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Don’t bother with a funeral for me, say majority of poll respondents

28 November 2023

‘Significant pastoral gap’ is highlighted by Theos survey

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FEWER than half (47 per cent) of the respondents in a new poll say that they would like a funeral.

The survey of 2569 was commissioned by the think tank Theos and carried out by YouGov in July. The authors of Theos’s report on the polling, Love, Grief, and Hope: Emotional responses to death and dying in the UK, Madeleine Pennington and Nathan Mladin, speak of a “significant realignment in British grieving practices”. They warn of the potential for a “significant pastoral gap left in the wake of a decline in formal funeral ceremonies”, and that funerals could become a “luxury or niche requirement for a few” (Comment, 17 November).

In total, 24 per cent of the respondents said that they did not want a funeral, while 28 per cent were not sure or did not know. Financial factors influenced the responses: 13 per cent or the respondents who did not want a funeral said that this was because they did not have enough money saved.

The commonest response was: “I think the money could be better spent another way” (67 per cent), followed by “I don’t see the point” (55 per cent) and “I don’t want a traditional service” (43 per cent).

The report refers to an “active decision being made among relatively older citizens”, noting that 32 per cent of those aged 55 and above did not want a funeral. Frequent worshippers were much more likely to want a funeral: 76 per cent, compared with 38 per cent of those who never attended worship.

The poll also explored respondents’ views on the purpose and content of funerals. The most popular response, among religious respondents and others, was “to celebrate the life of the deceased”. Pastoral options were the next most popular (including “providing a space for mourning together”). Explicitly religious purposes were the least popular options: only ten per cent selected “To send someone to the next life.”

When presented with a list setting out optional content of the funeral, the most popular choices were stories and tributes (52 per cent) and popular songs (46 per cent). Prayers were chosen by 19 per cent, religious readings by 12 per cent, and a talk by a religious leader 11 per cent.

Respondents were asked about their experiences of witnessing death and their feelings about their own death. One quarter reported thinking about their own death at least once a week, while one in ten said they never thought about it.

Frequent worshippers were less likely to feel fear or sadness when thinking about their own death than those who attended worship infrequently or not at all, even taking into account the higher age profile of religious people.

Nearly half (46 per cent) of those who frequently attended worship and were aged 55 or above felt hopeful when considering their own death, compared with 12 per cent of those who did not attend. Just six per cent of respondents were afraid of spiritual judgement. The report concludeS: “More than either judgement or oblivion, we are concerned about separation from those we love.”

When asked from whom they would seek support during a bereavement, 38 per cent of frequent worshippers listed a faith leader, compared with one per cent of those who never attended.

Nevertheless, the report concludes: “The Church has honed compassionate skills in walking with people at the end of their lives, and cares for those who mourn. Now we must re-open conversations, name death, and think about how this compassionate caring can be reshaped for this new world. Our love in Christ for those in grief is surely more urgent than ever.”

It also celebrates the part that church buildings can play. Polling commissioned by the National Churches Trust in May 2020, near the start of the pandemic, asked what the public felt the most important use for churches and chapels would be after lockdown was eased. The most popular response was that they would provide a place to remember those who had died during the pandemic (46 per cent).

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