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‘False divide’ between religious and secular funerals to be studied

04 February 2022

Researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London, begin two-year project


A NEW study of the growing popularity of independent funeral celebrants will challenge the “false divide” between religious and secular funerals, it was announced this month.

The two-year project will be led by Dr Naomi Thompson, a lecturer in youth and community work at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Professor Chris Baker, the William Temple Professor of Religion and Public Life at Goldsmiths, and Director of the William Temple Foundation. They will work alongside an independent celebrant, Stephen Cheal.

This week, Dr Thompson said that the study would provide “some clear points of reflection for churches around how people are wanting to engage with religion and spirituality in funerals and what that means for how the Church might reconnect with the large proportion of the population who opt for celebrant-led funerals, rather than assuming their choice is for a non-religious or secular funeral.”

The first civil funeral ceremonies took place in the UK in 2002. Noting that “the majority of funerals in the UK are now undertaken by independent celebrants rather than by clergy”, the Goldsmiths team observes that “there is no consensus on what constitutes a civil ceremony, and no legal requirement as to how religious or secular a funeral ceremony should be.” In this, funerals differ from civil marriage ceremonies, which are not permitted to have any religious content.

Statistics for Mission, published by Church House for 2019 (before the Covid-19 pandemic), reports that C of E parishes were responsible for funerals for 37 per cent of deaths in 2009. The figure had fallen to 23 per cent in 2019.

The Goldsmiths team’s contention is that “an artificial divide has been created between secular and religious ceremonies: what a large section of the population wants and chooses for their own funeral or that of loved ones is often neither entirely religious nor entirely secular, but a blend of the two.” The study will “challenge narratives about secularisation in the UK and the supposed decline of religion in end-of-life rituals”.

Dr Thompson said that one aim was to help families to understand what was “allowed” or possible.

This week, Jeremy Pemberton, a former C of E hospital chaplain who worked for five years as an independent celebrant until last year, said that more than half (56 per cent) of the funerals that he took included some form of religious content.

“One of the things I would emphasise to all the families I met was that they are in control of the process, and that I am there as the servant of their wishes,” he said. “I have to say that I was scrupulously neutral when asking people if they wanted any religious content. So they got no encouragement from me to include religious elements.”

He recalled: “At the very minimum, the religious content would be a moment at the committal to commend the person silently into God’s care and then to say together the Lord’s Prayer. . . Other things might be a prayer about the person composed by me, readings from the Bible, hymns, religious songs on their funeral playlist.”

Some people included such content “because they felt that other people coming to the funeral might not think it was a proper funeral without it”, he said. “Some wanted it because the deceased would have liked it. Some did it because they shared that interesting British ancestor worship which thinks that people go to join a version of the family sitting room somewhere in the sky — and I am not being disparaging about that, simply trying to describe what I observed.

“And some people wanted it because they had a vague spiritual sense that needed satisfying, and to have someone pray for someone else was, in those circumstances, the appropriate thing to do in their estimation.”

He had a word of caution for the Goldsmiths researchers: “I am not clear that religiousness around funerals — of which there is more than the decline in church funerals might suggest — maps at all on to people’s own religious affiliations, however loose. I am rather inclined to treat funerals as a special case, but that needs more thinking about, and I may be quite wrong.”

The new study has been funded by the Sir Halley Stewart Trust and the William Temple Foundation. The team will be working with the diocese of London as well as with bodies representing funeral directors and professional celebrants. The project will include a “content analysis” of 1000 funerals, and interviews with those in the industry. It will also look at the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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