THE past six years that I have been working as a civil-funeral celebrant have been among the most thought-provoking, challenging, lonely, and faith-stretching times of my Christian journey.
I have to hold firmly to orthodox Christian belief, while engaging with an agenda set by others — in the same way as an RE teacher who is a Christian has to engage with a curriculum set by others. I would argue that the Church needs to understand and welcome the work of civil funeral celebrants who are Christians.
A distressed father rang me: would I take the funeral of his stillborn son the next day? As I sat with his family that afternoon, I discovered that the priest (not from the Church of England) whom they had booked had come across to them as not interested in baby Theo (names and some details have been changed).
The family wanted the funeral to be about Theo, but the priest had wanted it to be about how Jesus welcomes children and comforts the bereaved, with almost nothing about Theo as a person. Together, the family and I planned the service.
Theo had been a part of their lives for almost nine months, and there were pictures of him around the house. When he was stillborn, his father showed him videos of Liverpool FC matches; the family were passionate fans.
The funeral director gave Theo’s father my phone number because he knows I am a Christian. So, rather than a sentiment of “Gentle Jesus up above, please give Theo all our love” that might have come from a non-Christian celebrant, the family were given a funeral based on the resurrection of Jesus, and his love for Theo and his whole family. They set the agenda, which was centred on Theo but which had to include some definite Christian content; and I was able to work with it.
BOB died, aged 81; for more than 50 years, he had been a Companion of the Society of St Francis, and had left instructions for Psalm 104 to be read at his funeral. The person organising the funeral had met Bob for the first time 20 years earlier, as had all those attending. Twenty years ago, Bob had made a lifestyle choice, turned his back on his former life, and entered the world of sadomasochism.
In his coffin, Bob was dressed in a neo-Nazi uniform. No one connected with Bob felt that it was appropriate to invite a priest to take his funeral. The funeral director, knowing of the request for Psalm 104 and that I am a Christian, invited me.
The person whom Bob had asked to read the psalm also read from Bob’s instruction letter: “When I meet him, I pray that Jesus Christ will have mercy on me.”
I did not know that this was going to happen, but when it did, I was able to say a word about Jesus’s forgiveness, and to offer an unscripted prayer of commendation. A celebrant who was not a Christian would have missed the opportunity of following Bob’s agenda for his funeral.
MINISTERS of religion take about 60 per cent of all funerals now in England. This figure is down from about 95 per cent only ten years ago. The Church of England takes 34 per cent of all funerals, and it is working well to ensure that the service (in all senses) that it offers is high-quality, personal, and pastoral.
Questions remain, however, about what happens to the majority of funerals that are taken by civil celebrants. I estimate that two-thirds of all the funerals that I conduct have some overtly Christian content. Many of those booking in with funeral directors say something along the lines of: “We’d like some prayers, but nothing too heavy.” There are many families now who would like a small element of religion, but not too much. They are agnostic, but not convinced humanists or atheists.
I know that in this work I have made mistakes, missed opportunities, or given a misleading impression. And yet I would like to think that there is a solid theological base for what I do. It is that God is interested in each life, each life is important to him, and for each life Jesus gave his life.
TAKING a funeral well is obviously a good thing to do in itself. It is a way of serving, of giving a cup of water to the thirsty. If taking a funeral well gives an opportunity to introduce people to their local Christian community, and through that to Christ, that is a worthwhile bonus.
After-funeral care is a service that churches often provide in a better way than civil-funeral celebrants. Indeed, it is one of the aspects of the Church’s ministry which one registrar mentioned to the Revd Dr Ian Meredith as being a “unique selling point”that churches can offer (Comment, 19 June 2015).
I have tried to set up a “loss group”, and failed. I have had more success with inviting my clients to an annual memorial service in my own church. I have kept in touch with some of my families, but none have become members of the congregation because of this. Perhaps this is not surprising, as recent figures suggest that of people who come to faith, only one per cent do so because of a wedding or funeral (www.talkingjesus.org; News, 6 November).
THE real challenge to the Church over funerals is not celebrants such as I am, who have an understanding of Christian belief, but people who take a pick-and-mix approach to funerals, mingling crystals and crucifixes, and who can reduce Christ to only one among many equals.
We need well-conducted church funerals and careful Christian pastoral care as our gold standard. Where that is not possible, instead of ceding the ground to people of no religious allegiance, civil funeral celebrants who are Christians can provide an acceptable alternative.
We can still hold open the door for our clients to enter into Christian fellowship and a personal faith in Christ. For the Church to understand the work of civil funeral celebrants who are Christians would be a positive first step.
Alan Stanley is the author of The Challenge of the Funeral Celebrant (Grove Books).