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What makes a good funeral?

Of all the decisions you have to make about the funeral, one of the most important for the success of the ceremony is 'who is going to conduct the service?' If you are, or the person who has died was, a member of a particular church family or faith group the decision will be easy - you will invite your own minister, priest, rabbi, imam etc.

what makes a good funeral

In our society today, however, the majority of people would not consider themselves 'religious'. Who should take the funeral in these circumstances? This is where you rely on the funeral director for help in making the decision. Here are some of the factors that are relevant when choosing an officiant:

Firstly, we would ask about the religious denomination of the person who has died. As mentioned above, the majority of people in this country are not churchgoers, but when asked about the deceased's religion, most still describe their denomination as 'Church of England'.

If this is the case we are asked by the Church of England clergy to contact the minister or priest for the parish in which the deceased person had been living, as the clergy consider it part of their ministry to care for the funerals of all their parishioners. If that minister is unavailable then he or she may suggest a colleague who could take the service. If not there are other local clergy we are able to approach.

Secondly, if the deceased person was not religious there are funeral officiants who will take a secular or humanist funeral with no religious content.

Thirdly, it is important to realise that you are not restricted to the ‘black and white’ choice of a ‘religious’ or ‘non-religious’ funeral: many people, while not considering themselves religious, still believe in life after death and still want the ceremony to reflect this. There are men and women available (most being ordained clergy) who are willing to officiate at a funeral, putting their own specific beliefs to one side and empathising with the bereaved to provide a ceremony sympathetic to their needs.

Our responsibility as funeral directors is to listen as our bereaved clients talk about the person who has died and the people who are left, and advise them on whom they could invite to take the service. Another factor in this important decision is that, of all the people who make up the 'pool' of funeral officiants including ministers, priests and secular people, some are wonderfully gifted at taking funerals whilst others, to be honest, are not. Our clients rely on us to recommend the right person and it has to be said that this is not easy sometimes given the constraints placed on us by, for instance, the clergy. How do we tell a family they should use their parish priest if we are aware that, how shall we say, his gifts for ministry lie in areas other than officiating at funerals?

Once the right person has been chosen to conduct the service, consideration can be given to the format of the ceremony. The person who is going to take the service will want to meet with the family if at all possible to discuss the service in detail. A good officiant will spend time listening to the family to find out about the person who has died, their life, their character and achievements. Eulogies, poems, music and readings can all be incorporated into the service. This is why the choice of the right person to take the service is so important: everything else will flow from this.

At most services there will be a eulogy about the person who has died and this will often be delivered by the officiant on behalf of the family. However, if a member of the family or a friend felt able to speak about the deceased, these personal tributes - although not easy to give - can be very moving. It is generally true to say that the success of the funeral as a whole can be governed by the quality of the eulogy - it is easy to tell if the person taking the service has put a lot of time and effort into the preparation of this personal tribute to the deceased.

Things which encourage the involvement of the mourners in some sort of participation in the service can be good. Otherwise it can seem as if the officiant is just speaking at the people and it is difficult for them to feel involved in things. There are many ways of involving the whole congregation; just one example is for everyone to bring a flower to the funeral and, at a given moment in the ceremony, the officiant to issue an invitation for people to come forward to place their flower on the coffin. Another gesture of involvement is for members of the family to act as pallbearers. This is not usually a difficult thing to do and we never discourage it unless the funeral venue presents specific problems which would require us to use our professional bearers.

A photo of the deceased placed beside the coffin can act as a powerful focus for people’s thoughts, or a favourite piece of music can be played during the service for people to use as a time of quiet remembrance.

The only limitation on the possibility for personalising the ceremony is the extent of the imagination of the people putting the service together. The funeral director’s role in this is to make his clients aware of the options and to enable any specific request to be realised.