A brave new world? Contemporary practices in the UK and Ireland

What would you have us do with your body after death? Would you consider some altruistic options, such as donating your body to medical science, to a grateful anatomy school or perhaps volunteer your corneas, heart and liver to science, for the potential benefit of others? Perhaps these may not appeal to you. Instead maybe you will consider the idea of having your body launched into the deep vacuum of space. Or perhaps you may wish to hedge your bets on future resurrection, after a long cryogenic slumber? Most of us, however, are likely to opt for a more modest request. Although littered with variations, our choices seem centered on two approaches, burial or cremation.

Comparing the Insular Islands

The Irish bury their dead. After the passing of a loved one, a well-oiled script goes into play. The family of the deceased call on the services of a local funeral director, typically a family run business with extensive ties to the local community. After consultation with the family, the funeral director generally does much of the heavy lifting, engaging with representatives of the state and addressing the requirements needed to take ownership of the body. With the state business complete, all that remains is the carrying out of subjective ritual and paying tribute to centuries of tradition. These wakes and funerals are the space where we create meaning, services littered with symbols and personalised reflections, followed by a disposal practice that puts the remains to rest. For the average Irish deceased, the journey from death to disposal is completed within about three to four days. These are of course over generalisations. Each of Ireland’s 32 counties do death a little different but invariably we do find strong commonalities as identified above.

What about the UK? Given our history, it is reasonable to believe that there would be strong commonalities. After all, Ireland and the UK have many similar values. We share a strong cultural heritage. We share a language. Both countries have strong historic links with Christianity. So in death, we do find shared ideas. In both countries, the administrative state takes ownership of the body. If the deceased dies suddenly, medical practitioners review the corpse and work to assign a cause of death. The body of the deceased is only handed over to others once the state has ticked its series of legislative boxes. From here however, we find that the UK and Ireland are worlds apart. As noted earlier, the Irish deceased moves from death to disposal in short order. Within the UK, this intermission can take longer. Within Ireland, delays are often rooted in the complex space of the Irish diaspora, waiting for a family member to return home from abroad. Within the UK, timing of disposal is largely a matter a service availability. So too can we find differences in types of disposal methods. Although cremation has indeed become increasingly popular within Ireland, the practice still stands at a relatively low figure of approximately 15 percent. Compare this to the UK’s 75 percent.

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Within the UK, one finds that crematoriums are in abundance. The total number of crematoriums on the island of Ireland is less than ten. While these numbers reflect a wide array of differences between these two countries, there are significant variations in the way loved ones say goodbye to their dead. The contemporary British are offered a myriad of choices when planning for a funeral. From Lego coffins, to funeral clowns, the UK funeral industry is an open market. Far from reposing in a funeral home, if requested the deceased body can be embalmed and placed in a series of upright positions, whether sitting on a motorbike or standing guard by their own coffin. Cremated remains can be transformed into a wide variety of objects and wearables, whether an illustration in a photo frame or the construction of ash jewellery. The average Brit can also consider a somewhat more symbolic wish, placing cremated remains into a series of fireworks, allowing the deceased to ‘go out with a bang’.

Professor Tony Walter, co-founder of CDAS (Centre for Death and Society) makes an interesting observation about the different codes of behaviour within Irish and British funeral services. He points out that the Irish funeral is mostly an open event. Once the death is announced, loved ones of the deceased and their families are welcome to attend services. There are, of course, exceptions. If the family wishes to hold a private service, such a preference would be included in the official public death notice. However, this opt-out approach to funeral attendance stands in stark relief to popular practice in the UK, where arriving at a funeral service without consultation can be viewed as disrespectful and rather intrusive.

Ireland’s Market Moving Forward   

While both UK and Irish death ways seem terribly different, significant evidence is beginning to emerge which suggest that Irish customs may be shifting in the direction of their liberal British counterparts. In recent years, Ireland has developed sharply into a modern, liberal, cosmopolitan society. Through travel, the media and the entrance of new businesses to the Irish funeral market, the Irish are being offered increased choice and importantly, with the reduction in the authority of Catholic Church, many are beginning to welcome new options. From my own research, I frequently speak with people who wish for a somewhat more elaborate service, something more meaningful to them than those found in the catalogue of the Catholic guidebook. While the Catholic Church in Ireland has begun to push back against personalised funerals, most notably restricting the choice of music played at a Catholic funeral mass, their wishes are increasingly falling on deaf ears (Myers, 2016). While the Catholic Church officially lifted its ban on cremation over four decades ago, today Church officials insist on the practice of burying cremated remains. Ash jewellery and other practices alike are simply off the table.

“Through travel, the media and the entrance of new businesses to the Irish funeral market, the Irish are being offered increased choice “

The Future of Choice: Seeing the Dead As Alive

It would appear that for the Irish, death like many other aspects of Western life, is beginning to give way to consumerism and materialism. This is not to say that tradition and religious belief are no longer important to the Irish. They most certainly are. In one of my most recent pieces, I found that a chief motivation in choosing cremation had little to do with consumerism. The participants I interviewed indicated a preference for cremation due to shortage of space in the family plot. Buried remains take up space. Cremated remains often side-line that obstacle. Any individual approaching the Irish marketplace should remember to see family bonds and kinship as a powerful motivators in working with their respective clients. Consumerism can however work to overcome some historical horrors posed by death and disposal. Throughout  my research, it is not uncommon to hear people speaking of their dead or their future dead self as somehow being alive after death and in some way experiencing their disposal type. Many interviewees take great solace in having their loved ones’ remains with them in their family home. The idea of burying a loved one can be horrifying to the bereaved, particularly in the weeks shortly after death. Others find the practice of burning their dead agonising, particularly after embalmers and cosmetic professionals work to make the body of the deceased entirely recognisable in the short time following death. In burial, something of the body survives. In this instance, I have found significant evidence to support Walter’s (1996) reflections on cremation, highlighting that within Western culture, we find it difficult to link fire with positive imagery.

For researchers, funeral directors and businesses alike, these are interesting times. It is quite possible that within a generation or less, post-death practices between the UK and Ireland may become indistinguishable. While I doubt this will be the case, I do believe that market will continue to expand, encompassing options that might seem strange or ludicrous to people today. The development of Holo-technology, HoloLens and other personalised keepsake technologies will no doubt continue (Myers, 2018). As long as people die, their loved ones will attempt to keep them alive. In a global digital age, the probabilities for innovation seem somewhat limitless. I suggest this will be the same in death as it is in life.

Writer and a sociologist, Dr Kevin Myers, is a graduate of University College Dublin. His research interests include examining issues surrounding culture, religion, meaning, death, dying and bereavement. He is particularly interested in the role of culture in bridging the gap between individuals and knowledge of death and loss.

Myers, K (2018 Forthcoming) ‘Wakes, Cremations and Resurrecting  John Snow: Culture and Death in the British Isles’ Submitted for Peer Reviewed Publication.
Myers, K (2016). ‘Keeping the Dead Alive: Death and Use of Social Media in Contemporary Ireland’. In: Ryan, S. eds. Death and the Irish: A Miscellany. Dublin: Wordwell Press
Walter, T. (2007) ‘Modern Grief, Postmodern Grief’, International Review of Sociology, 17(1), pp. 123-134.
Walter, T (1996) The Eclipse of Eternity: A Sociology of the Afterlife. London: Macmillan.

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