Frequently asked questions about celebrant-led funerals

What is a funeral celebrant and other frequently asked questions

What is a celebrant?

A celebrant is a person who performs or takes part in a ceremony.  Celebrants write and deliver birth, marriage, marriage renewal or funeral services.  Many are trained to do all four, but some prefer to focus on one area in particular.  

Why would I have a celebrant rather than a religious leader?

This is a personal decision.  If both yourselves and the one who has died draw / have drawn comfort from practising and following a religion, a service led by an officiant of that faith is probably the most appropriate choice.   If, however, neither yourselves nor the one who has died are / were aligned to a particular faith, you may feel more comfortable with a celebrant-led service.  A traditional religious service places the doctrine at the heart of the ceremony and the words of the service reiterate that set of religious beliefs. A celebrant-led service places the person who has died at the heart of the ceremony, so the words of the service reflect their character and values in a commemoration of their life.

What is the difference between a humanist and independent celebrant?

A humanist celebrant is aligned to a doctrine - the doctrine of humanism.  A humanist service will therefore not usually contain religious elements because this would not be in keeping with humanist beliefs.  An independent celebrant is not aligned to a doctrine. They are not representatives of a belief system and therefore the ceremonies they create can incorporate whatever elements the family or person who has died chooses - be they religious or secular.

How do I commission the services of a celebrant?

In the majority of cases, your funeral director will ask whether you would prefer a service led by a religious leader or a celebrant. If you choose to have a celebrant, they will often provide you with suggestions of celebrants they know and trust. However, if you have a particular celebrant you would like to use, you can ask your funeral director whether this would be possible.

How does a celebrant-led ceremony work?

Once you have decided upon a celebrant, they will arrange to have a meeting with you.  This may either be in person or via zoom, and you are welcome to invite friends or family if you would like them to contribute to the sharing of memories or be involved in the service.  The celebrant will talk through the elements of the ceremony, and will guide you in thinking about reading and music choices.  They will also ask you to tell them about the person who has died so that they can put together a tribute or eulogy.

Following the meeting, the celebrant will work on the running order, readings, music, eulogy if required, and the script, so that everything is ready for you on the day. Some celebrants will share their script with you prior to the service so there are no surprises.  If you feel the ceremonial script could be improved to reflect the person who has died more aptly, you are perfectly entitled to request changes, but it helps if you make those requests sooner rather than later. 

Who delivers the service on the day?

This is completely up to you.  The celebrant can deliver the whole service, or they can ‘top and tail’ the service while the readings and eulogy are delivered by family / friends, or they can stand in reserve ready to step in if someone finds themselves too overcome by emotion to speak.

Who writes and delivers the eulogy and do I have to have one?

Again this is up to you.  The celebrant will happily write the eulogy for you - that is part of the service they are commissioned to provide.  It is then your choice whether you would like the celebrant to deliver the eulogy or whether you would like to read it yourself.  Alternatively, some people prefer to write their tribute themselves.  If you choose to do this, just be careful about the timing - the  celebrant will probably ask you how long your tribute is going to be and you will need to stick to the agreed length as crematoria operate strict time schedules.  For this reason, if you think other people will want to share memories during the service,  it is helpful to give your celebrant advanced warning so this can be factored into the time-plan. 

You do not have to have a eulogy.  Although it is usually regarded as a key element of a celebrant-led ceremony, the intention is to provide a tailor-made service that fits your requirements.  There are alternative ways of celebrating the life of the one who has died: coffins / coffin covers can be commissioned to display photo collages, or memory trees can be placed at the entrance and the assembled mourners can be asked to write a favourite memory on a tag which is then hung on the tree.   The memory tree can then be taken to the wake / gathering following the service so that people can read the memories share their stories there. 

What is the difference between a funeral and a memorial service?

Generally, if the body / remains of the person who has died are present at the service, it is considered a funeral.  If they are not, it is considered a memorial service. There are many reasons why the body may not be present at the time of collected gathering.  In these cases, a memorial service allows people to come together to give thanks for, and pay respect to, the life of the one who has died.

I am uncomfortable about seeing the curtains close or the coffin being lowered – does that have to happen?

Many people find this the most upsetting part of a funeral service because of the sense of finality that accompanies it.  You are perfectly entitled to ask for it not to happen, but leaving the curtains open and the coffin in place will not necessarily avoid the discomfort: if the curtains close, or the coffin is lowered, you are saying goodbye to a body which is leaving you and yes that can be distressing.  However, if you leave the curtains open, when you exit the crematorium, you are saying goodbye to a body you are leaving behind and this can also be upsetting.  There is no ‘right’ way to do it – it’s a personal choice – it’s just helpful to have thought through the alternatives.  It may also be reassuring to know that it is something that is openly acknowledged as being difficult.  Some crematoria therefore offer the option of voile curtains which symbolically separate the coffin from the mourners but make the separation feel less absolute.  

Can the ceremony be any length I want it to?

It depends on where you choose to hold the service.  If the service is to take place at a crematorium, many council-run crematoria offer 35 - 40 minutes slots.  However, this includes setting up for your service and then readying the chapel for the next client after your service, so the actual ceremony time is usually about 25 minutes.  If you feel this isn’t going to be long enough, it can sometimes be possible to book a double chapel slot depending on the demands on the crematorium at that point in time.  It is also worthwhile noting that the privately-run crematoria usually have longer slot times.  Some cemeteries have chapels and, if you want to make use of these, they also have to be booked.  If the service is to take place at the graveside, timing is a little more flexible, but, as everyone is standing in the open elements, outdoor services tend to be quite concise.  If you are holding a memorial service, and have chosen an alternative venue such as a village hall, hotel or private function space, timing can be much more flexible and the ceremony can be arranged to run directly into the wake. 

What are the environmental implications of being cremated or buried?

Neither cremation nor traditional burial are particularly ‘environmentally-friendly’ processes.  If you opt for cremation, an average of 400kg of carbon dioxide is released per body.  Following this, if the ashes are scattered on land or buried, it is a bit of a misconception to think human ashes support the growth of plants: cremains have a high pH and sodium content, so in concentrated quantities they actually make it difficult for plants to absorb the nutrients they require.  A traditional burial has a smaller carbon footprint but, if the body has been embalmed, the embalming fluids contain carcinogens and these can leak into groundwater.  Natural burial sites are the most environmentally friendly option currently available in the UK.  They enable burials to take place in woodlands and  meadows where care is taken to preserve the natural environment.

If the person who has died has requested a direct cremation, is there any way I can honour their wishes but still create an opportunity for friends and family to pay their respects and say goodbye?

A direct cremation is a cremation without a ceremony and usually no mourners in attendance.  However, some companies and crematoria will facilitate an ‘attended direct cremation’ with a small number of people in attendance, but still no ceremony, for an additional fee.  It is quite normal for families who have opted for a direct cremation to hold a separate memorial or celebration of life service on a different date.  This provides family and friends with the opportunity to pay their respects and say goodbye at this point.   

What is the difference between being atheist and agnostic?

Atheists believe there is no God and that death is the end of the line. Agnostics argue that it isn't possible to know whether God exists or not.  An independent celebrant can lead a funeral / memorial service for either.