Too many people get home after a funeral feeling empty and lonely. It doesn’t have to be like this. A good funeral will do you a lot of good. But only if you do your bit and work hard at it. So don’t let others do for you what you can do for yourself. When you get home afterwards you need to feel incredibly proud of what you have achieved.
If you want a religious funeral you must put yourself in the hands of your faith leader. A religious ceremony has a fixed format called a liturgy which you will be able to personalise only to a certain extent. If you’re not really religious you’re likely find it unsatisfactory – as will the minister taking the service. See below and find a celebrant.
No you don’t. Think it through. Click on the questions and statements below to help you decide.
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.
You pay a funeral director to do the things you don’t want to do. This website will enable you to make shrewd decisions about who and what you want to spend your money on. You can also find good advice at the Money Advice Centre.
A funeral is a farewell ceremony at which the person who has died is present. A commemorative event at which the person who has died is not present is called a memorial service. Some people have both a funeral and a memorial service. A memorial service is adaptable to all manner of circumstances.
If you opt for direct cremation or direct burial you can hold a commemorative event wherever and whenever you please. You may decide to scatter the ashes at this event – or you may not.
Find out more about direct cremation and direct burial here.
If you don’t want a mainstream religious funeral you get to start with a completely clean sheet. You can do anything you like. A good funeral ceremony will be as unique as the life lived. Non-religious and semi-religious funerals are popular because they do what people want: they focus on the life of the person who has died and give thanks for that life.
A funeral is one of those rare events which is not necessarily improved by professionals. Your funeral needs to be created and conducted according to the culture, customs and language of your family. A real funeral couldn’t give a damn what anybody else thinks of it.
Click on the topics and an article below to find out what we mean:
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
A funeral has a big job of work to do. What do you want your funeral to accomplish?
Click on these topics to help you to decide what your key goals are:
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.
A funeral can be as elaborate or as simple as you want. The style of funeral you favour will be determined by the tastes and values of those organising it and by the way people feel about the death.
Click on the options below and consider the implications concerning skills, time, money and effort needed to attain the style you want for the 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:
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
You want to celebrate the life of the person who has died… but is it okay to be funny? Yes. Humour has its part to play in a funeral, but not as a coverup for sadness. Jokes cannot displace sadness or paper over it: a grief-bypass funeral is likely to miss the point. But an account of someone’s life will almost certainly contain funny episodes, and good, happy memories will always make people smile.
A good funeral is likely to appeal to the heart, the head and the senses. There are all sorts of ingredients you can bring to your funeral which will enable it to do this. Music. Poetry. Prayers, perhaps. Candles. They need not cost you more than a few pence. But if you want to push the boat out the sky’s the limit.
Click on the ingredients below and decide what you want included – then think through whether they are achievable in the time you have available and where the funeral is taking place:
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.
everyone joining hands
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
If writing a funeral ceremony is too big a task, then engage a celebrant (see below) to help you or do it for you. Not many people would have the confidence to go it alone.
If you want to do it all yourself, click on the topics below that contain helpful tips about how you might structure your funeral ceremony:
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.
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.
The eulogy or tribute is an important element of a funeral. Click on the questions below to help you.
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.
If you do not want a religious minister to lead the funeral you can hire a non-religious celebrant or an atheist (humanist) celebrant. Some are brilliant, some are dreadful. Only you can judge who is on the same wavelength as you. So don’t get fobbed off with just anyone, make an effort to find the right one. You don’t have to hand over completely to the celebrant. You remain in charge and, of course, you have the last word on all decisions.
Click on the questions below to help you to decide:
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: http://www.humanism.org.uk/ceremonies/search-for-a-celebrant
Find a trained humanist celebrant in Scotland by contacting the Humanist Society of Scotland here: http://www.humanism-scotland.org.uk/content/celebrants/
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.
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.
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
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 http://funeralcelebrants.org.uk/, 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
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.
One of the ways that a dead person can be remembered is by fundraising for a charity that was close to their heart.
To find out more about how to go about this and a comparison of the different websites please click on the questions below:
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 civilsociety.co.uk 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Works really well with music. Do this at home – download software or create your slideshow+text+music with PowerPoint. If you don’t know how to do it your funeral celebrant may be able to help you. Alternatively you could pay to have it done by a professional.
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