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