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Funerals: we did them our way

29 October 2021

In the face of an ever-increasing commercialism, James Hastings asks C of E priests about their approach to funeral ministry


IN THE 1995 film Dead Man Walking, there is one brief, light-hearted scene in the otherwise sombre movie.

Sister Helen Prejean, the New Orleans-based nun and death-penalty abolitionist (played by Susan Sarandon), has been appointed the spiritual adviser to a double murderer, Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), who is on death row and scheduled for execution in six days.

Unable to find a cemetery willing to take the body, Sister Helen is relieved when her superiors agree that Poncelet can be interred in one of the order’s burial plots beside the most recent incumbent, Sister Celestine.

On hearing the news, Sister Helen giggles: “Celestine loved her celibacy. She used to say ‘l’m glad I won’t have to share my bed with a man.’ Now she’s going to be lying next to a man for all eternity.”

Every celebrant who has conducted a funeral will know that funerals and burials can be problematic.

The Vicar of Blackley and Moston, in Manchester, the Revd Eddie Roberts, officiates at more than 100 services per year, and has witnessed everything from the dignified to the rowdy.

“I’ve had a couple of fights break out in the church during a funeral service. It can be a time of great tension, when divisions in a family come to the surface. It’s very sad. I’ve had to separate people, but it’s OK; I’m built like a bouncer.”

In a time of ever-increasing choice — of celebrant, of service, and of burial — his approach to church funerals is simple: “I meet people where they are,” he says.

“Around 80 per cent of those who come to us are non-churchgoers, but they have an enormous amount of good will. Most request secular songs rather than hymns, with Westlife’s ‘You Raise Me Up’ and Bette Midler’s ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ among the most popular choices.

“We still get requests for Frank Sinatra singingMy Way’. I don’t really care what the song is. My job is to tie the gospel to the lyrics, which is not too difficult. If I do 100 funerals a year, with an average of 50 people at each, that means I have witnessed [about] Jesus to 5000 people. That is an enormous opportunity and privilege.”

Mr Roberts encourages people to plan their own funeral service, to inform their family of their decision, and not to regard the topic as taboo.

When it comes to the presence of children at funerals, he understands the reluctance that some parents have to expose them to what remains a solemn occasion.

“It has to be a decision for parents; but, personally, I believe children should be allowed to attend so they can express their grief in a safe way. Perhaps they could recite a poem or sing a song. One time, there was a mourner, an elderly lady who was deaf; so I taught her grandson to do the blessing in sign language. That was lovely.”

The Revd Juliet Stephenson 

IN LIVERPOOL diocese, the Revd Juliet Stephenson emanates energy and compassion in equal measure while talking about the Good Funeral Company, of which she is director. Set up to provide personalised Christian-based services, it reaches out to everyone in the diocese, regularly organising “paupers’ funerals” and funerals for those outside the Church.

As the 2015 Celebrant of the Year at the Good Funeral Awards, she says that it is vital that the Church should be at the heart of the burgeoning secular funeral industry, which is backed by glossy TV and Sunday-supplement adverts.

“You can buy a 20-minute secular funeral, which is no more than a celebration of life, anecdote after anecdote, a couple of songs, and off you go, and hope to see you in heaven,” she said.

“There is no follow-up, no after-care. It’s all over quickly, and everyone goes home. But it’s slick and not too expensive; so it is very popular.

“Then people look at the Church of England, and, unfortunately, there are some churches where they stick, rigidly, to a format that is distant from the mourners and makes no mention of the deceased as a real person — flesh and blood, someone’s dad, or mum, or loved one. Mourners feel short-changed.”

How can the Church of England do it differently? “Well, what we do is visit people in their home, at the funeral directors, or in a church if they wish. We get to know the family, their friends, and the person who has died. We go over the hymns, readings, and tributes so we can create a bespoke service to help people grieve, celebrate, and give thanks for their life and to say farewell.

“We are always here for anyone who wants to talk, and every year we invite families to a memorial service in the cathedral.”

Ms Stephenson emphasises the central part played by the funeral director in guiding their clients to either a humanist or religious funeral. “Funeral directors are the gatekeepers,” she said.

“We have built a solid reputation with them. They know who we are, and that we are good at what we do. They know our celebrants by name. They can call us any time. They send us people who don’t go to church, or haven’t been for a long time, because they know we care for every single person.

“One family told me their mum who died was not religious, even though she was baptised as a baby. I said: ‘Since she came into the world blessed, then she can leave this world blessed with a service that reflected her life, her personality, and God’s love for her.’ What we do is incarnational.”


WHILE dioceses agree on the need to walk alongside families and to build strong relationships with funeral directors, they operate varied systems.

In Gloucester diocese, there is a single number to ring to book a funeral, whether in a church, a woodland burial site, or a crematorium. The director of mission and ministry, Canon Andrew Braddock, says that the diocese seeks to confirm a location, date, time, and name of celebrant within 24 hours.

“There has been an amazing growth in recent years of the range of humanist services and others which contain some kind of spirituality.

“We could see the choice of services was growing, and the Church of England was no longer most people’s first port of call. So, we asked funeral directors what we could do to improve what we offer. They said the key was to make the whole process easier.

“The single telephone number we provide offers access to anywhere in the Gloucester city or Forest South areas, whether it is for a church or a crematorium.

“We stepped up training for vicars with regular refresher courses. When we meet with families and loved ones, we make sure we sit and listen. There will be a Bible reading, and the Lord’s Prayer, but we say: ‘Let’s shape this service together.’”

As a result, they have stopped the decline in church funerals in the diocese, “and been successful in changing people’s perception of a Church of England service”, he says. They have also received enquiries from the dioceses of Exeter and London about their approach.


The Revd Paul Doick

THE Revd Dr Jeremy Brooks, in Oxford diocese, spent 20 years as a parish priest, and is now licensed to take funerals anywhere in the diocese.

“Unfortunately, there are lots of clergy who don’t prioritise funerals, preferring to prioritise the living,” he said. “I would like to see deaneries offer funeral chaplaincy on a deanery-wide basis. It may be that a role could be combined with a house-for-duty post, so accommodation was provided and a smaller church cared for, whilst the minister built relationships with funeral directors and increased the numbers of church funerals being done. There are some legal issues that would have to be ironed out, but I think it would work.”

In Chichester diocese, the effects of Covid on funeral services were as disruptive as they were elsewhere in the country. The Revd Paul Doick, Rector of Henfield with Shermanbury and Woodmancote, held 64 services during the pandemic.

“It completely changed the way we did funerals,” he said. “Most arrangements were done on the phone; we were not allowed to hug; and numbers were very limited, often as low as six people. In one particular case, a 90-year-old lady had to sit alone at the funeral of her 100-year-old husband. It was heartbreaking.”

Fr Doick believes that one benefit of Covid restrictions is that churches and crematoriums may continue to livestream services, for family or friends living too far away to attend. He says that most people, however, prefer to be present at funerals, to share personally in mourning and celebration.

“One thing that hasn’t changed is the request for secular music. We need to remember the Church of England is not the arbiter of good taste. As long as the lyrics are not anti-Christian, I allow it, although I do ask people to check them.

“There was a time when married couples asked for ‘Saving All My Love For You’ by Whitney Houston, until I explained that song is actually about adultery, which is not the best way to start a marriage.”

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