Unitarian Universalist Funerals: Customs, Readings & What to Expect

Updated

Of the many religions around the world, perhaps one of the least known is the Unitarian Universalist movement. Though their congregations can be found on every continent and most countries around the world, knowledge of their beliefs and practices is limited to those outside the fold. 

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Unitarian Universalists base much of the way they worship and live on the core principle of acceptance. Everyone is welcome to join no matter what the individual holds to be true as long as they are willing to accept others with differing viewpoints. Given the guiding principle of acceptance, it might not be too surprising to find that “UU” funerals will be similar to some you’ve already attended.

What Happens During a Unitarian Universalist Funeral?

Whether it be for a coworker, friend, or family member, it’s always a good idea to find out what to expect at a funeral. If you’ve attended a typical Western or Christian funeral, you’ll probably find that these funerals sound pretty similar to those you’ve experienced.

Each funeral or memorial service is specifically crafted by family members and the presiding minister to honor the person who has passed away.

Order of service

Unlike some religions, Unitarian Universalist funerals have numerous elements, but no set order they must follow. The following is what you can expect to experience in a typical funeral though the order may be changed around depending on family preferences.

Eulogy

A eulogy is an opportunity for a minister, loved one, or friend to speak about the deceased and share meaningful memories about their life. Most often, this task is given to someone who knew the deceased the best — often close family members and friends — though ministers may speak during this time if the family chooses.

For Unitarian Universalist funerals, a eulogy is given by one primary person. Immediately following the eulogy, there is an open invitation for friends, family members, and coworkers to share memories and stories about the deceased. Unitarian Universalist members see community as incredibly important. A funeral is considered a precious time for community members to share their grief and other memories about a deceased member.

Poems and readings

After the eulogy, families might choose to have time for reading funeral poems or other readings that are particularly meaningful to the deceased or the family. As with other Western or secular funerals, this is optional but often included.

Prayers or meditations

There is frequently a time of prayer and meditation at some point in the service. Prayers might be pre-chosen or spontaneous.

Most often, a few people are chosen to offer up prayers during the service in remembrance of their loved one. The minister and family members are often the ones who offer up prayers during this part of the service.

Singing hymns or playing songs

Similar to other funerals, there will be a time of singing or playing songs during the funeral. This might be interspersed throughout the funeral program or given its own separate time. The way songs are sung and which songs are chosen depend on family members as they plan the funeral.

Time of personal reflection

For Unitarian Universalists, funerals are similar to memorial services in that the funeral is all about the person who passed away. The focus is not on the afterlife but on contributions the deceased made while living and how they impacted their community.

During the time of personal reflection, those in attendance might consider how the deceased directly impacted their life. They might also use this time to think of ways that the deceased will still be present due to their unique influence. 

Prayers

Prayers form just one of many parts of Unitarian Universalist funerals. Prayers might be pre-chosen or a person might be selected to pray and given freedom regarding what they say.

There is no “set” list of prayers used at Unitarian Universalist funerals so there is a lot of freedom in what prayers are chosen or what is spoken during this time.

Readings

As with many western funerals, Unitarian Universalist funerals often set aside time for funeral readings. The readings chosen often hold special meaning for the family of the deceased and speak about the influence of the deceased on their community.

There isn’t a set list of readings. Rather, families are given freedom in what they choose to read in celebration of their loved one’s life and contributions to the community.

Funeral songs

Funeral songs are present at nearly every Unitarian Universalist funeral. Songs are chosen by the family and minister as they work together to plan the funeral or memorial service. These can be hymns or recorded music that is meaningful to all parties. 

Similar to funeral readings, there is no set list of funeral songs to choose from at UU funerals. Family members choose songs and hymns that are most relevant and meaningful to them and their deceased loved one.

Most Unitarian Universalist churches still employ an organist for worship services and special occasions. Organists are often hired for funeral services, as well. If an organist is part of a funeral service, they will most often play music for those gathered to sing along to such as hymns or other relevant songs.

Other traditions

While the above items are included in nearly every Unitarian Universalist funeral, there are many other traditions that you might see.

Programs

Some families will choose to print physical programs so attendees can follow along with the order of service. Some families might offer digital programs instead of printed programs if they are particularly eco-conscious.

Flowers

Most families will ensure flowers are present at the funeral. Flowers can also be sent by friends and family and will be placed in the chapel or gathering place where the funeral takes place.

Receiving Line

Some families will choose to set up a receiving line if the number attending is large enough that they might not get to greet each person after the funeral. There is no standard when it comes to receiving lines. These choices depend on the individual preferences of family members.

Reception with food 

Most families will hold a reception following the funeral for all attendees. This might be held at the church’s reception hall or a nearby restaurant. 

Display photographs

Funeral services held at the church can take full advantage of the church facilities including tables to display memorabilia and photographs.

Most families choose to display a variety of pictures of their loved ones from early childhood to life. Visitors are given time to peruse pictures and remember the deceased before and after the funeral service.

Guestbook

You’ll likely find a guestbook placed at the photograph display. This is for those in attendance to sign at some point during the funeral. You can sign in when first arriving or before leaving for the reception afterward.

Unitarian Universalist Burial and Remembrance Customs

When you’re invited to a Unitarian Universalist funeral, you might see an open casket, closed casket, an urn, or neither one. Since funerals are meant to celebrate the life of the deceased, the emphasis is rarely on the aspect of death, itself.

Cremation vs. burial

Unitarian Universalists have the choice of burial or cremation. Either one is officially accepted by the UU church. Deciding between the two simply comes down to individual family beliefs and preferences.

Remembering and mourning the deceased

The time of mourning is dictated by each family and largely depends on family preferences. Some families may take a few days off of work, others might take vacation time to stay away from the demands of society, and still, others might return to work the next day. There is no set schedule or right or wrong way to conduct a time of mourning.

In addition to a time of mourning, many families will hold a memorial service or a “Celebration of Life” anywhere from a few days to a few months after the death of their loved one. This service can be held in the sanctuary of their local UU congregation or any location preferred by the family. As with funeral services, the local minister is available to help plan every aspect of the memorial service. They’re also available to help conduct the service and will often be invited to speak or pray at the service.

Unitarian Universalist Funeral Etiquette

When it comes to Unitarian Universalist funeral etiquette, you’ll find that you already know many of the traditions those in this congregation follow.

Mood

The feeling at a Unitarian Universalist funeral is simultaneously sad and joyful. While all UU members grieve death, funerals are also opportunities to celebrate a life.

Remembrance speeches tend to have a decidedly respectful and hopeful tone, focusing more on the person’s lasting contribution and influence as opposed to the fact that they are no longer physically present.

Attire

Funeral dress is much what you’d expect when attending any funeral in Western society. Darker clothing is often worn by men and women unless otherwise specified.

There is no specific funeral dress code other than what is dictated by general common sense. Men and women are both expected to dress modestly with respect for the grieving family and the deceased.

Condolences and gifts

Condolences and gifts are traditionally sent to the family after receipt of an invitation to the funeral. This can consist of things such as flowers, cards, and food for the family, to donations in the name of the deceased.

Sympathy gifts are acceptable and appropriate unless the family specifically states otherwise.

Celebrating a Unitarian Universalist Member at Their Funeral

For Unitarian Universalists, funerals and memorial services are opportunities to celebrate the life of their loved one. When you go, enjoy remembering how the deceased brought good into the world and impacted your life.


Sources

  1. “Memorial Service and Funerals.” Celebrations and Rites of Passage, Unitarian Universalist Association, uua.org/beliefs/what-we-do/celebrations/memorial-services-funerals
  2. “Memorial Services and Funerals.” Worship, First Unitarian Universalist Society in Newton, fusn.org/worship/memorial-services-and-funerals/
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