Outdoor Funerals: Celebrating a life surrounded by nature
The world of funerals is changing. Increasingly, funerals are designed around the life of the person who has died and families look for ways to personalise the event. One development is that people are choosing alternative spaces for the funeral or memorial ceremony, indoors and outdoors.
I love conducting ceremonies at unique locations. It adds a special dimension to the ceremony and affects the experience in meaningful ways.
In this article I give three examples of outdoor funerals and share some good practice tips for anyone who is interested in having an outdoor funeral or memorial service.
A celebration of a life at a contemporary burial mound
On a bright autumn day, David’s family and friends gathered at Sacred Stones Willow Row Barrow to pay tribute to his life. Willow Row Barrow, inspired by the ancient burial mounds of our prehistoric ancestors, is a unique venue in Cambridgeshire to place ashes and celebrate life. The space and its surroundings perfectly reflected David’s view on life and death and it accommodated what the family was looking for: creating a sense of community in a life-affirming and comforting environment, with no time constraints. Children played an active part in the ceremony and we ended with a champagne toast to his life.
After the ceremony, David’s body was taken to a local crematorium. His ashes were later placed in the barrow by his family.
Baby funeral in an ancient wood
This heartbreaking funeral service for a beautiful baby boy took place at an ancient woodland in London. His parents chose the place because of the special meaning the local woods had to them and the many happy moments they had spent with their son, during pregnancy and the six weeks of his life.
The parents and their family and friends decorated the ceremony space with flowers and photo garlands. They had decided not to bring the coffin to the woods, but their baby boy was present through photos and a candle. During the ceremony, guests were invited to find a branch, leaf or flower as a gift to the little boy. We collected these treasures in a basket which we gave to him in a private committal service at the crematorium following the woodland service.
Home funeral in a private garden
For her mother’s funeral, Catherine organised a ceremony in the garden of her mother’s house. We handpicked flowers from the garden and during the ceremony people were invited to decorate the coffin with ivy. We read a passage from her favourite book and listened to music she liked using a Bluetooth speaker. Catherine shared a life story and people were invited to share a memory or a thought if they wanted.
After the garden ceremony the funeral directors took the coffin to a nearby cemetery where Catherine’s mother was buried.
How space affects the funeral experience
These are three beautiful examples of outdoor funeral ceremonies, and each and every one of them made a lasting impression on all who attended. Due to the location and ceremony design inspired by the space, these funeral services had their own unique effect on how people experienced the funeral.
Being closely connected with nature affects body and mind in a different way than when attending a service in a crematorium chapel. The chill on the autumn day, the summer heat and sun during the garden funeral, and the damp environment of the woods awakened the senses of the participants.
All these ceremonies included an element of movement, helping people connect to their bodies. At the Barrow, we performed a flower tribute and candle lighting ritual; in the garden, we decorated the coffin with ivy; in the woods, people walked around to find their gift for the baby. At both the Barrow and the garden funeral the coffin was close to the participants and was the centre of their circle. People naturally stood or sat in a semi-circle, further or closer together – whatever they felt comfortable with.
There was no recorded music at the Barrow funeral. The birds and leaves made their natural sounds. At the garden and woodland burial we played music through a portable speaker.
Things to consider when organising an outdoor funeral
An outdoor funeral or memorial service can be a beautiful, healing experience. It has many advantages. You can set up the space in multiple ways: e.g. theatre style or circles, using chairs or benches or asking people to stand. There is no time constraint and you can decorate the space as you wish.
Because of the blank canvas and the uncertainty of what the weather will do on the day, an outdoor funeral requires a different level of organisation compared to a service at a crematorium, where all facilities are at hand.
Some good practice tips:
- If you have a funeral with a coffin present, you will need to plan how to get the coffin on site and how it will get to the crematorium or burial site after the ceremony. You could organise this yourself but most people will ask a funeral director to help with the logistics. Make sure you choose a funeral director who listens to your wishes and is flexible in accommodating them. A good celebrant has a network of different funeral directors and will be able to advise you.
- If the ceremony takes place after the cremation or burial you can be even more flexible as you don’t have to worry about transporting a coffin. You may consider representing the person symbolically. If you have the ashes you can present them on a table, decorated for example with flowers, a photo and meaningful objects.
- Check out the layout and logistics of the space and how to get there with the funeral director and the celebrant. Do this as soon as possible to make sure your idea is workable. They will walk you through every step of the process, discuss potential challenges and suggest solutions, ensuring the safety of all involved.
- Make a plan and allocate tasks: make sure you know who is organising the chairs, order of service sheet, music, flowers, photos, decoration, drinks, food, etc.
- On the day you will need time to set up. If you use recorded music or a microphone be sure to prepare this and test it beforehand to make sure it works.
- Be prepared for rain or cold weather. People may need to bring an umbrella or extra warm clothes. You may need to consider hiring a marquee or having an indoor plan B at hand. If it’s a hot summer day you may look for a pace in the shade and provide extra water for your guests.
Having an outdoor funeral or memorial ceremony gives you all the freedom to celebrate a life in a way that is right for you. It requires extra planning and coordination, but your celebrant will be happy to advise and support you to ensure a beautiful day that will create a memory for life.
This article was adapted from a piece originally published in The Celebrant Magazine.
If you’ve been inspired by these outdoor funeral examples and would like to know more, you may find the following resources helpful: