A religious funeral service is one that follows the beliefs and customs of a particular faith.
There are an estimated 10,000 religions practised around the world. Each has its own funeral traditions and beliefs about life and death.
This means different types of religious funeral services can feel very distinct. Some have an uplifting atmosphere and focus on celebrating the life of the person who has died. Others are quiet and serious occasions, where people pray to God and don’t show much emotion.
In this article, we’ll look at some of the most common religious funerals in the UK. We’ll also answer some common questions people ask about religious funerals.
Different types of religious funerals in the UK
Each faith has unique funeral traditions. These might be different to the ones you’re used to. If you’ve been invited to a religious funeral, it’s a good idea to do some research so you know how to behave and what to expect.
Here are a few things to note about how different religions deal with death.
Islamic funerals are also known as Muslim funerals. Muslims are people who follow the religion known as Islam.
Islamic funerals are quiet, solemn and very religious. Ceremonies consist of prayers, including Ṣalāt al-Janāzah – Islam’s main religious prayer for the dead. These prayers are led by faith leaders called imams. Muslims from the local community may go to a funeral, not just friends and family members.
After a funeral, Muslims enter a period of mourning. This usually lasts three days. During the mourning period, Muslims stay home and welcome visitors from the community.
- Where do they take place? Islamic funerals are held at mosques, which are Muslim places of worship. They usually won't happen inside the mosque though. Instead, they're often held in separate prayer rooms or courtyards.
- How should I behave? Non-Muslims aren't allowed to join in with funeral prayers but are welcome to quietly observe. It's okay to cry at the funeral, but you should try to be as quiet as possible if you do.
- What should I wear? Muslims usually wear smart, modest clothing to funerals in the UK. Women should also wear headscarves. You'll have to take your shoes off when you enter the mosque, so be sure to wear clean socks or tights.
Hindus believe in reincarnation, which means your soul is reborn as another living thing when you die. So while Hindus might feel sad at a funeral, they also celebrate that the soul is moving on to its next stage.
Hindu funerals happen in two stages. The first is a viewing, where people come to look at the body and chant Hindu prayers called mantras. The second is the cremation. Many Hindus go to the cremation, where they perform more religious funeral rituals.
Like Muslims, Hindus enter a period of mourning after a person dies. This usually lasts between 10 and 30 days.
- Where do they take place? The first part of a Hindu funeral, where people view the body and chant mantras often happens in the home of the person who has died. The cremation takes place at a crematorium. Unless you're a close friend or family member, you probably won't be invited to the cremation.
- How should I behave? Hindu funerals are usually quiet and simple occasions. You should be fine as long as you remain respectful. Bear in mind that you might not get a chance to speak to the family.
- What should I wear? Hindus traditionally wear white at funerals, but dark, modern clothing is becoming more common in the UK. If in doubt, it's best to ask.
Like Hindus, Sikhs believe in reincarnation, which means your soul is reborn as another living thing when you die. So while Hindus might feel sad at a funeral, they also celebrate that the soul is moving on to its next stage.
Sikh funerals happen in two or three stages. Sometimes, there is one service, followed by the cremations. Other times, there will be one service before the cremation and another one afterwards. During these services family and friends will say prayers, including Ardās, which is an important thanksgiving prayer.
- Where do they take place? Prayers are often said in the gurdwara (Sikh temple), although they can also be said at the family home, outdoors or at the crematorium. The cremation takes place at a crematorium. Usually only close friends and family will be invited to the cremation.
- How should I behave? Sikh funerals are usually quiet occasions. While it’s fine to feel sad, generally you won’t hear loud sobbing at the funeral, so try to stay calm.
- What should I wear? Sikhs traditionally wear a white suit or saree at a funeral. In the UK, it’s quite common to wear dark, modern clothing instead. You may also be expected to wear a head covering such as a hat or headscarf too. If in doubt, it's best to ask.
Church of England
Church of England funerals are among the most common religious funeral services in the UK. They’re a kind of Christian funeral. You might hear people call them ‘Anglican funerals’ instead.
Church of England funerals follow a set structure but allow for some flexibility. They usually include hymns (religious songs) and prayers, as well as a eulogy. Funerals end with the committal, which is when people say their final goodbyes.
There is no formal mourning period after a Church of England funeral. However, Christians sometimes light candles as a way of remembering the person who has died.
- Where do they take place? Church of England funerals often happen in churches. However, non-traditional venues like crematoriums and woodland burial sites are becoming more common.
- How should I behave? If you're not a Christian, you won't be expected to join in with hymns or prayers – just follow others as they sit and stand during the service. Christianity teaches that grieving is normal, so it's okay to cry.
- What should I wear? People usually wear black to Christian funerals, including Church of England funerals. Smart, dark and modest clothing is a must – unless you're specifically told otherwise.
As another type of Christian funeral, Catholic funerals are quite similar to Church of England ceremonies. The main difference is that Catholic services often include a Requiem Mass. This makes the funeral longer – Catholic funerals can last for up to two hours.
The Requiem Mass will usually feature several Bible readings and prayers. They also include Holy Communion, which is also known as the Eucharist. This is a religious ritual where Catholics eat wafers and sometimes drink wine. These represent the body and blood of Jesus.
Unlike Church of England funerals, Catholic funerals only feature religious music. Modern music isn’t allowed.
- Where do they take place? Catholic funerals almost always take place in churches.
- How should I behave? As with Church of England funerals, you don't need to join in with acts of worship. Non-Catholics aren't allowed to take the Eucharist, but you can receive a blessing if you like. Just queue up with your arms crossed and the priest will know what to do.
- What should I wear? Like most Christians, Catholics wear dark, modest clothing to funerals.
Do all religions have funerals?
As long as humans have existed, we’ve held funerals. Researchers have found evidence of funeral customs dating to around 300,000 years ago.
It seems that funerals are part of what makes us human, so all cultures likely have some way of honouring their dead. These funeral rites might be simple or complex, but they serve the same purpose – saying goodbye to a person who has died.
Which religions bury their dead?
Lots of religions prefer burial over cremation.
Some, like Islam and Orthodox Judaism, forbid cremation in almost all circumstances. Others, such as Catholicism and Mormonism, allow cremation but discourage it.
There are religions that prefer cremation and discourage burial too. These include Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism.
Do funerals have to be religious?
No. Funerals don’t have to take place in religious buildings or be led by a faith leader. In fact, you don’t have to have any religious elements at your funeral if you don’t want to.
More and more people in the UK are choosing a non-religious funeral. In 2019, 27% of people said they wanted a non-religious service, compared to 24% in 2018 (Co-op). That’s not a big increase, but it suggests that people are slowly moving away from faith-led funeral traditions.
There are two main types of non-religious funerals in the UK – humanist funerals and civil funerals.
These are strictly non-religious ceremonies led by Humanist celebrants. Humanist funerals focus on celebrating people’s lives and legacies. They won’t mention God and usually don’t include prayers or hymns.
Read more about humanist funerals.
These can be religious, non-religious or a bit of both. Civil funerals are very flexible, so you can choose to include prayers and hymns or have a completely non-traditional service. Services are led by civil celebrants.
Read more about civil funerals.
More about religious funerals
- What happens at an Islamic funeral?
- What to expect at a Hindu funeral
- Find out what a Sikh funeral is like