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A funeral director’s relations with the clergy

by
07 February 2012

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Sir, — I enjoyed reading the Revd Jeremy Brooks’s article on funerals (Comment, 27 January), and the letters that followed. Mr Brooks hits the nail on the head when he says that funeral celebrants are popular, as they allow religious contributions to what would otherwise be classed as a civil ceremony.

I am a funeral arranger in a large town. When a family first contacts me, I ask them if they have someone in mind to conduct their loved one’s funeral service. If the family have no one in mind and say that the deceased “didn’t go to church”, the guidance I give is this.

First, they could have the vicar of the parish in which their loved one lived take the service. The vicar would conduct the Church of England cremation service, which would include a Bible reading and prayers. The vicar may wish to sanction music and readings that the family want to use in the service. So it may not be possible to have their choice of “Burn, baby, burn” at the committal!

Second, they can have a retired priest, who may be more flexible than the vicar.

Third, they can have a funeral celebrant who will mould the service around what the deceased and their family want. Hymns, prayers, readings, ritual, and music will all be permissible. I do emphasise that this person is not a priest and will not wear robes.

Fourth, they can have a humanist minister who is like a celebrant except that there can be no religious content in the service.

Mr Brooks made it clear that he understands the pressure that the funeral director is under to book a funeral at a date and time that the family want. It may be that family have flown over to be present at the death of their loved one, and will need to return home in less than a week. What should we say to a family who say to us: “We want the funeral next Friday at 4 p.m.,” when we know Friday is the vicar’s day off?

I applaud Mr Brooks’s comments on the clergy’s establishing “stronger links with undertakers” (although we prefer to be referred to as funeral directors these days). In my funeral home, when I took over as manager, I wrote to more than 20 of the local clergy inviting them to come in and meet me over coffee and biscuits. Most of the clergy were Church of England. It was the two local Meth­odist ministers who bothered to take me up on the invitation. A year later, after follow-up telephone calls, I did manage to get a Church of England vicar to come in and meet me.

This was an example of a funeral director trying (and failing) to establish stronger links with the clergy. I try to maintain communications with our local churches by checking that the information I have about them is correct: the contact details for the church office, the minister’s day off, the names of the assistant and attached retired clergy, and any special instructions for their churches.

When we try to book a vicar, we will call the vicar or parish office and say that a family would like the funeral to take place at a certain date and time. Strictly speaking, our company would prefer to ask the minister when he or she is free to conduct a funeral, but this seldom happens, as families already have a date and time in mind.

We do not like giving the minister this fait accompli, as really we are saying “If you cannot do it, we will get someone else.” At best, the vicar can take the service, or his or her curate can. Alternatively, a retired minister attached to the church may be able to help. We have a number of local ministers who can also help us out.

Many people request that “The Vicar at the Crematorium” take the funeral service, as they assume that the crematorium has its own min­ister. There is no such crematorium minister.

I was contacted by a local minister recently who chastised me for ar­rang­ing a funeral and not contacting that minister until everything was arranged. Actually, what happened was that I telephoned the minister first, before any arrangements had been made: I left an answerphone message, as no one answered my calls. After two days, and still not getting a response, I had to find another minister, as the deceased’s daughter was travelling home to the United States the day after the funeral was planned to take place.

I feel sad that some of the clergy feel that funeral directors do not work with them in their ministry to the bereaved. I use the telephone (land lines and mobiles), text messages, email, and even visits to the vicarage in person to ensure that every possible line of communica­tion is kept open. For one funeral that I was arranging, I had to ring the minister on a Sunday afternoon. I had tried for three days to contact him and failed.

Perhaps the churches in our town are so full that the clergy do not have to bother with a funeral ministry to people on the fringes of church life. Does that mean, then, that they have become an inward-looking church rather than a mission-shaped church?

Owing to the sensitive issues that are raised in this letter, and the need to maintain good links with local clergy, may I respectfully request that you withhold my name and address?

Name & Address Supplied

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