4 Tips For Hosting The Non-Religious, Meaningful Service Families Want

When you are a part of a profession that is heavily rooted in tradition, it’s hard to step away from the classic way that you’ve always done things. Funeral professionals know this, perhaps better than anyone.

We try to help families find comfort and healing through a service filled with meaningful traditions… a spiritual hymn that brings the emotion of the moment to life, a beautiful scripture that helps the family find closure, and a religious service that aims to give peace to the end of their loved one’s life.

For many traditionalists, death goes hand-in-hand with religion. They view dying as something that is bigger than the act; it’s part of a journey that’s bigger than ourselves. So when it comes time to plan a funeral, there’s no question of whether or not the service will be religious.

However, today’s new generation of families couldn’t be more different. To them, a religious funeral service is just one option of many, and many consumers prefer a life celebration over the traditional religious ceremony. Unfortunately, not all funeral professionals have seen the light (pun intended) and have made the adjustments necessary to please this new generation of families.

The Grave Error Funeral Directors Make About Religion

While at NCFDA, speaking about how funeral professionals can up their funeral service game, Doug Gober shared a situation that a lot of us have observed many times… A family walks into a funeral home to begin planning a service for their loved one. When the funeral director asks who their minister is going to be, they say, “Well… Mom wasn’t particularly religious…” And what does the funeral director say in response? “Oh, that’s okay! I know a clergy member who will be perfect and can step in and give the service.”

Sure, the funeral director means well. But what they are really saying is, “I don’t care that you’re not religious. Today you’re going to be! And we will put you in the chapel that looks just like a church, and come up with a beautiful prayer to tie the whole thing together.”

What many funeral professional don’t realize is that not all families want a funeral service that is particularly religious. In fact, many want just the opposite. Just look at these surprising facts:

  •  50% of Americans today say they don’t belong to a church and don’t see the value in a religious service. (Source)
  •  The amount of adults that describe themselves as Christians has dropped from 78.4% to 70.6% in just 7 years. (Source)
  •  Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped from 16.1% to 22.8%. (Source)
  •  27% of surveyed people said that, when they die, they don’t expect to have a religious service. (Source)

As they say, a great funeral occurs when the family has been reflected in the service. And if the numbers above are any indication, that means it may be time for your funeral home to begin putting the hymn books aside and start thinking of how you can create a powerful, meaningful funeral service without religion.

How To Honor And Celebrate Life In A Non-Religious Way

Just because a person is religious, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t spiritual or do not want the same meaningful service that is given to other families. However, one reason why even spiritual families are straying away from a religious service is because of the impersonal, “cookie cutter” nature that many of these services have. Modern families want to focus more on the life that was lived, rather than the religious beliefs that surround death and the afterlife.

“I kept thinking, why don’t they talk more about her? She was alive for almost a century, there must be something better to talk about than this,” reflected one funeral guest, who had attended a funeral where the focus was on religion, rather than the loved one.

So how can funeral directors step up and create a meaningful service for their non-religious families? Here are a few good places to start:

#1. Have A Funeral Celebrant Available To Your Families

A funeral celebrant’s mission is to create a beautiful ceremony for families that reflect their wishes, beliefs, cultural background and values, while also bringing people together to celebrate the life lived. Whether a family is religious or non-religious, a funeral celebrant will carefully craft a service that tells the full story of the loved one’s heritage, talent, loves, relationships, accomplishments and more. They paint the picture of a real person, and do so by asking pointed, yet caring questions so the deceased’s true nature is reflected.

Not only will a funeral celebrant better connect non-religious people to you and your funeral home, but they will also provide all families with a better service experience. “It’s been found that Celebrant-led services lead to increased customer satisfaction, with families finding them considerably more personal than other funerals they have attended,” according to ICCFA.

#2. Use Elements Of A Person’s Life To Create The Service

Just because you may be taking the prayers, hymns and religion out of a service, that doesn’t mean that you are left with no substance or powerful symbolism. Instead, take the opportunity to speak one-on-one with the family and truly learn about the person you are hosting a funeral for. Did they have a favorite song? A favorite poem? A favorite book? Use the answers that you find to build a beautiful service that uses personal elements and rituals to honor their life.

Here’s one great example of how a non-religious funeral was still powerful for one commenter:

“We did [a non-religious funeral] for our dad. No pastor or any talk of God or the afterlife. It was just my step-mom, mom, his best friend, and a few others talking about his life. I probably learned more about my dad’s past that day than any other time during my 23 years. We played songs he wrote and sung, and I picked out a few of his favorite tracks to play. Vienna, The Bewlay Brothers, Into the Mystic, and Me and Ms. Jones. One of his old music buddy’s mentioned that it was just like him to have David Bowie play at his funeral. I almost broke down completely when I heard him say that. He died suddenly so we had no idea what he would have wanted, but I’m glad so many of those who were close to him felt it was fitting. If we had gone with some religious ceremony, I don’t think I would have had the same closure.”

#3. Use Powerful Symbols Or Gestures To Honor The Life Lived

There are many significant, meaningful traditions that can help to honor a person’s life that are not rooted in religion. For instance, lighting a candle in someones memory, or giving a toast to the loved ones who are no longer with us. Use one of these powerful traditions to close out your service and unite everyone at the funeral in the love and remembrance of the deceased.

You could also take this idea a step further and encourage your families to hold the funeral in a place that is their own version of church – a place that is sacred to them and holds great meaning. Maybe it’s a park that their family visited together, or a service held next to Dad’s favorite fishing spot. You don’t have to be religious to feel a certain connection or energy in a place that is deeply rooted in memory, and these places often make the best locations for remembrance.

#4. Let Photos and Videos Tell The Story

One aspect of a funeral service that families love, whether they are religious or not, is remembering their loved one through photos and videos. Memorial Tribute Videos especially are a great way to bring back memories for the family, laugh and cry over the meaningful moments in a person’s life, and really help families begin the healing process. Plus, what is more personalized to a person’s life than their own photos that tell their true story from start to finish?

You can further personalize Memorial Videos for your families by adding in custom music that represents the loved one, and creating a theme around the video that pays tribute to their hobbies, interests or life story. For instance, with our Life Tributes software, you can choose a beautiful fishing theme to honor a Dad, a powerful Veteran’s theme that honors the military members in your families’ lives, or even a growing remembrance tree that reflects on the family as a whole. These simple personalization gestures go a long way towards making each video and service feel completely custom and special to the family you are serving.

To learn more about Life Tributes and how you can create powerful videos that will help honor and memorialize a life lived, click here.

What are some of your best personalization tips for non-religious funeral services? Do you use a funeral celebrant, or do you let the families speak at the service? We want to hear in the comments below!

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  1. Richard Lawrence Belford

    Hello Rilee,

    Another great funeral one article that’s jam packed with lots of incredibly useful information. If you get a chance please have a look at a related post of mine at the following link and thank you for sharing.


  2. Michael Mills

    The beginning was not good. What content is reflecting is really amazing. After reading the heading it was appearing that it is blog not to focus on, but on moving forward content was interesting. The point I liked most is people “celebrate the life lived”. And I think there is nothing wrong in it. Really great tips and meaning services. [link blocked]

  3. Rev. Mary Ann Barry, Ordained Interfaith Minister

    As a celebrant, I have the honor of working with families to not only co-create a meaningful experience but to act as their chaplain to support them on this part of their journey. I always ask families to meet with me in my home (if possible) to tell me about their loved one and to learn about their hopes for a good meaningful service and/or celebration of life. I am often meeting with people who have been wounded somehow by their faith tradition. It is a balance to integrate their needs for healing and honor the faith tradition of the one they have lost. Creatively finding tangible items for everyone to participate in is always welcome. For example, a Nature lover may get a “bird seed blessing” at the gravesite to honor their passion. Everyone is invited to take a handful and scatter the seed at the end, to leave an act of kindness behind in this sacred place of burial.
    I am fully reliant on God to guide me, inspire me, and to write a reflection for the service. My last reflection was based on the life of a golf ball in play on the golf course. An analogy that I am sure their loved one also appreciated since he played golf EVERY day.
    Wishing you all a wonderful journey of love and service for the grieving among us. Bless you!

  4. Vivian Black

    I love that you talked about having a celebrant available to the families to make sure that your ceremony correctly portrays your family and have the ceremony be better understood. My mother recently passed to cancer and we need to have her funeral soon, but we wanted to find a graveside celebrant service to help us. We will keep these tips in mind as we search for a professional that can help us best.

  5. Krystal Penrose

    I’m so glad this offered you some value, Vivian, thanks for reading!

  6. Dave Savage

    One of the ceremonies we talk about in our presentations and in our book is a meaningful way to engage the people in the room. Everyone there is connected in some way to the person who died. Many have come to support a family member.

    In the lobby before the service and afterward, at the reception, people cluster in groups of people they know.
    Walking by could be a close relative, or other significant person in the life of the deceased, who was not part of the service and no name tag is used, so no conversation happens.

    We call our suggested ceremony “Who Among You” Someone, or a group of people from various parts of the person’s life, asks guests to stand for a moment when the way they are connected is called out.
    “Will all of his fraternity brothers please stand. Will all of the players and families she impacted in 10 years of basketball coaching please stand. Will all of her past and current coworkers please stand..
    Will everyone who as ever had a slice of her famous cheery pie please stand. Will all of the current and past extended family members please. stand.

    In a smaller gathering, a member of a particular group can introduce those in the audience from that group.

    The reason’s to stand can overlap people in standing in sentimental, fun and pragmatic ways.

    I guarantee a completely different level of engagement at the after reception, particularly of there are name tags with a word or line of connection.

    Our suggestions and are very inclusive, and work equally well in religious and non-religious services and ceremonies of remembrance

    For many more unique ideas, see our book or website. And we would love to share at your event.
    We also look to partner with others to create training materials and presentations and be podcast guests.
    Our book is on Amazon, in print and download.

    Dave Savage in Atlanta
    [email protected]
    cell 404 323-8686