FUNERALS are one of the most important aspects of our ministry.
It is a privilege to be with families in their loss. But attitudes
to death and funerals are changing. Thirty years ago, a Church of
England funeral was the default option of the majority of the
British population. This is no longer the case.
The number of non-religious or "secular" funerals is increasing,
and, in some urban areas, these now account for 40 per cent of all
funerals. A new cadre of "civil celebrants" is emerging, many of
whom do an excellent job, and the Church is feeling the
Those who continue to look to the Church of England in
bereavement do so for a variety of reasons. Many are loyal members
of our congregations. For some, the choice of an Anglican funeral
is more a matter of convention or family tradition than religious
conviction. For others, it is a connection with a particular
church, or a particular minister.
Some, although not regular church attenders, still see the C of
E as a benign institution to which they are linked, however
tenuously, and which can bring significance in the face of death.
But this is a diminishing constituency. Increasingly, people are
claiming to be "spiritual but not religious", although they may not
be ready to tick the "No religion" box on a census form. And it is
this constituency that secular celebrants are capturing, and which
we need to win back as part of our mission.
How we engage with this diverse clientele will determine many
people's attitude to the Church and all things Christian. The
bereaved want guidance, and value a sense of a minister's being
alongside them, but they usually bring with them a clutch of
inchoate beliefs, often with little or no Christian background to
Clergy are familiar with funerals, crematoria, and cemeteries,
but can easily forget that, for most people, a funeral is an
occasional event. The bereaved want advice, but are sensitive to
being patronised or judged. As with weddings, it is the quality of
the relationship with the officiating minister that matters most to
them, and the initial encounter sets the tone for what follows.
Even the voice of the message on the parish office answerphone is
important, because, for the bereaved, at that moment it is the
voice of the Church.
RESEARCH conducted by the University of Chester into funerals in
the Warrington area surveyed funeral directors and the experience
of the bereaved, before and after a funeral. There was the
occasional horror-story of clerics' getting the name wrong, or
looking a mess, but, by and large, the research suggests that
Anglican ministers are doing a good job.
That said, a frequent gripe of funeral directors is that clergy,
unlike our secular competitors, are slow to agree to conduct a
funeral; and do not return phone calls promptly. In contrast,
humanist and civil celebrants respond punctually to the calls of
undertakers, and with generosity to the requests of the bereaved.
Typically, they are courteous and professional in their dealings,
recognising that undertakers are often under pressure from a
bereaved family to finalise arrangements.
Sadly, some clergy will conduct the funerals only of known
members of their congregations. In the words of one undertaker:
"There are clergy who serve the public, and those who think the
public serve them."
Most seriously, in company with some of their clients, many of
the funeral directors who were consulted see the Church of England
as old-fashioned and inflexible. They report that the funerals
conducted by (admittedly) a minority of the clergy are woefully
impersonal. Some ministers still refer to the deceased as "our dear
brother/sister departed", and never mention the person's name.
Increasingly, funerals are bespoke, and in an age where
informality is paramount, too many clergy and Readers are not
connecting with people. Funeral directors insist that the Church
must do so, or the growth in secular funerals will continue
ON THE positive side, funeral directors say that there are three
things that distinguish Anglican funerals from those conducted by
humanist and civil celebrants.
First, there is a distinctive understanding of death, and a
belief in the transformative power of the resurrection; second, we
offer hope, whereas secular celebrants offer only empathy; and,
finally, we offer pastoral care. The involvement of a civil or
secular celebrant with a bereaved family finishes at the cemetery
gate; a Christian minister is committed to the continuing pastoral
care of the bereaved.
At a funeral, the bereaved are uniquely receptive to what a
minister has to say. We need to speak of God and his love for us in
Jesus Christ with confidence. Sharing our convictions about death
and resurrection is not being arrogant. Being confident and being
pastorally sensitive need not be mutually exclusive.
Obviously, if pastoral care is to be a reality, and not just a
slogan, then we need to identify members of our congregations with
good listening skills to be trained as bereavement visitors,
mindful of the fact that three months after a funeral is often a
low point in bereavement. Many parishes are already doing this.
Following up on funerals is too important a task to be left
simply to the clergy. Bespoke funerals can be enormously
time-consuming: it would be good if over-stretched clergy were more
ready to share the load with Readers and lay teams.
One issue that needs to be addressed with urgency is our
reputation for inflexibility. An Anglican funeral service can and
should be tailored to the requirements of the bereaved. The funeral
of Diana, Princess of Wales, was described at the time as unique,
"as befits the unique person she was". But every person is unique
in God's eyes. If the Church of England can do it for royalty and
the famous, we can also do it for the old gentleman who lived round
The funeral service as authorised in Common Worship:
Pastoral Services provides a structure with a great deal of
flexibility in how it should be organised. A minister can and
should adapt it to fit pastoral need.
A well-planned funeral service should include the sharing of
memories, and give expression to the variety of feelings that may
be present. It should provide a fitting tribute to the deceased,
and often this is best done by a member of the family. There should
also be an acknowledgement of the finality of death, in the belief
that Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life.
Obviously, the expectations of those wanting a funeral in
church, as distinct from those wanting a service only at the
crematorium, or at the graveside, vary enormously. A family may
request that the funeral take place in the context of the
eucharist. Families of African or West Indian descent might request
an open coffin.
By contrast, it is becoming customary in some circles for the
committal to take place privately, and in advance of the funeral
service, which then takes on the character of a memorial service. I
believe that this development should be resisted. This reversal of
the traditional order, often designed to meet the needs of
hospitality to those who have travelled long distances, prevents
the majority of mourners from coming to terms with their loss.
Seeing the coffin brings home the reality of death. Its absence
AS FAR as music is concerned, a congregation at a funeral today
is more likely to know "I did it my way" than Psalm 23.
Reconnecting people with the riches of the Christian tradition is a
challenge, but one from which we should not draw back. Some
ministers provide the bereaved with a booklet of 20 or so popular
hymns in advance of a funeral, and this can be helpful. Churches
with good sound-systems can offer a bereaved family additional
flexibility in the choice of music - something that is taken for
granted in crematoria.
Some bereaved people fear to voice their preferred choice of
music, lest it be scorned by the vicar, and, as a result, opt for a
"non-religious" funeral conducted by a secular celebrant as the
easiest way out. Not all pop music will be suitable in the context
of a Christian funeral, but generosity is more likely to win us
friends than what may be perceived as snobbishness. We need to draw
people in with their choice of music.
UNLIKE crematoria, where the slot allowed for a funeral is limited
and seating is restricted, our churches offer huge flexibility. We
have more space available, and can allow the service more time; but
we are often shy advocates of what our buildings can offer. When a
funeral takes place entirely at the crematorium, a family can ask
for a longer slot than is customary, and this can be arranged by
negotiation, but it is likely to incur additional charges.
A church equipped with modern technology and overhead projection
can display photos of the deceased. Obviously this will not be
appropriate in every context, but sometimes it can be very moving.
Orders of service, carrying a photo of the deceased, can help to
personalise a funeral. It can also carry information about church
services on the back cover, with contact details, and a brief
statement about Christian belief. These things add value to the
THE majority of the population today instinctively turn to the
internet for information, including what to do in the face of
death. Parishes that have good websites are immediately at an
advantage. Sites need to carry basic information about what options
are available when planning a funeral; whom to contact; and what
A concerted charm-offensive with undertakers will also pay huge
dividends. Whether clergy like it or not, funeral directors will
always be the first port of call of the bereaved, and we need them
on our side. They are the gate-keepers, and have enormous influence
on a bereaved family. There are few better ways of ensuring that
Anglican funerals come our way than in making friends with the
A good funeral is a good advert for the Church. The reverse is
also true. In the current free-for-all funeral market we need to
raise our game, and be known for the quality with which we conduct
funerals, and for the care that we extend to the bereaved. We need
to have greater confidence in our ministry, and beat the
secularists at their own game.
The Rt Revd Robert Atwell is Bishop of Stockport.