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  • Debbie Donnelly Funeral Celebrant

Direct cremations and changing funeral traditions


There has been an increase in the number of people choosing direct cremation over more traditional funerals in the past decade, especially during COVID restrictions [ some reports say there has been a 300% increase]


Long before his death in 2016 music legend David Bowie had written in his will that he did not want ‘a traditional funeral’. In keeping with his Buddhist beliefs Bowie wanted to be cremated in Bali and have his ashes scattered there. Transporting his body was not possible so Bowie was in fact cremated in New Jersey two days after his death, but close family celebrated his life and respected his wishes by scattering his ashes in Bali later that month.


Reasons for having a direct cremation are many and varied ranging from cost to personal or family wishes.


What does direct cremation mean exactly ? Direct cremation is a simple cremation without a funeral service, it is usually unattended with the ashes being scattered at the crematorium or returned to the family. Family can then choose to have a service or ceremony if and when it suits [ this can be useful if many family and friends are overseas or unable to attend at the time]


Some people simply do not want the fuss. They may not believe in funerals or may simply want to be different or to save costs for their family. As with anything that is non traditional and less well established this choice may raise a few eyebrows and may even cause bad feeling within families if others have very different views. Therefore, it is a good idea to write it into your will or funeral wishes so family can confidently say it was what you specifically asked for.


When my mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer nearly 15 years ago the conversation obviously turned to whether she had any particular wishes. She had no religious beliefs and wanted to be cremated but when pushed for specifics replied in her own pragmatic way saying ‘I don’t really care as I will be dead’ Having attended funerals for family and friends we knew she was uncomfortable with the 30 min slots we had experienced at the local crematorium so we booked a humanist service at the local woodland site with music and memories ,her coffin was taken after the service to an unattended cremation. Most people said ‘your mum would have loved that’ but a few were a little shocked and affronted by the lack of tradition.


The main point of this is that we do not have many laws governing funerals other than civic recording and disposal of the body so apart from being non-traditional there is scope to create something unique and personal. Traditions around burial and death have a long history.


The word funeral is believed to have first been written about by Chaucer. The tradition of wearing black in mourning goes back to Elizabethan days whilst funeral processions have been around for centuries and can be traced back to the Romans in the UK.

Whilst wakes now refer to the period after a ceremony where people gather to remember and share memories wakes go back to pre-Christianity, to a time where relatives and friends would keep watch over the body until mourners arrived from other parts of the country for the burial.

Gravestone markers date back to 2000 BC although carved headstones are very much Victorian as were many traditions or superstitions that are no longer in use [ stopping the clocks, turning family photos face down and the wearing of mourning jewellery].


In an increasingly secular society a direct cremation may offer the opportunity to have memorial services in different parts of the world, ashes to be scattered by extended families in different locations or may simply give people time to breathe, plan and carry out a personal bespoke and meaningful farewell service in their own time.

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