Priestly's guide to officiating at a funeral
No 1 – Keep all phones on silent
A young priest was, at short notice, called to a crematorium to conduct a funeral service.
The priest arrived in the nick of time to find the funeral director and the family waiting. Hurriedly, he pushed his I-phone into his clerical shirt pocket and began the service.
Minutes later, just as the coffin was being placed on the catafalque, the congregation heard a loud noise from within the priest’s garments.
The I-phone had chosen the worst possible moment to announce: ‘You have now reached your destination.’
No 2 – If at first you don’t succeed…
I can remember all too clearly the embarrassment felt, whilst conducting my first funeral service.
I’d had just one brief practice with my rector and then I was thrown straight in at the deep end.
It didn’t go well right from the very start. When I walked past the coffin at the beginning of the service, I hadn’t expected it to be open.
Therefore for the whole of service I felt that the deceased was watching me. Perhaps it was this that made me buckle under the pressure.
Things went further downhill from there. I incorrectly identified the relationship of two of the family members present, slipped up on the name of the crematorium for committal and forgot to mention the venue of the funeral reception, as requested.
This experience taught me to type everything down fully in my order of service. As a seasoned funeral official now, this approach still serves me well today.
No 3 – Put the family first
The choices of the family are of course paramount when first planning a funeral. My first task therefore is to get to know them well.
Initial contact is usually by telephone. In that conversation it is vital for me to show empathy, and reassurance that I will do all I can to meet their expectations and answer their concerns.
Preparation can be a challenge because some families are divided and each part seeks to have their own imprint on the service.
Sometimes one member of the family is dominant and others feel too reserved to speak. In these instances, it is my job to draw the others into the planning of the service.
Some want to just talk about their past relationship or how they are feeling and I need to listen carefully and show concern, rather than pressing them for decisions.
I’m always keen to reassure them that I am available 24 hours a day, whether that is to help prepare the service or simply to be there to listen.
No 4 – Prepare the service thoroughly
When it comes to the content of the funeral service, this of course varies depending on the family’s wishes.
Some want to read a poem or pay a tribute themselves, others wish me to devise the service myself and need me to suggest the format.
The tribute can be a challenge for it is important to paint a true picture of their loved one, as if I’d known them personally myself.
Experience allows me to tease out the relevant facts and personal qualities of the deceased during discussion with the people who knew them best.
The service then comes together and whilst it may contain common features, it will also be personal to that family.
No 5 – Expect the unexpected
Whilst preparing one funeral, the daughter of the deceased would not let me see her tribute speech and kept assuring me that it would not last long.
Yet when the service came around, it lasted sixteen minutes and she also called on two further relatives to speak.
We only had thirty minutes at the most at the crematorium so I surprised even myself when I somehow managed to quickly conclude the service with dignity.
Whilst officiating at another funeral, I pressed the button on the lectern, expecting this to play some music.
Instead I found that it closed the curtains around the coffin, discovering the hard way of course that there was no way to reverse this process.
Not much of a problem you may say, except the family were due to place roses on the coffin at the end of the service.
The funeral director realised my mistake and at the end of the service, we each held the curtains open from either side and were thanked by the family for such a personal gesture.
No 6 – Reap the rewards
A man was sat watching the FA Cup Final at Wembley in the very best seat available at the stadium.
The man on his left noticed there was an empty seat next to him and said, “Can you believe someone actually paid for that seat and didn’t come to the game?
The fellow next to him replied, “Actually that’s my wife’s seat. We bought these tickets months ago. Unfortunately, my wife passed away so I came alone.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, but why didn’t you give the ticket to a family member or friend?”
“Oh, they’re all at her funeral.”
Obviously this football fanatic did not think much of funerals and he is not alone.
The occasion of a funeral, I’ve found, is always very rewarding for myself too.
Having briefly developed a relationship with the family of the deceased and constructed the service in agreement with them, I am considered a key part of this rite of passage.
This appreciation for my role is often expressed to me with many cards, letters and thankful emails, which are a joy to receive.
No 7 – God can help the grievers
Thank goodness God can help the griever. Whilst I have to respect that some families request a civil or humanist service I cannot help feeling for them, with the lack of awareness of eternity and an offer of a spiritual life thereafter.
To grieve is a normal human condition when we have lost someone physically, but for the Christian there is hope in the resurrection.
As a Christian priest I offer not just myself but more significantly God to help in their grieving.
At our meetings and in the service I always pray with families, offering the love of God, the promise of eternity and the hope of being reunited in Heaven.
At this crucial time, many seek an assurance of hope and help for their grieving and for some, knowing God cares for them and that he is sharing their journey, is not only helpful but significant for their own future as well.
The Reverend Priestly Brook, an Anglican priest, retired in August 2012 from the Colne and Villages Team Ministry in East Lancashire. His Bishop has granted him a licence with ‘Permission to Officiate’. He is married to Christine, with six grown up children. He is a well known preacher and after dinner speaker in the North of England.