Why we need to rethink funeral spaces

Funeral at Willow Row Barrow, Cambridgeshire


On a chilly but bright autumn morning, the family and friends of David Sinclair gathered to both celebrate his life and acknowledge his death at the place he had chosen as his final resting place, Willow Row Barrow, in the Cambridgeshire countryside. It was the first time that a funeral ceremony was held at the barrow, and the experience left a deep impression on everyone who attended.

It was a huge honour to lead the ceremony at Willow Row Barrow. The beautiful 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.

Funerals at places like Willow Row Barrow are still quite unusual, but the demand for alternative funeral venues is growing.

The majority of the funerals take place in traditional funeral chapels. They represent a view on death and funerals that an increasing number of people no longer connect to.

What does a funeral space look like that meets the evolving beliefs and needs of their users? And what alternative options are there?


We need to rethink funeral spaces

As a funeral celebrant, I conduct services for people of all beliefs and none. The funeral services I co-create with my clients are tailored to their beliefs and wishes and are shaped around the story, spirituality and personality of the person who has died.

The majority of the funerals I conduct take place in a traditional crematorium or cemetery chapel. For many people, this is the obvious choice. It reminds them of funeral chapels they’ve seen in the past, or they simply take it for granted that this is the place where funeral services are being held.

However, the design and functionalities of the traditional funeral chapel does not always reflect the evolving beliefs, wishes and needs of the people who are using these spaces. This is not something that people tend to consider, and If they do, they might not realise that alternative options are available.

That’s why we need to rethink funeral spaces. A well-designed space will help mourners have a good, comforting and positive experience within the sad and often extremely difficult event of a saying goodbye to someone who has died and will help facilitate the transformational experience that a funeral can be.

What could such a space look like?

In the below, I will firstly present some examples of traditional crematorium chapels and discuss how they reflect a specific belief system. Secondly, I will explore in more detail how people’s beliefs and views on funerals have been changing, followed by some suggested design principles for contemporary funeral spaces. I will provide some examples of crematorium and cemetery spaces that reflect these design principles and will also present a selection of contemporary spaces that, in my view, provide relevant and beautiful alternatives for the traditional funeral chapel.

This blog is part of a research project on funeral and memorial spaces of which the results will be presented at the RememberMe Conference at Hull University, April 2018. If you are interested in contributing to this project by sharing your experience with funeral spaces, traditional and alternative, please get in touch. I would love to hear from you!


Ceci n’est pas une eglise (This is not a church)

If you’ve ever been to a funeral in the UK, it may well be that the chapel where the service was held looked something like this:

Golders Green Crematorium London, West Chapel

Or this:

Breakspear Crematorium, London, West Chapel

What do they remind you of?

That’s right. A typical crematorium or cemetery chapel in the UK looks and feels like a church.

Let’s have a closer look.

  1. The coffin is placed on a raised platform at the back end of the chapel. This is called the catafalque. From here, it will be moved into the area where the cremators are. Usually, the act of entering the coffin into the cremator takes place behind the scenes, detached from the mourners.
  2. People leading the service and other speakers stand at the lectern, usually a fixed unit opposite or next to the catafalque.
  3. Mourners sit in pews or chairs that cannot be moved. These are set up in rows, theatre style, facing the elevated coffin. The pews typically display hymn books.
  4. A table at the back presents some candles, a cross or other religious symbols which in most chapels can be removed if the service is secular. There are also some (usually artificial) flowers.
  5. Dominating colours are dark: brown (wooden pews, brick walls) and in the above examples burgundy, dark blue (carpet, curtains). There is no view on the outdoors. Sun and daylight peep through (stained glass) windows.
  6. There’s an organ, either located at the front or at the back of the chapel.

And there is something else going on. Layout and design of funeral chapels have a strongly functional character. There is a ‘one door in and one door out’ routing, aimed at speeding up the flow of congregations. Time slots are generally between 20-45 minutes. This routine of the tight schedules creates a tension with the emotions of the bereaved (Klaassens, Groote, 2012).


The narrative of traditional UK funeral chapels

Architectural and interior design plays an important role in our experience of a space and what happens in this space. It affects how we feel, and the ‘language’ of the space reflects a cultural meaning. The design influences user behaviour and emotions and can either amplify feelings or assuage them (Klaassens, Groote, 2012)

Although crematoria chapels are non-denominational venues, many of them, as we have seen in the above examples, remind of a church and have a highly functional character, aimed at an efficient routing of both mourners and the corpse.

The design of a traditional funeral chapel reflects the following narratives on belief and death:

  • We are gathering in a solemn place that’s defined by a religious (Christian) tradition. The windows show symbols and characters from the bible, the catafalque and the table at the back remind of an altar.
  • Grieving is a private matter. We shed our tears privately. We are sitting in rows and have not eye-contact with the people sitting around us. Emotions are not being openly shared.
  • Death has is own, scared space. The audience is facing the coffin which is at a distance, elevated. The coffin is sealed. Death is apparently something not to be touched, and not to be too close to.
  • Mourners are passive observers rather than active participants. The officiant is standing opposite or next to the coffin. They have a fixed position at a certain distance from the audience, talking into a one-way direction. A funeral is something to be listening to rather than an event in which people actively participate. The final act of cremation usually happens behind the scenes, physically and emotionally detached from the mourners.
  • Death is foremost a solemn, sad occasion. The colours and architecture breathe tradition and sombreness.
  • Efficiency and functionality are key. Fixed time slots and a one-way routing system for both mourners and the corpse make it difficult to take time to share emotions and to create a unique personalised farewell.

For some mourners, chapels with a similar design may well match their expectations of a funeral service, their beliefs, and how they perceive death. Older people (75+) in general, prefer the more traditional, comfortable and expected service in a crematorium or church (Storch p.26). They will appreciate the solemn atmosphere and the religious symbols. The chapel design will provide comfort and hope, and the efficient routing gives structure and a sense of calm as people know what to expect. For them, this type of funeral space will be fitting and relevant.


The spiritual landscape and our view on funerals is changing

For people of different beliefs and spiritualties however, traditional funeral chapels may not reflect their views of death, life, and what they are looking for in a funeral service. This group is growing.

In a YouGov poll for the British Humanist Association, conducted between 29 November and 1 December 2016 among 4,375 Britons, 27% indicated they would wish to have a humanist or another form of non-religious funeral. The wish for a Christian funeral was expressed by 36%, another religious funeral by 3%, while 34% in the aggregate were undecided, did not want any ceremony, or preferred not to say.

Increasingly, people create their own narratives around death, combining elements from various sources, religious and none. I reviewed 30 recently written funeral scripts to get a better understanding of how families describe the beliefs of the person who has died. The majority of the funerals in this sample (28 scripts) were for people whose belief was not specified (typical answer: ‘he did not believe in anything’ or: ‘I don’t know’) or whose belief system consisted of a mix of beliefs and influences (‘She had faith but was no churchgoer’, or: ‘He believed in living a good life and that his soul would move on to an after-life’.)

The majority of scripts reflect a belief that the deceased lives on in our memories, and in the legacy they leave behind (27 scripts). Most people hope or believe that there is something beyond this life and that the deceased lives on in one form or another. Only four of the scripts I reviewed explicitly reflected the belief that there is nothing after our death.

Some example answers from families:

“I hope and believe that he is being reunited with his parents and siblings”

“He used to say: your legacy is all that that remains”

 “She was a lapsed catholic but still had some belief”

“I think our soul leaves our body and moves towards a beautiful and peaceful place”

“She’s gone back where she came from: oblivion”

As much as a funeral is about acknowledging a death, a funeral ritual helps people gains a sense of the significance of life that is ended, and life in a broader sense (Davis, p. 256).


The meaning of funerals today

In contemporary funerals, we don’t only observe a growing variety in beliefs and spiritualities (as shown above), also the meaning and focal point of the funeral is changing. The centre of attention is no longer God or another sacred figure, but the person who has died. Families choose to reflect upon the life and personality of the deceased and to celebrate their life.

The tone and meaning of a funeral is no longer sombre and based on a given structure and liturgy, but increasingly becomes a celebration of the life of the deceased, allowing all sorts of emotions to arise: grief, sadness, gratitude, happiness.

It’s not about the connection with God, but being in a community of family, friends and other people who are related to the person who has died who share memories of the deceased and catch up at a reception after the funeral service. Funerals are social events. They are ‘a place to express and receive social support, enable reacquaintance with others connected to the deceased and provide an opportunity for socialisation’ (Storch p.8).

Families may also want to connect to people who can’t be there in person by live-streaming the funeral, recording the ceremony or taking photos. This requires good quality technologies available in the venue.

Increasingly, family members and friends of the person how has died, adults and children, actively participate in the funeral services. For example, they may wish to light a candle, share memories, read a eulogy, lay flowers on a coffin, play music, blow bubbles.

This requires flexibility, not only in terms of physical space, but also when it comes to the duration of a funeral service. At a crematorium, a single time slot is typically between 20-45 minutes. For most people, it’s hard to predict how much time they will need to say, feel and do in order to celebrate a life, say goodbye and are ready to let go. Also, time slots at crematoria are generally between office hours.

I am currently not aware of crematoria or cemeteries that offer the option to do a service in the evening, but let me know if they do.


Design principles for contemporary funeral spaces

Ok, so let’s dream for a while. Assume we are not being restricted by any costs or regulations (many traditional funeral chapels are Grade II Listed buildings and we can’t simply renovate them). Assume we can work from a blanc canvas. If we would design funeral spaces that would help reflect the wishes, values and emerging spiritualities of people who are using these spaces today, what would these spaces look like?

Some suggested design principles:

  • Neutral design with room for personalisation

Nowadays, many people do not attach themselves to one particular belief system. Their belief is rather an eclectic mix of values and traditions, religious and not. This can be honoured by a neutral design of the space that can be tailored to individual ritual experiences and specific wishes, for examples by decorating the room, placing objects or projecting symbols and images to the walls.

  • Connection to nature

Many people mention elements from nature when talking about death and the afterlife. Words that families often use are heaven, earth, sunshine, paradise, butterflies, flowers, garden. A space that has an outlook to natural elements through glass ceilings, window and doors, and placed in a natural environment will support this. Nature has a symbolic significance and can have a healing effect as it can provide a calm and serene feeling.

  • Flexibility in layout and timings

Moveable chairs, trestles, a mobile lectern will enable users to adjust the space to their wishes. It allows them to sit in rows facing the coffin, but also to sit or stand in a circle around the coffin and to speak from different positions. Flexibility could also be considered with respect to durations and opening times. Allow people to use the space for as long as they need; consider opening times in evenings and weekends.

  • Deepen the significance of the emotional experience

A funeral is a very emotional and for some people one of the most difficult experiences in their lives. Architectural language can serve to deepen the significance of the emotional experience for mourners (Klaassens & Groote, p. 120). It’s important that the space provides a safe, warm, welcoming and comforting place. This can be achieved by use of colours, light, round shapes, use of wood and other natural materials. The family might want to have a private moment with or without the coffin before or after the service. A separate room where they can gather will help meet this wish.

  • Inclusive language

Inclusive, non-denominational language will help express what a funeral aims to be: a comforting, warm, personal, safe experience, and an opportunity to meet and greet others. Replace, for example, chapel with ‘Hall’, or ‘Aula’; waiting room with ‘Welcome Room’.

  • Hospitality

Offering drinks and food before and after the service meets multiple needs: it welcomes people, especially if they’ve had to do quite some travel; it enables to have the drinks straight after the service at the same location so people don’t have to move to another place. Facilities for wheel chair users and people with special needs is important to make them feel welcome too.

  • Technology

It’s not always possible for all family members and friends to attend the funeral. They might live abroad or not able to attend. A live stream connection, film- and recording facilities will enable people who can’t be physically present to connect to the service.


Some examples of contemporary cemetery and crematorium chapels

A few examples of funeral spaces that have applied these (or a selection of) design principles (with thanks to members of Good Funeral Guild who provided me with the links, and management of the venues involved for allowing me to use the photos):


Baldarroch Crematorium, Crathes, Aberdeenshire

Baldarroch Crematorium has a modern, light and airy chapel with a natural look. Flexible seating. Instead of a catafalque the chapel has an antique Chapel Bier for the coffin to rest upon. Weekly fresh floral tributes. The crematorium allows 1 hour and 30 minutes between each service, giving the family time to get settled, have a personal service and leave unhurried. Integrated audio and video system and facilities for disabled visitors.

The Chapel of Baldarroch Crematorium, Crathes, Aberdeenshire. Source: www.bardarrochcrematorium.co.uk


Greenacres Woodland Burials

Greenacres Woodland Burial sites have two buildings in a wooded valley: a Gathering Hall for families to arrive and settle, and Woodland Hall for the funeral, memorial service or wake. Note that these spaces are called halls and not chapels! Services duration is one hour, and families have the option to extend this by adding time before or after. Modern design with natural look and views on the woodlands from the Hall. No catafalque, the coffin is placed on trestles. The Gathering Hall offers catering facilities.

Greenacres Woodland Burials, Woodland Hall. Source: www.greenacrescelebrate.co.uk


Westerleigh Crematorium Bristol 

Westerleigh Crematorium is located in a quiet and rural setting. The chapel has windows on each side, providing views on surrounding ponds and nature. The Hospitality suite has three separate rooms which can be booked for receptions (pre- and post-funeral) and wakes. Modern music and audio-visual system with option to webcast a service. There is a café (Willow Tree café) open to the public for light refreshments and lunches.

Chapel and Willow Tree cafe of Westerleigh Crematorium, Bristol. Source: www.westerleighcrem.co.uk


Alternative funeral spaces

If the traditional crematorium or cemetery chapel does not feel like the right place and a good alternative funeral space is not at hand it is important to realise that a funeral service can take place anywhere. A funeral can be held in a community hall, a function room, a school, in a hotel, at home, outside, in a yurt, tipi or marquee, at a sports ground and wherever the owner gives permission.

When considering an alternative venue it is important to check the layout and space, especially when the coffin will be present, as carrying in and out will require specific logistics. Not every venue will allow a coffin. It’s important to discuss if the venue is willing to host funerals and will be flexible in accommodating the family’s wishes. A good funeral celebrant or funeral director will be able to give advice.

If a venue does not allow for the coffin to be on site a direct cremation followed by a ceremony at the venue of the family’s choice could be an alternative option.

Below, some examples of venues that host funerals (and allow for a coffin to be on site).


Sacred Stones: Cambridgeshire, Shropshire

Sacred Stones are unique monuments for placing cremation ashes and they provide a beautiful space for funerals or memorial ceremonies. There is no set duration for a service, and the sites are open every day of the week. Affordable and flexible in catering for families’ needs. Reception possible on-site. Outdoor setting. The funeral for David Sinclair, mentioned in the introduction to this article, was held at one of the Sacred Stones sites.

Sacred Stones, Willow Row Barrow Cambridgeshire.


Riverstone Hall, Buckfastleigh

Stone barn, light and airy open up to the eaves, with a wood burner. Families can decorate as they wish. Flexible seating. Audio system available and easy access. Unlimited time, gatherings before and after the ceremony possible in the barn or outside. The Hall is managed by Heart and Soul Funerals.

Riverstone Hall, Buckfastleigh


Cookhill Village Hall

Warm atmosphere, flexible seating. Kitchen facilities and easy access. Close to Woodland Burial site. This suggestion was made by A Natural Undertaking, independent undertaker based in Birmingham, who offer more options for alternative and affordable venues on their site.

Cookhill Village Hall, Funeral by A Natural Undertaking. Source: www.anaturalundertaking.co.uk


Lauderdale House, Highgate, London

Lauderdale House is a Grade II* Heritage House dating from 1582 with beautiful views overlooking Waterlow Park. It is a short walk from Highgate Cemetery and a short distance from Golders Green, Hendon and East Finchley Crematoriums and Cemeteries. In-house catering functions. Hire per hour.

Lauderdale House, Highgate, London.


Hedsor House, Buckinghamshire

Hedsor House is a Georgian Mansion House in close proximity to Slough Crematorium and Chiltern Woodland Burial Park. Indoor and outdoor options for ceremonies. Flexible in catering for families’ needs but you will need quite a budget.

Funeral service at Hedsor House. Copyright Hedsor House.


Final thoughts

A well-designed funeral space or an alternative venue that meets the wishes and needs of a family helps create an environment where people can express their emotions, say their farewells, pay tribute to a life lived and find hope and comfort for the time to come in a way that feels right for them.

However, a good funeral is not defined by space alone. A funeral director who is flexible and creative in meeting the needs of a family, an officiant who guides the family in the journey of creating and having the funeral ceremony, and helpful staff at the venue will make a difference in how families feel and think about a funeral.

It’s important that we have open dialogues about death, dying and funeral options. Many people just don’t have a clue and go with what they assume is the only option: a scripted funeral service in a traditional chapel.

We need to rethink funeral spaces within in the context of rethinking funerals and how we deal with death in general. Less efficiency, more humanity.


Help change the world of funerals and take part in a survey!

Have you held a funeral or memorial service at an alternative venue and would you like to share your story? Please get in touch to take part in a survey: rosalie@ritualstoday.co.uk. The results will be part of a presentation at the RememberMe conference in Hull, April 2018. All answers will remain anonymous.


Key references:

Davies, D. (2017). Death, Rituals and Belief. The Rhetoric of Funerary Rites. Bloomsbury.

Klaassens, M., Grootte, P. (2012). Designing a place for goodbye: The architecture of crematoria in the Netherlands. In D.Davies & C. Park (eds.), Emotion, identity and death: Mortality across disciplines. Ashgate.

Storch, E.L. (2017). Funerals: Life’s final event. How alternative venues influence the experience and design of a funeral. Dissertation, unpublished.





2 thoughts on “Why we need to rethink funeral spaces

  • Beatiful piece. But can you tell people where you can get permission in america too. I always say preplan too.

  • Hi Micah – many thanks for your comment. I am not familiar with alternative funeral spaces in America but if you contact funeral homes and celebrants in your area I am sure they can advise.

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