Do Quakers have funerals? What are they like?
This article answers some of the most common questions about Quaker funeral customs. You’ll also learn about Quaker values and what Quakers believe about death.
What is Quakerism?
Quakerism is a type of Christianity followed by Quakers. It started around 400 years ago in England.
There are several branches of Quakerism. Each worships God in a slightly different way. In the UK and Europe, it’s common for Quakers to practise ‘unprogrammed worship’. This is a simple gathering, where people often sit in silence together. In the US and other countries, Quaker worship is more like a traditional Christian service, with hymns, prayers and a priest.
Generally speaking, Quakers are known for being pacifists (opposing war), supporting women’s rights and caring about social issues and the environment.
The proper name for Quakerism is the ‘Religious Society of Friends’.
How do Quakers do funerals?
Different branches of Quakerism have different funeral traditions. However, they have some things in common. For instance, all Quakers value simplicity and modesty, so it’s uncommon for Quaker funeral services to feature elaborate flower arrangements or other decorations.
In this article, we’ll focus on Quaker funerals in the UK.
Quaker funerals and memorial meetings
Quakerism encourages believers to remember a person who has died whenever they feel ready.
For this reason, some Quakers don’t have a funeral service when they die. Instead, their fellow Quakers will hold a ‘memorial meeting’ without the person’s body. This meeting could happen weeks or even months after the body has been buried or cremated.
Other than the presence of the body, Quaker funerals and memorial meetings are quite similar. They’re both simple, quiet gatherings that focus on celebrating the person’s life and comforting those who are grieving.
What happens at a Quaker funeral?
In the UK, Quaker funerals usually follow the format of unprogrammed worship. This means they’re more or less unstructured – there are no planned prayers or rituals. Sometimes there’s a reading or song, but most of the time is spent quietly reflecting on the person who has died.
Quaker funerals can be almost completely silent. The people at the funeral will sit together – often in a circle – and speak if they feel compelled to do so by God. This might happen or it might not. It depends on how people are feeling at the time.
An experienced Quaker called an elder often leads the service. It’s their job to introduce the ceremony and bring it to a close by shaking people’s hands. Elders offer spiritual and emotional guidance, but they’re not in charge. At Quaker funerals, everyone is considered equal and is allowed to speak – including non-Quakers.
This community spirit is very important to Quakers. As one elder describes it:
Like everything else Quakers do, our funerals are a do-it-together affair. What greater gift can there be than to help mark the ending of the life of one of our community? And to know that when our time comes, the community we have been a part of will do the same for us.
How long is a Quaker funeral service?
The elder will decide when to bring the funeral to a close. There are no rules for this – they’ll do it whenever the time feels right.
In practice, Quaker funerals rarely last longer than an hour.
Where do Quaker funerals take place?
Often, a Quaker funeral will take place at a Friends meeting house, which is a Quaker place of worship. It could also be held at a crematorium or at the graveside of the person who has died.
Memorial meetings can happen almost anywhere – at a meeting house, a friend’s home or even online using video conferencing software like Zoom.
Is there a Quaker funeral dress code?
Generally, no. If you’ve been invited to a Quaker funeral or memorial meeting, you can usually wear informal, everyday clothing. It’s uncommon for people to wear black or formal clothes.
Choose modest, simple clothing and you should be fine. If you have any doubts, ask the person who invited you to the funeral.
Do Quakers believe in heaven?
Quaker beliefs about death vary from person to person. Some Quakers follow Protestant Christian teachings and believe that heaven and hell are real. Others feel it’s impossible to know if there’s an afterlife. In the UK, a small but significant number of Quakers say they don’t even believe in God.
Do Quakers prefer burial or cremation?
Quakerism has no formal rules about burial and cremation. Quakers are free to choose either option.
If a Quaker chooses to be buried, they’ll likely have a small, simple headstone. This is because Quakerism teaches that all people are equal. Marking a grave with an ornate headstone goes against this belief.
There’s an old rumour that says Quakers used to be buried standing up. There is no good evidence to support this claim. It’s most likely just a myth.
Get help arranging a Quaker funeral
Are you arranging a Quaker funeral service? Are you unsure what to do or where to start?
A good first step is to talk to fellow Quakers at your local Friends meeting house. They might have experience arranging funerals and can provide practical and emotional support. If you’re not sure where to find your nearest Meeting House, you can check the Quakers in Britain website.
You may want to ask a funeral director for help too. Since Quaker funerals are usually quite simple, you won’t need a full funeral package. However, a funeral director can help you with the basics, like doing paperwork and looking after the body. Our search tool can help you find a funeral director near you.
If you want to save money, you can choose an unattended funeral. This is an affordable type of funeral where a person is buried or cremated without a service. You could follow this with a memorial meeting at a later date.
Learn about other types of funerals
- What is a silent funeral service?
- What happens at a Hindu funeral?
- What happens at an Islamic funeral service?
- Church of England funerals: a step-by-step guide
Photo: “Quaker Meeting House – The Leys, Banbury – sign” by ell brown is licensed under CC BY 2.0.