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How funerals have changed over the years

Last updated 31st May 2019

Sunlife's Cost of Dying Report 2018 shows that the UK’s view on funerals is changing. 82% of funeral directors say they’ve seen an increase in the number of ‘celebration of life funerals’ – while 64% have seen a drop in the number of traditional religious funerals.

When it comes to funerals, it seems we’re breaking away from past traditions. According to the Cost of Dying Report 2018, there’s been a noticeable shift from sombre, black-coated mourning towards celebrations of life, as the deceased and their families favour personal tributes that represent the individual and their wishes.

Looking back at funerals over the years

a lady carrying a flower and touching a coffin in a church

In the 19th century…

Many well-known funeral traditions actually originate from the Victorian era. For example, it was Queen Victoria who established black as the colour of mourning when she grieved for Prince Albert.

The prominence of the ‘Chapel of Rest’ was also a late Victorian development. As attitudes towards hygiene and superstition changed, tradition moved away from keeping the body of the deceased at home to using Chapels of Rest for visitors to go and view the body.

Thankfully, certain other Victorian traditions haven’t made their way into today’s customs, like making jewellery from the deceased’s hair.

In the 20th century…

Funeral traditions changed during the 20th century, largely due to the First World War. With millions killed on the battlefield, and bodies not being returned to loved ones, individual graves were replaced with communal mourning and war memorials.

first world war memorial

There was also an increase in the use of newspaper obituaries, which was something previously only reserved for the aristocracy.

In the 21st century…

The 21st century has seen funerals move away from rigid traditions and allowed for a lot more individuality.

Modern funerals can be diverse. That’s why we place more emphasis on future planning for the occasion ­– we’re able to inject a touch of personality and celebration into funerals.

Today…

Of course, sorrow and grief are still a huge factor of funerals, but some individuals are allowing moments of joy and colour at funerals to balance moments of sorrow and grief.

As more people plan their services, tailored funerals or celebrations of life are now seen as providing the perfect send-off for our loved ones. And as tailored funerals become more popular, so do weird and wonderful funeral requests – as funeral directors have mentioned in the Cost of Dying Report 2018.

colourful flowers sitting on a coffin

One funeral director spoke about a funeral request from the family of a farmer. They brought his wellies along, so they could “cut the bottom of them off and stick them to the feet end of the coffin – so it looks like his feet are sticking out”.

Other curious funeral requests also included a naturist family asking for the deceased to be naked in their coffin – and another who wanted the coffin to arrive by milk cart. There are more weird and wonderful funeral requests in our Cost of Dying report.

Have costs influenced popular funeral types?

As the cost of a traditional funeral rises, more and more people are looking for alternative ways to celebrate the life of their loved ones at a cheaper cost.

Cremations are becoming increasingly common, as burial costs rise to meet supply and demand. Plus, many individuals are now opting for a no-fuss ‘direct cremation’ – which removes all elements of ceremony and simply returns the ashes to the loved ones for scattering. This is a way to cut funeral costs, and gives families the freedom to arrange a celebration of life or memorial service at a later date.

How can you avoid financial and emotional stress?

From finding the money to pay for everything, to second-guessing your wishes, planning and organising a funeral can be a stressful time for everyone involved ­– both emotionally and financially.

The increase in funeral costs means that many are looking for alternative payment methods, such as a SunLife Funeral Plan. It’s a simple and affordable way to put some plans in place for the future and make sure your loved ones aren’t left with a big bill when the time comes.

To learn more about how much a funeral costs in your local area, take a look at our Funeral Cost Calculator.

Here's the information that you need to know about who we are and the other companies that we work with in order to provide our products and services.

Who are SunLife?

Phoenix Life Limited trades as SunLife and is the provider of the Guaranteed Over 50 Plan, SunLife Insurance and the life insurance policy payment option for Funeral Plans. Phoenix Life Limited’s registered office is at 1 Wythall Green Way, Wythall, Birmingham, B47 6WG (registered in England, no. 1016269). 

SunLife Limited distributes financial products and services and is a company limited by shares, registered office: 1 Wythall Green Way, Wythall, Birmingham, B47 6WG (registered in England, no. 05460862). SunLife Limited is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and is entered on the Financial Services Register (registration no. 769427).

You can contact us by post at SunLife, PO Box 1395, Peterborough, PE2 2TR or by phone on 0800 008 6060.

If you choose to add Funeral Benefit Option to your Guaranteed Over 50 Plan, Dignity Funerals Ltd arranges and provides the funeral services, registered office: 4 King Edwards Court, Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands, B73 6AP (registered in England and Wales, No. 00041598). Dignity Funerals Ltd is a member of the National Association of Funeral Directors.

Who provides the Funeral Plans?

Dignity Funerals Ltd arranges and provides the funeral services, registered office: 4 King Edwards Court, Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands, B73 6AP (registered in England and Wales, No. 00041598). Dignity Funerals is not authorised or regulated for this activity by either the Financial Conduct Authority or the Prudential Regulation Authority. Dignity Funerals Ltd is a member of the National Association of Funeral Directors.

The life insurance policy that pays for your funeral will be provided by Phoenix Life Limited, trading as SunLife.

Who provides My Smarter (ISA)?

My Smarter (ISA) is provided by Scottish Friendly Asset Managers Limited. Authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Details can be found on the Financial Services register, registration No. 188832. Member of The Investment Association. Registered Office: Scottish Friendly House, 16 Blythswood Square, Glasgow G2 4HJ.

Who provides the Will writing services?

Hugh James is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA Number:303202).

The information contained on this website is based on Hugh James' understanding of the law of intestacy in England and Wales only as at April 2014. The law in Scotland and Northern Ireland is significantly different. This is for information purposes and is not intended to be legal advice.

Who provides SunLife Pet Insurance

SunLife Pet Insurance is arranged and administered by BDML Connect Limited. BDML Connect Limited is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (No. 309140). Registered in England and Wales Number 02785540. Registered Office: 45 Westerham Road, Bessels Green, Sevenoaks, Kent, TN13 2QB.

Who provides SunLife Home Insurance

SunLife Home Insurance is arranged and administered by BISL Limited and underwritten by a panel of insurers. BISL Limited are an intermediary authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Registered in England no. 03231094. Registered office Pegasus House, Bakewell Road, Orton Southgate, Peterborough PE2 6YS.

Who provides SunLife Car Insurance

SunLife Car Insurance is arranged and administered by BISL Limited and underwritten by a panel of insurers. BISL Limited are an intermediary authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Registered in England no. 03231094. Registered office Pegasus House, Bakewell Road, Orton Southgate, Peterborough PE2 6YS.