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You can rely on your funeral director to choose a celebrant for you but it’s a much better idea to find your own.

Start looking as soon as you can. Ring round, talk to them and go with the one you rate highest. Find out how to track down a celebrant below.


Letting the funeral director choose for you

Very few funeral directors will offer you a choice of celebrant. They are happy for you to take your time choosing your flowers, your music, your coffin, all sorts of things, but very few offer a choice of celebrant.

Why not? Two reasons. First, because they pride themselves on being able to match you with the right celebrant. They know their local celebrants, they know what people think of them; some of them have even seen them work.

A few funeral directors are very careful to make sure you get the celebrant who’s right for you. Not all funeral directors, mind. Some think they’re experts but they’re not.

Some don’t try, they just settle for anybody. In any case, even the experts don’t know you 1/10th as well as you know yourself, do they?  

The second reason why undertakers are reluctant to offer you a choice of celebrant is this: urgent administrative necessity.

Your funeral director can only make a firm booking with the crematorium or other venue at your preferred time if, all at the same time, a) he or she is free, b) the venue is free and c) a celebrant is free.

So they make two phone calls, one to the crematorium/venue, the second to the celebrant. If it turns out that exactly the right celebrant is already booked for another funeral, you may be assigned a next-best celebrant (you won’t know that).

Most funeral directors would very much rather not wait while you go home, interview celebrants, check when they’re available and plump for the one you fancy. Someone else may get in and book the venue. They need to know now.


So it all depends very much on you and the sort of funeral you want to create.

Perhaps any competent celebrant will do. Or it may be that only exactly the right one will do.

So you need to prioritise. Which is more important to you:

The day and time of the funeral?

Exactly the right celebrant?

If you want to hold out for exactly the right celebrant you’ll need to work around their availability and be flexible about the time of the service.

That’s why it’s important to start looking for a celebrant as soon as you can.

You don’t have to have someone official to create and lead the funeral ceremony – unless you or the person who has died wants a religious funeral in which case you’ll need an authorised religious appointee. Consult the appropriate faith group.

Anyone can lead a funeral service. Reminder: a funeral has no legal status.

You can create your own funeral ceremony and lead it yourself if you want.

But if that’s going to be too much for you, your best bet is to find a good celebrant.

People who conduct non-religious, semi-religious and spiritual funerals are all called celebrants. It’s not a great word but there doesn’t seem to be a better one.

A semi-religious funeral is one that may have a hymn or two and a prayer in it, but the service is not led by a religious minister.

Most celebrants conduct both non-religious and semi-religious funerals.

Humanist celebrants only conduct non-religious funerals and say they’ll say no to the inclusion of any act of worship.—like a hymn or a prayer. If you want to sing a hymn for what they call cultural reasons – eg, Abide With Me because of its FA Cup Final association – they’ll be happy with that. The same goes for a poem with religious references.

If you want a funeral which expresses spirituality, find an Interfaith minister or a celebrant that states they help families to create a spiritual funeral..

If it’s a religious funeral you want, you probably already know all you need to know. But just in case you don’t…

If you want a non-Church of England funeral (Roman Catholic, Muslim, Sikh…) contact your nearest place of worship.

In England, you are entitled to a C of E funeral in your parish church whether or not you’ve ever been to church. This is because the C of E is the state religion. So Muslims and Sikhs are entitled to a C of E funeral, too (not that they choose to have one, obviously).


Because a lot of people have a semi-detached relationship with the Church of England, but want a C of E funeral, the workload for parish priests can be heavy.

If you want your parish priest to conduct the service, dig your toes in and insist. You’ll have to work around their availability.

If you want a minister who is not the local vicar, you can ask your funeral director to find one.

If you are not using a funeral director, contact the crematorium and see if they can put you in touch with someone.


Many people, and funeral directors, find that when they phone the parish priest he or she is busy and can’t answer. They can be hard to get hold of.

A number of parish priests don’t like conducting funerals for people they don’t know – it’s just work.

Some parishes will be members of a central hub: when you or the funeral director call they will be able to assign someone at once – though that person may be a Lay Reader, not an ordained priest.

There’s likely to be quite a big pool of retired vicars and ministers of other denominations in your area.

They don’t advertise, so you’ll have to contact them through a funeral director, though your crematorium is likely to be able to help you.

No, in terms of the authority to officiate as a representative and ordained person of a particularly faith/denomination.

A celebrant does not have these powers conferred on them like a priest. These conferred powers vary from faith group to faith group.

So if you don’t want a full-blown religious service but you do want, say, the words of the committal (when the coffin goes into the grave or the curtains are drawn at a crematorium) to be spoken by a priest in order to give them “full spiritual power”, you are going to need to find a priest to work alongside either you or a celebrant.

Most priests like to run the show completely and will not settle for playing a bit part.

Remember, a religious funeral is not a tailor-made ceremony, it is a universal ritual which can only be personalised up to a point.

Some priests, though, will be quite happy to perform just the religious bits.

Many celebrants have a spiritual presence that permeates everything they do from the first contact with you, throughout the funeral and afterwards.

Some would say these are extraordinary gifts but are not conferred on them by a specific faith group.

A good celebrant will work closely with you, to your instructions, either to create, or help you create, a ceremony that is right for you.

Celebrants have expertise and experience that will almost certainly be very useful to you, and they’ll do as much or as little as you want.

They know what works.

Their advice is worth taking. Even if you don’t think you’ll be up to speaking, you can make sure that every word spoken at the funeral is yours or approved by you.


What are they like?

Celebrants tend to be middle-aged and well-educated. The best aren’t in it for the money if they’ve got any sense because there’s little money to be made.

A few excellent celebrants work flat out, make a modest living from their work and somehow manage to stay focussed and sane.

Many take no more than three or four services a week or fewer.

It’s the sort of job that best suits someone who is self-employed with a portfolio career, or someone who has retired.

Hardly any have a funeral industry background.


Why do they do it?

Many were inspired by especially bad or good funerals they have been to. They think funerals are important and they think they have the skills required to deliver good ones.

They are driven by a strong sense of vocation.

Not all celebrants are excellent. Some are appalling moneygrubbers.

Celebrants have evolved to meet the needs of people for whom a mainstream religious funeral would miss the point.

These people want a funeral which expresses their own beliefs and focuses on the life of the person who has died.



Celebrants who specialise in funerals with no act of worship are called humanists.

Other celebrants will be happy to conduct a non-religious funeral or include prayers and hymns or other spiritual elements.

A good funeral celebrant needs to be:

a good listener

a good writer

a good performer

That’s a rare combination.

Just shows you how careful you need to be when choosing one.

Some are trained, others not. Training standards vary greatly, but it is not great training that makes a great celebrant.

Training can only get them started.

The standard of celebrants, even from the best organisations, varies greatly.

There are organisations which train people, hold them to a code of conduct and list them on their websites.

Some of these organisations are reputable. Some are relatively new so it is difficult to judge.

Some of the best celebrants don’t belong to any organisation.

The worst don’t, either.


The following training and professional organisations offer a degree of reliability and are selective in their entry requirements.


The British Humanist Association (BHA) is the pioneer in the field of providing an alternative to a religious funeral. The reputation of its Humanist Ceremonies™ network rides high; everyone speaks well of humanist celebrants.

Humanist Ceremonies™ celebrants are trained and accredited by the BHA and the network extends across England and Wales. The BHA’s sister organisation, the Humanist Society of Scotland, also trains and runs a network of humanist celebrants. All trained and accredited celebrants in the BHA’s Humanist Ceremonies™ network agree to abide by its code of conduct.

If you want a hymn or a prayer in the funeral, a humanist celebrant is not for you. He or she will, though, include a period of silence in the ceremony where anyone who wants can say a silent prayer.

Here is what they say about themselves: “Nothing in a humanist ceremony would offend people who may be uneasy about a non-religious funeral. The idea is not to be hostile to religious beliefs, but to focus in a sincere way on the reality of the life that has ended.” Humanist celebrants offer a highly personal funeral ceremony.

There are quite a few BHA-trained celebrants who are no longer members of the BHA and will allow some religious elements in the ceremony; and there are celebrants who call themselves humanists but have not been trained by the BHA.

Find a BHA-trained humanist celebrant in England or Wales at:

Find a trained humanist celebrant in Scotland by contacting the Humanist Society of Scotland here:

If you’d like to conduct your own humanist funeral, the BHA publishes a helpful book, Funerals Without God.


The Institute of Civil Funerals (IoCF)

Members of IoCF are holders of the Ofqual accredited national qualification Level 3 Diploma in Funeral Celebrancy.

They work with clients who don’t want a full religious ceremony, but may want to incorporate some religious elements – a hymn, a prayer.

They also work with people who want a godless funeral.

A civil funeral is, in their words, “a funeral which is driven by the wishes, beliefs and values of the deceased and their family, not by the beliefs or ideology of the person conducting the funeral”

In other words, it doesn’t matter what the celebrant thinks: he or she says what you think.

All members of the IoCF abide by a code of conduct, are committed to continuing professional development and have their work monitored by the Institute. Some of them term themselves civil celebrants.

There are Civil Ceremonies-trained funeral celebrants who are not members of the IoCF and there are people out there who call themselves civil celebrants who have not been trained by Civil Ceremonies.

Find a Civil Ceremonies-trained celebrant here.


Green Fuse

Run by Totnes-based couple Jane Morrell and Simon Smith, authors of We Need To Talk About The Funeral—101 Practical Ways To Commemorate and Celebrate a Life. green fuse offers consultancy, funeral directing and celebrant training. Their celebrants offer the same service as the IoCF and the AOIC. People who have completed are awarded a Level Three Diploma and includes a module on helping families to create meaningful ritual in the funeral ceremony.They’re mostly really good.

Find a green fuse celebrant here.


The Interfaith Seminary

Trains people in a two-year course to “serve the spiritual needs of people from all faiths and none”. Its ministers do not sign up to just one religion.

Instead, “the Interfaith Seminary, believing that there is One God/Truth and many paths leading to the Source of All, is grounded in a universal and inclusive approach to spirituality. It is not designed as a rival to traditional religions.”

Interfaith ministers are well suited to people who have their own, personal spiritual beliefs but have not signed up to a mainstream religion.

They are also happy to conduct funerals for people who have no faith at all. They specialise in creating highly personal ceremonies and are noted for the care they take.

Find out more here. Click here to see if there is an interfaith minister near you.


Fellowship of Independent Celebrants Ltd (FOIC)

FOIC celebrants are holders of a NOCN Level 3 qualification in ‘Civil Celebrancy in the UK’ and they sign up to a code of ethics. They conduct non-religious and semi-religious funerals. Celebrant members are listed on the FOIC website, which you can find here.


Other funeral celebrant organisations

We can’t make a judgement about the quality of celebrants trained by any of the following organisations at the moment (we’re working on it). Pick up the vibe from their websites. Tell us if we have missed any

Association of Independent Celebrants

Fellowship of Independent Celebrants Ltd

Fellowship of Professional Celebrants

United Kingdom Society of Celebrants

County Celebrants Network

Mulberry Days

Bespoke Civil Ceremonies

Ceremony UK

Many funeral directors regard celebrants as suppliers of an ancillary service. But for you the funeral ceremony is likely to be of the highest importance.

The quality of the ceremony will owe a great deal to the relationship you strike up with your celebrant and the quality of their work.

Your funeral director may show little interest in the funeral service itself. For them, the climax of the event is the arrival of the cortege.

Once there, they hand over and play no part in the funeral itself after they have got everyone seated.

Your celebrant will be at least as important to you, in the days leading up to the funeral, as your funeral director – probably more so.

That’s why you need to choose one yourself, and choose carefully.

Be sure to ask the questions that are important to you.

Here are some suggestions:

How many funerals do you do a week?

Will you come and see me at home?

Will it be easy for me to reach you to talk to during the day and in the evenings?

Can we go on working on the funeral, making changes to it, right up to the day of the funeral?

Will you check every word with me before the funeral?

Will you give me a presentation copy of the script afterwards?

What is the most memorable funeral you have ever taken?

I’d like to speak to one of your clients. Can you give put me in touch?

How much do you charge?

Your celebrant works for you, not the undertaker. So you can book one direct.

You want a celebrant who shares your values and is demonstrably good.

Evidence of training, together with commitment to best practice and continuing professional development, may also be important to you.

Your celebrant will be your chosen representative at the funeral.

In short, you are looking for ‘my sort of person’.

It’s worth asking around your friends and finding out if any of them has been to a well-run funeral.

Proceed with caution. The market has been flooded with new celebrants in the last few years. Many of them are substandard.

Some celebrants have websites but, because so many of them get all their work from funeral directors, most don’t.

Check out, which lists all funeral celebrants. Search by postcode. Ring around and make a judgement according to what they say about themselves.

Then draw up a shortlist.


Here’s who you’re looking for:

The right celebrant for you won’t necessarily be the right celebrant for someone else. It’s a very personal choice. Here are most of the attributes and qualities you are looking for. Tick those which are most important to you.





membership of a professional body


social class


performance style


When you make contact with a celebrant, find out how busy they are. You don’t want one who spreads him/herself too thin.

If, after you’ve called, you still can’t decide, ask them to give you the phone number of someone whose funeral they have led.

Get a second opinion.

Celebrants cost a lot less than most people spend on flowers. All work for a fixed fee, but may add on mileage if they have to come far.

You can contact them as many times as you want for no extra charge.

Reckon to pay from £150-220+ including travel, for which you ought to get ten or more hours’ work. The best are usually those who charge the most, of course, but there are superb celebrants out there who come cheap because they are committed to making themselves available to the less well-off.

At these rates, none of them is getting rich.

Most undertakers will expect to pay your celebrant’s fee on your behalf and invoice it as a third party payment (undertakers term it a disbursement).

You may prefer to pay your celebrant direct and of course you can do that.

Yes, of course.

A celebrant will be pleased to come and see you before you or someone else dies.

If you have a life limiting illness, or simply want to plan your own funeral, it is a good idea to have the support and agreement of those who will take over where you leave off, so be sure to keep them onside.

Highly recommended. 

Choosing a funeral director

You go to the funeral director. You see a nice person called an arranger who listens to you, advises you and takes you through the funeral planning process. Over the next ten days or so you get to know each other pretty well and build warm relationship.  

It would be nice if, when you got to the unfamiliar and forbidding crematorium on one of the most difficult days of your life, that person was there for you with a reassuring smile.

But this essential continuity of care is not offered by a great many funeral directors. On the day of the funeral you are looked after by a stranger, called a conductor, whom you may not have been introduced to. Even if the arranger wanted to come to the funeral to see the job through and be there for you, they wouldn’t be allowed.

There’s a good economic reason for this separation of roles. You can employ funeral arranger on low wages, part time. Funeral arranging is not rated a specialist activity; funeral conducting is. This may make good money sense to the funeral director but it is likely to impair your experience of the funeral.

All the big chain funeral directors, Co-operative Funeralcare, Dignity, LM and Funeral Services Partnership, separate the roles of arranger and funeral director. So do a great many independents. This makes them more efficient as businesses but they don’t pass the saving on to you.

In life, the hand-built car is the one we want, the production line car the one we can afford. But when it comes to funerals, the hand-built funeral is normally no more expensive, and very often cheaper, than an impersonal production line funeral.

The best funeral directors pride themselves on offering continuity of care. They make sure that the first person you see is also the last person you see. That person is there for you from beginning to end.

If this is important to you, it is important to ask the following question when you are looking for a funeral director:

Can you guarantee that only one person will make arrangements with me, get back to me personally every time I ring and be the conductor on the day of the funeral?

There are four types of funeral business:

Long established, independent family firms.

Members of small or medium-size groups of funeral directors, including regional Co-operative societies.

Members of big conglomerates, eg, Dignity Caring Funerals and Co-operative Funeralcare.

First generation sole traders.

Presently, 60% of funeral homes (1 and 4) are independent ‘boutique’ businesses and 40% are consolidated: they belong to a group or chain. The funerals business is unusual in that so much of it remains in the hands of sole traders. In most businesses consolidation leads to operational efficiencies and economies of scale yielding lower costs and a cheaper product. This enables a consolidated business to undercut its competitors and drive them out of business – hey Tesco.

This has not happened in the funeral industry, whether through greed or incompetence. The consolidated businesses are among the most expensive and they compete badly on customer service. This doesn’t bother them especially because there is very little consumer scrutiny of the funeral industry and most people buy a funeral with fogged brains and low expectations. They don’t know any better.

A funeral home, however good, cannot stimulate an appetite for its product, neither can it inspire repeat business—it cannot encourage more people to die, nor can it encourage them to die more than once. It can only get bigger by ceaselessly devouring its rivals. A good small business remains small because it wants to.

It is expensive to start up a funeral business and, because we already have more funeral directors than we need, it’s a brave (or stupid) thing to do.

People who start from scratch and go it alone are normally passionate about what they do. Many of them once worked for one of the big groups where they reacted strongly against systems of working which prevented them from giving their customers the degree of personal service they reckoned they needed. We must backhandedly bless the Co-op, in particular, for unintentionally breeding some of our best born-again independent funeral directors.

Be aware, though, that there are some dodgy start-ups out there run by idiots or only in it for the money.

New businesses are normally one or two-person affairs. They are not usually rushed off their feet, so they have more time for you. Their premises will probably not be big and well resourced, merely adequate.

Given the oversupply of funeral directors in the UK it’s pointless to start a new business if you’re just going to do things the way they’ve always been done. Some of them do, nevertheless. Yet it is in this sector that you are also most likely to find the most intelligent, interesting, progressive undertakers, often with an un-stuffy way of going about things. Despite their relative inefficiency, the minnows normally charge no more than anyone else – sometimes less and often not enough.

One thing you can trust: the name over the door means exactly what it says.

Most people reckon a family funeral director is most likely to do the best job. All the guarantees seem to be in place. They’ve been at it for years, they are esteemed members of your local community. They’ll know what to do, they’ll do it in the time-honoured way, they’ll give you great personal service.

There’s no genetic logic to this. The skills and virtues of parents are not necessarily passed down to their children. A time-honoured way of doing things is not necessarily the best way of doing things now. And a family business of any age can get encumbered with family members who pay themselves more than they ought, preventing reinvestment. Some family firms are some of the most stick-in-the-mud, lazy and incompetent you could find.

By sheer genetic good luck, some of them are superb – as good as it gets. The important thing is that it’s well run now.

Some family businesses have got big over the years. For example, AW Lymn in Nottingham has 23 branches across the city and into Derby. It’s big but it’s brilliantly run. Arguably, it’s the best funeral director in Britain.

Intricate, foolproof management systems usually achieve a uniform level of good practice but, of course, cannot inspire superb service. It’s a bland product you may buy, safe and serviceable, lacking in character, impersonal. Big operations, as you know, tend to favour personnel who are obedient conformists. The branch will be run by a salaried manager.

You will most likely deal with an arranger, a person, normally female, who makes your funeral arrangements with you. You may not meet the funeral director who is to conduct your funeral until he or she knocks on your door on the day of the funeral itself.

Funeral homes which are members of groups are most likely to be characterised by harassed employees rushing to keep up. It’s all about logistics. And sales targets.

There are heroic exceptions. Some branches are run superbly by employees who put the interests of their clients above their frustration with their senior managers and their poor wages. They may well do a better job than your nearest independent undertaker.

The big names are:

Co-operative Funeralcare. Owned by the Co-operative Group, one of its core businesses. 800+ funeral homes nationwide.

Dignity Caring Funerals publicly listed company, 636 funeral homes and 39 crematoria. Making good money (£69.4 millionn2012) by driving up the price of funerals – some of the highest in the market.

Funeral Service Partners owned by August Equity. Subject of a TV exposé in 2012. Around 80 funeral homes.

Laurel Funerals owned by private equity consortium Duke Street Babson, Capital Europe and Metric Capital Partners.  Around 70 funeral homes.

We don’t recommend you buy a funeral from any of them.

There was an exposé on television in 2012 which showed the inside of a Co-operative Funeralcare hub mortuary. People who saw it were shocked. Two things horrified them in particular. First, they didn’t know this went on – they thought that people who died stayed at the funeral home. Second, they hated the open racking in which dead people were stored. It wasn’t a good look.

It makes perfectly good sense in terms of operational efficiency to have one mortuary serving many branches. All the bigger undertakers do it. So long as people who have died are given the sort of privacy most people expect and looked after with care and gentleness, there’s nothing all that objectionable about a hub mortuary unless you think it a bit impersonal. What goes on in properly run hub mortuary is a million times better than what goes on behind the scenes in some of our smaller grottier undertakers.

If you do not want the person who has died to be taken off to a hub mortuary you’ll need to find an undertaker who will keep them on their premises. There are lots.

And if you’re concerned about how well they will be looked after, ask to see the mortuary. Any good undertaker will be proud to show you round.

With the exception of some branches of Co-operative Funeralcare pretty much every funeral home in the country trades either under the name of either its present owner or its one-time owner. It’s very hard to tell if a funeral home is the sort of family business you’re actually after or a member of a larger group.

The people who run groups think that we don’t want to buy a funeral from them, we’d rather deal with a wee ‘mom and pop shop’. For this reason, Dignity Caring Funerals cleverly cultivates zero brand recognition except among its shareholders. Every Dignity branch trades under its old family name, but every branch also displays the logo of its owner. Because you don’t recognise it you don’t notice it. It looks like this:

Of course there’s no reason why someone couldn’t roll out a great brand in funerals. Imagine if John Lewis did funerals – why, we’d all buy one from them.

For now, when you’re shopping around, ask very carefully who owns the business. Our advice: small is usually best.

The co-operative movement owes its principles to its founders, the Rochdale Pioneers, a group of working people who got together to enable fellow workers to buy food at prices they could afford. Their vision was enshrined in the Rochdale Principles.

There were once hundreds of independent co-operative societies. Most have merged to form The Co-operative Group. There are still a few independent societies. Of these, a few still operate an independent funeral service and some of them, like Scotmid in Edinburgh, are brilliant. All co-ops proclaim high ethical standards.

Given the economies of scale enjoyed by Funeralcare, and having in mind its foundational principles, you might expect it, as the people’s undertaker, to provide the cheapest funerals out there. It doesn’t. Its average charge for a funeral is higher than that charged by many independent firms, often by between £500 and £1000. You would think that, in an age of funeral poverty when increasing numbers of people are finding it harder and harder to find the price of a funeral, Funeralcare would the standard-bearer for affordable funerals. It isn’t.

It offers good training and it pays good wages by funeral sector standards. It has some first-class people working for it.

And it’s profitable. So where does all the money go? Propping up the rest of the Co-op Group? Who knows?

Funeralcare has a reputation for sloppiness and scandal within the funeral industry, whose competitors sometimes refer to it as the Cock-up. To be sure, it has made its fair share of mistakes, and these are recorded on the Good Funeral Guide website. The good news is that the frequency of these is declining, though we receive more complaints about Funeralcare than anyone else. Funeralcare has in the past been characterised by disenchanted funeral workers. Levels of dissatisfaction seem to be falling.

Of greatest concern to many of its potential clients is its derecognition of the GMB trade union, earning it a ban from the Glastonbury Festival and the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival, and the condemnation of the TUC. One can only speculate on what the Rochdale Pioneers would have thought of that.

We don’t think Co-operative Funeralcare is wicked but we do think it’s lost its focus. Edgar Parnell, former chief executive of the Plunkett Foundation, offers this analysis which we think helpful in understanding where it all went so wrong for The Co-operative Group.

The management of the Co-operative Group appear to believe that they are running a conventional business with the aim of profit maximization that just happens to be owned by members rather than by investors. Whereas they need to be clear that the function of all co-operatives and mutuals is to intervene within the marketplace in the best interests of their members. The Group’s management either do not fully understand, or choose not to adhere to, the underlying essentials of the model of enterprise required for any form of co-operative or mutual to be successful.

Chasing growth to the detriment of the real interests of the membership has proved to be the downfall of major consumer co-ops in many countries in Europe. Executives often seek to pursue a growth strategy because it means a bigger empire, more status and higher pay for them. The correct response to expansion proposals, including merger proposals, should always be to focus upon what is best for the membership and most likely to result in the achievement of the purpose of the enterprise. When co-operatives grow in terms of the number of members and/or turnover, they are frequently beset by multiple problems. They lose sight of their original purpose, are prone to switch towards serving the interests of senior executives or cliques rather than those of the bulk of their members. As a consequence, they come to be regarded as irrelevant to the lives of their members and in the worst case they are hijacked by self-interested groups.


The price you pay an undertaker for a coffin may be several times what the undertaker paid for it – a markup greater than you would expect of a retailer.

A fair and businesslike retail markup is twice the trade price and you shouldn’t quibble about that.

Until just a few years ago, undertakers ‘buried’ or disguised part of what they call their ‘professional fee’ in the cost of their coffins so, if you didn’t buy their coffin, they’d be badly out of pocket.

Some still do, but most realise it makes them look bad.

They now structure their fees so that, if you supply your own coffin, they won’t lose out.


British funerals are changing and becoming very creative, which explains why we enjoy a bigger choice of coffins than anywhere else in the world.

The classic, wooden, ‘toe-pincher’ coffin is still the most popular, but many people find the new-look generation of coffins made from all sorts of materials – including willow, sea grass, banana leaves, cardboard – much softer and friendlier in appearance.

They really do set the tone of the funeral.

The widest range of eco-coffins available on the market is sold by Ecoffins. They have 37 different types made from all sorts of materials, and it’s worth browsing their  website to get some idea of the range there is out there.

Other firms worth checking out for their range (but they won’t sell to you direct) are  JC Atkinson,  Bradnam Joinery and JC Walwyn and Sons.

No. Most of them only have a limited range.

Many will not tell you what else is available, either because they can’t get such a good margin on it or because they can’t be bothered.

If you see something here that you like the look of, buy it direct if you can.

If you can’t, instruct your undertaker to get it for you.

If, say, it’s a wicker coffin you want, make absolutely sure your undertaker gets it from the firm that sells the one you like.

There are lots of cheap versions out there with a flimsy, loose weave which offer your undertaker a bigger margin.

Wicker/willow coffin by Cath Pratley based in Dorset. You can go and help her make it if you want to.

If you want to make the coffin yourself, go ahead. You will, of course, need to be able to show that it is strong enough to do its job.

Your coffin will need to be lined with a waterproof lining which will not leak with unacceptable emissions.

The industry uses a product called Cremfilm. You can pay an undertaker to do this for you – or get them to sell you some Cremfilm.


Almost all commercially produced coffins have passable green credentials, even coffins made from MDF.

Perhaps the greenest coffins of all are those made from willow in the UK.

The material is indigenous and sustainable, the coffin miles minimal.

Yet a coffin shipped from China by Ecoffins  uses, they claim, no more fuel than a car journey of 4.63 miles – it all depends how you calculate it.

Willow (wicker) coffins vary in quality. Those made in the UK are mostly good.

Those made in Eastern Europe or the Far East may not be.

Beware bargain prices from certain internet sellers! If they’re not approved by us, avoid.

Somerset Willowhave a good range of high quality coffins but will not sell to you direct.

Musgrove Willow,harvested and woven in the Somerset Levels. Will sell to you direct. Go along and help them make it. Price: from £500 including name plaque, lining and delivery.

Earth to Heaven.Imported. Good quality. Will sell to you direct.

Mawdeseley Willow,woven in Lancashire. Will sell to you direct. The Mawdeseley is harvested in Lancashire. They sell two coffins from willow harvested in Poland: the Elysium and the Oval. All good quality.


The shroud failed for many years to make a comeback, perhaps because people were put off by the way it leaves the outline of the body identifiable.

But a shroud is honest, and at around £150, it’s inexpensive and suitable for burial or cremation.

You can get one from Respect Everybody Shrouds (illustrated below) — call 01427 612992


An alternative to a shroud is a soft coffin. A soft coffin is something a bit like a shroud in principle, but something else altogether in practice.

Bellacouche handmake to order a beautiful felted Leafcocoon, pictured below, which greatly softens the outline of the body.

It is covered in a choice of leaf patterns. Nothing else is needed, i.e. no liner.

 Absorbent materials (all recycled and natural of course) are hidden inside the felt-encased wooden base, and six strong handles take the weight.  

There is a shroud inside, with an adjustable cocoon over this, and a detachable decorated cover which can be kept  as a keepsake, or buried with the body.

Visit: Bellacouche also make a child cocoon.

Ring: Yuli Somme on  01647 432155.

Buy direct: £885. See another photo on our blog here. Winner of the Good Funeral Award 2013 for Best Coffin Supplier.

A plain pine coffin

The Honest Coffin is handmade from sustainable larch and oak. Very durable. No chemicals, no polish, no stain. No screws, either, only oak dowels.

The plain and simple coffin


The Feet First coffin is made from locally grown wood using mostly hand tools.

No chemicals, formaldehyde-free glue, no metal fasteners – even the beeswax is home-made.

The plain pine Feet First coffin

A cardboard coffin ought to be the cheapest you can get, you might think, but actually the manufacturing cost of cardboard makes the price pretty much what you would pay for a ‘veneered’ coffin made from MDF.

People who go for cardboard are really making a lifestyle – or deathstyle – statement.

It is the last word in simplicity. Some may reckon it an outrageous choice, either in a good or a bad way.

White or brown cardboard is good for decoration. You can paint it, draw on it, write messages on it.

You can get the children to decorate their Nan’s cardboard coffin – but beware: children like to use lots of red and this can give a misleading impression.

Most funeral directors now stock cardboard coffins but a great many, hating them, will cast doubt on their load-bearing capability and even their ability to withstand rain.

This is nonsense, so dig your heels in. Some undertakers are able, if you want, to put a cardboard coffin inside a re-usable coffin (called coffin cover) just for the funeral. An alternative is to drape the coffin with fabric of some sort – a pall. Beware cheap imports!

See what a cardboard coffin looks like at: Greenfield coffins.Up to 100% biodegradable cardboard made from 70 per cent post- consumer waste.

Any design of your choice. Will sell to you direct: range starts at £81. Can carry 23 stone.

Cardboard coffin from Greenfield


Picture coffins

Cardboard or wood decorated with any scene or picture you like. Will sell direct to the public. same service as Greenfield. Will not sell direct.

Picture coffin from Greenfield Creations

Made in Yorkshire from Dorset Horn sheep’s wool over a cardboard frame.

Hemmed with blanket stitch. 

Available only through a funeral director. Distributor: JC Atkinson.

Woollen coffin


Pebble coffin

A coffin you can lie in ‘in a peaceful, curled up, sleeping position’.


Bamboo Will sell to you direct.



Designed and imported by Somerset Willow.

Cocostick coffins are made from the stems of coconut leaves.  Will not sell direct.





Will sell to you direct. Good range of eco-coffins.



Revolutionary shape.

Made from recycled paper. Come in gorgeous colours sell to you direct.


Curve coffin

A solid wood coffin with an attractive curved profile that makes it quite different in looks to traditional box coffins.

Hand Made in Kent using only woods from managed sources and other natural materials, the Curve is “as friendly to the environment as we could possibly make it.”

The Curve is available in a number of artistic, hand painted designs or a natural wood finish which is suitable for home decoration.  Buy direct here.


Flat pack

Self assembly, plain pine – a simple classic.


Crazy Coffins

Bespoke coffins in all sorts of wonderful shapes.

Crazy coffins

American caskets


Bookcase coffin

Finally, if you’d like to buy your own coffin now and enjoy it till you need it, have a look at William Warren’s bookcase coffin.

Yes, it’s a bookcase which can be reassembled as a coffin after you have read your last page.

Go to his website, type in your size and download instructions for making it.

The cost depends on the type of wood you use with pine being the least expensive.

William, a true altruists, charges nothing for the download.


Greenfield  also make a bookcase coffin.


A funeral ceremony needs to be written down from beginning to end. You could try doing it all just from notes, but that might be living dangerously.

By writing it all down you can keep an eye on timings. You’ll want to use the time you have in the most profitable way, and to allocate more of it to some parts of the ceremony than to others.

You can time your script using this measurement: 100 words = 1 minute. Remember, if you are using a crematorium chapel, the worst thing you can do is go on too long and keep the next funeral waiting.

Writing everything down also means that you can share what’s been written with other people, invite their suggestions or input, and end up with something everyone agrees is just right.

If everything is written down and someone at the funeral finds they cannot carry on, somebody else can come up and take over. This is what families and friends do for each other.

If you feel that writing a funeral ceremony is too big a task, then engage a celebrant to help you or do it for you.

Not many people would have the confidence to go it alone. You do not have to hand over completely to the celebrant.

You remain in charge of the process and, of course, you have the last word on all decisions.

The best way to calculate the correct length of a funeral ceremony is to write it, see how much time it takes, then use every minute of that time—anything between six minutes and six days.

Having said which, there’s everything to be said for not going on too long. So: make every minute work hard. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing.

Keep the private separate from the public. Don’t do in public what’s best done at home. Don’t do in the funeral what’s best left for afterwards over a few drinks.

Half an hour is long enough to have a good funeral in most cases. A eulogy starts to get overgrown after 7 minutes. Think of all the other people who are going to be there.


Here are some guidelines you may find helpful.

You will want the funeral ceremony to have a logical structure – a beginning, a middle and an end – and a sense of forward movement.

There is no right way to structure a funeral ceremony but here is a workable template. Follow it if you like it. If you don’t like it, your reaction against it may show you the way ahead.

You can intersperse these sections with songs, hymns, poems, readings, a candle ceremony and music.


Welcome and any practical points

Thank everyone for coming and tell them what that means to you.

Invite them to come along to refreshments / make a donation / attend the dove release afterwards.


Why we are here

Tell everyone what is going to happen and why.

Describe the purpose of the funeral.

Acknowledge different beliefs.


How we feel

Deal with the really sad bit now. Talk about the death and how you all feel about it. Once you have done that, you are free to give your entire attention to the life of person who has died and talk about nothing else. Consider concluding with a poem or reading about life and death.



Tell the life story and celebrate the life. This is often called the tribute or the eulogy. If forms the big heart of the ceremony.

Recount episodes from the life of the person who has died which illuminate their virtues and uniqueness and unforgettableness.

Find some tips on writing a tribute below.



It is often called the committal. It is the part of the ceremony when everyone says goodbye to the body of the person who has died.

At a crematorium it is customary, at this stage, for the coffin to be hidden by curtains or for the coffin to descend.

It is, of course, an intensely emotional moment. Many people assume that, once the coffin is hidden from view, it goes straight into the cremator. It doesn’t. At most crems it just sits there til you’ve gone.

The coffin does not have to disappear like this. A farewell can work just as well when the coffin stays in full view. At the end of the ceremony people can come up to it, touch it, place a flower on it, and say their own last goodbye. If this is what you want, be sure to tell people in advance otherwise they might think there’s been a mistake.

If you decide you would like the coffin to disappear, and you have engaged a celebrant to lead the ceremony, do you want to push the button that operates the curtains? If not, why not?

At a crematorium the organist may ask you if you would like to have music play as the farewell words are spoken and the coffin descends. By this, he or she means a few blurry, atmospheric chords. Do you think this will be distracting or do you think it may add to the mood of the moment? Would you like to play your own recorded music? If you do, remember that everyone will probably be standing. You won’t want to play it all; you’ll have to fade it out. This can be unsatisfactory.


Closing words

Words which speak of acceptance and looking forward may, you feel, be an appropriate way to end the ceremony.

Carefully chosen words help people to leave what should have been a positively meaningful funeral.

When you have written your script, check that it meets the goals you set earlier.

Does it have a beginning, a middle, an end and a sense of flow?

Will it enable everyone present to participate?

Can it be done in the time available without rushing?

It is customary to dread funerals and only to want them to be over and done with. A funeral, so the reckoning goes, has to be the ultimate forgettable event.

Hopefully, this is not now your view.

A funeral is a great occasion, a great rite of passage. It has all the elements of all the other rites of passage with the majestic addition of finality. It is arguably the greatest of them all.

You will know when you have created a really fitting funeral ceremony because that is when you will find yourself, yes, actually looking forward to it, and only wishing the person who’s died could be there too. If this is not how you expected to feel, it is exactly how you should feel.

When the funeral is over you can expect to take huge pleasure in a job well done.

It’ll make all the difference in the days, months and years ahead.

Direct cremation

More and more people are choosing direct cremation or direct burial as an alternative to a conventional funeral. The person who has died is cremated or buried without any family or friends there. There is no funeral service.

Direct cremation and direct burial are for:

  • People who, in line with their beliefs and values, do not feel they need to have a formal, public funeral service at which the body of the person who has died is present.
  • People who cannot afford a traditional funeral. Because of its simplicity, direct cremation is your cheapest option.

Direct cremation and direct burial do not stop you from holding a family-led memorial service either before or after the cremation or burial. You can host a ceremony like this anywhere you like.

Most people who opt for direct cremation or direct burial could easily afford a traditional funeral but choose not to.

Direct cremation costs roughly £1200-1800 all in. Direct burial costs roughly £1500-2000.

You don’t go to visit the person who has died in the funeral home.

You don’t choose the day and time of the cremation/burial.

There is no hearse, no procession, no service in the crematorium or at the graveside – nothing.

The body goes straight off to be cremated or buried without ceremony and without anyone else there.

Direct cremation and direct burial do not stop you having a farewell ceremony – a funeral service – either before or after the event. This is sometimes called a harvest ceremony or a memorial meeting.

If you choose direct cremation you can hold a memorial meeting of your own devising with, if you wish, the ashes present.

Alternatively, you can have the ashes scattered at the crematorium.

Some people see direct cremation as a way of preparing a body for a funeral. Instead of the body of the person who died at the funeral service, you have their ashes.

This gives you the freedom to say farewell in your own time, in a place of your choosing, in a way you may find more personal, more fitting and more satisfying.

Once a body has been cremated, the ashes are:

  • Durable (they’ll keep forever).
  • Portable (around 6 lbs).
  • Divisible (you can divide them up, you don’t have to scatter them all at once).

So you can take the ashes to any venue you want, at any time you choose, and hold a commemorative event of your own devising — in a church, a village hall, a restaurant. Or on a mountain top or at the seaside. Pretty much anywhere.

The ceremony can be as long or as short as you want. You can invite whoever you want. It may finish with the scattering of the ashes – as the sun sets or rises, perhaps. But not necessarily. The ashes can simply be divided up amongst certain people and kept.

Some people believe that if you’re going to hold a funeral you have to have the body of the person who has died there with you.

Other people don’t. They believe you can have just as meaningful an occasion without.

When John Lennon was killed, Yoko Ono wanted no focus on his bullet-ridden corpse. She had it cremated unceremoniously, unwitnessed. She held a memorial ceremony instead. “Pray for his soul from wherever you are,” she said. And people did. Presumably this is what John wanted, too. When the playwright Arthur Miller was asked if he’d be going to the funeral of his ex-wife, Marilyn Monroe, he replied, “Why would I go? She won’t be there.”

If you are considering direct cremation your beliefs are going to influence the decision you make — up to a point.

Above all, you should go with what you feel to be right.

Most funeral directors now offer direct cremation and direct burial.

Some funeral directors see it for the positive choice it very often is – an alternative to a conventional funeral.

But not all of them get it. Some think it’s inappropriate, just for poor people and skinflints. You can tell by the tone they use when you phone.

Don’t deal with anyone who views direct cremation as an under-the-counter, shameful thing to do.

It’s important to do your research and ask the right questions because there are some less than satisfactory outfits out there.

Direct cremation is still reckoned unconventional, especially as an alternative to a normal funeral.

If you choose it, it may well raise an eyebrow here and there. Alternatively, some people are likely to say “I wish I’d thought of that”.

You may want to take into account the needs and expectations of your family and the friends of the person who has died. What’s best for them?

  • Funeral director’s time and overheads.
  • Storage in funeral director’s mortuary.
  • Removal of pacemaker, prosthetic, etc if necessary.
  • Simple coffin.
  • Transport.
  • Crematorium fee.
  • Doctor’s fee x 2 @ £82 each – you need 2 doctors to certify cause of death. Note: if the person who has died has been seen by the coroner there is no fee.

Direct cremation is an attractive option for people who want to take someone who has died abroad back to their home country.

It saves the considerable costs of embalming and air freight.

There should not be any problem bringing ashes into the UK or taking them out so long as you comply with the laws of the country you are travelling to/from and you have enquired with the carrier you are travelling with (sea, air, rail or road). This is what the Department of Transport say.

Do you really have to have a funeral

Every culture from earliest times has cared for its dead and created its own funeral ceremonies and rituals. They have no practical value. They mark the significance and the magnitude of the passing of a life.

One way of looking at it is to say that how we value our dead says a lot about how we value the living. That is why, traditionally, important people have been given very elaborate funerals and the worst criminals none at all.

There’s an opposite way of looking at it. When the playwright Arthur Miller was asked if he’d be going to the funeral of his ex-wife, Marilyn Monroe, he replied, “Why should I go? She won’t be there.” A funeral is pointless, he reckoned, both for the dead and for the living. It’s not the body that’s important, but the person whom it embodied—the vitality which animated it. When death comes, that’s it.

Attitudes to funerals are changing. Increasingly, people want simpler, cheaper funerals. A lot of people these days say funerals are too expensive and they don’t do them any good. But old customs die hard and most of them still go ahead and have a conventional ceremonial funeral anyway.

Increasingly, though, people who can’t see the point of a public ceremonial funeral aren’t having one at all or they’re doing something else. There’s nothing wrong with that.

A conventional funeral is customarily a public event – anyone can come.

It is ceremonial inasmuch as the person who has died arrives at the funeral venue in a hearse followed by a procession of cars. It is a formal inasmuch as it has a predetermined format and concludes with a final farewell to the person who has died.

A funeral like this, with the person who has died present, enables all those people who knew them – family, friends, neighbours, work colleagues, members of recreational clubs, care home staff – to come together to pay their respects and say a symbolic goodbye. People feel a strong need to do this. It enables them to come to terms with the absence of the person who has died and to understand that they must go on without them.

There’s no point in going through the motions just because people you know expect you to. Unless the experience is going to be valuable and of lasting benefit to everyone who comes, a funeral really is just a waste of time, money and emotional energy.

How you feel will depend on:

The age of the person who has died

The circumstances of their death

Your feelings towards the person who has died

Your feelings about whether it is necessary to have the person who has died present at the funeral

The expectations and needs of the people who knew the person who has died

Whether a conventional funeral can achieve what you are hoping to accomplish

Or whether an alternative sort of farewell event would do that better

You may even conclude that you don’t want to mark the death in any way at all if, for example, you were estranged from the person who has died. That’s perfectly okay.

Good diet and medical science have added years to the (wrong) ends of people’s lives. More of us are living to great old age than ever before. The last 11.2 years of most people’s lives are now blighted by intensifying and multiplying severe chronic and degenerative illnesses.

Death is increasingly a lingering business of fading away, petering out, often in great discomfort. Dementia is on the rise. Leave-taking these days is turning into a very, very long goodbye and, more than ever, death is received, when it finally comes, as a blessed and merciful release.

This is influencing the way that those left behind feel about the need to hold a public funeral – at which there may be no more than a handful of people present. What more to say? What more to do?

It is quite different when a young person dies – or someone dies prematurely or tragically. People feel quite differently about deaths like these.

It has always been the custom to hold a funeral with the body present. This derives from Christian belief that a) the soul, which is immortal, is an integral part of the body and b) the dead are raised to everlasting life in their earthly bodies. It’s therefore more than just logical to have the body at the funeral, it’s absolutely vital.

Do you believe that, or do you believe that the soul or spirit separates from the body at death? Many people look at a dead person and feel that whatever it was that made them them has gone — which is why people say that a dead body is “only a shell”.

If you believe that the spirit or soul survives the death of the body, and that’s what you want to focus on, the spirit or the soul, you may reckon the dead body to be an irrelevance and a distraction.

When John Lennon was killed, Yoko Ono wanted no focus on his bullet-ridden corpse. She had it cremated unceremoniously, unwitnessed. She held a memorial ceremony instead, to take place everywhere and anywhere. “Pray for his soul from wherever you are,” she said. And people did. Presumably this is what John wanted, too.

If you feel like Yoko, you’ll not want the body at the funeral. If you are an atheist, you may feel that the body is just so much old clothes; there’s no need for it to come.

When you are alive, who you are is very much tied up with what you look like. Your body is the embodiment of all that you are, an essential component of your identity. By your body others know you. It is you made manifest. And just as your body is precious to you, so are the bodies of those you love.

When someone dies, even if you think their soul or spirit has gone from their body, it may take you a while to get your head around that. Death is not a good time to get logical; you need to give your feelings time to catch up with what has happened.

If it is your strong feeling that the body is precious and is still, in some way, the person you knew, then you’ll want it to come to the funeral and you’ll want to say goodbye.

Given our feelings about dead bodies, nothing concentrates the mind like being in the same room as one. It brings home the reality of the death and greatly enhances the drama of the occasion.

Perhaps you feel that a funeral with a body is unnecessarily upsetting, morbid, even, especially if the person who has died was young. In that case you could organise a small funeral for close family and friends and then follow it with a celebration-of-life party at a venue of your choice to which everyone else is invited to eat, drink, listen to music and share happy memories.

A drawback here may be that those not invited to the funeral will feel that they can’t enter fully into the jollity of the life celebration because they never got a chance to express their grief and say goodbye first. They may even feel cheated or patronised. It can be hard to do the fun bit if you haven’t done the sad bit first. If people are hurting, you probably need to address those feelings before moving them on to happy memories. A death is exactly as sad as it is and there is nothing you can say or do to make it otherwise.

So a funeral without a body may feel like a diluted event. It may lack focus and substance and reality. It may lack power. A baby naming or christening wouldn’t be the same without a baby and a wedding wouldn’t be the same without the happy couple. If that logic extends to funerals, you need a body.

If it makes no difference to a body if it gets a funeral or not, what is a funeral for? Consider the following statements. Do they describe what you think and feel? Which statements do you agree with?

Letting go of someone’s body with love and care is the last thing you can do for them in this world.

A funeral is a precious gift to the person who has died.

A funeral is for all those people, family, friends and neighbours, who were not present at the death. It is their time to pay their respects and say goodbye.

It is a time to express sorrow.

It is a time when people can comfort each other.

It is a time to take stock of what the person who has died means to you and others and, more important, will go on meaning.

It is a time to say thank you to the person who has died.

Taking into account what you agreed with above, you may now have a better idea what sort of farewell event you favour. Here are your options:

~ No funeral, nothing. See our Useful Guide about direct cremation.

~ A funeral at which the dead person is not present – usually called a memorial service.

~ A family-organised farewell event with or without the ashes present. You can hold this anywhere you want – home, a special place – at any time you you choose.

~ A private funeral to which only certain people are invited.

~ A conventional funeral on which you set your stylistic stamp – eg, alternative hearse, colourful coffin, dress code, theme, ‘different’ music, etc.

~ A conventional funeral with all the traditional trappings.


What do Friends of the Bereaved do?

Friends of the Bereaved (FoB) is a community volunteering project designed to meet the short- and medium-term practical problems confronting bereaved people in the aftermath of a death if those needs are not presently being met by any other agency.

Any FoB project will be inspired, above all, by this statement: The death of one of us touches all of us.

A FoB will promote community engagement and revive, in a 21st century way, the traditions of former times when communities came together to help their bereaved members.

It is arguable, now that families tend to be scattered, that the need for community engagement with bereavement is greater than it ever has been.

In this way, a FoB promotes community engagement.


What needs does a FoB serve?

Some of the particular needs addressed by a FoB are identified in the Case Studies will be identified as the scheme evolves in any particular locality.


The goal of a FoB

In addressing the needs above a FoB seeks to enable bereaved people to live independently as soon as possible.

In the event of failing to enable a bereaved person to achieve independence, a FoB will step back and refer the bereaved person to other agencies – eg social services or, in the case of complicated grief, appropriate specialist grief counselling.

A FoB will never foster dependency.

It is unlikely that a FoB will address the needs of children because their needs are likely to be emotional, not practical and, therefore, the province of either family members or bereavement experts.

Who needs you?

In order to determine whether the needs of bereaved people are already being met in this practical way, those wishing to establish a FoB should liaise with and consult other local volunteering organisations and charities before proceeding.

If a FoB is established it ought, as a matter of good policy and practice, to establish partnerships with local charities and volunteering organisations.


What’s in it for the volunteers?

For any altruistic enterprise to be attractive to its stakeholders it must appeal to the self-interest of all those involved in it.

The appeal to bereaved people is obvious. In the case of volunteers, it is in their interest to help others because, in addition to the satisfaction they will gain from altruistic activity, they may, in time, need other community members to help people closest to them – their spouse or partner, for example.


All not some

A FoB will draw volunteers from the entire community without regard to age, sex, faith or lifestyle.

It will not serve exclusively the needs of ‘people like us’. A FoB will do well to establish good relations with all faith groups in the community because faith groups hold funerals.

From these faith groups a FoB is likely to recruit excellent volunteers. In its work, of course, a FoB is belief-neutral and must never be used as a vehicle for proselytising.

A FoB has a mission of care to all bereaved people.

Emotional support no, comfort and companionship yes.

It is not the purpose of a FoB to offer emotional support; there are others who do this specialised work.

But an incidental – it must be incidental – and very valuable aspect of the work of a FoB will be the emotional comfort it affords a bereaved person.


An educational remit

Any FoB is encouraged to take upon itself an educational remit in order to promote healthy attitudes towards, and positive engagement with, death, dying and bereavement.

Undertakers are specialists whose professional life centres exclusively on the care of the dead.

Funeral homes are no-go except when needed. As a consequence, the work of undertakers is swathed in mystery and misconception, and funeral homes are the stuff of dread and giggles. Death once happened in the community and was dealt with by community members.

Today, the dead, the bereaved and those who serve them have been marginalised. Death has become a taboo.

By joining up the specialist care of the bereaved offered by a funeral home to the nonspecialist care of the bereaved offered by a FoB, volunteers can transform negative perceptions and help their funeral home to become more integrated with its community – more normal.

By becoming familiar with the way undertakers operate, a FoB may undertake a consumer advocacy role, guiding community members to funeral homes which will look after them best and requiring high standards of their local undertakers, whose commercial activity will be sensitive to such scrutiny.

A FoB can thereby form a human and caring interface between the funeral home and the community, bringing the bereaved and funeral professionals into the social mainstream, and reinforcing the naturalness and normality of death.

Assessing and managing risk

Before undertaking a FoB scheme its founders should conduct a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis.

There is a rich complexity of risk attached to such a scheme and, with that, the potential for fatal reputational damage if a volunteer misbehaves.

Before proceeding, ask yourself: what is the worst that could happen? Can this be prevented?

It is, of course, impossible to eliminate all risks incurred by establishing a FoB.

The purpose of the policies to enable you to manage risk in the most effective way possible.

When the local TV station rings to ask you how you could possibly have allowed something awful to have happened, you must be able to demonstrate that you took every reasonable precaution.

When things go wrong, you need the best possible mitigation.


Conduct risk assessments

For every role played by your volunteers you would be advised to conduct a risk assessment for 1) the proper management of risk and also 2) the purpose of demonstrating that potential problems were anticipated and steps taken to reduce risk.

A risk assessment using this template is recommended:

Look for the hazards.

Decide who might be harmed, and for each hazard, evaluate the chance, big or small, of harm actually being done and decide whether existing precautions are adequate or whether more should be done.

Record the significant findings of risk assessment, such as the main risks and the measures you have taken to deal with the.

Review your assessment from time to time, and revise if necessary.


Do volunteers need DBS checks?

Yes. The DBS say that volunteers who from time to time offer ‘counsel and services’ to ‘vulnerable adults’ are eligible. In all likelihood, this would cover all volunteers because, while not all service users will be vulnerable adults, some service users will have children and, while those children will not be service users, volunteers may well come into contact with them.

Furthermore, if a FoB is to undertake an educational role, volunteers may well be called in to talk to school students.

The definition of a vulnerable adult is:

A vulnerable adult is a person aged 18 years or over who may be unable to take care of themselves; protect themselves from harm; or prevent themselves from being exploited.

An adult may be vulnerable because they:

Have a physical disability

Have learning difficulties.

Have mental health problems.

Are old, frail or ill.

Are sometimes unable to take care of themselves or protect themselves without help.

A person may also be vulnerable because of a temporary illness or difficulty.

A vulnerable adult may have difficulty in making their wishes and feelings known and this may make them vulnerable to abuse. It may also mean that they are not able to make their own decisions or choices.

If you want to make further checks for information or peace of mind, contact the DBS here:  or phone their helpline here: 0870 90 90 811.

If you want to apply for DBS checks for volunteers you will have to use an umbrella body to forward your application.

Find your nearest DBS umbrella body  here.

What will it cost?

There are cost implications of setting up a FoB group.

Will the FoB pay volunteers’ travel expenses?

Will the FoB purchase certain items of equipment or rely on volunteers to use their own?

How will the FoB show its appreciation of its volunteers? How will the FoB raise funds?


Do we need a constitution?

A good idea. Find out more here.

While you’re at it, it’s well worth joining the  NCVO for advice and support.


Start slowly

Any FoB will evolve according to the needs of its service users and the particular nature of its locality in terms of demographics, traditions and culture. The best advice, therefore, is probably to:

Start informally and develop more formal and structured approaches as you go.

Be aware that people tend to get involved gradually, so don’t expect too much, too soon.

Target people you know who are, or who are likely to be, interested.

Make involvement as easy and enjoyable as possible.

Offer incentives.

The world’s first-ever FoB was born on television in Alex Polizzi’s show, The Fixer.

The Good Funeral Guide was a consultant to the programme’s researchers and proposed that the undertaker whom Alex was trying to turn around would score a hit by establishing a FoB.

The researchers loved the idea,

Alex was lukewarm and the undertaker and his sons hated it.

On a rainy day they set out into the community with a big blackboard and plenty of reluctance under orders to recruit volunteers.

They reckoned it would bellyflop.

But the public loved it. Huge success!

It is no longer available on YouTube but information about the programme can be viewed here.

Probably the best way to see how a FoB works is through fictitious case studies.

If these case studies seem plausible, then a FoB enterprise would seem to be both credible and desirable.


Outlines and general principles:

The range of tasks undertaken by volunteers comprises:

Routine, non-specialist, practical tasks which support day-to-day living of the client.

Volunteers will never support a client in responding to a contingency which falls within a specialist competency – eg, a leaky tap, a broken gutter, a fallen fence – nor will a volunteer recommend the services of a particular tradesperson.

Volunteers will never seek to impose their own values on a client or offer advice on any matter which could involve the client in financial loss, injury to health or emotional distress.

Routine, non-specialist tasks might include:

Driving a client to appointments.

Routine ‘getting-back-on-top’ housekeeping tasks – eg, vacuuming, washing, etc.

Tasks related to the organisation of a funeral – eg, telephoning friends and relatives and informing them of the event of the death, and the time and place of the funeral.

Cooking and feeding.

Elementary DIY.


Practical support with specific life skills which were the exclusive preserve of the one who has died

Examples are:

Lessons in basic cookery everyday financial management (paying the bills).

A volunteer would never offer speculative investment advice nor seek access to computer passwords.

In all conversations about money matters a third person, nominated if at all possible by the bereaved person, will be present.

Norah Baines died at home from cancer at the age of 76. She had been married to Ron for 54 years. Her death happened faster than expected. Their only daughter, Holly, was working abroad as a nanny.

Ron called the FoB. When they arrived, they saw that the events of the past few days had caught up with him. He was exhausted and hadn’t eaten.


Ron and Norah had always been a close couple.

Their friends in the village were mostly their own age and not very mobile.

Ron and Norah hadn’t felt they had much in common with their, mostly, much younger immediate neighbours.

Always cheery when they were out, they had nevertheless tended to keep themselves to themselves.

But they were known and respected and liked.


In order to tide Ron over the next 24 hours a FoB volunteer came in to help him tidy up and make him a decent meal.

The following day, another volunteer came to drive him to the registrar to register Norah’s death.

Further short term help was found: one volunteer came in for an afternoon and rang everyone in Ron and Norah’s address book to tell them of Norah’s death (Ron couldn’t face endlessly repeating the news).

By the time Holly arrived four days later someone had even popped in to tidy up the garden, which had been neglected during Norah’s illness.


Ron will be supported in the coming weeks and months.

Norah had always done the cooking and washing.

A FoB volunteer is going to give Ron cookery lessons over the next few weeks so that he can learn to make himself basic, nourishing meals.

We hope that Ron is going to be able, slowly but surely, to go on living independently without his Norah.

Sarah is a fiercely independent lady brought up in the hard school of stoical self-reliance.

She refused any offer of help from the FoB volunteers at first, but we were able to help her out as best we could.

Roger Parkin, a volunteer, drove her to the registrar.

As he dropped her off he noticed that the lawn needed mowing – and she didn’t resist too hard when he suggested doing it because, as she said, she had so many other things to do.

While he was there he fixed a hinge on the garden gate.

She made him a cup of tea and they chatted about her husband, Richard.

It seemed to do her good to talk.

She didn’t need us after that – but she knew we were there for her.

The death of Michelle’s husband Steve was traumatic enough (car accident) but when she came in to arrange the funeral she became very panicky about money.

It turned out that Steve had handled the bank account, bills, insurance policies, etc and she simply didn’t know what to do or even where to start.

We fixed her up with our very nice Mr Baines, who used to be headteacher of the local middle school.

He was able to help her out, show her how and offer her a lot of reassurance. For about 6-8 weeks after the funeral he went to see her once or twice a week to make sure she was coping with her daily money management.

She’s fine, now, and even says she would like to help people like her in the same situation.

At all times, a close friend of Michelle was present in order to minimise the risk of Mr Baines making off with her money – not that he ever would! But we believe it’s vital to manage risk in a proactive and perhaps seemingly overactive way rather than expose ourselves to suspicion – you know how people talk.

In any case, Michelle’s friend could often remember things that Mr Baines had told Michelle, which she had forgotten, so it turned out to be more efficient, too.


Like a lot of men of his generation, Henry’s loss of his wife of 43 years left him without visible means of feeding himself.

In short, Maggie had always done the cooking,

Bert could just about make himself a cup of tea.

Our FoB cooking specialist, Mary Parkin, gave Henry a series of cookery lessons over a period of 12 weeks. She noted the recipes that Henry especially enjoyed, so she put them together into a booklet which she printed off from her computer.

In the course of these lessons, Bert learned to create a shopping list and to buy everything he wanted for the week in one shop.

This was something he also had to learn, and he did so in the company of Brian Webster, who ran him down to Tesco on a Friday afternoon, showed him where things were, showed him how to identify value brands – and resist offers!

Henry says he still misses Maggie’s cooking, especially her baking, but there’s no mistaking his pride in his achievement.

It’s given him a feeling of control which we feel has gone a long way to reducing his acute sense of loss.

Here at the Darley Dale FoB we have had our educational outreach project running for just six months.

Last Thursday we held a showing of the film Departures.

We have held 2 end-of-life planning events and find that people are far less suspicious of us than if we were a bunch of funeral directors, IFAs and local solicitors.

We have joined forces with the local credit union to enable people to save for their funeral.

Once they have lodged the funds they get a voucher which their executor can use to buy a funeral anywhere they wish — and keep the change. It’s such a simple idea you wonder why the commercial funeral planners never thought of it.

We have also held two Death Cafes and will shortly hold our first  Death Over Dinner.


We have begun to contribute to the PSHE syllabus in our local comprehensive school with a series of lessons based on the film Beyond Goodbye:

Our experience is that neighbours, ie community members, relish the opportunity to support the bereaved when we ask them to roll up their sleeves and do stuff for them.

Makes a change from crossing the street, doesn’t it?

We find that the bereaved can help themselves a lot by getting stuck in as best they can, too.

We reckon that our FoB has created a very dynamic, 21st century congregation.


Our funeral director, Mike, has been brilliant.

He’s given us the use of a small room which we are going to convert into a drop-in resource centre where people can come off the street to read and think, and where we can hold small meetings and consultations.

Incidentally, Mike says all this has made a difference to the way people greet him when he’s out and about.

I like to say to him, “Mike, together we’re bringing death to life”!


It is increasingly popular to ask for donations to charity instead of funeral flowers.

Yes, you can have a cash collection at the funeral service. Your funeral director will be pleased to organise this for you and send the money to your chosen charity. There’s unlikely to be a separate charge for this.

But you will almost certainly raise much more money, and therefore do more good, if you ask people to contribute through a fundraising website. It’s far less painful for them to part with virtual money than five pound notes.

The best known fundraising website is JustGiving. But there are lots of other fundraising websites out there offering different terms and levels of service.

By the time JustGiving has deducted commission and a fee for processing a credit card, your £12.50 is reduced to £11.74. Some charity-giving websites offer better terms than JustGiving — but few are as easy to use. Some of them are not-for-profits, some are charities and a good many, like JustGiving,

are for-profit and very rich.

All fundraising websites enable you to make a donation to a major charity. Some of them, though, charge charities a joining fee and/or an annual subscription. All of them ask new members to fill in forms and submit paperwork to verify their credentials.

So if it’s a little, local charity you want to support, check first and make sure it’s already a member of the charity-giving website you favour, or you could cost it some expense and a lot of hassle.


Choose with care

In addition to its level of charges on donations, you also need to check out how easy a website is to use. According to CivilSociety: “A survey of charities conducted by in 2012 found that on average just 11 per cent of charities were recommending their supporters use BT MyDonate,

compared with 43 per cent recommending JustGiving and 27 per cent for Virgin Money Giving.

Asked to rank the platforms based on performance, MyDonate did not perform as strongly as competitor products in the market, specifically JustGiving, Virgin Money Giving and own-site platforms – topping the rankings only on the question of ‘value for money’, given that the platform is entirely free for charities to use.”

There are two: Memory Giving and MuchLoved, dedicated exclusively to people wanting to make donations in memory of someone.

Visit their websites to see if either of them suit your needs.



Charges: 1.3% credit cards, 15p debit cards.

No commission payable on donations.

Some users find the website clunky and baffling.

MyDonate is a not-for-profit run by British Telecommunications plc.


Charity Choice

Charges: 25p to process donations made by card unless the donor opts not to pay this fee.

No joining fee for charities.  

CharityChoice is a member of the Wilmington Group plc.


Virgin Money Giving

Charges: 2% transaction fee + 1.45% card processing fee for all cards except American Express 1.6%.

PayPal 1.6%. £100 joining fee for charities.

A not-for-profit service owned by Virgin Money.


Every Click

Lists all charities.

Will contact your chosen charity once the money is collected and ask it to register if necessary at no charge.

Everyclick is a limited liability, for-profit company.


Much Loved

Charges: 3.6% on the donation + 3.6% on gift aid where applicable.

This is inclusive of all debit/credit card fees.

Regardless of whether debit or credit card it’s the same all-inclusive 3.6% to keep the charges clear.

No other VAT or membership fee for charities.

All processing via the Charities Aid Foundation who administer the service and have been established for over 80 years as the leading UK charity donation processor. No joining fee for charities. MuchLoved is a charity.

MuchLoved raises money for charities through its excellent online memorial website. It enables people who are unable to afford a donation to write a message. It also enables people to share memories and participate in, say, commemorating the anniversary of the person who has died by lighting a virtual candle.

MuchLoved is a charity, so all profits are ploughed back into improving its service. It is highly sophisticated but very easy to use. Your funeral director can administer the donations process or you can do that by setting up an ‘in memory’ page yourself. Your memorial page can be public or private, and you can choose the administrators, as many as you like. Through MuchLoved you can link to any other fundraising platform and also to social media — so you can, for example, link through to your Facebook page. You can fundraise for all UK and international charities. In terms of branding, MuchLoved takes a low profile and puts the chosen charity in the spotlight.

You can use MuchLoved as a one-off fundraising platform, or you can use it for continuing

remembrance of the person who has died.


Memory Giving

Charges: 5% on the donation + 0.96% UK credit card transaction charge/17p debit card charge.

No charge on Gift Aid reclaim.

No membership fee for charities.

Memory Giving is a private limited company owned and operated by 5th Generation funeral directors Julian and Matthew Walker, based in Berkshire.

Simple, straightforward and easy to use. Ideal for a one-off charity fundraising effort. Collects for any charity or multiple charities per collection page, full reporting to you, your charity and your funeral director. Charity funds transferred weekly, independently audited and HMRC compliant. Charity- and funeral director-friendly system also offering conventional off-line collection process alongside on-line giving. SAIF and NAFD supplier memberships held.



Charges: 5% on the donation plus Gift Aid, hence 6.25% on the actual donation before credit card fees of up to 1.3%. Variable fee for charities 2-7.55%. Annual £180 annual membership for all charities.

Website very user-friendly.

JustGiving is a private limited, for-profit company.


If you would like to take the person who’d died on their final ride yourself, there is nothing to stop you from using or hiring your own preferred vehicle and taking them in that.

Drive down to the undertaker’s, load up and off you go.

This way, you can go by any route you want and spend all the time you want – so long as you get to the church or crem on time.

Be sure to have enough people to carry the coffin.

And be sure to secure the coffin in the vehicle.

You don’t want it surging forward when you brake.

Ask any undertaker about the various types of hearses that are available all over the UK.

Google type and colour – there are so many!

Very few suppliers will deal with you direct.









Silver hearses

AW Lymn of Nottingham runs probably the biggest fleet of Rolls Royces in Europe.


Coloured hearses




Hand bier


These are low-tech and hard work. People often take it in turns to lend a hand in the procession and feel involved.

You would probably be best off sourcing these locally.

An undertaker is the person best able to help you find one.

Traditionally pulled by Belgian Blacks with nodding plumes of ostrich feathers.

These declined in popularity after the Kray funerals, but are now as popular as ever and available throughout the UK.

Timeless and marvellous, they move at everyone’s walking pace.

Make sure you or one of yours rides on it, not the funeral director.

They are usually very expensive to hire – unless, of course, you know someone!

Find one near you by typing horse-drawn hearse and your county into Google.




A beautiful six horse-drawn hearse.

Best known and utterly reliable is Motorcycle Funerals run by the Rev Paul Sinclair, a huge character and a national treasure in his own right.

“Why,” he asks, “should those who love bikes be last seen in an automobile?”

Motorcycle Funerals – Ring: 01530 834616. Based in Leicestershire, operates UK-wide.



There are also some hearse trailers out there pulled by trikes.Trike Funerals —


Bicycle hearses

The Rev Paul and others also provide bicycle hearses. Google bicycle hearse and then ring for details.


Vintage lorry hearses

Owned and driven by the splendid David Hall.

He and his 1950 Leyland Beaver will drive anywhere.

David has a gift for creating a display on the lorry’s flat bed which reflects the life of the person who has died. Ring 01225 865346.



Brendan Kinsella has a 1929 vintage Guy (above). Beautifully restored, a real eyecatcher.


4×4 hearse

For countryfolk, explorers and other aficionados of the all-terrain vehicle, Alpha 4×4 Funerals offer a silver Land Rover hearse and matching Zambesi ‘limousine’. Alpha 4×4 Funerals: Ring: 01234 720936. Based in Bedford.



VW hearse

For lovers of the VW camper van, Volkswagen Funerals offer a white VW Type 26 Bay hearse plus fleet of three white stretch Beetles. Alternatively, you can have the 1963 split-screen 21-window Samba. Fantastically lovely people. Based in Staffordshire.Volkswagen Funerals: Ring: 01827 709067 or 01827 709045. 



Morris Minor hearse

Trudy the Traveller is a lovingly restored and converted 1965 Morris Minor. She is based in Staffordshire and will travel all over central England and further afield from November 2011. We predict a very bright future. Morris Minor Hearse Company:


Citroen Type-H van hearse

An informal alternative to the big, black hearse, the Citroen Type-H hearse has a friendly appearance and is immaculately presented. Bon Voyage hearse –



Hotrod hearse

It’s a Fordson hotrod, nice looking, supplied by the Final Cruise Co. Good website. They’ll customise your coffin, too. Final Cruise Co 


Hummer hearse

For the petrolhead in your life, a beautifully converted Humvee. Contact Trevor Holyoak at



Only Fools and Horses Del Boy Reliant van hearse

It’s Del Boy’s Reliant 3-wheeler van towing a converted, stretch Reliant. Only Fools and Hearses

Tank hearse




Fire engine hearse

This company restores and maintains fire engines that can be adapted to act as hearses.


Goth hearse

1972 Cadillac Deville with all the toys:


A funeral ceremony is a public performance. It must, therefore, contain ingredients which will enable it to engage and hold the attention of the audience.

All the following ingredients form part of most religious worship. Religions have a long experience in staging events which appeal to the head, the heart and the senses.

The trick is to get the proportions of ingredients right. A celebrant can be an invaluable consultant in helping you to do this. Celebrants know what works and what doesn’t.

A memorial cairn is a pile of stones, conical in shape. It may be made by one person or by many.

The Rev Roy Phillips advances the idea that one of the purposes of a funeral or a memorial service is “to place a cairn at the end of one human being’s journey.” This memorial cairn, he said “is made up of the memories, the thoughts, the feelings of all who are gathered in the one place together.”

This is a useful image. You can think of creating a funeral as building a cairn, and of each ingredient as one of the stones.

In order to create an appropriate sense of occasion and hold the attention of the audience you will need to choose from the following. Tick all the ones you think you like the look of now. You’ll get a chance to make firm decisions at the end.


different speakers

everyone joining hands

silent reflection




displays of photos

a multimedia presentation


decoration of the venue



smells – incense, essential oils

individual stems of flowers that people can put on the coffin

funeral favours


dress code

In order to create an appropriate sense of occasion and hold the attention of the audience you will need to choose from the following. Tick all the ones you think you like the look of now. You’ll get a chance to make firm decisions at the end.

Many funerals are conducted entirely by a priest or celebrant, who writes or co-writes the script and speaks every word of it. There are two reasons for this practice. First, most people do not feel confident that they will be able to create and script a funeral ceremony and, second, they don’t feel they’ll be able to stand up and deliver it; they think that emotion will overcome them on the day.

Better, therefore, to get an outsider in who is emotionally detached.

It can be boring to have to listen to one person talking all the way through and it may be unsatisfactory to have a stranger take the lead at what is a private and personal event.

If you talk yourself out of being able to talk at the funeral you definitely won’t be able to. If, on the other hand, you see it as a powerful duty to the person who’s died, you may get the strength from somewhere. You will, after all, be among friends willing you on. You couldn’t ask for a more supportive and sympathetic audience than them. Who would you rather have a difficult emotional time on front of?

If you do not think that you will be able to lead the ceremony or speak at length, then try to introduce the celebrant yourself. To everyone else the celebrant is a stranger – the only stranger in the building. By introducing the celebrant you give him or her legitimacy and establish that this person is your representative; that their words are your words.

As a rule of thumb, the more people you can persuade to speak, the better.

And don’t overlook children. They are likely to be more fearless than adults, especially girls.

Joining hands

When Christian churches first asked worshipers to exchange a sign of peace by shaking the hands of those within arm’s reach the response was one of shriveled embarrassment. The British don’t do tactile. Over time, though, it’s caught on and people now really value it.

It can produce a great sense of togetherness and solidarity when everyone at a funeral ceremony joins hands.


Silent reflection

Silence gives everyone a chance to think their own thoughts and muse on their own feelings and memories. If you are having a non-religious ceremony, here is an opportunity for religious people to say a little silent prayer of their own.



If the person who has died had any spiritual views, you may like to offer up prayers which connect with those views.

If the person who died was spiritually neutral, you might like to include some prayers to satisfy those of the mourners who are religious.

If the person who died was an atheist, it will probably be best to leave religious mourners to say their own prayers. A good opportunity is during a silence or while a piece of music is playing.

The music you choose should express how you and everyone else feel. It should, of course, have a strong connection to the person who has died and is likely to include some of that person’s favourites.

It may be a mistake to play music to cheer people up. This is quite different from choosing music which, however funny or anarchic, expresses the spirit of the person who has died and the spirit of the occasion. Such a piece of music may well cheer people up!

It may also a mistake to have too much music or to expect people to sit and listen to long pieces of music. Something at the beginning, something at the end and perhaps a piece in the middle, lasting 3 minutes at most, will probably be quite enough for a half-hour ceremony. Seven minutes of a rock anthem, be warned, will feel, to the audience, like the wrong sort of eternity. If you want people to be able to listen to the music the dead person loved best, include a playlist in the order of service and they can do it at home – or share it on Spotify.

Music can be much more powerful and evocative than spoken words—and the words of a song far less meaningful than its tune and the way it is sung.

If you want to play recorded music, most crematoriums now have the Wesley music system, which can download from the internet almost anything ever recorded. If you’ve forgotten the title but can hum a snatch of the tune down the phone to them, chances are they’ll recognise it. Any crematorium which does not have the Wesley system may insist on original, not burned, CDs. Make sure the correct version is played – some tunes have many versions and styles.

Live music works well, of course, and there are professional musicians out there of all sorts to play for you. Remember, though: a grandchild playing a recorder squawkily is likely to be far more touching than a stranger playing a harp like an angel.

Music for Funerals

No Sad Songs

Singers for Funerals

If you want the funeral to move from sadness to a more celebratory or a lighter mood, choose your entry and exit music accordingly.

Choose the right music and not too much of it: that’s the trick.

Bringing people to their feet to sing a song joins everyone together and enables them to play a part in the funeral. The problem can be getting people to sing.

There are very few ‘traditional’ songs for non-religious funerals and, for this reason, favourite hymns are still popular. People don’t sing them for the words, they sing them because they have been singing them all their lives: they like the tunes. Abide With Me is still a funeral favourite, and The Lord’s My Shepherd. They seem somehow appropriate. Any religious people at the funeral will, of course, welcome this chance to voice their beliefs, so hymns serve a double purpose.

However, all sorts of secular songs are suitable too – especially songs from shows: You’ll Never Walk Alone, Somewhere Over The Rainbow. Most pop songs do not lend themselves to community singing, so make sure that whatever you like the sound of is singable by lots of people at the same time. James Blunt’s You’re Beautiful, for example, almost certainly wouldn’t work.

Poetry has meaning far beyond words. People love it. Poetry speaks to the emotions and the senses. It speaks of mystery and the indefinable. It’s not what a poem says that matters most, it’s how it makes people feel.

This is why poetry works well in a funeral ceremony. And it provides a useful antidote to all that prose which everyone else has been speaking.

If you can’t lay your hands on a good poem immediately, there are lots close by.

Type ‘funeral poem’ into your search engine and you’ll be spoiled for choice.

Buy a copy of Poems and Readings for Funerals edited by Julia Watson, published by Penguin.

Buy Seasons of Life: Prose and Poetry for Secular Ceremonies and Private Reflection, published by the Rationalist Press

Buy The Complete Book of Funeral Planning, Readings and Music published by Foulsham.

Search the Poetry Society

Search the Poetry Foundation

Perhaps a member of your family or a close friend would like to write a special poem. Even if you don’t think it’s very good, it is likely to go down better than a ‘real’ one.

Tip: don’t include a poem because you think you should. This is just “poetry padding”. Select a meaningful poem that helps to create the feelings you want people to experience.

If your funeral venue is a crematorium, it is good to claim this institutional space and make it yours for the time you are there.

You make the space yours by playing your own music in it. You can also do it by displaying photos or, better still, one big photo of the person who has died, and placing it beside the coffin. A closed coffin depersonalises the person inside it; a photo alongside reassures everyone that the owner is in residence.

Lots of photos on and around the coffin work well.

So do mementoes. You can personalise the coffin with a favourite garment of the person who has died. A hat works well. So does a rug or a throw. You could lay a favourite coat over it.

You can display around the coffin emblems of the person who has died. Golf clubs. Motorcycle boots. A gardening tool. Pots of jam.

If the service is at the crematorium you need to get it all in and out smartly.

You can decorate the venue more extensively, of course, with drapes, banners or whatever. You will need time to set up, and then time to take it all down and out. If your venue is the crematorium, your best bet will be to book a double slot.

Flowers have always featured at funerals. They are fresh and beautiful and, in the old days, yes, helpful in overcoming smells from the coffin.

Florists will supply all manner of ‘floral tributes’ in all shapes and sizes from a coffin spray to the name of the person who’s died spelled out in flowery letters. Many will ingeniously make a horse’s head in flowers for a keen gambler, a pint of Guinness for a drinker, a pipe for a smoker and, for a football fan, the badge of their team. In the West Midlands florists are skilled at delicately spraying flowers Aston Villa magenta.

Flowers are declining in popularity because many see them as a waste of money. In the case of a cremation that is arguably the case. You enjoy them for a few minutes then leave them behind. They are laid outside the following day and chucked in a skip a few days after that.

There is often an environmental cost, too—all that wire and oasis and cellophane.

A coffin spray lends beauty to the coffin which, otherwise, might look forbidding and unapproachable. It depends on the coffin and it depends on you. A willow coffin can have many flowers woven into it, top and sides. A minimalist approach would be to have just a single stem on top of the coffin. There is drama and beauty in that. A home made arrangement made of flowers from your garden is likely to be far more touching than a professional, production-line floral tribute picked from a catalogue.

After the funeral you can take the flowers home. Or you can donate them to a hospice or nursing home. The problem here is that flower arrangements take time to deconstruct—too much time. And MUM spelt out in flowery letters has blooms shorn of stems and is therefore useless.

In the case of a burial, flowers find a fitting and entirely satisfactory destination on top of the grave. Do remove cellophane; it makes flowers swelter.

Instead of flowers, people often ask mourners for a donation to a favourite charity. You can collect cash at the funeral, or you can ask people to donate online. They give more this way.

Be aware that some people who live in other countries or are unwell may not be able to attend a funeral so sending flowers can become very important for them in order to make their “presence” felt. People often look at who the flowers were from after a funeral.

If you want British-grown flowers in simple, beautiful arrangements, we like Great British Florist.

We also very much like Stems of New Covent Garden. They are, most unusually, funeral specialists and serve London and the home counties.


Candles are pleasing to the eye. Lighting them can make for a beautiful ritual and involve other mourners. This is a particularly good way of involving children.

You will need something to display candles on. A small table might do, but is likely to be a little low. A flower stand works well with a circular tray—a pizza tray—gaffer-taped to the top of it. You may have to improvise!

You could have a single candle in a candlestick surrounded by many nightlights. The central candle can symbolise love, the nightlights memories. At an early part of the ceremony, invite people to light them. At the end of the ceremony, after the farewell, they will still be burning, making the point that, though people die, love never dies and memories never die.

Some crematoria reckon candles to be a fire hazard. If yours does, demand to see their risk assessment and speak to the fire officer. The purpose of a risk assessment is to enable something to happen safely. Some crematoria allow it, so all ought to. You may need to negotiate with remorseless diplomacy. If they refuse you could use LED candles like these.



The right incense can create an ambience. Beautiful smells can evoke a sense of wonder and mystery. You can’t do this at a crematorium, though; the next people may not like it.

If Granddad was famous for his love of Murraymints, why not invite everyone to suck one as they listen to people talking about him?

Consider raising a glass of something to the person who has died at the goodbye moment when the curtains close.

Whether the funeral is at the crematorium or a burial ground you can ask people to come forward at some point and put a single flower stem on the coffin, or a sprig of herb, or a last message.

This can be very intense.

On the whole we don’t do funeral favours in the UK.

But we do have wedding favours. Same idea. You can give those who come to the funeral a little keepsake to take home with them.

It could be a single seed to plant in their garden. It could be a plant. It could be some little thing that belonged to the dead person and by which they will be remembered – a trowel for one person, a book for another.

Little things, but full of personal meaning.

Ask people to dress in a way which will reflect and add to the sense of occasion.

Don’t make it too difficult or embarrassing for people as this could put them off coming.

Ask the undertaker to do the same, if you wish. Undertakers are often very reluctant to do this, but can look absurdly out of kilter in their trad garb in a crowd of very informally dressed people.

You will notice that you can accomplish all the purposes of a funeral ceremony at almost no cost.

Money can’t buy a good funeral. Only emotional honesty can do that. It’s what you do and say that count, not what you spend. Throwing money at a bad funeral will amplify its faults. But money well spent, if you’ve got it, can certainly enhance the experience of a good one.


In addition to Murraymints, candles, incense and flowers, you can spend as much money as you want on:


Multimedia presentation

A slideshow with music. Hugely effective. Requires equipment, and the screen must not be in direct sunlight. Some crematoria now have their own projection equipment, and about time too.



For that haunting, Highland touch.

Type ‘funeral piper’ into your search engine or consult your undertaker


Jazz band and other live musicians

Unless you know them, ask your undertaker to find them.



Release them after the ceremony. They can symbolise the spirit of the person who has died. Source them by asking your funeral director or go to the International White Dove Society. Their website will put you in touch with doves near you.



They serve the same symbolic purpose as doves (or any symbolic purpose you want). They are cheaper and more easily sourced, but there are environmental drawbacks.

Keep it real

Everyone is different. For this reason, all funeral ceremonies ought to be different.

Nearly all funerals are sad, some sadder than others. People’s responses to death, and the feelings they bring to the funeral, differ according to the circumstances.

When someone dies peacefully in extreme old age, those who come to the funeral may well be feeling that what has happened is in the order of things: “He had a good innings, a good life. In the last few years his mobility hasn’t been great and he’s been getting very forgetful. Really, he’d had enough. Nothing could be more natural than his leaving us.” There is much to give thanks for, much to look back on with pleasure. Sadness is softened by a feeling that all is for the best.

When someone dies young, people feel angry, shocked and cheated. When they come to the funeral these feelings will still be very raw.

When someone dies suddenly or violently, it is possible that the funeral will happen too soon for people to have been able to begin to deal with their emotions. They may be in denial or shocked disbelief.

All lives are different. People’s responses to death differ, also, according to their own ideas of life and death and their feelings for the dead person. Some people are more lovable than others. Some people are funny, some are glum. Some people live rich, busy lives; others go to work, come home and watch telly.

The lives of all are measured by what they mean to those who love them. A good funeral ceremony will be as unique as the life lived.

A funeral thrives on the participation of people close to the person who has died. For that reason, you can, if you want, invite only selected people to come.

A funeral is one of those rare events which is not necessarily improved by professionals. You can employ a professional celebrant to conduct the funeral but remember, however brilliant your celebrant is with words, both writing them and speaking them, the validity of what he or she says will be diminished by this vitally important fact – everyone present will know that the celebrant did not know the person who has died. They would possibly far rather hear something less well-spoken from someone who did.

A funeral is no good if it’s too good. It is actually improved by wonkiness and the odd whoopsy moment. These are the things that make it real. You can get the undertaker’s bearers to carry the coffin and they’ll do it faultlessly; or you can get family members to carry it and it’ll all be a bit nailbiting, and all the better for that. You can have an Oscar-winning actor read a Shakespeare sonnet or you can have nine year-old Oscar read out that poem he wrote about granddad. Oscar will trump the Oscar-winner every time.

The reason for this is that every family does things its own way. A funeral needs to be created and conducted according to the culture, customs and language of your family. This is no time to tidy away everything about you that makes you what you are and pretend you’re just like everyone else. The eyes of the world are not on you.

A funeral is a time when the people who knew and loved the person who has died close ranks, regroup and support each other.

This is a private time, a deeply personal affair. It is no one else’s business.

This is why, when it comes to funerals, home cooking trumps the best chefs every time. A real funeral couldn’t care less what anybody thinks of it.

Before you start to create your funeral ceremony you need to understand both the size of the task ahead of you and the scope of the opportunity.

For religious people, a funeral makes sense of death in terms of a shared belief system based in faith. When a religious person dies, everyone knows exactly what to do. The funerary rituals are familiar and time honoured. Everything follows as a matter of authority and custom. Making sense of death is religion’s USP.

You have got nothing like this to fall back on. By rejecting a mainstream religious funeral you have to start with a clean sheet. You have to reinvent the funeral.

You may wish the funeral you create to make some sort of sense of what has happened in your own terms according to your own beliefs.

A religious funeral makes sense of life on Earth by proclaiming that it has a purpose which transcends earthly existence. It makes sense of death by proclaiming the comforting certainty that the person who has died has gone to a far, far better place. Religious people look forward to death as a gateway to unimaginable happiness. (That does not mean that they look forward to dying; that’s entirely different.)

90% of people in the UK are not active members of faith group. At one end of the scale there are doctrinaire atheists, a minority. At the opposite end of the scale is another minority: those who have developed a personal creed which incorporates belief in an afterlife of some sort. And in the middle lies the majority, the undecideds: all those who die with an open mind, wondering more or less hopefully if they will be reunited in some non-specific destination with people they love who have gone before them. They are content to find out when and if they get there. They suppose that, if there is a judgmental deity, a good life will be rewarded.

If the funeral you create cannot look forwards and contemplate with absolute certainty the person who has died enjoying a blissfest in eternity, how are you going to make sense of your loss? What can you do?

The answer is that the funeral can look backwards—and forwards.

The alternative to a mainstream religious funeral is a reflective ceremony which looks back over the life lived and records and celebrates everything about that person which has not been lost: their memory, their values and their example, all of which live on. If non-religious people are to derive any comfort from a funeral it must be in the consideration of how they can look forward their own lives continuing to be enriched by the person who has died. Much as they miss them, they would far rather they had been a part of their lives than not. This is a good pain they are feeling.

A ceremony like this can do exactly what people want a funeral to do: focus on the life of the person who has died and give thanks for that life. It can incorporate that person’s wishes, beliefs and values, and those of their family and close friends, so it is much more personal than a religious ceremony, which puts god first and which has a fixed format to which you can contribute very little.

Better still, you, the organiser, have complete control over what happens.

But remember: happy memories and fond feelings do not themselves necessarily help us to make sense of death. They may serve to remind us only of how sharply we miss the person who has died. People who have not adopted or evolved a belief system which explains death have to make sense of it their own way. That is their responsibility, not yours.

We wouldn’t wait until our annual break begins and approach a travel agent saying, “I have to go on holiday today, where am I supposed to go?” But that’s very much the way we organize and purchase a funeral when the time comes.

Death doesn’t get noticed a lot, but it isn’t hiding. Our attention has been drawn to it lately by features and articles on funerals. They are interesting or alarming or sensational, and most leave unanswered the question; ‘When someone dies, what do we do next?’ We’re told to hurry up and find an undertaker to remove the person’s body and let him take care of everything from there. In our suggestible frame of mind, the trouble with following this advice is that it can take things out of our hands and lead us anywhere.


We don’t think fondly of funerals, when we think of them at all. But then, they have mostly been done rather badly, and it’s not clear who’s responsible for that. Though nearly all of us say we’re satisfied with the result, a national survey identified what it called ‘secret disappointment’, which means the reluctance of at least half of us to admit that we wish things had been done better.

We’ve been putting a brave face on it, because there’s no second chance and we have a vested interest in believing we gave our relative a good send-off. There has been little consumer demand for improvement, and we’ve passively consented to the same prescribed formula and expressed the same old gratitude. Until lately, that is.


People have always held ceremony around death, in very diverse ways. The traditional funeral as we may think of it hasn’t been going long at all, and if we believe it is the only dignified way then perhaps we haven’t witnessed anything better. But if we had never seen this theatrical performance, with its dark uniforms and fleets of costly vehicles and rehearsed solemnity so remote from actual grief, would it occur to us to invent it?

If we can organize any other family get-together we can organize a funeral, with limited professional help. Given encouragement, even in mourning, we can take the lead ourselves and produce a communal grieving ritual in our own familiar style. When we’re handling the constant surprise of even expected death, this grounding in activity puts us more in touch with reality. It helps us engage with real loss, better than letting strangers ‘take all the worry and stress of the arrangements’ away from us.


Our increasing focus on personal choice opens new opportunities to commemorate our dead with homespun or innovative ideas.

But it also makes new demands on our creativity, and any apprehension about getting it wrong can leave us susceptible to suggestions from our experienced funeral providers. Many in the trade make much of the idea that funerals are about choice nowadays, and that we can have anything we want. There are quirky hearses and funky coffins, ashes made into fireworks, a dove release, a woodland burial, online memorials… products and services, to make it seem more individual. But faced with the permanent absence of a person from our lives, our real choice is not to go shopping.


Although these details  can  be  important,  they  are  auxiliary  to one, more profound choice that divides funerals  into  two categories; a choice between delving open-mindedly into this bereavement to create an unprecedented farewell, and going along with the everyday funereality provided by those whose everyday job that is. While either boldness or caution can be valid reactions to loss, the conventional version remains the only choice that’s even presented to many of us.


So if we want to take advantage of the trend towards family- motivated funerals that can help us better accommodate death, there’s no point in asking anyone what we’re supposed to do, especially if they presume to know. We are the hosts at  this funeral, not the guests, and we’ll want to offer something rewarding for everyone who comes – something we cannot buy by ‘personalising’ a manufactured product with symbols of the dead person’s lifestyle choices.


However, we are unlikely to know at first what it is we do want to offer, or how to offer it. We also want to do right by the person who’s calling everyone here, and it’s easy to stall. It can be tempting just to fall in with the predictable course of events  that at least we know we can rely on.

But this is where the ceremony itself can come into its own and get some current flowing. Even once the other arrangements are in hand it’s easy to take ownership of the ceremony, yet still allow an undertaker to hold everything else safely in place around it if we want.


‘The ceremony’ refers to the things we say and do and listen to and look at, often with the coffin present, the one part of any funeral that everyone sees. It is the climax of the arrangements between family, community, undertaker, celebrant and all concerned, the way to get involved for everyone who comes. It is what makes sense of having a funeral at all, and it’s about noticing and being with the after-images of the person who died, which help maintain our lasting bond with them and allow us to let their body go.


Without a ceremony there is no funeral. The funeral stands or falls on its ceremony, and a good ceremony can rescue even a badly managed funeral.

Anyone at all may step in and conduct it. Even the loyalty of a stumbling friend can be as moving as the most eloquent professional celebrant; though we often find that we  want somebody to take care of it who’s experienced and emotionally uninvolved.

Somebody who will pay attention to us and our memories, feelings,  photos,  expressions,   thoughts,   tears, laughter, silences, ramblings, insights, absences and anything we offer, and translate them into something that feels and sounds to   us like the person  we  need  to  remember. Somebody  who  can turn our main focus from the pain of loss itself towards the emotional legacy of the person we’re missing; from the silence of death to the voice of the dead.


That is what frees us to grieve, to be glad of life and willing to love again, much better than a ritual we don’t relate to or a belief we don’t believe.

So if we’re not ready to re-invent the whole funeral, we can certainly claim the ceremony as our own, either unaided or with a celebrant. A funeral can be one of the rare times most or all members of a family are in one place, often a chance to consolidate and hold the weight of a shared loss. Death has a powerful draw, and it means a lot to us to be part of this gathering now that one of our own has left a void in our midst. What happens once we get there is important, and what is just starting to change is that now we are learning to hope for something at least as good as we’ve experienced or heard about elsewhere.

At last there’s movement happening in funeralworld, and our dismal expectations are beginning to rise. It’s our assertive demands that will raise standards, along with the realization that it is the family, not the celebrant or undertaker, who is directing this funeral.


What is it, then, that we do have to do when someone dies? It would be nice to imagine there really are straightforward answers, as the days following a death must be the  hardest time of our lives to begin learning the new skill of organizing a funeral. But if we fully grasp the principle that there are no rules apart from registering the death and disposing of the body, and that no-one except a coroner can tell us anything we don’t  want to hear because the buck stops with us anyway, we’ll probably get by.

We certainly don’t have to pin down our old folks beforehand and demand to know their funeral wishes, though a chat with them may be welcomed more than we realize. But it is instructive to talk about death in ways we can cope with; for instance about what would be our genuine gut responses, and what we could do to meet them, in the event of an imaginary death if not an imminent one. Then when a real death does happen we can at least be ready with some idea of what we’ll need, and how to find it for ourselves rather than be handed a substitute that we’re too overwhelmed to refuse.


There are good undertakers and celebrants in most towns, some who will acknowledge and prioritize our altered mental state and support us unhurriedly in working everything out to suit our own best interests, and things are getting better. Yet the funeral’s reputation generally is still very poor, and we need to bear that in mind. If we come to it with open eyes we’ll stand a chance  of putting together a funeral to be remembered and emulated, more so than if we wait until death barges uninvited into our lives  with its urgent demands before we turn and face it.

© Jonathan Taylor, 2013

Practical stuff to choose a FD

Unless you have religious reasons for doing otherwise, take your time. If someone dies at home, by all means call a funeral director and ask them to collect the body but be aware that you can have them transferred to another funeral director for a nominal charge before any paperwork is signed.

This also applies if the person has already been collected because they died in a nursing home. If the person died in a hospital there may be no rush – they can stay in the mortuary until you’ve chosen a funeral director you’re happy with. If the hospital does not have a mortuary, a nominated funeral director will look after them until you arrange for a transfer.

By all means call family and friends to tell them that death has occurred, but don’t feel that you need to tell them the place and time of the funeral in the same call. Unless the coroner is involved you must register the death within 5 days.

Phone a friend

It’s always worth asking around to see if anyone can recommend a good funeral director. But remember: the average number of funerals anyone buys in a lifetime is 2. No way are they experts. What’s more, most people have very low expectations when they buy a funeral so they’re easily satisfied.

The funeral director they recommend may be perfectly okay, but you can probably find a much better one by doing some research yourself.


Ask a friend to help

Chances are you’ve never organised a funeral before. Worse, it’s difficult to make hard-headed judgements if you are feeling very sad. So consider asking a friend to help out. People always want to be useful at a time like this – here’s their chance.

Choose someone who is level-headed, organised, not afraid to read the information on this website, ask questions of you and funeral directors, and in whom you can confide about any financial constraints.

Your main choice is between burial and cremation – unless your religion prescribes one or the other. Cremation is almost always cheaper.

Remember: you can cut costs to a minimum by opting for direct cremation and holding a funeral/memorial and/or ash scattering event a few days, weeks or months later at a place and time that’s right for you and the person who died.

Pretty much all the information you need is on this website, so spend time learning all the other choices you have – or get your friend to do it for you.

Use the checksheet below, Buy only what you want, at the end of this document – print it out. Then you’ll be ready to ring your local funeral directors.

Your budget will determine what sort of funeral you choose. Because you want to ‘do them proud’ you can very easily overspend. Remember that, ultimately, a good send-off is determined by what you say and do, not what you spend.

Ask your friend to help you stick to your budget and think about how people can play their part in the preparations and ceremony. Remember that many funeral directors will ask for all of the 3rd-party fees up front (this could up to £800 for cremation in some parts of the country, even more for burial), with the balance to be paid soon after the funeral, so you will need to have the funds available.

It’s perfectly okay to ask friends and family to help with the cost, and much more practical than buying flowers which will usually only be seen briefly. Finally, be sure to claim any benefits you might be entitled to.

Google ‘funeral director + your town’ and you’ll get a list of all your local funeral directors.

Ring. Say you’re looking for the right funeral director at the right price.

Evaluate how your request is dealt with and give each one stars out of five.

Draw up a shortlist of, say, three.

Who owns this business?

How long have you been going?

Why should I choose you in favour of anyone else? What makes you special?

What is your position on embalming—is this something you insist on or actively promote?

Can you guarantee that only one person will make arrangements with me, get back to me personally every time I ring and be the conductor on the day of the funeral?

Will I be able to speak you personally every day if I need to?

I’d like you to give me a quote for the following funeral, please (now use the check sheet below).

Click here to download a checklist of questions you may want to ask the undertaker you are thinking of using.

Style your funeral

Would you describe yourself as:


Someone who likes tradition with a modern twist



Mould-breaker—a bit of an anarchist

Thinking of the sense of occasion you want to create, do you want the funeral to be:



Informal, spontaneous

Do you like ceremonial? In a funeral this might include a horse-drawn hearse, a procession, a military salute, a particular and elaborate ritual.




The mood of the funeral will mostly be determined by how people feel towards the person who has died.  Do you expect the mood to be:




Sombre and regretful

One of acceptance

Grateful, happy and celebratory

What part would you like those who come to the funeral to play? In evaluating this, ask yourself what part you think they’d like to play:

Anyone who wants should be able to say or do what they want, and we will make time for this

We want only invited people to take part

The ceremony will be led by just one person

You may want the funeral to appeal to the minds of those who come, or you may want it to appeal to their senses, or you may want it to do both. Which?

Rational, prosaic, logical – plain words, plain speaking, down to earth, no nonsense

Sensuous, spiritual – evoking a sense of mystery and wonder through poetic writings, images, music and ritual

A bit of both

Do you think the funeral ceremony ought to be:

Firmly structured, with no deviation from that structure

Structured, but with some scope for spontaneity

Unstructured and wholly spontaneous


Do you want the funeral to be



As inexpensive as possible

Do you want the funeral to:

Make the smallest possible impact on the environment

Keep its environmental impact to an acceptable minimum

Go ahead without any consideration at all for its ecological impact


It is a precious gift to the person who has died.

It presents a portrait of the dead person. “He is dead, but look, there s/he still is!”

There’s an element of the miraculous in that.

It fixes memories and feelings, and establishes that they live on.

For a lot of people, the purpose of a funeral eulogy is to tell the life story.

Three problems here. First, it can sound very like a CV or a series of and-thens – “And then she moved to Felixstowe and found employment with JC Whittle & Sons where she…” This sort of narrative can be quite boring and predictable – not a good look for a story – and a lot of people will know all or most of it. Lots of very interesting and loveable people have led uneventful lives. Nothing wrong with that.

The second problem is that the storyline moves inexorably towards death. If you are celebrating the life, that’s not where you want to be heading.

The third problem is that it may give you too much to say, and you’ll have to gabble to fit it all in.


Having said which, there’s everything to be said for telling people things they didn’t know – so long as they interesting and illuminate the person who has died. For example, many people may not know much about the early years, when the person who died may have had – this is the important bit – important formative experiences.

A better place for the biography of the person who has died may well be either the service booklet or even a separate, commemorative booklet which includes  photographs, extracts from diaries, recipes – you name it. That’s the sort of thing people are going to take home and keep.

The life story of the person who has died is an important chapter in your family history.

A funeral is a proper time to bind, especially, the young into the continuum of your family story. But the best way to do that may well be to write it down.

It’ll also free you up to talk about the really important things.

What people want to hear is:

What made the person who died the person they were – what made them tick.

What the person who died meant to other people

Everyone’s a one-off: what was it that made her/him unique? And special?

A good eulogy is an insightful character analysis packaged in a series of anecdotes which illustrate and exemplify the qualities, values and beliefs of person who has died.

Not one big story, a series of little ones.


There is no need to tell these anecdotes in the order in which they happened.

Your listeners will be thoughtful and reflective.

A slightly rambling narrative will suit their mood.

A collage of memories works very well.

Consider starting with a story from the middle of the person’s life.

No one likes to speak ill of the dead and, in truth, there are not many dead people who deserve to be badmouthed.

No one is perfect, though, and your tribute will lack emotional honesty if everyone knows that you are avoiding talking about something bad, if that bad thing was a large part of who that person was.

Worse, because you’re working so hard to avoid talking about it, that’s all your listeners will be able to think about. It’s better to confront the truth, or at least to touch on it.

Little faults and foibles are quite different. Everybody has those.

They may be exasperating but they are probably also be lovable. Talk about them. Talk about the things that sometimes drove you mad. You will almost certainly be met with answering, sympathetic laughter from your listeners – affectionate laughter.

Some people think you shouldn’t laugh at a funeral but, if someone made you laugh in life, are they going to stop just because they’re dead?

Humour, when it bubbles up naturally, does not trivialise or distract from the sadness of the ceremony: on the contrary, it enhances it and lends it a very necessary emotional dimension.

A funeral is an occasion where everyone is trying to keep their emotions in check.

Laughter acts as an emotional safety valve.


A funeral is not a time when people need to hear great oratory.

In fact, a brilliant public speaker may distract attention from the person he or she is talking about.

A funeral is no time for egos.

The words must not upstage the person they’re describing, nor must the person delivering them.

So it doesn’t matter if you aren’t an accomplished and experienced public speaker.

So long as you can be heard, that’s all that matters.

The purpose of a tribute is to paint a word-portrait and express what the person who has died meant and will go one meaning to everyone who knew them.

You may achieve this better if several people speak briefly from their own experience.

They do not have to speak for long.

Just one little story can say it all.

Children are great at this.

You can think of a funeral as theatre. The star of the show is the person in the coffin.

Woe betide anyone who upstages them.

People delivering a tribute can easily fall into the trap of talking about the dead person as someone who orbited their own life.

“This is how I felt about her; this is what she meant to me, did to me, said to me; I remember that time when I…”

Too much I, too much all-about-me.

Audiences don’t like that. At all.

A funeral is for the dead person and it is for those who mourn.

But it is about the dead person and the dead person only.

Minor characters are allowed, of course, but in peripheral roles only.

The best way to finish is by looking ahead to the future and issuing a call to action – something like:

You will commemorate X best by keeping her memory alive. So go on telling the stories; tell them over and over; they’ll never get tired or dusty or faded. Tell them to people who never met her. Because X’s life story is the stuff of legend. Keep the legend alive.

Okay, so that’s a bit over the top, but you get the message.

There’s lots and lots of advice out there about how to speak effectively in public.

Celebrants can support you and give you practical tips to boost your confidence.

We’ve only one thing to add: stand up and do your duty! This can be a great motivator.

What are FDs like

Most of us don’t know anyone who’s an undertaker nor do most of us ever think about undertakers until we have to go and see one.

That’s when we begin to wonder what they’re going to be like.

Are they soft-spoken, slightly creepy black-clad men with long waxy faces, wonky smiles and yellow teeth who live in gloom?

No, they’re not. They’re as normal as rice pudding, most of them.

The best – and there are more of them than you might think – are some of the nicest and best people you could ever meet.

If you’ve always supposed you’d have to be weird or warped to be an undertaker you’d be exactly wrong. Weirdoes may be attracted to the trade—there are some—but they don’t last. Emotionally needy people are drawn to it, too—those who feed off the grief of others. They don’t last, either.

Some are born to it—those who go into the family business. These may, some of them, lack the zeal of their undertakerly ancestors, but they are seduced by attractive financial returns for comparatively little hard work. They can pay other people to do that.

Those not born into funeral directing, let’s call them the vocational undertakers, are drawn to the work, most of them, not because they like being around dead bodies but because they like being around living people. That really is ninety per cent of their motivation. It is important work they do, helping the living through difficult times by looking after their dead.

They probably like putting on a bit of a show, too. The dressing-up bit can be a catch.

Of course, there are those who are just in it for the money. But it is difficult to get rich quick in undertaking. It takes years to build up a business. And most Brits reckon the only good funeral is a cheap one, so margins are small.

You don’t need to be an academic high-flier to become a funeral director. There are few other jobs that could make many of them feel so important. It’s not the sort of job that attracts middle class people, and most of them aren’t.

Every day is different. There’s variety. Every funeral is a drama. The hours aren’t brilliant—you can be called out in the middle of the night—but, except in big cities, the work for most is not grindingly hard unless you work for one of the conglomerates, Dignity or Co-op Funeralcare.

There is normally a lull in the summer and a busy patch after Christmas.

Most funeral directors can put on a good show. They can big up the empathy, switch on the sincerity, convince you they care. But what are they like when you’re not looking?

Quite the reverse, some of them, those who have lost the heart for it and are simply going through the motions. It is easy to grow pompous, complacent, hardened or bored when you deal every day with clients who do not keep you on your toes, whom you can easily talk into buying the same funeral as everyone else.

Busy urban funeral directors look after the bodies of all sorts of people they know nothing of and may care nothing about. Behind the scenes their indifference may turn to negligence, coarseness, disrespect. This may come as no surprise and should serve as a warning.

In rural areas it is more likely that funeral directors will know the people they are looking after. Not only that, but their private and public behaviour are much better known. They maintain their good name in the community at their commercial peril.

Having said which, there are many funeral directors who adhere to a code of behaviour whose high standards might astonish you. Behind the scenes they treat their dead bodies with immaculate courtesy. They talk to them as they wash and dress them. They knock before going in to the chapel of rest. They carry coffins gently. They hold ashes’ urns in both hands, never under one arm. They are exactly the same in public as in private. They have a strong sense of pride in their calling. This is the sort of funeral director you are looking for and which this website will help you to find.

Don’t expect undertakers to be grief counsellors. Why should they be? If, as a nation, we are not good at handling death, it is not their responsibility to do something about that. We hire an undertaker to take care of the practicalities, not to take away the pain. Some do offer counselling as an expression of their commitment to care. You will make your own appraisal of their qualifications for doing so.

Reassuringly, almost all undertakers and their staff are much cheerier than you might think. Laughter is a very necessary safety valve for them. Remember, these are people who know what a quirky and sudden thing death is. They are reminded of it every day. They feel disturbed when someone their own age dies, just as you would be. They are deeply affected by the death of a child, just like you.

Because their work can sometimes be unpleasant—working for the coroner means stretchering out suicides, picking up long-dead derelicts from empty buildings—they tend to have an overdeveloped sense of humour. They can easily conceal their cheeriness beneath a pall of velvet sorrow.

When you’re not looking, their ribaldry would surprise and possibly delight you. Possibly not. Put a drink in their hands and they’ll let down their hair with the best of them.

Dealing with death all day every day teaches you to keenly appreciate being alive.

Undertakers have an image problem, naturally – some, not all. They are the victims of popular attitudes to death. And in all cultures those who deal with the dead are shunned to a greater or lesser extent. The last question an undertaker wants to hear on holiday is “What do you do?”

Undertakers do a job which most people reckon to be unenviable—someone’s got to do it—so they may be socially insecure. They know people giggle about them or dread them. They are a caste apart. Like priests, another caste, they like to attire themselves in archaic fancy dress.

But whereas priests are an otherworldly caste, undertakers are ineluctably an underworldly caste. So they work hard to be thought of as respectable, professional folk, pillars of the community. And yet, while we happily shake hands with a doctor, less so with a lawyer, many of us probably wonder what’s under an undertaker’s fingernails. They carry round with them a little cloud of fear—you’re bound to feel a frisson if someone points one out to you.

Most of them are never going to be asked to open the church fete, judge a beauty pageant or open an old people’s home. They like to do their bit for the community, though, and the old school sort can be relied on to sponsor bowls tournaments and charity golf days – if it gives them the chance to flog a few pre-need funeral plans to their target market.

Like policemen, they tend to join the masons and may find socialising difficult.

Some, not all.

A funeral director’s working day is awash with tears. Every day. How on earth do they cope?

Some disengage and just focus on the practicalities.

But most funeral directors find it hard not to make some kind of human connection and, once they’ve established some sort of rapport with their clients, they’re bound to have a feeling for what’s happened to them. Those who are emotionally mature can absorb the grief of others, then let it pass. This, they say, is the way the world is, and they accept that.

Does the ever-accumulating burden of misery ever get too much? The rate of emotional burn-out in the industry is low compared with vets, dentists, doctors and others in caring professions but it happens of course. They’re not overly prone to become drunks or suicides. In this bitchiest of professions, undertaker friends are very good at looking out for each other.

This is how Rupert and Claire Callender of the Green Funeral Company cope: “Engage with it, let it in, feel it and then let it out again. We don’t have formal supervision, but we talk, and often cry. And sometimes we dance all night. We’ve not gone mad yet.

While other providers of goods and services dance to the tune of their clients, buyers of funerals tend to be tuneless. If undertakers miss out on this vital, bracing discipline of the market, the demanding, pernickety client, it is none of their fault. If they give the impression that they know best, it’s because they usually do.

Yes, of course they look at your postcode and work out what they reckon you can afford. Of course they’ll sell you anything they think you can pay for. At the same time, they’ll try and talk you out of buying anything they think you can’t afford because they need you to be able to pay them.

There’s a widespread public feeling that it is wrong to make money from the bereaved. A great many undertakers would agree. The last thing most people want to buy is a funeral.

It depends on how you look at it. If you think of a funeral as an invidious necessity, it’s going to be too expensive whatever its price.

But if you think of a funeral as a precious gift to the person who has died, you will find that much of the merchandise and most of the service is charged at a fair commercial rate.

Family and independent funeral directors are, if they’re halfway competent, comfortably off. Vocational undertakers who work for chains of funeral directors or one of the conglomerates, Dignity or the Co-op, take home a lot less—all of them less than £25,000 a year, some a lot less than that. The profits of funerals are rarely distributed among wage slaves.

The brightest and most enterprising vocational funeral directors bravely set up on their own. Because they are motivated by a love of what they do and a desire to serve, rather than make pots of money, many of them keep their charges very low—lower than they ought.

When it comes to funerals, most people prefer the traditional look. Most funeral directors revere tradition too. Nothing defines this better than their love of Victorian fancy dress. It makes them feel important, of course. And some of them do decidedly look splendid. Or odd. Or ridiculously anachronistic. You will have your own view.

There are aspects of the ceremonial, walking in front of the hearse, for example (paging it, they call it), which are undoubtedly magnificent if that’s what you like, but not if carried off by an unimpressive physical specimen with bad hair, flat feet and an unconvincingly arranged facial rictus.

So: ten out of ten to those undertakers who rise to the occasion. We just hope they ask they ask families first if this is what they want. Sometimes you wonder who the funeral is all about—the person who has died or the undertaker.

It’s all done in the cause of dignity, for sure, dignity being that version of respect we reserve for the old, the dying and the dead. There’s an element of theatre, of course.

Bad funeral directors ham it up by being pompous or obsequious; good ones simply allow their behaviour to be informed by the sense of occasion and take their cue from the behaviour of the mourners.

Funeral directors and their staff who favour deep black formal attire defend it by calling it uniform. They may also be aware that, if their clothing is forbidding and even shudder-making, it’s a power statement. It bigs up their mystique.

It would be good to see more of them with the confidence and good sense to dress approachably at least when they are interviewing clients. Many of the best new funeral directors dress down, recognising the importance of levelling with people.

Most undertakers dote on their swanky limousines and their glossy hearses. They renew them whenever they can afford to – at their clients’ expense, of course. They measure their business success by the size and marque of their vehicles and exult in the envy of their fellow undertakers.

There’s not necessarily much client focus here. Or is there? Most people never get the chance to ride in such magnificence. If it’s all part of doing things properly, bring ‘em on. If it’s not your style, or if you’re so grief-stricken you’re unlikely to notice, it seems a bit of a waste.

Funeral directors are traditionally male. Correction. Were. The women are coming and it’s a welcome sight.

When it was the custom to keep dead people at home it was women, often midwives, who laid them out, talked to the family, told them what they needed to know and offered a sympathetic shoulder to cry on. They counted for much more than the undertaker. But as more and more people died in hospital, and fewer families wanted a corpse brought home to their front room, the layers-out lost their role.

Male dominance relegated women to lesser roles. This lives on. Today, many funeral directors employ female arrangers to interview families and deal with the admin.

The male funeral director may not see the family at all until the day of the funeral, and the arranger, the person you have spent all your time with, if she wants to attend the funeral, will most likely be told she can’t.

The growing influence of women is tending to dissolve the focus on the material side of funerals – the limos, the top hats, the rigid formalities, the reverence for tradition.

Women are not necessarily emotionally more intelligent than men but they usually are and they often present a welcome softer side. Theirs is a complementary influence and it’s badly needed.

Funeral directors are not all alike and very few would agree with this description of them, which is full of generalisations. “That’s not me,” they’d say, “though, yes, there are a heck of a lot who are like that.”

As in any line of work there is a spectrum of quality. The best—and the worst—are often those who are regarded by other undertakers as “not one of us”.

What do FDs do

Undertakers presently have three distinct roles calling for very different skills. They are:

Tradespeople skilled in transporting and looking after dead bodies

Event planners who source, instruct and orchestrate other providers

Guides who will listen to you carefully, make you aware of your choices and help you make your way through unfamiliar territory. They will make suggestions and help you create a send-off for the person who has died which will be, both, worthy of that person and, also, of immeasurable emotional value to you. Of all the services a funeral director offers, this is the one with far and away the highest value. Some—just some—are brilliant at it.


Arranging a funeral is a fairly complex task which must be completed to a deadline and got right. There is no margin for error.

That’s why most funeral directors have control freak side to their natures. It stems both from a terror of getting it wrong and from the fact that many of their clients are totally dependent on them. Attention to detail is vital. Nothing could be worse than arriving late at the crematorium, or getting there only to find that the funeral cannot go ahead because the paperwork was late.

Funeral directors tend not to get it wrong. Scandals, glitches, even, are few.

Military precision is what undertakers do best. They have systems. Procedures. A way of doing things, the same way every time. Foolproof. You can see how they can get to be inflexible stick-in-the-muds. It’s the paranoia that keeps them up to the mark.

A very small scale funeral director will do all or most of this.

In bigger funeral homes the work is divvied up. An arranger does the arranging and paperwork —often part time, almost always female. This may be the only person you meet until the day of the funeral.

A mortuary assistant does the body work – prepping, they call it.

Your master of ceremonies on the day of the funeral is called the conductor, and many people do not meet their conductor until he or she knocks on their door on the day of the funeral.

Bearers carry the coffin. They are almost always part-timers, and they may work for several funeral directors. This is a nice little earner for off-duty firefighters, ambulance drivers and retired policemen.

The bigger the operation, the greater will be the number of strangers dealing with your dead person. At a busy funeral director’s the priorities are paperwork and transport issues. The less they see of you, frankly, the happier most of them are. They need to get on.

The bigger the operation, the more impersonal it tends to be. In such an organisation the interests of the business and the interests of you, the consumer, are divergent. In balancing, on the one hand, things to do against, on the other, people to see, funeral directors have to prioritise things to do every time. They are running against the clock. You get in the way.

You do not have to engage a funeral director to be both the carer of the body of the person who has died and the event planner. If you want to plan an elaborate funeral, and you don’t think there’s a funeral director in your local area who can rise to the occasion, your best bet may be to engage an expert event planner.

If you outsource everything to your funeral director, this is what they’ll do.

You can, of course, do any or all of these things yourself.

Take the call announcing a death and where that death has taken place – home, hospital, hospice, nursing home. Arrange to collect the body at a mutually convenient time. If the person has died at home or in a nursing home, the body may well have to be collected in the middle of the night. Some heavy lifting required and, possibly, difficult stairs to be negotiated

Measure body for coffin

See family representative and make arrangements for burial or cremation—date and time. Engage a minister or celebrant. Check vehicle availability and hire in if necessary

Sell ancillary services – coffin, limousines, flowers, catering, etc. Choose coffin.

Wash the body

Embalm (optional).

Close eyes and mouth. Shave men. Do hair. Apply makeup


Put body in coffin

Put it in a fridge

Do paperwork – application for cremation or burial

Engage pallbearers

Arrange flower delivery

Get the order of service to the printer

Make body presentable in chapel of rest or venue of choice if family want to come and visit

On the day of the funeral, screw the coffin lid down, put it in the hearse and head off to the church or crematorium. (Sometimes the coffin will go the church the evening before.)

Superintend bearers or family and friends of the person who has died and ensure that the coffin is carried in safely

Superintend seating

Collect donations

Take chief mourners to wake/after-event refreshments (optional)

How do undertakers care for the dead?

WARNING: What follows contains graphic descriptions and may make for uncomfortable or distressing reading. Don’t read on if you are easily upset.

Once an undertaker has taken a dead person back to their mortuary, there are three things to be done:
1. Slow the process of decomposition by keeping the person who has died refrigerated
2. Wash and dress the body
3. Get the person who has died ready to be visited

Some undertakers recommend embalming, others don’t. If you want to find out what embalming entails, read the factsheet What is embalming? WARNING: It is much more graphic than this factsheet.

An undertaker should ask for your permission to embalm but will not routinely ask your permission to do two things which you may feel you ought to know about so you must get your decision in first.

These things involve closing the eyes and the mouth.

Why don’t they ask first?
They don’t ask for the kindest and most considerate of reasons: they think it best you don’t know because you may find it upsetting.
If you wish to come and visit the person who has died in the ‘chapel of rest’, your undertaker wants you to have a good experience and one which reflects well on their duty of care. They want you to see the person who has died, who may have had a difficult and distressing death, looking serene and peaceful. They want your last, enduring memory to be a good one.

They set the features. They close the mouth and shut the eyes. People have been setting the features of their dead since the beginning of time.
Setting the features

On TV shows and in movies you are accustomed to seeing horrifically mutilated corpses, but the directors seem to think that you will not be able to bear to see their mouths gaping. In real life that’s what mouths do. They’re always shut in Silent Witness. That’s how you know they’re not dead. What’s more, most people’s eyes stay open in death. How do you close them?
Most undertakers shut the eyes by using eye caps. An eye cap is a plastic hemisphere dimpled on the outside. The eyelid is pulled up, the eye dried, the cap put on top of the eyeball and the eyelid pulled over it. This has the virtue also of plumping up the eyeballs, which sink in death.

The next paragraph is harder to read.
Undertakers close the mouth by means of what they call a jaw suture: a long stitch made inside the mouth with a curved, threaded needle through the bottom lip beneath the teeth, up under the top lip, through the septum and back down into the mouth. A simple knot then pulls the jaw shut, the trick being not to tie it too tight – it creates a parrot expression. Lips ever so slightly parted is reckoned the best look.

If you find either of these procedures objectionable it is possible to keep eyes closed by either pulling the top lid over the lashes of the lower lid, or coating the edges with Vaseline. It is possible to keep the jaw shut by supporting it underneath the chin.
Alternatively, the jaw can simply be left open.

Be sure to tell your undertaker what he or she may or must not do. You have a duty of care, too.

Undertaking is not regulated by law, so there are no legal requirements for undertakers to be trained to a recognised standard and lcensed. The law takes a relaxed view of undertakers; its focus is on getting the dead buried or cremated before they become a health hazard.

When you think that you need a licence to open a cattery, it may seem wrong that anyone can set themselves up as an undertaker just like that. But scandals are few, and the beauty of the way things stand is that bereaved people have all sorts of rights that would be taken away if undertaking became regulated.

Professionalising and regulating undertakers can only reinforce the perception that they are the default disposers of the dead and, worse, move them a step closer to being the only people allowed to do so.

At the moment, you are allowed to care for your dead person at home. It would be a shame to give that up.

Yes. Some undertakers have been professionally trained. They’re the ones with the initials Dip FD after their names. The two trade associations, the National Association of Funeral Directors and the Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors, who represent between them most undertakers in Britain, are very keen on training – but they don’t insist on it as a condition of membership.

Should it matter to you? Inasmuch as some of the very best funeral directors do not have a Dip FD, no. They learnt their trade on the job. They served a good old-fashioned apprenticeship, starting by washing cars, driving and pallbearing, and advanced through the ranks. These are practical people and they learn by doing.

The most important attribute of a funeral director is emotional intelligence, and there’s no exam that can test for that.

You are protected by:

The Supply of Goods and Services Acts 1982 and, if you made arrangements at home, by the Consumer Protection From Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.

Both the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) and The National Society of Allied & Independent Funeral Directors (SAIF) have codes of practice and offer an arbitration service to complainants against their members.

Most funeral directors belong to one of two trade associations. Each has entry criteria and each a code of practice. Both operate a complaints procedure under the auspices of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators. They are the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) and The National Society of Allied & Independent Funeral Directors (SAIF). They inspect members’ premises to make sure they are keeping up to the mark.

They confer an element of respectability on the industry. It is impressive that members pay for the privilege of being policed. Are they any guarantee of quality? No. They are a guarantee of acceptable standards, that’s all.

Don’t be put off if a funeral director is not a member of NAFD or SAIF.

You can see their codes of conduct on their websites: NAFD Code of Practice and SAIF Code of Practice.

What to achieve

A funeral begins when you set out with the body of the person who has died on their last journey on Earth.


The writer Thomas Lynch describes the symbolic importance of a final journey, a funeral procession, here:

I think it suggests that we’re going to get from one place to the other, whatever it is that we have to do to process this new reality, to get the dead to the edge of their changed role and get the living to the edge of this new changed life that they’re going to lead without this person in their lives anymore.

So this pilgrimage, this journey that we go on, replicates in many ways other journeys that we see in life, from infancy to toddlerhood, from toddlerhood to teenagers to adulthood, the journeys we take in life in our heart, in the life of our mind, the life of our spirit. In many ways they’re all replicated by this journey that we take between the living and the dead when someone dies, this procession.

In doing this, in accompanying the dead, getting them where they need to go, we get where we need to be. And I’ve seen it work, I’ve seen it work. It’s a kind of theater, I suppose.


You do not have to go straight to the crematorium or burial ground.

You can make this final journey really special by taking a route which takes in and even pauses at favourite and meaningful place— the church where they were married, the football ground where they spent so many Saturdays, a favourite landmark, a favourite shop.

You may have to limit the number of following cars depending on traffic density. You will need to get your timings spot on.

Nothing creates a sense of occasion like a procession. What is a procession exactly? A procession is a ceremonial way of going from A to B, often on foot.

In a conventional funeral procession the funeral director walks the final few hundred yards in front of the hearse, which is followed by the cars—usually glossy, black limousines laid on by the funeral director—containing the chief mourners. It can look very impressive.

It is not a very long procession, though.

And most of the following cars don’t reach the destination because, at a crematorium or cemetery, they break ranks to find a parking place. In the meantime, everyone else has got there first, parked and gathered outside the chapel.

There are other possibly unsatisfactory elements. Why should it be the funeral director who walks tall while those closest to the person who has died are huddled, half hidden, in a car? Whose funeral is this, dammit?

If you like the idea of a procession, think about who is going to lead it and where it will start.

People do not want to walk uncomfortably far in procession. Go at the pace of the infirmest and travel no further than they can comfortably walk. A hundred metres is enough.

It works best if everyone walks, because then everyone can see one another and feel the togetherness.

Choose a route which is free of traffic.

You will need somewhere where people can gather, having already parked their cars—at the gates of the crematorium, perhaps. You will need to do some research. If you live in an urban area it could be tricky, but if you live in a village it could be easy enough, and very picturesque.

You will also need to think about what order people should walk in, and whether you want anyone to walk in front of the hearse.

For a walking procession, the best kind of hearse is a horse-drawn hearse or wagon, or a hand-pulled cart. Horses walk naturally at human walking pace and give the procession a timeless feel. The drawback of a motor hearse is that it seems to go exaggeratedly slowly – to make an effort, impatiently, to hold itself back.

Instead of using a hearse or other conveyance you can carry the coffin yourself (with five others) but together you’ll need to combine strength with stamina. Several or many people can take a turn.

Once the procession reaches the funeral venue the coffin needs to be taken from the hearse and carried inside.

In a ‘traditional’ funeral the customary order is: first, the priest or celebrant, then the funeral director, then the coffin, then the chief mourners, then everyone else.

If you think it inappropriate for the coffin to be preceded by two relative strangers, decide on a better order—and get rid of the strangers. You won’t be able to do this at a church, where you are the guest of the priest.

Think about what music you would like to be playing as you come in. There is only one right way: your way.

If you want to create a serene and tranquil sense of occasion you may want to do without a ceremonial procession entirely.

If so, you can have the coffin brought to the venue before anyone arrives, or bring it yourself.

As people arrive they can simply come in and sit down and be contemplative. The right music will add to the mood. The ceremony can begin when everyone is ready.

This sort of atmosphere may be particularly appropriate in the case of someone who led a simple life and died at a great age.

What is most important to you from this list? Then you will know exactly what you want to achieve.


The funeral must:

Mark the passing of this human life in a way which reflects its importance.

Create an appropriate sense of occasion.

Be a precious gift to the person who has died, the last physical thing i can do for them.

Express any spiritual views of the person who has died.

Enable family, friends and neighbours who were not present at the death to pay their respects and say goodbye. The opportunity to make the effort to come means a lot to them.

Enable them to come face to face with the finality of what has happened. The presence of the body will assist this.

Enable the communities of family, friends, work colleagues and neighbours to come together and stand by each other.

Enable these communities to begin to reconfigure themselves: to regroup and repair the gap left by the person who has died.

Confront the great mystery of death and try to make some sort of sense of it.

Acknowledge that, inevitably, people will be thinking of others they have known who have died. They need to be made to feel comfortable about this.

Reflect how everyone feels about the death and speak for their feelings, especially their sorrow.

Enable people to play a part—remembering always that their presence is participation.

Enable everyone to express their feelings.

Enable them to have their say.

Enable and encourage people to comfort each other, to give and to share strength.

Talk about the person who has died—talk to them if they like—and say what needs to be said, take stock of what he or she means to others and, more important, will go on meaning to them.

Consider how the work and the values of the person who has died can be carried forward by those who are left.

Celebrate life, and in particular the life of the person who has died.

Talk honestly about the person who has died—because no one is perfect.

Fix memories and feelings and establish that they live on. If the person who has died was very old, or had passed through a period of dementia, to remember them as they were in their prime.

Say thank you to the person who has died.

Let the person who has died go with dignity, love and peace.

Invite everyone to refreshments afterwards.

Ask them to make a donation to charity in remembrance.


When you come to create the funeral ceremony, make sure that it meets, at some stage, the needs of all the statements you think are really important.

If you are employing a celebrant, copy the list, paste it, print it out – mark the statements that are really important to you – and give them a copy.

What you pay for

Most people think funerals are too expensive. You may be one of them.

Another way of looking at this is to say that most people think a funeral offers rotten value for money. By this they mean that a funeral offers a low-value experience. What good, they say, does a funeral do, really? Many say they feel empty, the day after.

This is only partly the fault of funeral directors. Their job is mostly about dealing with logistics – organising and co-ordinating. They are practical people. The greater responsibility for making a funeral meaningful and memorable belongs to whoever is in charge of creating the ceremony. If that’s a minister, there’s little or nothing anyone can do.

But if it’s someone you choose – a celebrant, a family member, a friend – you have the opportunity to make sure the funeral achieves everything you want it to achieve. Because you are probably inexperienced at arranging a funeral, a funeral director with the emotional intelligence to be able to see where you’re coming from is a must.

You are unlikely to be able to arrange a high-value funeral if you outsource everything to professionals and play a passive part on the day. You need to get stuck in wherever you can. Because when it’s all over you need to feel proud.

There is no reason why those who look after the dead should not make a reasonable living from it; most of us couldn’t do without them.

And you don’t have to use one if you don’t want to.

Funeral costs outpace inflation; they double roughly every ten years. The biggest cost increases recently have been in areas outside the control of funeral directors.

Burial and cremation costs have risen steeply, especially cremation. This is partly down to crematoria installing expensive EU-compliant filtration equipment and partly down to councils inflating charges to compensate for budget cuts. This has had the effect of increasing profits for private operators, who now operate something like 1 in 5 crematoria.

A basic full-service cremation funeral costs around £3,700 (there are regional variations).

Burial is normally more expensive, but in some places is cheaper. Costs vary widely depending on region. You can do a rough calculation using this tool – here.

Actually, some funeral directors do display their prices online. Good for them. They are the ones likely to offer best value.

Most funeral directors don’t and, of course, this makes it very difficult to shop around from your laptop or tablet. Why don’t they? Because they don’t feel it’s dignified. Something like that. They tend not to approve of those funeral directors who do.

Would you eat in a restaurant that didn’t put its prices in the window? Or go into a clothes shop that didn’t display prices on the garments? Of course you wouldn’t. But the only way to find out how much most funeral directors charge is by sitting down with them and working through what you want. You can see why they do that, can’t you?

It’s the kind of thing that gets funeral directors badly thought of and it’s high time they put the needs and interests of bereaved people first. This lack of transparency over prices is the reason why chain undertakers like Dignity and Co-operative Funeralcare manage to get away with their absurdly high prices – because people simply don’t know any better and assume all funeral directors charge about the same. They don’t!

A funeral director tries to be, as far as possible, a one-stop-shop for all you need. You pay a funeral director for:


A coffin, an urn for ashes. You can source these yourself. Go to the Coffins page on our website.


Looking after the body, embalming if you wish, doing the paperwork and making arrangements for cremation or burial, hire of a hearse and other transport, use of the chapel of rest if you want to visit, and provision of bearers to carry the coffin.


Answering your questions, interpreting your expectations and making you aware of options across a wide range of legal, practical, social and personal issues.


Sourcing service providers – cemetery or crematorium, celebrant, florist, caterer, printer for your order of service, an alternative hearse, someone who’ll sell you a headstone. Some of these services will be in-house. You can source them yourself. Many undertakers take a referral fee or commission from service and merchandise providers. This is perfectly normal business practice


A contribution to the costs of running the business—premises, facilities and those hideously expensive vehicles – a new hearse costs £100,000+.


This is a jargon word for bills you owe to third parties which the undertaker pays on your behalf. Why would they do that? It’s all part of their drive to make themselves indispensable—and it certainly suits the third parties because the undertaker carries the debt.

These bills include:

Crematorium fee – roughly £550-800. Some offer a lower fee (£400 or less) in the early morning. Phone your local crematorium and find out.

Cost of grave. Check with your local authority or church. In some places burial is cheaper than cremation; in others vastly more expensive. You’ll have to pay for gravedigging, too. Hardly any will let you help – for health and safety reasons.

Doctors’ fees. 2 x an average of £85 for cremation, 1 x an average of £85 for burial

Minister or celebrant.  £160-220

Organist. Around £65

Obituary announcement in newspaper – local £60-80; national roughly £25 per line

Any other providers of goods and services sourced by your undertaker – flowers, celebrant, order of service, etc.

You may prefer to pay these individual bills yourself.

Funeral directors are instructed by the code of practice of their trade associations, if they are members, to display their prices prominently and present you with an itemised estimate of costs based on your first discussion with them.

When the arrangements are finalised, your funeral director must give you an itemised bill showing exactly what you are paying for.

If you sign a contract with a funeral director at the funeral home, the contract is binding. If you sign the contract at home, you have a seven-day cooling off period during which time you can cancel the contract an go elsewhere.

Yes, do haggle.

There are more funeral directors out there than we need so there’s plenty of competition between them.

Ask for money off for prompt payment or simply a reduction of the estimate.

Be polite friendly and businesslike – don’t make the funeral director feel vanquished.

What funeral director’s call their professional fee is a ragbag of charges. Every funeral director’s ragbag is different. Some charge separately for items which others bundle in with their professional fee.

For example, some funeral directors charge separately for the use of a hearse or limousine; others include them.

So, if you’re price comparison shopping, don’t use the professional fee as a benchmark. The only way to compare between funeral directors is by getting full estimates.

The basic elements which make up the professional fee are:  




around 43 hours of staff time

overheads associated with running the business

Here are all the other basic elements of a funeral. Decide which you want and which you don’t. Then decide which of those you want you are going to source yourself.

Transporting the person who has died to the funeral home (roughly £120; could be double that for out-of-hours)

Coffin or shroud (anything from £120 up)

Embalming (around £100)

Coffin bearers (around £30 each)

Hearse (around £200)

Limousine (around £200

Order of service (around £100)



A funeral director’s biggest capital outlay is on vehicles: hearse and limousines for mourners. If that funeral director does only a few funerals a week those vehicles spend a lot of time standing idle.

An enterprising entrepreneur who buys up a cluster of local funeral homes can establish a car pool and work those vehicles to death. He or she can do exclusive deals with suppliers of goods and services and begin to enjoy significant economies of scale. This ought to enable them to undercut boutique independent businesses and keep growing. This is how the supermarkets emptied our high streets.

The really big boys, Co-operative Funeralcare and Dignity Caring Funeral Services, even have central mortuaries where they can operate what amounts to a production line.

And yet the curious thing is that these outfits are among the most expensive in the industry.

Can you:

Supply your own coffin?

Lay on your own transport?

Conduct the funeral service?

Do the paperwork?

Provide your own bearers to carry the coffin?

Your least expensive option is to leave the person who has died in the hospital mortuary, or the mortuary of the funeral director who collected them. People who die in care homes and hospices usually go straight to a funeral director’s mortuary; people who die in hospital normally stay in the hospital mortuary unless there is pressure on space. If someone dies at home, some hospital mortuaries will look after them.

Make or buy a coffin. Make sure it is the right size. See our Coffins

Go to your Bereavement Services officer. Do all the paperwork, book the burial or cremation and pay all the fees. They are likely to be helpful and supportive.

On the day of the funeral, go to the mortuary of the hospital or funeral director. You will need help. Lift the body into the coffin, screw down the lid and put it in whatever vehicle you have got – an estate car, perhaps, or a van. Make sure the coffin is safely anchored. Drive to the crematorium or cemetery. Do not be late.

The hospital will not charge you for storing the body but a funeral director will.

An alternative to this arrangement is to leave the person who has died in the hospital mortuary and have them collected, coffined and brought to the crematorium or cemetery by an undertaker on the day of the funeral. You ought to be able to negotiate a good rate for this most basic service.

The cheapest way to do it is to do it all yourself, but it’s not for faint hearts.

See our useful guide Do It All Yourself.

If you do not wish to hold a funeral with the body present, or if you want no funeral at all, consider direct cremation.

If you are penniless you may be eligible for a payment towards funeral expenses from the Social Fund. Find out more here. The funeral payment won’t cover the complete cost of a traditional funeral organised by a funeral director and it is hard to get.

You will have to make up the shortfall somehow.

If your spouse or civil partner has died younger than pensionable age you may be eligible for a Bereavement Grant of £2000 tax free.

More information here.

The more upfront you are about your situation, the more your funeral director will be able to help you with your application. So put your cards on the table from the word go.

Alternatively, you can pass responsibility for the funeral back to the hospital where the person died, or to your local authority. One or the other will then arrange the funeral, which you will be able to attend.

There is no shame in this.  If it is to be a cremation, it will be almost the same as a no-frills private funeral.  If you have slightly unusual requests for the funeral ceremony and you aren’t getting much support from the funeral director engaged by the council, the crematorium staff may prove very helpful.

If it is to be burial, the council may insist that you use a public grave, which means that the person who has died will share the grave with people who are not known to you.  But all costs will be covered.

Bereavement is hard enough.

Don’t leave yourself with the stress of debt as well.

Your legal rights and responsibilities

No you don’t! You may be told, even by people in authority who ought to know better, that when someone dies you must engage a funeral director. WRONG. You are in charge. The person who has died is your responsibility. It is entirely up to you to decide whether or not you want to pay someone else to undertake matters on your behalf.

No law requires you to use an undertaker. An undertaker is your agent, your deputy, your colleague. You are the funeral director.

You employ an undertaker to do those things for you, and only those things, which you decide to delegate to him/her. An undertaker is an agent.

Undertakers are not subject to any statutory regulatory framework. Anyone can call themselves an undertaker. The Scottish Government is currently looking into the possibility of regulating funeral directors.

If you engage the services of an undertaker you are protected by consumer protection laws. Find out what your rights are here and here.

You will sign a contract with the funeral director for the supply of goods and services. You can require the funeral director to sign a contract with you concerning the privacy, security, dignity and care of the person who has died. Download a sample contract here: Contract.

A parent has a duty in common law to bury (ie, bury or cremate) their child if they can afford to and in R v Stewart (1840) Chief Justice Denman made this judgement: “We have no doubt… that the common law casts on someone the duty of carrying to the grave, decently covered, the dead body of any person dying in such a state of indigence as to leave no funds for that purpose … It would seem that the individual under whose roof a poor person dies is bound to carry the body decently covered to the place of burial.”

A hospital counts as a householder in law, which is why it will arrange and pay for a funeral for any patient who has died and whose body has not been claimed.

A local authority has a duty to arrange burial or cremation who dies in “residential accommodation for persons aged eighteen or over who by reason of age, illness, disability or any other circumstances are in need of care and attention which is not otherwise available to them; and residential accommodation for expectant and nursing mothers who are in need of care and attention which is not otherwise available to them.” (National Assistance Act 1948 PIII, S21)

In theory the owner of any premises (eg hotel, private house) where someone dies has a common law duty to bury or cremate at their own expense, but this has never, as far as we know, been tested in law.

If no one will accept responsibility for burying or cremating a dead person, “It shall be the duty of a local authority to cause to be buried or cremated the body of any person who has died or been found dead in their area, in any case where it appears to the authority that not suitable arrangements for the disposal of the body have been or are being made otherwise than by the authority.” (Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 S46). A local authority may recover expenses from the estate, if any, of the person who died: “An authority may recover from the estate of the deceased person or from any person who for the purposes of the National Assistance Act 1948 was liable to maintain the deceased person immediately before his death expenses incurred.”

A local authority funeral, or public health funeral, is a simple and dignified affair to which people are invited. It is often called a paupers’ funeral, especially by the media. This is an alarmist and stigmatising term, and it is wholly misleading. A public health funeral today is nothing like a pauper’s funeral of yesteryear.

The value of the Social Fund Funeral Payment for people on benefits is declining. When introduced in 1988 by a Conservative government it was set at a level where it would cover the entire cost of a simple, dignified funeral. It was downgraded to a ‘substantial contribution’ to funeral expenses by a Labour government in 1988 and those who are eligible for a Funeral Payment now find themselves with a shortfall which many make up for by taking out a loan.

For those who cannot afford the full cost of a simple funeral, does there exist an option of refusing to accept responsibility and, instead, leaving their local authority to do its duty? The answer to this question has to be probably. We are aware of no prosecution for failing to discharge this duty, nor of civil proceedings to recover costs from those held responsible.

However, Brent Council, as of 1 March 2013, is proposing to do just that – see here. Brent council says: “Since funeral expenses are a first charge on an estate, the deceased’s bank or building society will normally be willing to release funds directly to the undertaker for payment of the funeral account.” This is correct. “But where this is not possible, the Council should notify the next of kin or anyone appointed to act on behalf of the deceased (e.g. Power of Attorney, deputy or financial representative) of the debt and refer this immediately to legal services so that consideration can be given to initiating civil debt recovery proceedings either against the estate or an executor personally if appropriate.”

The Good Funeral Guide has challenged this and is awaiting a response from Brent council. The term ‘next of kin’ is close to meaningless. The responsibilities of anyone acting with Power of Attorney or as a deputy end at death. As for targeting an executor when there is no estate, well, executors cannot be held to their duty and forced to hold the legal status of executor but, on the contrary, may resign their duty at any time. An interpretation of Brent council’s intentions is that they are likely to intimidate vulnerable people.

Reasonable funeral expenses are recoverable from the deceased’s estate, on which they have first claim.

The person who makes arrangements with a funeral director makes him or herself responsible for paying the bill. A funeral director will be reluctant to enter into a contract if he or she is aware of family disagreements. Having entered into a contract, a funeral director has every right to answer directly to the contractee and no one else.

Claimants of means-tested benefits and tax credits may be eligible for a contribution to funeral expenses from the Social Fund. See here.

The coroner has a superior right, if s/he chooses, to take temporary possession of a dead body in order to find out the cause of death. Learn more here. When the coroner has completed his/her investigation of the circumstances (this may involve an examination of the body) the body will be released to the personal representative of the person who has died.

A hospital has the right to detain the body of anyone who has died of a notifiable disease if it is deemed by a suitably qualified clinician that the body may be infectious.

If the person who died made a will, and the coroner does not wish to take possession of the body, an executor, whether a family member or not, has the immediate right to act as personal representative and take possession of the body. The executor has the right to delegate this to a family member, but the executor also has the right to overrule a family member. 

If the person who died did not make a will or if the will did not appoint an executor/s, you can find out who the rightful personal representative/s is/are by consulting the Non-Contentious Probate Rules, rule 22. You do not need to apply for a letter of administration if the person who has died had little money and no property – in other words, an estate.

In the case of the death of an adopted child, adoptive parents have a better right to possession than natural parents, but natural parents have a better right than foster parents.

Note 1: if the person who died was not married to, or in a civil partnership with, his/her partner, the living partner has no automatic right to make funeral and/or disposal arrangements. If, however, the person who died made a will and appointed an unmarried partner as executor, s/he has full power to act as personal representative.

Note 2: It is often assumed that the term next-of-kin has the prior right to take charge. Next-of-kin is often used in a very unclear way to mean, for example, an emergency contact. When someone is alive, next-of-kin have certain rights, but when that person dies, unless the next-of-kin is named as an executor, it is the personal representative who takes charge.

The person with the right to take possession of the body has the right to do so as soon as death happens. There’s no need to produce any documentation or pick up a medical (cause of death) certificate on the way out, you can get that later. Find out what all your rights are in this area by clicking here.

If someone dies at home you can keep them there. If someone dies in a hospital or a hospice you can bring them home. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If they do, show them this.

You don’t have to hide the body from view but you must not expose it naked in public or in such a way as to outrage public decency, for which you can be prosecuted. You don’t have to take a body anywhere in a coffin. You don’t have to take a body to a funeral in a coffin – ordinary clothes, a shroud, blanket, sheet or other wrapping will suffice. More info here.

You have the right to care for the body of someone who has died at home. To find out what you’ll need to do, go to the Do It All Yourself page of the website. It is wise to think about this in advance. Some consider it to be an extraordinary privilege. For others the process may be too challenging.

It is an historic principle of English common law that there is no property in a dead body. No one owns the body of a person who has just died: “the only lawful possessor of a corpse is the earth.”

When this law was established a dead body was, indeed, “worthless”. The only thing to do with it was dispose of it by means of “lawful and decent burial” – according to the rites of the established Church, of course.

Over time the law in this area has become vague and inconsistent and new laws are needed to make sense of things as they are now. Today, dead bodies do have potential value. A dead body can be used for medical research, as a teaching aid, for tissue donation or as an anatomical exhibit. What’s more, it is now possible to convert a dead body into a piece of property by “work or skills” – such as Bodyworlds.

If it is simply your intention to arrange for someone who has died to be buried or cremated, all you need to know is that the law recognises the right of certain people to take possession of a dead body without delay. Note: taking possession is not the same thing as having ownership.

The law assumes that the person who assumes the right to take possession of a dead body recognises a duty to dispose of it. In most cases, this is exactly what the possessor does – but you don’t have to.

It is unlawful to:

Detain a body (against, say, the payment of a debt).

Refuse to deliver a body to the executors for burial

Conspire to prevent a lawful and decent burial

Dispose of a body to prevent an inquest

Sell a body for dissection

Expose a body in a public place if to do so would shock public decency

For more information on the legal status of a dead body, click here.

Dead bodies pose no risk of infection unless the final illness was one of a very few which continue to pose a risk to the living for some time after death, in which case you will be told. Microorganisms involved in the decomposition of a dead body are not pathogenic. More information here.

According to the section 41 of the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953, disposal means “by burial, cremation or any other means”.

This raises the question: by what other means? There is presently no conventional alternative to burial or cremation in the UK, but in the US some disposals are carried out by means of alkaline hydrolysis (also known as biocremation, resomation, flameless cremation or water cremation). Legislation would need to be passed before this method is available in the UK.

A process involving the pulverising of a freeze-dried corpse was announced, but no successful trial has been known to have taken place and the process seems still to be at the concept stage.

Until the Human Rights Act 1998, a person’s wishes or instructions concerning their funeral were not binding on their personal representative/s, who could dispose of their body as they saw fit. The reason for this was that a will is an instrument designed for the sole purpose of disposing of property. There is no property in a dead body, therefore there is no legal requirement to honour funeral wishes.

Funeral wishes are still not, as a matter of course, legally binding but, in certain circumstances, a court of law may order that they are carried out. Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights has been invoked by one judge when pronouncing that funeral wishes are binding on personal representatives (Borrows v HM Coroner for Preston [2008]), but dismissed by another judge on the grounds that dead people do not have human rights (Ibuna v Arroyo [2012]). Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights may or may not uphold the funeral wishes of those with strong religious beliefs who expect to be disposed of in accordance with those beliefs. The law has yet to be tested in this matter.

In certain circumstances a judge may remove an executor or administrator who is at odds with either other executors/administrators or members of the family – see Removing and replacing a personal representative below.

When family members have strong and differing views and beliefs, they may find it difficult to agree about funeral arrangements (among other things).  When a dispute cannot be settled amicably, or through arbitration, only a judge in a court of law can settle it.

If you opt for cremation, the application form will ask you: Is there any near relative(s) or executor(s) who has not been informed of the proposed cremation? This is to prevent someone from cremating a body without their knowledge  It also covers a circumstance where an executor refuses to arrange disposal and someone else undertakes to do so instead.

The form will also ask you: Has any near relative or executor expressed any objection to the proposed cremation? In such a circumstance, the objector can seek an injunction in a court of law to prevent the cremation.

If the disputed means of disposal is burial, an objector can seek an injunction to stop it.

In the same way, personal representatives may go to court to settle a dispute about the destination of cremated remains, usually called ashes.

Under certain circumstances a court may rule to remove and replace a personal representative.

The Senior Courts Act 1981, section 116, states: ‘If by reason of any special circumstances it appears to the High Court to be necessary or expedient to appoint as administrator some person other than the person who, but for this section, would in accordance with probate rules have been entitled to the grant, the court may in its discretion appoint as administrator such person as it thinks expedient.’

The Non-Contentious Probate Rules 1987 (rule 27.6) similarly allow for an administrator to be passed over. Find out more here.

Your legal duty is to satisfy the state that the cause of death has been reported by a ‘qualified person’ within 5 days: excellent info here. A ‘qualified person’ is defined here at 16 & 17 (a funeral director is not allowed to do this; an executor who is not a relative cannot do this either, unless there is no relative and the executor was present at the death.)

The purpose of registration is to ensure that the death has been certified and recorded; foul play has been ruled out; and accurate health and disease information has been recorded.

So: the death must be certified by a doctor who provided care during the last illness and who saw the person who has died within 14 days of death (28 days in Northern Ireland) or after death.

There is no legal definition of death in the UK

The death must be notified by a qualified person to the registrar within 5 days and registered within 14 days:


The registrar will issue:

a Death Certificate — proof that the death has been registered

a Certificate for Burial and Cremation, also known as the green form, giving the go-ahead for the person’s body to be buried or for you to apply for cremation. A green form will not be issued if a coroner needs to issue an alternative document for a burial or cremation. If the person who died was reported to the coroner, find out what happens next here.

a Certificate of Registration of Death (form BD8) for use in dealing with the dead person’s state pension or other benefits.


If you want to bury the person who has died you can now go ahead – unless the death happened in England or Wales and you wish to take the body for burial or cremation to another country, even Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands. You’ll need to have the permission of the coroner. You apply for this by filling in Form 104 (Form of Notice to a Coroner of Intention to Remove a Body out of England). The registrar should be able to give you that form – as mentioned at the bottom of “Part B” on the green form which the registrar will give you.

If the death happened abroad, see here.

Failure to register a death is a summary offence punishable by a fine.

Having registered a death, a registrar will, unless notified, subsequently make enquiries concerning the disposal of the body. Normally, the burial ground or crematorium will notify the registrar. See 5 and 6 here.

You will not be required to sign an undertaking to dispose of the body; there is just an assumption that you will.

If you fail to dispose of the body in good time you may face prosecution for preventing a lawful and decent burial (cf Rausing) and/or conspiracy to prevent burial. If the body is decomposing, they might have a point; as they would, also, if you were displaying the body in a manner likely to outrage public decency. But they wouldn’t if you are caring for the dead body in other ways. See Alternatives to conventional disposal question below.

You can bury the person who has died in a private or a local authority cemetery, Church of England or other religious burial ground, nature reserve, your own or other land, as long as the owner gives prior permission.

If you want to bury on your own land – in your garden, perhaps – you are advised to make sure that the body will not pose a health hazard by polluting water supplies. So:  the site should be more than 30m from any spring or any other body of water. The site should be 10m from any dry ditch or field drain.   The site should be at least 50m from any well, borehole or spring. Stay clear of water, gas and electrical services.

Check there is no covenant on the land that could prohibit a burial. Ensure there are no byelaws preventing the burial. Be prepared to take a hit on the value of your property. Be aware that a subsequent owner may apply for an exhumation licence and have the body moved. In England & Wales the landowner must make and protect a land burial register but not in Scotland. Damage to, alteration or destruction of could result in life imprisonment.

If you want to bury someone in your garden in England and Wales, read this. In Scotland, read this. It is the view of John Bradfield that “you may hear of various distances of graves from ditches, ponds, wells and so on. Those distances are used for oil storage tanks so have nothing to do with burials. The Environment Agency has stated that there is no evidence of any problems with burials in any places.”

If you want to bury in a local authority cemetery, you can pay for burial in what’s called an unpurchased grave, sometimes known as a common grave or a public grave. The rights to the grave remain with the landowner, who can bury anybody else they want in the grave. For this reason, you cannot erect a headstone or other memorial. Some local authority cemeteries have within them an area set aside for natural burial.

You can buy through a lease exclusive right of burial in a grave for a fixed term, often extendable. Note: you buy exclusive right of burial in the plot, you don’t own the plot itself; the land remains the property of the owner.  The lease of the plot (maximum 100 years, often 30) is recorded in a Deed of Grant. You can say who else may be buried in the grave. You will probably be able to have a headstone put up, but check first.

By offering leases a burial ground enables its graves to be re-used if legislation is brought in to enable it. London burial authorities already enjoy limited rights to reclaim and re-use old graves. If graves throughout the UK are going to be re-used it is likely they will adopt a technique called ‘lift-and-deepen’, whereby skeletal remains are reburied at the bottom of the ‘new’ grave.

Some local authorities have an area set aside for natural burial. Contact your your local authority for information.

There are private burial grounds, most of them natural burial grounds, which operate according to their own rules. Check before you buy. Read this.

You can bury someone at sea. Sea burial is difficult to arrange and very expensive which is why only around twenty of them happen every year. You can only do it where there is no hazard to shipping, especially fishing vessels. These places are the Needles, off the Isle of Wight, the waters between Hastings and Newhaven and off Tynemouth, North Tyneside. You need to obtain a licence from the Marine Management Organisation. It’s free. It will tell you precisely what you have to do. For example the body must be tagged in case it should accidentally be freed from the coffin and washed ashore. The coffin must be weighted and have many holes bored in it to let the water in.

More information here.

Once a body is buried it cannot be disturbed or dug up and moved without permission.

If the body is in a consecrated section of a cemetery and you want to rebury it in consecrated ground, you need a Bishop’s Faculty that can be applied for using this form. It should be sent to The Chancellor for the Church of England diocese where the graveyard is located. For Roman Catholic and non-conformist churches please contact the local church direct for information.

If the body is in consecrated ground and you want to re-bury it in unconsecrated ground you need both a Ministry of Justice licence and Bishops Faculty.

If the body is in unconsecrated ground and you want to re-bury it in unconsecrated ground you need a Ministry of Justice licence.

Some argue, based on very clear decisions from the highest judges in the land, that the MoJ cannot legally issue exhumation licences for private land. The MoJ disagrees, pointing to recent court cases over a RC priest and Richard III. One had been buried in the grounds of a former RC school and the other what had become a car park. In neither of those cases were the courts asked to examine earlier judgments. More importantly, they were not asked to decide whether or not exhumation licences can be issued for private land. In both cases, the courts were asked to decide different questions about exhumation licences. John Bradfield sought assurances from the MoJ that the courts would be told, “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. As that was not done, he is now alleging that the courts were deliberately misled. In a criminal case, that would result in imprisonment.

A coroner can order an exhumation if s/he wants to examine the body.

Under certain circumstances, such as for the purposes of town planning, bodies can be moved. Section 2 of the Disused Burial Grounds (Amendment) Act 1981 concerns the disposal of human remains. It provides that where there is land contains human remains, no building shall be erected on that land (s.2 (1)), unless:

The building is erected in accordance with Section 3 of the Disused Burial Grounds Act 1884, which provides that it is not lawful to erect any buildings upon disused burial grounds, unless the purpose is to enlarge a church, chapel, meeting house, or another place of worship.

The said remains have been removed and created or otherwise dealt with lawfully. (s.2 (1) (a));

Any tombstones, monuments or memorials relating to the deceased persons have to be dealt with lawfully (s.2(1)(b) (Disused Burial Grounds (Amendment) Act 1981).

There is no legal definition of ashes. They may be property, they may not be.

What are ashes? Two conflicting definitions have been variously applied by crematoria and those advising the bereaved. They are:

Ashes are what remains of a human body minus any metal after the last flame has die.

Ashes are all that remains of the human body + coffin ash + ash from anything placed in the coffin minus any metal after the last flame has died.

In practice it is impossible to tell coffin ash apart from body ash: they cannot be separated. Furthermore, in the perception of the general public, ashes are all that remains after cremation. For these two reasons Lord Bonomy in his Report of the Infant Cremation Commission 2014, recommended that cremation ashes be defined in Scottish law as:

all that is left within the cremator at the conclusion of the cremation process and following the extraction of all metal.”

At the present time it is not known whether the Scottish or English parliaments will act upon this recommendation.

Bones from foetuses as young as 17 weeks have been shown to survive cremation.

The law governing the disposal of ashes is muddled. This is because, the Cremation Act, 1902, supposed that everyone would want to bury ashes after cremation. It did not envisage people wanting to scatter them.

Inasmuch as ashes do not constitute a health hazard, nor do they outrage public decency, you can do what you like with them. But if you bury them in a local authority-run cemetery and subsequently want to dig them up and move them, you may encounter difficulties.

Local Authorities Cemeteries Order 1977, which applies to local authority cemeteries, defines “burial” as including both “human remains” and “cremated human remains”.  All interments are recorded in the burial register and there can only be an exhumation with a faculty or a licence. An exception, it seems, is Northern Ireland, where the recording of an ashes burial is at the discretion of the cemetery manager.

Local Authorities Cemeteries Order 1977 is consistent with the Burial Act 1857: “it shall not be lawful to remove any body, or the remains of any body, which may have been interred in any place of burial, without licence.”

What, then, constitutes an interment? In practice, if the buried ashes you want to dig up are in a container, constitute a ‘discernible mass’ and have been recorded in a burial register, you’ll need an Exhumation Licence or a Bishop’s Faculty. But if you’ve buried them in your garden you can dig them up as often as you like.

Whether or not ashes have the status of property remains untested.

More about the legal status of ashes here. More information on scattering ashes here and here.

If you want to cremate the person who has died there’s more paperwork than for burial. You must

Apply for cremation by filling in the form you can download here. If you are not paying a funeral director to deal with the crematorium, you’ll find useful guidelines here.

Ensure that a second doctor certifies cause of death.

The reason why a second doctor must certify the death is to avoid a situation where a) doubt is later expressed concerning cause of death or b) it is suspected the person has been murdered by their doctor (cf Dr Shipman) or somebody else. If a body is buried it can be dug up (exhumed) and tested. If it’s been cremated it can’t.

When you apply for cremation, the doctor who first certified the death plus a second doctor must support your application. The guidelines they follow are here. The forms they fill in are, for the first doctor, here and for the second doctor here.

These forms – the application for cremation plus certification of cause of death by both doctors – are examined by the medical referee at the crematorium. More info here. When the referee is satisfied, they fill in this form here.

If you want to inspect the medical certificates submitted by the two doctors (Forms Cremation 4 and Cremation 5) before the medical referee authorises the cremation you can do that. Find out your rights here.

For all other information concerning the Cremation Regulations 2008, click here.

There are four alternatives to immediate disposal, none of which is available to you unless the dead person made provision when they were alive and you give the go-ahead when that person is dead. If the person who has died opted for one of these, you ought to know all about it. These alternatives are:

Donation of the body to medical science: There is no upper limit on the amount of time a body so donated may be retained but in practice it is normally between 3—5 years.

Cryonic preservation: keeping the body frozen in liquid nitrogen until medical science can find a way of reviving it.

Plastination: a process whereby water is drawn out of the body and replaced by polymers which set hard, after which it is posed and displayed in a Bodyworlds exhibition.

Long-term preservation of the body.

The power of the law to require disposal has been successfully challenged. In 1984 a tramp named Diogenes lay dying. Before he passed away he bequeathed his body to the painter Robert Lenkiewicz. Lenkiewicz accepted the gift and, when Diogenes died, he embalmed his body. Before long, Plymouth City Council officials, concerned that Diogenes hadn’t been buried or cremated, came looking for his body, determined to dispose of it themselves if the artist wouldn’t.

Lenkiewicz hid Diogenes and refused to tell them where he was.  Years passed. Lenkiewicz died and Diogenes was discovered in a drawer. The council returned and more angry wrangling ensued until in 2002 the coroner ruled that, because the body had been embalmed, Lenkiewicz and then his estate had the right to continued possession of it for as long as Diogenes complies with laws governing environmental health and public decency.

If, therefore, you were to preserve a body in, say, your deep freeze, there is arguably no reason why anyone should require you to dispose of it.

The legal maxim that ‘the only lawful possessor of a corpse is the earth’ has also been challenged. In 1998 the artist Anthony-Noel Kelly exhibited casts of body parts which had been smuggled out to him by lab technician Niel Lyndsay from the Royal College of Surgeons.

Both were arrested and charged with stealing human body parts.  At the trial, the defence submitted at the close of the prosecution case that (i) parts of bodies were not in law capable of being property and therefore could not be stolen, and (ii) that the specimens were not in the lawful possession of the college at the time they were taken because they had been retained beyond the period of two years before burial stipulated in the Anatomy Act 1832, and so did not belong to it.

The trial judge rejected those submissions, ruling that there was an exception to the traditional common law rule that there was no property in a corpse, namely that once a human body or body part had undergone a process of skill by a person authorised to perform it, with the object of preserving it for the purpose of medical or scientific examination, or for the benefit of medical science, it became something quite different from an interred corpse and it thereby acquired a usefulness or value and it was capable of becoming property in the usual way, and could be stolen.

The same applies to body parts “if they have acquired different attributes by virtue of the application of skill of dissection and preservation techniques for exhibition and teaching purposes“.

Whether or not this means that cremation ashes acquire the status of property is untested.

The right to cremate a body was established in 1884 by the remarkable William Price. When Price was brought to court on a charge of cremating his son in public, the judge ruled that burning a dead body is not a misdemeanour unless it constitutes a public nuisance. The London-based Cremation Society had until that time been deterred from firing up its crematorium at Woking for fear of prosecution. As one authority has written, “The worthy, social elites who founded the Cremation Society played their part in the movement – but it took Price’s shamanic balls of steel to actually do the deed.” Indeed, establishing the legality of cremation was very much a Welsh achievement (see Williams v Williams).  

The verdict in the Price case paved the way for the Cremation Act 1902 which forbade anyone to “knowingly carry out or procure or take part in the burning of any human remains” anywhere but a crematorium, a crematorium being defined as “any building fitted with appliances for the purpose of burning human remains,” including “everything incidental or ancillary thereto.”

Nevertheless, when, in 2005, David Wrigglesworth cremated his mother in his back garden, Judge James Stewart QC said: “By burning her body, you did not, the public may be surprised to hear, commit a criminal offence.” The grounds for this judgement were the same as in the Price case: no public nuisance was proved.

In 2010 Davinder Gai won the right to be burned by traditional fire on a pyre within a structure with sunlight shining directly on his body.

As a result of the Gai case, the Ministry of Justice hastily directed that “the way is not now open automatically for funeral pyres to be held. Burning bodies anywhere other than in a crematorium notified to the Secretary of State for Justice remains a criminal offence.” See letter here.

This is disputed. Legal authorities give the opinion that:

Cremation laws do not prevent one-off open air pyres

No planning permission is required for a one-off pyre

If there is uncertainty on the law, and the Crown Prosecution Service decides to take a case to court, the judgment would have to be in favour of the Defendant because any uncertainty about the actual wording of the law and its meaning must tip the balance in their favour.

There is nothing in law about pyres having to be away from public view.

John Bradfield, (who was involved in the Davinder Gai case), believes that it would be illegal to have a pyre in a place where a member of the public would suddenly and unexpectedly find they are very close to and can see a body burning on a fire, e.g., simply by walking along a public footpath.

If you want to run the risk of burning someone on an open-air pyre, be sure first to submit an application for cremation to a local crematorium. This will enable you to demonstrate that the person who died was not murdered and spare you prosecution on a serious charge. You will have make an appointment for the cremation (which you will not show up for, obviously) and pay the full fee. The registrar, failing to receive notification from the crematorium that the cremation took place, will subsequently enquire of you whether disposal has been accomplished. How you respond is your affair. Were you to say, for example, that you changed your mind and buried the person on private land, it is possible that this would suffice.

There is no entitlement to statutory bereavement leave in England, Wales or Scotland.

A bereaved person has no legal right to take time off after a bereavement beyond time off to make funeral arrangements and time off to attend the funeral. More detail here. In the words of Acas: “Employees cannot expect to be granted leave automatically. When leave isn’t granted, they may have to use their holiday allowance.”

Employment Rights Act 1966 57A:

An employee is entitled to be permitted by his employer to take a reasonable amount of time off during the employee’s working hours in order to take action which is necessary … (c) in consequence of the death of a dependant. 

A dependant is classed as a spouse or civil partner, a child, a parent, a person who lives in the same household as the employee, otherwise than by reason of being his employee, tenant, lodger or boarder.

Some workplaces will have an entitlement to bereavement leave written into their contracts of employment. If not, time off, if any, is awarded at the discretion of the employer.

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