Putting the Church back into funerals

Charles 7 Comments

In an article in Saturday’s Times Nick Jowett, Vicar and Minister of St Andrew’s Psalter Lane Anglican-Methodist Church, Sheffield, proposes ways in which the Church might recover some of its lost share of the funeral market, in particular what he terms the ‘nominal Christian’ sector. 

He concedes that the Church bears some responsibility for the way things are: “Some vicars today seem to regard funerals as unavoidable drudgery and one hears too many stories of funerals taken in an impersonal, routine manner.”

Increasingly taking the place of stipendiary clergy are “easily available freelance funeral celebrants or retired ministers boosting their income, who can offer customised services ranging from liturgical solemnity to chatty humanistic “celebrations” and every shade in between.” 

Mr Jowett exhibits especial animus towards funeral directors: “These days, when you go to the funeral director about your dear departed’s exequies, it seems that almost the last thing you will be offered is the local vicar to take your service. There is a growing feeling that if the deceased were only a nominal Christian, a ceremony with the local minister would not be appropriate. It’s also because the overworked parish priest is often not available at the time desired by the family, if the undertaker can even get him or her on the phone soon enough.”

That’s not all that’s wrong with funeral directors. He thinks that there’s so much wrong with them that “there needs to be a movement to take back death from the funeral directors. Yes, they make things easy for families, but they are too powerful, managing every stage from hospital mortuary to casket of ashes; their charges are too little questioned; and the full range of options for a bereaved family are often not made clear.”

In order to fix this state of affairs, Jowett believes, that “every local authority should provide an independent one-stop funeral advisory service. This would be genuinely independent, offering the latest assessments of local undertakers and telling people the advantages — and pitfalls — of humanist funerals, woodland burials, church versus crematorium services, and all the rest.” 

That word ‘independent’ gets bandied about a lot. Here at the GFG we describe ourselves as independent because we have no financial interests in the funeral industry. I can see now just how a hollow and meaningless a term it is, and we should renounce it. We view the industry through the lens of our values — as, inevitably, would any local authority advisor. There’ll be no disinterested advice available to anyone so long as human beings are the dispensers. Sorry, Mr Jowett, your idea is cuckoo. 

As for funeral directors, it is true to say that many profess a startling contempt for C of E clergy based not on their own faith position but on their experience of how badly ministers can let bereaved people down. Their contempt is not indiscriminate. They reserve especial admiration for those who do a good job. 

In addition to local authority advisors, Mr Jowett believes that the C of E’s offer to the bereaved can be improved in two ways.

First, “the training of clergy should encourage them to prioritise funerals and help them to understand how much a sensitively conducted preparation and ceremony can help even a not particularly religious family at a time of loss.”

Second, “the Church’s website needs to do much more to emphasise the ways in which, within the shape of the funeral liturgy, the service can be made personal with tributes, poetry, music and symbolic actions.”

Mr Jowett rejects the idea of providing “an illustrative breakdown of church fees … showing that they are an almost infinitesimally small part of the whole cost of a funeral.” I’d have thought, given that the combined work of funeral director and minister/celebrant crystallises in the funeral ceremony, there’s some mileage in highlighting the bargain-basement price of a good ceremony-maker. Dammit, ceremony-makers normally come in way under the cost of the flowers left abandoned when it’s all over. 

Full article here (£)


  1. Charles

    Yes! Put the Church back into funerals. Funerals should be like weddings – any mention of God and you have to have a vicar. No ifs or buts. Want a hymn? Then you must have a man (or lady) of the cloth. If people want a non-religious send-off, they should have the courage of their convictions – no sneaking God in by the back door.

  2. Charles

    Funerals are so NOT like weddings: they are not a contract, and the details of the ceremony are no business of the State. ‘Vicars’ and the C of E hold no monopoly on access to the divine, thank god.

  3. Charles

    I think he’s on the right track – but not quite there yet. It does sound as if his experience of funeral directors is not good – but as with all relationships – you tend to get back what you put in. Some of my local parish priests and Minister’s engage with me and unsurprisingly – the bereaved. Those that do this can be recommended with confidence. Those who don’t tend to be marginalised!

    I certainly wouldn’t try and force a parish incumbent on a family who didn’t profess their membership of the dear old CofE. Why would I?

    The ‘independent’ advice from local authority idea is laughable. Does he not realise it is these authorities that arguably most let down the bereaved – through letting ‘free’ coroner’s removal contracts to the biggest FD groups and OTT cemetery and cremation fees. With this track record of selling anything to the highest (or lowest) bidder – they’re the last people I’d want offering funeral advice to anyone!

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