Unitarian Universalist Ceremonies Celebrate Life
Unitarian Universalist end-of-life services tend to be based on the celebration of the life of the deceased. For Unitarian Universalists, there is no right or wrong way to celebrate a life.
UUs keep the deceased as the focal point to ensure a memorial is personal.
UU Celebrant Cathy Abernathy has conducted multiple Celebration of Life Services and Unitarian Church burial services. She shared, “Typically what I have done is share readings, music, read a biography of the person, and invite attendees to share some of their memories.” Because of this deeply personal service, many express how meaningful they feel the services are.
Unitarian Funeral Services Often Are Casket-less
“Funeral is a term used for certain faiths and traditions when the body and casket is present at the service,” notes Rev. Julie Lombard of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Midland Texas.
This is common among Roman Catholic & orthodox Christians. UUs, on the other hand, tend to do memorials with neither body nor casket present. Often this is because the Unitarian Universalist view on afterlife finds meaning in the interconnectedness of all humanity and the Earth.
If a body is present at a UU memorial, it usually is only at the committal or graveside service (a very different part of the end of life journey).
It is not uncommon for UUs to scatter ashes over caskets.
Not Many Funeral Homes Cater to Unitarian Universalists
Reverend Elizabeth Mount of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Indiana, Pennsylvania says that it’s difficult to find funeral homes that provide services tailored to UUs. “Most are very Christian and would offer Christian-focused service options.”
When looking for a location to host a Celebration of Life Memorial, Rev. Mount recommends contacting the nearest UU congregation for UU, nonreligious, interfaith, or pagan memorial services.
While a good funeral home may guide a person towards a UU church, that’s technically not their business. Funeral directors will help guide and support families in the choices they make, but they often have never heard of UU because it is such a small denomination.
“My experience has been that funeral homes do what the clergy and family desire,” comments Rev. Ann Marie Alderman. “It is important to engage a UU clergy person from the beginning if one wants a UU service.”
One should not expect a funeral home have UU worship materials either, so a local congregation may be helpful to supply them.
Most Unitarian Universalist Memorials Take Place at UU Churches
Most UU celebrations of life are done in Unitarian Universalist Churches. Still, as a non-dogmatic religion, UUs may equally have their services in shared spaces, assisted living facilities, or other non-denominational locations.
More important than the location is the experience.
According to John Thompson of the Unitarian Church of Barneveld, “As a church, we need to support the people who are left behind, when someone dies. These things are what makes a better experience.”
Unaffiliated or “Wandering” UUs Should Contact UU Churches
Rev. Julie Lombard of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Midland Texas recommends that the unaffiliated, wandering UU, and concerned funeral homes should contact the minister at the nearest UU church.
If that is too problematic, live streaming of services has become more commonplace and more ministers are embracing the Celebration of Life service digitally. In fact, 20% of funerals this pandemic have had digital funeral ceremonies according to a recent FuneralFide survey.
UU Ministers More Likely to Waive Honorariums for their Congregation
Often, if someone is an active member of a UU church, the minister that serves that church does it for no charge. Of course, they may ask for help to reimburse far-flung travel expenses.
If the person needing the service is unaffiliated, then those fall under the memorial for non-members which comes with a fee structure that each church can provide.
UU Ministers seem to be more accommodating than other religions when it comes to funeral officiant fees.
Coronavirus Pandemic Has Impacted UU Funeral Services
End-of-life work has been altered greatly by the Coronavirus pandemic. Rev. Lombard has helped multiple families cope with loss during the pandemic.
“I have only done one memorial service since the start of the pandemic (for a person who did not die of covid),” she remarks. “That family chose to have an extremely small gathering graveside/outside.” This aligns with what FuneralFide uncovered in their nationwide pandemic death survey where 16% of Americans reported having an outdoor gathering.
Rev. Lombard adds that attendees should expect to be masked and maintain social distance. In addition, services may be shorter.
Still, some families have chosen to wait to memorialize their loved ones until in-person gatherings normalize.
Additional UU Death and Funeral Resources
- Prayers for Hard Times is a great book for Unitarian funeral readings as well as blessings for Unitarian Universalist funeral services
- Beyond Absence contains warming quotes, blessings, reading and Unitarian funeral poems for UU death services
- In Memoriam provides a wonderful template for UU funeral services
- Facing Death, Loss, and Grief from UUA
- Liz James’s article titled “How do Unitarian Universalists mourn?” in the Fall 2020 UU World Magazine (vol. XXXIV No. 3), which discusses “essential elements” of funeral ceremonies.
- Edward Searl’s book, Teaching the World to Die, for the history and landscape of UU death rituals.
About the Author: Evan Waters
Evan Waters is the founder of FuneralFide and a lifelong Unitarian Universalist. Evan was a member of the Morristown Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in New Jersey where he and his family enjoyed attending services and sharing in the common beliefs of the congregation. Now, Evan helps families find appropriate aftercare services.