It’s your funeral

Charles 6 Comments

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

In recent decades the emphasis of funerals has gone from forward-looking to backward-looking. The traditional funeral marked the transition from this life to the future life beyond death. Details of the life of the dead person were less significant than the existence of the immortal soul. This eschatological approach has given way to thanksgiving services celebrating a past life, the quality of which are judged less on their hope of heavenly peace, and more on whether they capture the essence of the life that’s ended. 

This is clearly a reflection of declining faith but it’s not merely a result of funerals being offered by secular celebrants. The vast majority of the 500,000-plus funerals in the UK each year continue to be conducted by Christian priests or the clergy of other faiths. While Christian funeral liturgy, with its eschatological emphasis, has changed little in centuries, the clergy are nevertheless responding to grass-roots demand for more eulogy, just as secular celebrants have emerged to meet this same demand for a retrospective approach at funerals. 

So, committal aside, are both religious and secular funerals becoming what used to be the post-funeral memorial service, traditionally given to those deemed to have led remarkable lives? To rephrase Andy Warhol, even in death everyone is famous for 15 minutes. 

It isn’t that simple, of course. Christian funerals don’t totally replace the future trajectory of the religious service, but simply add increasing time to the backward-looking aspects. Similarly, secular celebrations of life might include prayers, Bible readings and hymns that commend the soul to ever-lasting peace.  

By popular demand, a middle way is winning the day. ‘I’m Christian-lite but I want my send-off to be largely about me’. ‘I’m atheist-lite but want some reference to an afterlife, just in case’. ‘I’m bereaved and want his/her send-off to move through a mix of fond recollections and hope that his/her essence continues, not just in memory but in some spiritual form’. 

Will people in time increasingly let go of the hope of life beyond death? If more people today were persuaded to think deeply about their funeral requirements, would this be happening more quickly? Imagine, for example, a consumer survey which asked a cross section of people:

How much emphasis in your funeral do you want to be on a celebration of your past life, and how much on a future life beyond death?

Multiple choice answers could then range from 100% and 0% either way to a 50/50 split. (Note: it’s possible to have 0% after-life in a secular funeral but impossible to have 0% ‘you’ in a religious funeral). 

Such an invitation to focus the mind might bring more clarity of purpose to funerals. Some might conclude: ‘As I never really think about spiritual matters, my plans for a quasi-religious service are lazy. I’ll instead nail my colours to the mast of the British Humanist Association with a totally godless ceremony.’ 

Others might go the other way. ‘I’ll now opt for Cranmer’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer, with its words filled with the promise of heaven. I’ll save talk of my career accomplishments, contribution to the community, family life, hobbies and interests for a memorial service later, or for a speech at a post-funeral gathering – rather like the best man’s speech during the wedding party that follows the ceremony itself’. 

Then again, greater thought about funerals might not change the status quo one iota. An 80/20 mix of past and future might be any survey’s majority outcome.  

A barrier to the acceleration of secular funerals is the liberal flexibility of the Church of England. Outside other Christian denominations and other faiths, it continues to have a virtual monopoly regardless of whether you’re devout, lapsed or never-really-think-about-it. This is because its instinct is to be malleable. Some funeral directors lead inbetweeners, as well as strident non-believers, to secular funeral celebrants, but more still steer them to the C of E clergy regardless. 

In some ways, you have to pity the C of E’s predicament. Conspiracy theorists might claim the established church of the nation is determined not to relinquish its ‘ownership’ of the death arena, that it’s fighting to keep power. But Marx’s ‘religion is the opium of the people’ claim increasingly lacks substance as a slur on Christianity, and is, in fact, far more applicable to atheistic Communism, which tried, and failed, to control people’s lives and deny them free will. 

While some clergy surely want to keep their foot in the door of as many households as possible in the hope of evangelising to ‘lost’ souls, others would content themselves with a smaller ministry to the existing faithful if a broader church meant diluting faith by being all things to all people. Some overworked priests are quietly exasperated when asked to take the funeral of someone who ‘was not religious’. What to include and what to leave out? I’ve heard references to a ‘crem duty funeral’ (when there’s been no opportunity to meet the family beforehand), and the funeral director has said, on the day, that the family don’t want any mention of resurrection or life beyond death. 

Religious or secular, it’s important to think about your funeral service and celebrant, not automatically heed the advice of your appointed funeral director. Some FDs listen and offer good advice, whether you want a priest, secular celebrant, Interfaith minister or New Age guru. Others, to rephrase Henry Ford, say ‘you can have any colour as long as it’s the C of E’.


  1. Charles

    Very interesting post. Thank you.

    In some ways, the internet helps – sites such as this one can lead people to understand their choices, and the web pages of funeral directors and celebrants give lots of info, helping people to get a feel for the person doing their ceremony and the organisation (if any) that they represent.

    But Richard is right – until people start to think about what they might want, then all the information in the world isn’t going to get read.

    Martin Lewis (the Money Saving Expert chappie) campaigns to have financial matters taught in schools. Maybe we could dedicate a bit of the curriculum to “rites of passage” too?

  2. Charles

    The trend does seem to be to have a 3 for the price of one event, combining the funeral, the wake, and the memorial. Surely the funeral is a sacrament by any other name, and as such it is about the rite of passage, whether religious or secular, and whether or not it is regarded as finite.

    The celebration or summing up of the life is a separate psychological occasion, whether or not they happen to be observed at the same time. Often the wake can be a mixture of mourning and memorial. But they are different processes for those gathered to observe or participate in them.

    Some people however, do not go for the buy one get one free approach. Some people like to double their chances. A dear, and oh so well meaning friend, in the USA, who happens to have become a lady priest, was so eager to remember my father, she officiated at a Funeral Service, in the US, about a month after his actual funeral here in the UK!

    All the Saints who had already been called to his assistance must have been very puzzled! Lots of loving past students of his had to go through a whole service about beseeching the Good Lord to accept his soul into eternity, (which presumably He already had) and his body (which of course wasn’t there) shuffling off this mortal coil.

    His grieving widow natually loved it.

    Which brings us back to the C of E, and flexibility. No genuine man or woman of Faith can turn someone who asks, away, on the gounds that they are not ‘religious’ – so the choice, in the end, is either sounding brass or love. No?

  3. Charles

    Sara, I both agree and disagree with your last paragraph. If a non-religious person wants a religious funeral, it might seem to lack compassion to say ‘no’. But clergy folk can’t totally secularise a funeral as it goes against their religious calling. Christian priests can’t turn atheist or Buddhist on demand, for example. They can just about offer an ecumenical, multi-faith inclusive ceremony but Christ can’t be excluded. Isn’t it better to declare you’re being asked to do something outside your spiritual sphere, and politely advise contacting a more appropriate celebrant?

  4. Charles

    My answer to Richard’s final question in his comment above is, of course, “yes.” As should be so in situations that a the other way round. I was called in at horribly short notice (next day) to work with a family who had wanted a funeral presided over by a vicar, because they liked her very much, and so had the dead person. After about an hour’s conversation, the good lady was told that there was to be no mention of God. She pointed out ((I’m sure in the nicest CofE way!) that mentioning God was rather her job in life. It all came to bits, and in came the secular celebrant. Me. And if the circumstances were reversed, I’d have done exactly the same. I don’t bale out if the people just want a hymn, but I would always ask them if they wanted an ordained minister if it seemed to me s/he would be more suitable, because the people were aiming at a level of Christian context that would need a dog-collar!

    Interesting post, thanks.

  5. Charles

    Seems to me that the family owns the funeral, but it doesn’t own the minister. You wouldn’t hire a plumber to fix your wiring, and a celebrant/minister is no more than a sub-contractor in this family-run business of The Funeral.

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