— The funeral trends of today
When Annette Gardner’s father died, he was laid to rest with a traditional church service, complete with hymns and readings — only, in life, he wasn’t very religious.
“He hardly ever went to church in his later years,” says Gardner. “It was a nice funeral, but very traditional.”
That was almost 20 years ago. The funeral Gardner held for her mother in 2021 tells quite a different story; one which marks a fresh chapter in the way many Australians mourn. In a non-denominational chapel, her mother’s true colours shone through — with purple hydrangeas and a purple coffin to match. “She really did love purple,” Gardner jokes.
According to government research, Australia is rapidly becoming more religiously diverse. Within this trend, census data shows that almost 40 per cent of Australians identified as non-religious in 2021, a significant increase from 16.7 per cent in 2001.
In the world of funerals, rising religious diversity — and softening tradition — has created space for greater self-expression. Ray Leon, a funeral director with Simplicity Funerals, says there has been a shift away from strict adherence to specific rites and rituals, with many Australians — both religious and non-religious — opting for simpler funerals with personal touches. “People are taking aspects of traditional and modern funeral practices, and creating an affordable tailor-made experience,” he says.
Beyond the boundaries of “how things used to be”, the unique life story of a person can come to the fore, he explains. Leon has seen people arrive at their funeral in everything from a Harley hearse to a classic Holden HR Ute. Increasingly, services include simple, bespoke elements such as personal collections of art and belongings, or stories interwoven with photographs and video messages. “Recently, we even had a family who wanted a VB-themed coffin, and that’s exactly what we did.”
For funeral directors, the process of finding a creative space with a family is a sensitive one, yet immensely rewarding as loved ones become empowered to truly celebrate a life lived, while processing some of the grief of a life lost, Leon explains. For families, the modern, non-religious funeral offers unlimited potential for self-expression — which, as experienced by Sydney local, Jessica Gray — can be a blessing and, at times, a curse.
Gray farewelled her father, John, earlier this year. “Creating a funeral for Dad — who wasn’t religious and left barely any instructions as to his wishes — brought us creative freedom to reflect and celebrate who he was, yet also constant questioning in a time that was already so uncertain.”
The secret was to home in on personality, Gray explains. “Dad wasn’t a religious person, but he was spiritual. The reading we chose for the day, Buddhist Blessing, resonated with who he was to those that loved him,” she says.
It’s a sentiment echoed by professionals too. “There’s beauty in simplicity,” says Leon. “After all, a funeral doesn’t have to cost the earth to mean the world.”
In 2018, Gray’s father founded a local dog group, the Dogs of Double Bay. What started as a small WhatsApp group, grew into a 200-person-strong community with regular Friday afternoon drinks and annual Christmas parties. It was fitting then, that the dog lover and community carer was commemorated with a heart-warming farewell in a local pub from over 100 guests — and their dogs too.
Gardner also found comfort in coming back to basics. “It was a simple, beautiful funeral,” she says, speaking of her mother’s send off last year. “The special touches really reflected her love of life and who she was. We look back on that day and smile — Mum would have been proud.”
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