liturgically and theologically, in the context of the personal desires of ordinary people.”

Church of England vicar the Revd Jeremy Brooks, who is part of the Life Events advisory team on funerals, agreed that liturgy around ashes could be an area for further exploration, as well as existing legal restrictions on splitting ashes.

“Many people are finding their own ritual and meaning around ashes, or do nothing with them at all. But we’re here for families long after a funeral – this is a moment to be available, to give meaning, to engage. And with society being so mobile, sacred space to reflect and remember, wherever people are, is an emerging need. There’s so much for us to take away from this event,” he said.

Head of Ceremonies at Humanists UK, Isabel Russo, said she was delighted to have been asked to speak at the conference and that connecting with people in a like-minded way to share experiences of supporting grieving families was helpful to all.

She said: “The need to ritualise is growing and becoming more complex, and changes which have already happened over the last few decades have brought us more permissive legislation. Despite being on this journey of change, those who work right across the funerals industry still have many shared objectives and the Church of England conference has been positive about that – it’s been a wonderful departure from being in our silos.”

Another emerging trend is growth in cremation arrangements that don’t include any ceremony, though some families may choose to have a form of memorial ceremony later on.

Catherine Powell, founder of Pure Cremation, the UK’s only dedicated direct cremation provider, spoke at the conference about how people are making increasingly personal choices, and as a consequence, available options were widening further.

She said: “The reception at this conference has been excellent – it’s been outward-looking and curious, with a desire to address the real needs that people have at the time someone dies. It’s wise to be clear about what is happening ‘out there’ and why. It’s been great to contribute, and I hope we can continue to talk and share so that we can all better support families in their farewells.”

Scattering Ashes founder, Richard Martin, agreed: “The conference gives us all another worldview. People have a need to reflect the life of their loved one in a personal way and to memorialise with something permanent. Options for how to do that is widening and it’s important for us all to know why people make those choices.”