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  • Debbie Ducille

Theos research into funerals

No funeral for me, thank you. New Theos research shows changes in the national psyche leading to fewer people wanting a funeral when they die.


Did you see Stacey Dooley’s recent BBC documentary Inside the Undertakers? She was honest enough to admit that she struggles to think about death and so immersed herself in the work of a busy undertakers over several days.


It turns out Stacey is not alone in feeling this way. A recent Theos report, based on a survey of 2,569 people, uncovered some alarming realities about how we in Britain see death and dying. The report is entitled ‘Love, Grief and Hope: Emotional responses to death and dying in the UK’, and is written by Madeleine Pennington and Nathan Mladin, with a foreword by Archbishop Justin Welby. You can download the report here. It builds on the Theos report from April 2023, ‘Ashes to Ashes: Beliefs, trends and practices in dying, death and the afterlife’.


In an increasingly secular society, few turn to the church to navigate death, but unlike our predecessors, we are shielded from seeing death and are fearful of it. Even among respondents aged 55 and over, 98% had lost a loved one, but only 46% had witnessed the end of life first-hand. Unsurprisingly, 46% of frequent religious attendees felt hopeful when considering their own death, compared with 12% of non-attendees. Fewer than half felt prepared for death, but feeling prepared was linked to acceptance.


A shocking finding of the survey was that less than half of respondents (47%) said they wanted a funeral (self-identified religious respondents were much more likely to say they did). Those who did not want a funeral cited not seeing the point of it or there being better ways to spend the money. Though asked what might be the benefits, respondents talked about celebrating the person who had died and helping those who are bereaved.


The Theos findings about this declining desire to have an attended funeral were explored at a webinar in November attended by Anna Chaplains in Rochester Diocese which explored the growth in direct cremations. Terry Tennes is a funeral director, Baptist minister and chief executive of the Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors (SAIF). Terry explained to participants that Covid has sparked an increase in requests for direct cremations, which currently make up around 14% of funerals.


He spoke about the extensive marketing of direct cremations by larger companies (also described in the Theos research), which fails to address the impact on mourners of unattended funerals. Terry also sensed families are unaware of what happens to the deceased’s body when handled by national carriers, and some might be shocked by how this compares with the respectful treatment by professional undertakers.


Terry claimed that this is a season to educate and inform people, and churches can play a part in engaging people in conversations about the role of funerals in allowing those left behind to express their grief. As many discovered during the pandemic, the absence of rituals around mourning left complexity in working through the feelings associated with grief. Plans made during Covid to follow up small-scale funerals with a fuller celebration of the person’s life have rarely come to fruition.

Chaplains and ministers, Terry explained, have a part to play in allowing these rites of passage even when the deceased has requested an unattended funeral. SAIF has a toolkit to encourage conversations about the impact of unattended funerals, which includes the poster ‘Let’s talk about direct cremation’.


A sad reality is that the cost of funerals is a key factor in people requesting direct cremations which cost between £300 and £600. At the Rochester Diocese webinar, options to help keep costs down were explored. Could churches have the discretion to waive or reduce funeral fees for families struggling with the cost-of-living crisis? Could we offer a memorial service following a direct cremation at no cost? Praying for the soul of the departed is important in some Christian traditions and churches can do this. Examples were shared of funerals where a humanist celebrant had been chosen, either by the deceased or next of kin, and the distress this brought for some. Many churches work with local funeral directors to hold an annual memorial service which can be a valuable opportunity for those who have missed a funeral.


The Theos report talks about the continuing role of churches in holding a space where people can mourn. Our buildings have provided quiet, reverent places to honour and remember those who have died and can continue in this vital function. We can attend to unmet pastoral and emotional needs through the excellent course The Bereavement Journey, developed by At a Loss. Anna Chaplains have found this course helpful in supporting both congregation members and others in their community; the optional final session about faith is interestingly attended by 90% of participants who don’t have a faith.


Alongside the reports, Theo has launched a helpful short video with renowned expert in her field Kathryn Mannix (author of With the End in Mind), talking about the dying process. We can encourage people to watch this to help prepare for their own death or the death of someone close to them.


Finally, in encouraging greater openness and comfort in talking about death, Grave Talk is a fantastic resource. The recent Theos research has shown that opportunities to think and talk about death, and to prepare for it, are associated with reduced fear, anxiety and depression and greater acceptance. SAIF have a useful booklet – Five things to do before you die which enables foreword planning and recording of wishes so that those left behind are not left with uncertainty. Chaplaincy holds a vital space for these important conversations, but chaplains themselves need to feel secure in going there, having explored their own emotions around death and dying.

 


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