I’m not Unitarian Universalist, but I’m going to a Unitarian Universalist funeral. Now what?
First, Unitarian Universalists prefer the terms “celebration of life” and “memorial service” simply because the proceedings stay focused on memorializing the deceased by celebrating all of the things that made them unique.
“When I write a eulogy, I meet with the deceased’s family members so I can craft a portrait that rings true to who the person was,” says William Levwood, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tallahassee. “So if they were humorous, or a good listener, then that will come across so the people at the service can really feel like they’re celebrating the unique spirit of that person.”
Memorials aren’t likely to focus on the concept of the afterlife, either. Because Unitarian Universalism is values-oriented and not creedal – members are unified by their shared search for spiritual growth – and because there is a lot of theological diversity within the religion, ideas about an afterlife are varied.
“Who knows what happens after we die?” Levwood says. “Unitarian Universalists can be very comfortable with not knowing. So this pushes the focus back toward the deceased and what we do know. What kind of person was this? What good did they do? How did they connect with others and how will they live on through that connection?”
However, because of that theological diversity, if a concept of the afterlife is important to the deceased, then Levwood says his job is to switch gears and really make the celebration focus on that.
When there is a death – a family member, a friend or a death in the family of a friend – people have the same reaction. They want to be there to lend emotional support and help with practical matters if possible. Giving a hug and listening or running errands and bringing food come to mind.
The funeral traditions of different religions might be daunting simply because they are unfamiliar. To be respectful and to know what to expect when attending a Unitarian Universalist celebration of life, non-Unitarian Universalist mourners should remember a few basic things.
- Services can be held at the church or anywhere that was especially meaningful to the deceased.
- The casket might be open or closed, depending on the preference of the deceased and/or the family.
- Cremation is acceptable.
- The length of the service will vary, but they typically last up to an hour.
- Attendees should wear clothing that is appropriate and respectful of the deceased.
- Flowers can be sent.
- The scheduling and format of a visitation will vary from family to family.
- After the celebration concludes, there is likely to be a reception with food.
“There aren’t really any prescribed do’s and don’ts for a Unitarian Universalist celebration of life,” Levwood says. “It’s a pretty open religious tradition, so there will be a lot of variety when it comes to things like whether a casket is open or closed, or the style of clothing that should be worn. If the deceased loved wearing bright colors, mourners might be asked to wear bright colors to honor the deceased.”
Unitarian Universalist celebrations of life tend to echo the trappings and vernacular of the broader culture, so mourners in Tallahassee who attend aren’t likely to encounter anything that is unfamiliar to their experience and sensibilities.
Care of the deceased
There is enough of an environmental focus in Unitarian Universalism that making the choice to have a green burial apart from using a funeral home is more likely for a Unitarian Universalist than the general population. Although, as is common in Western culture, most Unitarian Universalists will turn over the deceased’s body to a mortuary either to be cremated or embalmed and prepared for burial.
Levwood officiated a celebration of life last fall where the deceased was cremated. The family interred the urn and planted a memorial seedling over it. “This is a trend,” he says. “It isn’t a green burial exactly, but the idea of it does come out of our values.”
Ceremonies and Rituals
The basic structure of a Unitarian Universalist celebration of life includes music, readings, a eulogy and a benediction – though it might not be called that – with everything centered on celebrating the individual who died.
Over his years as minister, Levwood has met with families to discuss how their loved one’s memorial should be. “The family might suggest that each person in attendance comes up to the front to light a candle from a central candle as a way of symbolizing that the deceased’s life will go on through the people they knew. Or special music might be selected – music that isn’t exactly traditional, but honors the deceased perfectly,” he says.
The celebrations of life echo Protestant traditions and ritual. “I would say that Unitarian Universalism is no longer a Christian tradition, but its roots are in the Reformation, so it still feels very Protestant,” Levwood says. “On Sundays, we sing hymns and I preach a sermon, so of course these things carry over to our memorial services.”
Levwood gave examples of how faith and tradition might play out at a celebration of life. Someone who has worked diligently to leave the religious tradition they were born into might not want anything traditionally religious included in their service. “On the other hand, the deceased might have requested that their celebration include traditional elements from that religion for the benefit of their family, or that the 23rd Psalm be included because they love that particular scripture, even if they don’t resonate with other parts of the tradition,” he says.
Methods of Disposition
As indicated in the bulleted points above, Unitarian Universalists are open to burial or cremation. In most of the memorials that Levwood has officiated over, the deceased or their families have chosen cremation. “It isn’t doctrinal, but because we tend to be environmentally focused, cremation does lend itself well to that focus,” he says.
While customs differ from religion to religion, there are universal norms of funeral care that are practiced across all religions, including care of the deceased, a ceremony or ritual and a method of disposition. In a multipart series, Bevis Funeral Home talks to the local faith community about the funeral customs of various religions, including Buddism; Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant; Hinduism; Islam; Judaism; and Unitarian Universalism.
For more information about the funeral traditions of various religious faiths, call Bevis Funeral Home at (850) 385-2193.
Image of Unitarian Universalist chalice by Nancy Pierce.