How To Officiate A Funeral Ceremony
Welcome to our guides on how to act as an officiant at a funeral ceremony. See also Example Ceremony - Semi-Religious Cremation Service, Eulogy Examples, and Advance Funeral Wishes also Resources - Officiant Phrases and Resources - Eulogy Phrases.
The expression and sharing of grief are most generally thought of as an essential part of recovery after the death of someone close. But, it can be both distasteful and distressing for those present if a religious service is carried out for someone who had no religious belief. Up until fairly recently, that is to say the last 15 years or so, it was extremely rare to find anyone other than a church minister officiating a funeral service.
The humanists challenged the church's assumed exclusive rights to the dead when they started to train some of their members as celebrants. This offered an alternative non-religious funeral service for anyone who requested it.
A recent increasingly popular and preferred alternative to a humanist service is a civil service. This is also a non-religious ceremony and completely neutral in its delivery.
Humanist officiants, though whilst providing a valid and meaningful non-religious funeral ceremony do tend to endorse their humanism in certain phrases that are used as part of the ceremony. For most people this is not a problem. It's hardly noticeable anyway because it blends in with the humanist theme of the ceremony.
Most, if not all, humanist officiants are not very flexible in their approach when it comes to religious content during the ceremony. For instance if some members of your family or perhaps some of the congregation have a strong religious faith and it is your thought that the deceased may have wished to have acknowledged that faith by the saying of a prayer or the reading of a short extract from the bible, then that would not normally be allowed. Instead you would be offered the opportunity to do it silently and privately during the quite time of remembrance. Again, most people are happy to go along with this arrangement even though it's not quite what they would have liked.
There are a few ministers (usually retired) who are more than happy to perform a more low key religious service. This means focusing less on the religious aspect of the service and more on the eulogy and tribute to the deceased. Often many religious references are dropped in favour of poetry and prose. If this type of ceremony appeals to you, then your funeral director will know if there is a local accommodating minister.
Civil ceremonies are an excellent way of obtaining a personalised non-religious or semi-religious funeral ceremony and is an option well worth exploring. Unfortunately though not all areas have civil celebrants. However, ask your funeral director because if that is the case it may be possible to get a civil celebrant from a different area to come in for you.
So now these days when arranging a funeral you will be specifically asked by the arranger if you would prefer a church minister, a humanist officiant, or a civil celebrant. In other words do you want a religious service, a non-religious humanist or non-religious, semi-religious civil ceremony. All three have there own rightful place and role to play in their services for the dead and the bereaved, they are by no means the only choices but they are the most popular.
Of course one of the other options available to you is to take on the responsible and honourable role of celebrant yourself. If the deceased was a family member or personal friend then what better tribute could you afford them than to officiate at their funeral ceremony, thus providing the appreciative mourners with the ultimate personal touch.
Because each person or family's circumstances are different and individual to themselves it would be impossible to provide an all purpose reference to suit every occasion. However, we have provided several different example scenarios and scripts to work from. These can be tailored to suit your own particular situation and the needs of the people involved.
The information provided here is designed to help show you how to officiate a funeral ceremony. We assume the funeral has been arranged through a funeral director and that the ceremony will be either non religious or semi religious in content. In addition we have also assumed that you will be officiating the whole ceremony. If you are only playing a part in the proceedings then it would probably be useful for the other participants to also read this in order. This will ensure that you all work in haemony to ensure everything goes as smoothly as possible on the day. Logistics, timing and co-ordination are so important and you will only have the one chance to get it right.
How to officiate
The example scenarios and scripts here include:
A non-religious cremation, ceremony at the crematorium
A semi-religious gathering (local pub, but could be anywhere), followed by cemetery burial
A non-religious woodland burial, ceremony at the graveside
A non-religious cremation (committal only), at the crematorium
As officiant one of your tasks (if their are no other volunteers) is to write the eulogy / tribute for the deceased. Our advice is to start that as soon as possible. The following checklist is a useful guide.
Keep a pencil and notebook handy as you will find little things popping into your mind constantly. It might be a question you need to ask or something you need to clarify with the family or funeral director, or perhaps something about the deceased that you can use in your eulogy speech.
You need to talk to the family involved; in particular you need to talk to those family members who are arranging the funeral.
The questions you should ask include:
What form will the service take; will it be semi-religious or strictly non-religious?
Should the service be a formal affair which will follow all traditional rituals or will the approach be somewhat relaxed with a more casual feel? (You will be able to adjust your role and the type of texts to use by drawing on the scripts and other resources we have provided here for you).
Due to your relationship with the deceased you may already know quite a bit about them. However, in order for you to deliver a befitting true to memory and sincere eulogy speech / tribute you need to glean as much information about the deceased as you can. This usually means sitting down with the family and talking about the deceased. Remember to make notes of anything relevant that you might be able to use.
Be sensitive to their situation, ask questions such as: Where and when was he/she born - any brothers and sisters - parents names and occupations - childhood memories and or ambitions - school history - achievements and qualifications - work history - children - grandchildren - endearing attributes - less endearing attributes - what were the highlights of his or her life - personality traits - hobbies - holiday's - favourite pastime - what made them laugh and what made them cry. Such questions should really get the family talking.
Also be in tune to off the cuff remarks and anecdotal memories. Make a special note of any anecdotes or stories that are meaningful to you. Also ask, what do you think the deceased would have liked to have been most remembered for. Also don't forget to make a note of what you remember them most for.
In particular look out for recollections that bring a smile or a laugh. If the conversation lulls and you feel you need more input, then go back over your notes. Start the conversation again by referring to something previously mentioned. Perhaps ask them to elaborate on something particular that you think might be useful. You can also ask if there is anything that they would like specifically mentioned, if there is then do make sure it is mentioned in the right context.
Reading through some of the eulogies and scripts here should give you a good idea of the type of questions to ask. Also how long the eulogy should be and how it is structured. At the basic level it's a birth to death potted history with personal attributes fitted in. Ensure that the deceased is be recognisable to the mourners from your tribute. If you are really in tune to the task you will be amazed to find how it will all somehow naturally fit together.
What music, (if any), has been chosen and at what point in the ceremony should it be played?
Just for now we will use a cremation service as an example and we will assume that the chosen music is from the crematorium's standard list of stock music. You are free to use all, some, or none of the following suggestions. Generally speaking there is time for three pieces of music or two pieces of music and a hymn or live recital.
The first piece of music, called the entry music is played as the coffin and mourners enter the chapel. Once the coffin has been placed on the catafalque and the mourners are seated this music is faded out and the service proceeds.
Alternatively if you have the time, the music could continue playing until such a time as the officiant feels is appropriate and signals for the music to be faded out.
The second piece of music which is often referred to as the tribute music is usually played after the quiet period of reflection and remembrance. If it follows immediately after the quiet period without an introduction then it's a good idea to have it gently fade up to volume.
The third and final piece is called the exit music. This is played in the last and final part of the service. Often at this time a piece of music is chosen that is considered to be a bit more lively and uplifting. This should be a longer piece as it will need to play for a couple of minutes whilst everyone is still seated and continue playing as you lead the family out and everyone else follows.
- Do the family intend to have an order of service sheet/booklet? If the answer is yes, then as someone with little or no experience this unfortunately puts extra pressure on you to come up with the order of service fast as it will need to be designed and printed. This means that whatever course you set for the proceedings to take you are pretty much committed to stick to it.
The only suggestion we can offer you in this case is to use a printing company that guarantees same day or fast turn around printing. This will a least take the pressure off and allow you to properly prepare the order of service without being too rushed.
Go and introduce yourself to the funeral director. He or she is a professional and will not only be able to give you a few tips but may offer some valuable advice.
More thorough and detailed information regarding the specifics of officiating will appear with the relevant scenarios and scripts, in them we will show you exactly how to act as officiant right from the moment you arrive at the funeral venue to the moment you leave.
At specific points we will talk about your options on how you could proceed from that point on, and using our experience we will explain any pitfalls to watch out for.