Pugnacious priests and supine celebrants

Charles Cowling

A little while ago a United Reformed Church minister wrote this:

I’ve had a bit of a narrow escape : I’m doing a funeral today and went to see the family three days ago. As I was leaving the house, something they said suggested that they had requested that “the curtain should not be closed”. I checked, and it was true. The funeral director had not passed on this important bit of information, and they had not specifically asked me. It sort of slipped out by accident … So we could have had a situation where they suddenly found themselves, at the most sensitive point of the service, facing a closing curtain they didn’t expect. I was not happy, and have raised it with the funeral director concerned.

I suggested to the funeral director that rather than putting the idea of leaving out the Committal into people’s heads they should leave it to the family themselves to suggest it – at least, as long as it is a Christian funeral to be conducted by me as a Christian minister. The response was that ‘some families prefer it’. Choice is everything . . .

As far as I am aware, there is no Christian funeral liturgy or service that misses out the Committal : I feel the funeral directors are overstepping their boundary in deciding what the content of a Christian service should be. The funeral director was under the impression that ‘the Committal’ was the name given to ‘the whole service’; I think that ‘the Committal’ is that bit of the service (around which the whole thing revolves psychologically) which starts with the words “Therefore . . we commit his/her body to . . etc.” and is followed by the lowering of the coffin or the closing of the curtain.

Take out an act of committal of any sort and, it seems to me, you’re left not with a funeral service but a service of thanksgiving. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s not a funeral. In a funeral we stare death down in the light of faith. The curtain, for me, has particularly strong resonance … It is very appropriate to be left staring at a curtain.


For myself I have said to the funeral director concerned that if they know they are going to ask me to conduct the funeral

> that they do not suggest to the family that they leave out the Committal, or offer it as a ‘choice’. It is my job, not the funeral director’s, to discuss with the family the content of a Christian funeral, and though I’m happy to accommodate their wishes, I would rather they made an informed decision.

What I am uneasy about is funeral directors deciding what is and what isn’t a Christian funeral and then either presenting me with a fait accompli, or (worse) creating a situation where I unwittingly cause pastoral hurt.

It’s bad enough that they sell printed orders to people and are pressing me for the order of service before I’ve even had a chance to meet the family. It seems they want it both ways :

> they assume that the order of service is predetermined such that I can tell them what it is before consulting the family. (As a URC minister I can be a lot more flexible than that). But . .

> feel that they can offer the family (but not me) choice over whether to include an essential element of a Christian funeral.

On the same theme, I have just come across this in the Australian ChristianToday:

Mark Tronson, a Baptist minister, was recently asked by a bereaved family to conduct the funeral as a Christian service … However, Mark Tronson was distressed when the family told him that the funeral directors had contacted them twice, trying to persuade them to have a civil celebrant conduct the service. Further, the funeral home representative had made several calls to different family members in an attempt to control the service program.

Christian ministers had been reporting this sense of this ‘being pushed aside’ for some time now, saying that they, too, had been surprised and in the end had to establish their stamp of authority.

In his particular case, to spare the family any more stress in their delicate situation, Tronson had to make it very clear to the funeral home representative that the service was now in his hands, full stop. Moreover, no further contact on this subject was to be discussed by the funeral home representative to any member of the bereaved family other than himself as the Minister.

It appears that the civil celebrant industry may be tied to the management of the funeral homes, who may therefore like to retain control. In this way, the funeral directors have a more straightforward task, in that they do not have to contend with the requirements of the wide and varied forms of community farewells, as expressed by ministers or leaders of the other religions from around the world.

The Christian community needs to be made aware that they can insist on whatever service they like, they do not have to accede to the suggestion of the funeral directors.

The rise of the secular celebrant, whether humanist or semi-religious, is regarded as a good thing, but complacently so. In the UK funeral directors have been incredibly slow to understand that a good secular celebrant makes them look good (for all that a bad funeral director could never make a good celebrant look bad). In the dawning light of that understanding, they have been incredibly slow to bring them utterly under their control.

The relationship between funeral directors and priests was always based in deference—rather like that between sergeant major and commanding officer. They occupied different classes and so, this being Britain, separate worlds. Status was firmly established, as were boundaries. There may or may not have been mutual respect, but that’s another matter entirely.

That demarcated relationship has clearly begun to break down. Funeral directors no longer know where their job ends. Secular celebrants, too, get fed up with them telling them what their clients want in the ceremony. Mind your own bloody business!

More sinister, though, is the way that celebrants in Australia, where the secular movement has been going longer, are now being subsumed and enslaved by the funeral homes.

Given the supine and sycophantic way in which our own celebrants behave, it’ll be happening here any time soon.

One thought on “Pugnacious priests and supine celebrants

  1. Charles Cowling
    Deborah McGregor

    I found this a very interesting stance, particularly so as I am currently conducting research into the use of the curtains during the cremation service.

    In my opinion this stance epitomises the Clergy’s ‘ownership’ of the funeral service in relation to their role in representing their associated religion.

    Why should the act of committal ‘belong’ to religion?

    In my role as a celebrant I still include a committal as part of my service … my words reflect the fact that we are not committing the deceased to some eternal life in God (although of course we may well be!!) … but, moreso …

    “We commit Fred’s body to the elements and allow his spirit to free.”

    Should anyone be interested I have a short Powerpoint presentation that on research that I have carried out on a discourse analysis of Ministers and FD subject views in relation to this.


    Charles Cowling

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