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Alternative and non-religious funeral ideas

Last updated 15th April 2024
7 min read

Alternative, non-religious funerals are increasingly popular in the UK today.

More people are moving away from traditional funerals. And unconventional send-offs are becoming a popular way of making funerals more personal and unique.

Perhaps you’d like an alternative funeral to help your loved ones celebrate your life. Or perhaps you're planning funeral arrangements for a loved one. If so, this guide is full of inspiration – from humanist ceremonies to woodland burials.

What is an alternative funeral?

An alternative funeral is anything considered a non-traditional celebration of someone's life.

It could be something as simple as a direct cremation, or a ceremony without a minister. Or maybe something more unusual, like an alternative burial such as a woodland or sea burial.

Types of alternative funerals

There are a variety of alternative funerals you can have in the UK. You can choose from non-religious, humanist, atheist or DIY funerals. Direct cremation is also often considered an alternative funeral.

Non-religious funerals

A non-religious funeral still celebrates the life of the deceased. But it does so without following any religious traditions, beliefs or rituals.

They are often referred to as a humanist or atheist funeral, and tend to follow a similar structure to a traditional ceremony. They feature readings from loved ones and music, but no hymns or readings from the Bible.

Non-religious funerals can be held at any venue happy to accommodate them. That could be anything from a crematorium to a local sports hall. They are usually very personal and aim to celebrate the life of the loved one.

Humanist and atheist send-offs are also alternative types of funeral that are non-religious.

Humanist and atheist services are similar, but differ based on beliefs. An atheist is a person who does not believe there is a god and has no religious beliefs.

A humanist is also not religious. They strongly believe you only have one life. And they make decisions based on ethics, happiness and welfare. The Humanism website( opens in a new tab) explains humanism in more detail.

Humanist funerals

A humanist funeral is a non-religious service. It can offer a dignified farewell, and a celebration of a person's life and legacy.

Humanist funerals have become more popular in recent years. This is mainly because of how meaningful and personal they are. You also don't have to be a 'humanist' to have a humanist funeral.

What's involved in a humanist funeral?

Humanist funeral services usually follow a similar format to a traditional ceremony. The ceremony will often include:

How to arrange a humanist funeral

A humanist ceremony is often led by a family member, friend, or humanist celebrant.

They are most often held at a crematorium. But they can also take place at any venue happy to accommodate the service, or they can take place outdoors.

To arrange a humanist funeral, look online for local humanist celebrants( opens in a new tab). They'll be able to provide a quote based on your needs.

If you're looking for inspiration on how to personalise a funeral, our guide is full of practical tips.

Atheist funerals

Atheist funerals are usually similar to humanist funerals. They are becoming more common in the UK with less people having strong religious beliefs in recent years.

This type of funeral is non-religious. It celebrates the person's life in a more personal way, with no religious readings or songs.

Unlike a traditional funeral service, an atheist funeral doesn't acknowledge afterlife. It focuses on paying tribute to the deceased's life and legacy instead. It's a chance to talk about memories and play the person's favourite songs.

Atheist funerals tend to be held at a crematorium. But they can take place almost anywhere suitable, be it a local hall or even outdoors.

Direct cremations

A direct cremation is a no-frills funeral. It doesn't involve a service, and mourners are not present. They make a great option for those that don't want the fuss or expense that comes with a traditional service.

Direct cremations are becoming increasingly popular. This is partly thanks to the likes of David Bowie opting for them.

Once the cremation has taken place, the ashes are given to a loved one. They can either keep them or scatter them in a location that meant something to the deceased.

Direct cremation will not be to everyone's taste. But with funeral costs at over £4,000, more people are looking for cheaper alternatives. The average cost for a direct cremation in 2023 was £1,498, which is less than half the price of standard cremation.

If you're looking for help with funeral costs, our guide is packed with useful information.

DIY funerals

A do-it-yourself funeral is one that the family organise themselves without a funeral director.

There are many reasons to arrange a DIY funeral service, such as:

  • Cost – By not using a funeral director, it tends to be a lot cheaper than a traditional funeral. Especially if the person who died didn't have any funeral cover in place.
  • Less formal – Some people don't want the fuss and formality of a conventional funeral.
  • Involvement – Many people believe a DIY funeral is their way of doing one last thing for their loved one. This can give a sense of closure.

Before deciding to plan a DIY funeral, you should think it through and get advice first.

Arranging a DIY funeral can be time-consuming and stressful. This can be overwhelming when you're grieving.

The work involved includes arranging care of the body, arranging the service, booking the cremation, completing legal paperwork, sorting transport and inviting guests.

A funeral director will usually do a lot of this for you, which can be a welcome support during what is a difficult time.

Arranging a funeral yourself( opens in a new tab) could save you money, according to MoneyHelper. But it's important to prepare yourself for the effort and time involved in planning a DIY funeral.

Alternative burials

Woodland burials

Woodland funerals, also called green burials, have become a popular eco-friendly funeral option. Nature lovers often choose this environmentally friendly way of being laid to rest.

A biodegradable coffin or casket is used. The body is laid to rest in its natural state to avoid polluting the earth with embalming chemicals.

Woodland burials tend to be cheaper than a traditional funeral. And there are approved woodland burial sites( opens in a new tab) across the country.

With a woodland burial, there's no headstone. This can make it difficult to know the exact location of a person's resting place. This is why the whole woodland is often considered the memorial place to visit and remember your loved one.

Burials at sea

Sea burials are quite rare these days. But they are more common for someone that had a deep connection with the ocean.

They're not reserved for the navy or sailors. But you do need to apply for a licence( opens in a new tab) and meet the official requirements to have a sea burial in England. There are also designated locations where you can be buried at sea. In the UK, these are:

  • Off The Needles, Isle of Wight
  • Off Tynemouth, North Tyneside
  • Between Hastings and Newhaven

The person being buried at sea must also not be embalmed. They also need biodegradable clothing and a specific coffin.

There are strict regulations around having a sea burial. That's why many families choose to scatter their loved one's ashes at sea instead. There are no legal requirements, making it an easier way to say goodbye at sea.

Pagan funerals

A pagan funeral is usually spiritual. It focuses on respecting the natural world and all living things. The ceremony can vary as beliefs can differ from one pagan to another. They're usually held outdoors with a strong focus on reincarnation.

Elements of air, earth, and water can be brought into a pagan funeral. The mystical ceremony celebrates the earth, as well as the life of the deceased.

Green burials

A green burial is usually held outdoors. It involves the body being buried in the soil, where it can be naturally recycled.

Often called a natural or eco burial, a green burial does not use chemicals or embalming fluids. Any coffin used is made from natural, biodegradable materials.

As the environment has become more of a hot topic in recent years, eco burials have grown in popularity.

Burial at home

A home burial isn't everyone's cup of tea. But it's an option to those who own their freehold and follow Government guidelines.

There aren't many restrictions with a home burial. But it does need to be considered carefully first. For example, it's worth thinking about how long the property is going to stay in the family. The burial must be registered on the deeds. This can be off-putting to potential buyers, reducing the property's value.

Arranging a non-religious funeral

As people look for more personal ways to celebrate their loved ones' lives, alternative funerals are on the rise.

Whatever kind of service you choose, take a look at our guide to organising a funeral. It has plenty of useful tips for the perfect send-off.

If you're planning your own funeral, speak to a loved one to let them know your wishes. Or you can leave instructions in your will or funeral plan.

The thoughts and opinions expressed in the page are those of the authors, intended to be informative, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SunLife. See our Terms of Use for more info.