Funerals for the unchurched


A former Catholic priest who now conducts civil funerals argues that we need to reframe the funeral ceremony for families who live on the edges of the church.

John 11:35, the smallest verse in the Bible, ‘Jesus wept’.

Think of the last funeral you attended; be that at a church, a crematorium or a hotel.  Yes, funerals are taking place in hotels now.  What was the experience like?  How did you feel when the service was over?  Elated or disappointed?

In the last ten years I have conducted over 2,500 funerals and heard thousands of stories about people’s experiences of church and non-church funerals.  I sometimes wonder if Jesus weeps because of the ceremony that is being offered to families on the edges of the church.

I come from a Catholic tradition and believe that the funeral liturgy within the Catholic Church and other Christiana traditions can be very uplifting, comforting and consoling.  But what about those families who have not been to church for many years?  Who is caring for them?  Who is touching their hearts and lifting their spirits?  Who is telling them the Good News of the resurrection and the new life that Christ offers on a level they understand and feeds them?

A couple of years ago I got a phone call from a funeral director in a panic asking me if my diary was free to conduct a funeral in two days’ time.  Usually I get five – seven days’ notice to prepare a funeral service.  The local priest had been asked to conduct the funeral and although he phoned the bereaved family to say hello he never visited the family home.  The family, perhaps in their ignorance of how things work within some parishes, asked the funeral director why the local parish priest had not visited them.  They were hoping the priest might pray with them and ask the family questions about their mum so they could create the right funeral service for her.  The funeral director phoned the priest to find out if he was planning to visit the family and the funeral director relayed the following message to them.  ‘Father X would like you to write down a few stories about your mum on a piece of paper and take it round to the chapel house this evening.  If he is not in, he said you have to post these notes through the letter box’.  The family were so horrified they told the funeral director to cancel him and get them someone else to conduct the funeral.  I wonder if Jesus wept that night.

I ‘pick up’ at least one funeral a week from an unchurched Christian family.

Church funeral liturgies are great for those who have faith and understanding of what the ritual is doing.  I fully accept that within a Catholic Mass, for example, there is no real need for the priest to ‘talk about the deceased’ during the homily and offer a eulogy as the comfort comes from the Gospel, the Word of God and our faith in the cross.  At this point in our lives, those with faith know death is not the end.  Those with strong spiritual lives know Jesus is the resurrection and the life and whoever believes in Him shall not die, they will live in Him.  This Good News is enormously consoling to me because fundamentally I know that the real life I have is my life ‘in’ Christ.  The enemy of death, the enemy of fear, the enemy of sorrow and bitterness, the enemy of discouragement have all been defeated by the blood of the cross.  Superb news.  I love it.  I believe it.  I give daily thanks for it.

But what about those who do not feel this same sense of hope and faith?  What about those on the edges of church, those who have a hokey cokey, in-out shake-it-all-about relationship with the church?  Will the deep richness of a Christian funeral spiritually feed them when their mum dies?  If the answer is no and the faith-rich church services are not for everyone, then who is consoling those on the edges of church?  Who will take the time, let’s say one hour, to visit the unchurched family within their shaky spiritual lives, and create words that feed them and communicate to their hearts?  Do we want the unchurched to be fed by humanist funeral officiates?  Is it time to reframe the church funeral for those who don’t put money in the collection plate every week?

I would like to argue that funeral celebrants like myself, who are different to humanist officiates, are one option for those on the edges of church and those with shaky faith.

Funeral celebrants have been in the UK for the last ten years and they are becoming increasingly popular in many parts of Scotland.  There are around 50 in Scotland.  Most do it as their full time job and vocation.  They are an antidote to humanist funerals that preach atheism: the focus with a ‘civil funeral’ as they are sometimes called, is the family’s faith, wishes and beliefs.  I find it comforting that nine out of ten families I work with want to hear something about eternal life and meeting their loved ones again and 50% of these families also want a hymn or a prayer in the funeral.  In my opinion people in Scotland are not anti-religious.  They may be secular Christians, they may hold a number of complex beliefs and values at the same time but you know, I have been there as well.  I have danced the hokey-cokey.

To keep the feeding and nourishment analogy going, civil funerals are more easily digestible than a rich church liturgy.  The words are created to touch a family on a more familiar level.  At the end of the day I am just a storyteller.  When I conduct civil funerals I am telling a story on a particular social level and faith level that can be easily understood by everyone who is there.  Surely that is one of the main functions of the priest or church minister; to touch people’s lives with words and stories; including the Gospel story.  Human beings, especially at the difficult times in our lives like funerals, need comforting, consoling and sometimes humorous words to help us understand this dramatic change that has taken place.  I can’t help but remind myself that Jesus often spoke through parables and stories in order to explain the deeper mysteries of life.  The issue I hear of time and time again when it comes to funerals is that some funeral officiates are communicating to people’s hearts and souls while others sadly only communicate to their ears.

When I began my new career as a funeral celebrant I befriended the man who started the profession in 1972, a man called Dally Messenger III. He described the person who leads a funeral as:

an artist,

a storyteller,

a creative writer.

The facilitator,

the advisor,

the resource person,

the producer,

the creative assistant,

the orchestrator.

His guidance to those who conduct civil funerals was simple.

Firstly, a celebrant has to aim for best practice and the highest standards.  Always seek to be a better speaker, writer and communicator.  Quality only comes from conviction, and conviction only comes from knowledge.  Knowledge is the distilled discoveries of faith and understanding.

Secondly, celebrants are appointed primarily to bring dignity and happiness into the lives of the unchurched and those outside the church walls.  People’s needs and wants need to be responded to and that includes their spiritual needs.

Thirdly, civil ceremonies are spiritual ceremonies.  Just because the church features less in people’s lives does not mean that people don’t have a sense of community and belonging within their lives.  Civil funerals are simply responding to people’s request for their spirituality to be celebrated and their values and beliefs to be accepted.

Fourthly, the civil celebrant is called to have a compassionate heart and put the family’s needs within the words that are spoken.

At a funeral it is right to weep.  Jesus wept.  But it is right to re-frame the human words we speak at a funeral so that they heal and lead people to a deeper faith in the cross.

It is an honour and a privilege to lead funeral ceremonies.  I hope you feel that the next time you attend a funeral service of someone you love.

Neil Dorward was a Catholic Priest in the Diocese of Dunkeld for 11 years.  He wrote the first book in the UK on the subject of civil funerals called The Guide to a Dead Brilliant Funeral Speech.  He has just finished writing a book on the spiritual life for those on the edges of church which will be published in December.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.