‘It’s about capturing their humanness’: the future of funerals, from VR clones to hydrocremations

Colourful dress codes and live streamed services are only the beginning

An image showing a coffin and skulls
Image: Jamie Inglis for Time Out
Liv Kelly

Dark cars meander slowly towards a solemn-looking crowd dressed in black. Pall-bearers approach a hearse and lead the way for mourners who quietly file into pews, collecting their order of service. But something isn’t quite right. The face on the front is… also stood at the altar, blinking back at the crowd, from a screen?

Funerals have been around for pretty much as long as people have, with plenty of archaeological evidence suggesting that the burying of the dead started way back with the Neanderthals. Since then, they’ve varied enormously throughout the centuries, across religions and between cultures. It’s quite likely that if you picture a funeral in Britain today, the image that’s conjured up will be one of a sorrowful, formally-dressed crowd.  

But that just isn’t the reality anymore. Propelled by the pandemic and the cost of living crisis, by society’s shift to secular services and a seismic, generational change in our relationship with death, funerals are transforming. They always have been, but the last couple of years have catalysed the shifts. From the eruption of mourners singing Fairytale of New York at Shane MacGowan’s funeral to the fact that we can actually ‘recreate’ our loved ones with the help of digital clones, funerals are morphing into celebrations rather than grief-stricken events. What’s next?

The cost of dying

Death? It ain’t cheap – and the move towards non-traditional funerals has a lot to do with their hefty price tags. In life insurance company SunLife’s annual Cost of Dying report, it showed that funerals have increased in cost by an astounding 126 percent over the last 20 years: in 2004, the average cost of a funeral was £1,835, but 2024’s average is projected to be £4,141. 

The report also revealed that 44 percent of people said the cost of living crisis had an impact on their plans or organising of a funeral. Almost a quarter said paying for a funeral would negatively impact their standard of living. 

‘Finding a small plot of land where your remains are going to stay for centuries is a pretty expensive proposition,’ says Professor Michael Cholbi, who teaches philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. ‘Some people have very specific visions for their own funeral, but others have ethical considerations on their minds like “do I really want my family’s resources to be put to this use?”’

A funeral horse and carridge
Photograph: Shutterstock

That’s if they even have a service at all. According to Erica Borgstrom, Professor of Medical Anthropology at the Open University, there is a growing market in the UK for direct cremations: AKA when someone has no formal funeral. ‘Some argue this is related to financial constraints,’ she says. 

But that’s not the only reason they’ve grown in popularity. ‘Direct cremations became a much, much bigger deal [during the pandemic],’ says Dr Kate Woodthorpe, who teaches Sociology at the University of Bath. ‘It’s not all just about cost.’ They’ve not wavered in popularity either – despite there being a renewed appreciation for the in-person service post 2020, when so many people were deprived of the option to mourn together.

‘For many people, the pandemic was the first time they’d heard of Zoom funerals,’ says Professor Cholbi. But streaming a service online has been a thing since way back in the mid-noughties. ‘I first came across [watching funerals online] in 2007,’ says Dr John Troyer from the University of Bath. ‘What Covid did was make it necessary.’ Now there’s an option to pay your respects without travelling and missing (sometimes a couple of days of) work, live-streaming funerals will inevitably stick around. 

Going green

But it’s not only the financial cost that’s becoming a concern – it’s also the environmental. Co-op Funeralcare revealed in their Planning for Death report that 39 percent of UK adults would consider the environmental impacts of their funeral, with 18-29 year olds being the most concerned. ‘There’s a growing awareness of the environmental detriments [of funerals],’ says Professor Cholbi. ‘People are thinking about whether they really want their bodies to be an environmental hazard.’

The most widely-recognised form of eco-funeral is a ‘natural burial’, often in a wicker coffin. ‘My mam had a natural burial,’ says Ellie, 24, from Northumberland. ‘[She was] buried in a biodegradable coffin and families can get a tree planted and a wooden bench at the burial site. We went with a cherry tree… in decades to come it’s going to be a beautiful woodland.’ 

People are thinking about whether they really want their bodies to be an environmental hazard

In time, water cremation – also known as resomation, hydrocremation, aquamation or alkaline hydrolysis – could also become popular. Though it sounds pretty out-there, the process is actually much more gentle than your classic cremation by gas flame – and it’s thought to be significantly kinder to the environment by using water to speed up the natural process associated with burials. ‘The deceased is enclosed in a biodegradable pouch and placed in a container filled with pressurised water and a small amount of potassium hydroxide,’ explains Gill Stewart, managing director of Co-op Funeralcare. ‘Each cycle takes approximately four hours. At the end, the soft bones are reduced to a white powder similar to ash and returned to relatives in a sustainable urn.’

Water cremation isn’t yet legal in the UK and Co-op Funeralcare’s research has showed that only 11 percent of the UK population has heard of it. If you’re in that fraction, it might be because it was the chosen method of cremation for Archbishop Desmond Tutu who was aquamated in early 2022. 

Co-op Funeralcare is on the cusp of launching water cremation pilots (or resomation, as they refer to it), but it’s a seismic change for the funeral industry. ‘[There have been no] major changes to funerals in over 120 years – the first alternative to burial or cremation being the introduction of the Cremation Act of 1902 – [so] we are working closely with the government to ensure that the correct legal frameworks are in place,’ says Stewart. 

‘Funerals are for the living’

A ‘living funeral’ might sound like a morbid concept at first: when people come together to celebrate someone who’s dying, before they’ve died, while they’re in the room. Does hearing what your loved ones have to say about your life sound fulfilling? Or would it just be really bloody awkward? However you feel, this type of ceremony has become increasingly common among people who are terminally ill. 

‘In the Victorian era, [funerals] were the fate of the dead. You prayed for their souls and hoped they’d enjoy grace in the afterlife,’ says Professor Cholbi. ‘Now, a funeral is a way of ensuring that people can do the things that they very often want to do at the end of life, forgiving one another, reconciling with one another, acknowledging one another in a personal way.’

Insta followers of Dawn French will know she dusted off her Vicar of Dibley costume for her friend Kris Hallenga’s living ‘FUNeral’ back in June.

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A post shared by Dawn French (@dawnrfrench)

The concept has even cropped up in pop culture a fair few times: anyone who was a John Green-addicted teenager back in 2014 will remember the scene in the Fault in Our Stars when Augustus Waters asks to hear his own eulogy. 

A personal question

All that said, ceremonies which resemble the classic procession aren’t going away any time soon – but they increasingly come with a twist to reflect whoever they’re celebrating. 

Legendary Irish musician Shane MacGowan died back in November, and though his funeral started off as a traditional catholic mass, an emotional but joyous celebration erupted to a rendition of Fairytale of New York when attendees danced and sang along. The ‘untraditional’ elements of the funeral were slammed as a scandal by Father Paddy McCafferty, but it was described as a beautiful send off by @RareIrishStuff on X (fka Twitter). 

‘For my great aunt’s funeral, she insisted everyone wore colourful clothes to encourage a celebration of her life,’ says Kate, 23, from Leeds. A few years ago that might have been quite bold, but these days, a vibrant dress code seems just as common than wearing black. ‘I remember being interviewed about a family who had actually requested everyone wore dark colours,’ says Dr Troyner. ‘The story was that there had been this request to not wear bright colours: that’s what I was being interviewed about.’

Angela, who lives on the Isle of Wight and is a member of the Grief Support UK Facebook group, once attended a funeral where attendees all contributed to a big piece of artwork. ‘It wasn’t a painting in the traditional sense: it was a canvas where people imprinted their hands in all different colours,’ she says. ‘Fifty people contributed to [the canvas] … it allowed everyone, from young children to elderly relatives to partake in making something memorable.’ The artwork was then put on display in a community centre where the [deceased] had done some work. ‘They just had a huge passion for art and community … [the artwork] was a collective expression of remembrance.’

Traditional funerals make death feel awkward and taboo – but dying is as natural as being born

Sarah, 34, from Canterbury, is another Facebook user. Her late father’s funeral procession involved an Only Fools and Horses van instead of a hearse. ‘My Dad just loved to make people laugh, and that was a great opportunity for one last laugh,’ she says. ‘His bamboo coffin was wrapped in bunting and family photos: I dressed it myself. It was an opportunity for me to do one last thing for him, which helped the grieving process.’

She adds: ‘Traditional funerals seem very Victorian to me, and make death feel awkward and taboo. But it’s as natural as being born.’

Another reality 

On the other hand, there are some ultra-modern, not-so-natural funeral methods out there – and we’re not just talking about tuning into a live streamed service. You might have seen Kanye West gifting Kim Kardashian a hologram of her deceased Dad for her 40th birthday; you also might have danced along to ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!’ in front of eerily realistic-looking holograms of Benny, Björn, Agnetha and Frida at Abba Voyage

This sort of digital cloning technology, allowing deceased relatives to be artificially recreated, has been available in the UK since 2022. It was co-created by Dr Stephen Smith and his colleagues at LA-based AI company StoryFile after they came up with an idea to ‘save’ interviews with Holocaust survivors so future generations could listen to the people themselves.

‘It was when we were talking to the public that they said “can I do this with my grandmother or my parent?” and we realised we could change the way we save our histories,’ explains Dr Smith, who speaks to me via his hologram. His hologram is made with ‘conversational video technology’ based on actual words spoken by himself and can answer around 160 questions. 

A hologram man
Image: StoryFileDr Smith’s hologram

Anyone who wants to create a StoryFile chooses the topics their families will want to see and records answers to 75 of a potential 250,000 related questions. Their likeness is then captured by 20 synchronised cameras and StoryFile creates a digital clone.

‘One would imagine that talking to somebody who’s no longer alive would feel a little creepy,’ says Dr Smith’s hologram. ‘[But] what [families] have found is that it’s actually quite meaningful when your loved one is looking at you… it’s not about extending their life, it’s just about capturing their humanness.’ The technology was used in the UK at Dr Smith’s mother’s funeral, based on footage recorded while she was still alive.

It might sound very Black Mirror and all, but digital clones aren’t going anywhere. Who knows? Maybe we’ll be appearing from beyond the grave to virtually speak to our relatives at a service-come-party – before having our water-cremated bones scattered in a gorgeous forest, in years to come.

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