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How to regain funerals from civil celebrants

19 June 2015

The number of Christian funerals is dropping dramatically. Ian Meredith suggests some remedies

PORTCHESTER Crematorium lies within my parish. One of the busiest in England, it holds more than 100 funerals every week. Recently I met the Superintendent Registrar, James Clark, who told me that the majority of funerals there are now conducted by civil celebrants, while the number of services taken by the clergy diminishes each year.

At one level, we can complain that this is simply another sign of the secularisation of society and the marginalisation of the Church, but it could be more challenging than that: a sign of the inflexibility of the clergy, combined with pastoral and administrative inefficiency.

I am not against civil celebrants. Many of them are excellent, professional, and compassionate. One member of my congregation has recently become a civil celebrant. Part of the reason that they do a good job is that funerals are their livelihood, whereas, for the clergy, it is a small part of our job.

There is also a certain integrity in having a civil celebrant rather than a member of the clergy. Hypocrisy v. integrity is important to many people: if they have lived without God, then they are happy to die without God, and have their funerals without God.

Civil celebrants are not humanist celebrants, however: there is a difference. One day while waiting in the crematorium vestry, I was aware that the funeral going on at that time was being conducted by a civil celebrant, when I heard them all singing "All things bright and beautiful" and then joining in the Lord's Prayer. It occurred to me that we could do that type of funeral.


TALKING with the Registrar and with funeral directors, I made enquiries about why civil celebrants were increasingly preferred. These were the reasons I found:


• Civil celebrants respond immediately to phone calls, while the clergy usually always have answerphones, and sometimes do not get back until a day or two later.


• The clergy are not always flexible with their diaries, while civil celebrants make funerals their priority. (Yes, I realise that this is their livelihood, while it is not ours.)


• Parishes with several clergy offer to supply a member of the clergy to fit in with the preferred date and time, but as far as funeral directors go, the clergy are hit and miss: some are good; some are awful; many are OK. With civil celebrants, however, they know exactly whom they are getting, and they are generally good.


• Civil celebrants are more "people-centred" in their approach to the service. It may be one of the idolatries of our time, but many relatives want to hear more about their loved ones than about God.


THE Church could respond to this in two ways. First, why not appoint some lay people in each parish - those with good voices, an ability in public speaking, people skills, and compassion - and train them to be funeral celebrants on behalf of the Church? We could pay them.

Second, the clergy should consider conducting funeral services that are less wordy, theological, and "over-the-top religious" (as is perceived by some bereaved people). We provide a "lighter" service for child initiation (thanksgiving for the gift of a child); we also provide a lighter service for couples (an order for prayer and dedication after a civil marriage); it might now be time for our liturgical people to provide a third lighter service for funerals (a celebration of life).

I have conducted a few such services, though there are minimum requirements. First, I tell the congregation who I am (I do not pretend to be a civil celebrant), and tell them that I am doing this out of sensitivity to the family. There need be no hymns, and Bible readings can be selective, but I would always want to have a final pastoral prayer and a committal, with a blessing at the end.


I HAVE also found something of integrity for me as well. Funerals tend to be wordy and theological, and assume that the deceased person is a Christian. We use terms such as "eternal life", "believe", and "heaven". Although we know that the hope of the resurrection is intended for Christian believers in general rather than the individual whose funeral we are conducting, the impression given to the congregation is that the deceased is now in heaven, regardless of his or her beliefs or lifestyle.

The rationale behind giving everyone the same liturgy is partly because of our reticence to judge anyone. Some people, however, have already judged themselves to be complete unbelievers, and for us to insist on giving the impression that they are now in heaven may be seen as having no regard for their beliefs.

It is not always necessary to preach the gospel at every funeral. I say this as an Evangelical. In my earlier ministry, I always took the opportunity to do so at funerals, but I have never been aware of anyone who has ever been converted or even started coming to church through this.

I am, however, aware of many who have started coming to church because of the way a funeral has been pastorally and sensitively handled, has honoured the deceased, created sacred moments in the service, and opened a way for future fruitful ministry.

Funerals continue to have great potential for church growth. Recently, I did a survey to see how many people had come on to our electoral roll over the past few years through occasional Offices. The results were: baptisms 0, weddings 4, funerals 34.


AFTER my discussion with the Registrar, he reminded me that the Church had a unique selling point over civil celebrants, and that this was what we should emphasise. When the civil celebrant pockets the cheque at the close of the service and says goodbye, that is the last that the bereaved will see of him or her, except perhaps at the next funeral. For us, however, our ministry with the bereaved continues, if required, in the weeks and even years afterwards.

On the first Sunday afternoon of each month, we have "Tea and Company" and on the third Sunday, "GriefShare", a support group for the bereaved. We also phone the next of kin a few weeks after the funeral and offer a home visit. It's not about sales: it's about service.


The Revd Dr Ian Meredith is Priest-in-Charge of St Mary's, Portchester, Hampshire.

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