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The Privilege Of Funerals

Lesslie Newbigin in 1996. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Lesslie Newbigin in 1996. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

I consider it a bittersweet honour to conduct funerals. I have the opportunity to model hope and love in the darkest of times. Today, upon visiting one of my church members who had lost her husband, I discovered that some decades ago she had been secretary to one of my theological heroes – Lesslie Newbigin. I was glad only to discover that at the end of the visit, otherwise I fear the time might have been derailed.

But also today, a friend who is an Anglican priest shared on Facebook this obituary of a Catholic woman from Wisconsin. Rarely have I come across an obit quite like this one. Whether or not you express your faith in the same way as this lady, I invite you to read it, enjoy it and be challenged by it.

Popular Music At Funerals

Co-operative Funeralcare have released another survey of the most popular music chosen at funerals they conducted – although like the old ‘chart return’ shops for the Top 40, they only surveyed 250 of their 900 branches. Aside from the headlines about the dreadful ‘My Way’, the banning of ‘Imagine’ (quite right, too!) and ‘Abide With Me’ now being the most popular hymn, I just want to know this:

Who chose the clock from Countdown to be played at the committal?

Funerals: The Initial Contact And Visit

Blogging has been light here recently, with only sermons posted for a few weeks. Even then there wasn’t even a sermon last week, due to taking an all age service, and for the same reason there isn’t one this week, either. I’ve been under huge pressure workwise, much of it involving tragedies, and to be honest I’m exhausted.

Since one of the major things I’ve been involved with in recent weeks is funerals,  I thought I might post some advice regarding them from a minister’s perspective. Here are some of the things I have learned in nineteen years as a minister, much of it by trial and error.

Often a call from a funeral director comes out of the blue, but occasionally you are expecting it, because you know someone from the church has died. In most cases, I find the date and time for the cremation has already been set. Try to fit in with this if at all possible. Only decline or ask for a rearrangement if there is no alternative. A death is a priority. If you get the chance to negotiate the date, though, all the better.

Here is the information you should obtain from the undertaker:

Full name of deceased
Date and location of death
Cause of death
Any church connections (in my case, Methodist) – and is there any particular reason the family wants a Christian minister to take the service?
Name, address and phone number of contact person (who is usually but not always the next of kin and/or chief mourner)
Any music requests made by the family, such as hymns or entry and exit music
Does the family want gifts to go to a particular good cause in their loved one’s memory? (You may be announcing this at the funeral.)
Anything else the undertaker thinks is relevant

The funeral director may well ask you about your fee. My working policy is never to charge where there is a church family connection, because people have been contributing towards my stipend through the offering. If I am being called in as an outsider, though, I generally don’t mind taking a fee. My stock response to the undertaker in those circumstances is, ‘Pay me the same as you would pay an Anglican.’ That saves me the embarrassment of setting a fee. And if I were to set my own fee and out of charity make it lower than the C of E’s standard fee, it can cause bad ecumenical feeling, because the Anglicans can then think you are undercutting them in order to gain more business. We’re not in competition, even if they are in the dominant position.

Because a death is a priority, do not wait long before phoning the contact person given to you by the funeral director. It may well be they were with the funeral arranger when you took the original phone call, so sometimes you can allow them time to get home, but do not waste time. You need to see them as soon as possible, because you may not get everything about the service tied up in one visit. They may need to ask questions of other family members before resolving some details.

When you phone the contact person, explain who you are (they may well already have your name, though) and say you are sorry these are the circumstances in which your paths cross. Then simply say that you think it would be helpful if you could visit to discuss their loved one’s life and to plan the service. Let them have your phone number, just in case the arrangement needs to be changed.

At the meeting, after a preliminary conversation where you may be asking about the circumstances that led to the deceased passing away, offer to take them through an outline of a typical funeral service as a guide. I tell them I am not imposing a formula on them, because I want it to be personal for them. At the same time, experience tells me I need to be sure of certain minimum standards. Very occasionally a family will get pushy and think that I am simply there to follow their commands. However, you don’t pay a car mechanic and tell them what to do: if you are wise, you normally take the mecahnic’s advice.

In running through the service, I explain that I will be at the crematorium before they arrive to check that everything is ready in the chapel. When they arrive and we are ready to begin the service, we need to know whether they wish to follow the coffin into the chapel or be seated first. I don’t mind which they do, but I strongly advise they should make up their minds before the day, rather than be faced with that question just as they are trying to compose themselves for the service.

If they are going to use music on CD for any part of the service, a crem will typically appreciate having that music two working days beforehand, in order to check it will play on their system. Not all will gurantee to play computer-burned CDs. If you do have to have that, the best advice is to stick to CD-Rs, not CD-RWs, and to ensure that the music is in a standard lossless format such as WAV, not in a compressed format such as MP3, WMA or M4A/AAC, let alone more obscure formats like Ogg Vorbis, Apple Lossless or FLAC.

After running through the service, we discuss the deceased’s life. Over the years, I have developed a short series of questions or categories that help to put together the material for a eulogy:

Birth, siblings, school and early life
Working life
Marriage, relationships and family (take note of children’s and grandchildren’s names)
Hobbies, interests and pastimes
Character and personality

I find it important to end with that last one. It’s the area of the deceased’s life that will unite everyone who gathers to mourn their passing. Whether they knew the person as a family member, a friend, a neighbour or a colleague, all will recognise certain personality traits.

If family members are going to participate, either by giving the eulogy, reading a poem or in some other way, ask to have a copy of what they are going to say. This is not in order to be censorious, but so you can be ready to step in, should their emotions overcome them on the day.

In all the planning, be aware of the particular time limits at the crem. Twenty-five minutes is typical. Some expect you to be done and dusted in twenty. Some even impose financial penalties for over-running. So two hymns maximum; eulogy, five minutes.

Before I close the visit, I explain that I shall not write the eulogy until the day before the service. Why? Because occasionally I find that people think of other stories or facets of their loved one’s life that need to be included. And very occasionally they tell me that something they have mentioned needs to be omitted, because Aunt Bertha is coming, and if I talk about that particular incident, it will cause upset. You may tell the contact person that other family members can get in touch with you, if they want to add their own thoughts.

My other parting comment is to invite them to ring me or email me with any questions they have about the service. No question is too silly or trivial. If it makes them anxious, I can put their minds at rest.

Increasingly, families ask for a printed order of service. Funeral directors often provide or facilitate a printer to do this. Try to be involved in the proofing and approval process. More and more printers put PDF drafts on a secure website. It can be invaluable if you are allowed to be one of the reviewers who comments on a draft. Elements of the service can be accidentally omitted. Words of hymns can be wrong. And I have had a few occasions where the family has changed the content of the service without consulting me.

I hope someone will find these thoughts helpful. I am sure too that the moment I click ‘publish’ I will think of other tips and reflections! But if these limited thoughts are useful, I will be pleased. Feel free to add your own thoughts and ideas in the comments below.

I will try in the next few days to add a further post or posts about preparing for the service, and the conduct of the service itself.

Celine Dion At The Crematorium

(For the next several days, I’m not going to be able to post any new topical material, nor shall I be able to interact with your comments. However, I am going to repost some old pieces that once appeared on my now defunct website at I hope you enjoy them.)

The curate from the Victor Meldrew School of Theology had turned down this funeral. Which was a good job. She never should have been asked. The daughter of the deceased was an occasional worshipper at one of the churches I served.

Like many people at the time, she wanted Celine Dion’s love theme from the film ‘Titanic’, ‘My heart will go on’, to be played at the service. It’s the sort of music that brings me out in a rash, but hey, it was her wish.

We were ready to begin. The congregation was seated in the crematorium chapel. I was outside with the pallbearers from the undertaker’s. I gave the nod to the crem attendant. He pressed ‘play’. Well, it was Celine Dion, it was ‘My heart will go on’ … but it was the dance remix.

As a thumping drumbeat massacred the gloopy song, one of the pallbearers turned to me and said, “So are we meant to take the coffin in at this pace?”

“No,” said one of his colleagues, “it isn’t a drum, it’s the deceased knocking on the coffin, trying to get out!”

It became one of the challenges of my ministry to maintain dignity and not burst into hysterics during the funeral.

The next day, the daughter phoned me to thank me for the service. I thought it prudent to ask her about the music.

“Did you notice the music at the beginning of the service?”


“You didn’t notice that it was the dance version of ‘My heart will go on’?”


“Only I just thought I should ask, in case any of your relatives were upset.”

“Nah – anyway, my mum was a bit of a goer, and she’d have loved it!”

Embarrassing moment over, I breathed a sigh of relief when I put down the phone.

Now I’ve seen a funeral or two in my time. I’ve made friends with the crem attendants. One says, “Don’t wear trousers with turn-ups, or you’ll bring your work home with you.”

I’ve seen inconsolable grief at the crem, and I can understand that. Without the hope I gain from the Resurrection of Jesus, I can see why Paul in the Bible said that people “grieve without hope”.

I’ve also seen overbearing, unnatural joy. I don’t mean the way Christians (with the hope of the Resurrection) can look forward, I mean a kind of forced joy that psychologically is a denial of bereavement’s true pain. Most grief is nothing to be guilty about, whatever our feelings tell us. It’s an expression of our love for the deceased, love we can no longer give them, because they are not with us.

Maybe then my offering is to say that the healthy thing – the Jesus thing – is the gift of grieving with hope.