10 steps to organising a funeral when your loved one left no instructions

Organizing a Funeral

1. Choose a Funeral Director or do it yourself

There are so many Funeral Directors out there these days that finding the right one can seem daunting. Try and get some recommendations from friends and family, word of mouth is often the strongest marketing tool.

With ready online reviews available, a quick search will also show some local firms who have gone above and beyond for other families. If in doubt, ask a few different companies for a quote, it is likely you will click with one of them from the off.

If you would prefer to care for your loved one yourself, this is perfectly legal and manageable if you have the right help and advice. Some really helpful and frank information can be found on the Good Funeral Guide website.

2. Religious or non- religious ceremony?

If your loved one had a strong faith, then it is likely you will feel it is appropriate to arrange a religious service, led by a faith leader from their chosen religion. If on the other hand they had no particular religious belief or they weren’t a regular church-goer, then a humanist or non-religious ceremony may feel more fitting. Non-religious funeral ceremonies are personalised by all Celebrants to ensure they sensitively and fittingly reflect the character and the life of the person who has died – and there are several different kinds of Celebrants for families choose from.

If a funeral director has been appointed to care for the deceased then they are very likely to be able to suggest the right kind of Celebrant, based on the family’s preference for religious content or not.

A family may however, wish to find their own Celebrant using an online search, a directory or personal recommendation. Whether it’s a Celebrant offered by a funeral director or one selected by the family, this might be a Civil or Independent Celebrant (who creates and leads either completely non-religious ceremonies, or, if some religious content is wanted, most are comfortable providing ceremonies in which acts of worship are included, such as prayers and hymns).

If a non-religious funeral is wanted, there is also the option of using a Humanist Celebrant. A Humanist celebrant is a person who has no religious belief themselves and who, just like an Independent/Civil Celebrant, will create and lead a very personalised, non-religious ceremony, with no act of worship included.

Humanist Celebrants will however, ensure the ceremonies that they lead are all-inclusive and respectful towards those in attendance who do have a faith (just as Independent/Civil Celebrants will do) – and if a family wishes to include something which does have some religious content, for example a hymn or a reading, incorporated for any reason other than as an act of worship e.g. the deceased person always enjoyed listening to it or singing it at school or at Christmas – or perhaps it was said or sung at their wedding or at a loved-one’s funeral, and it has sentimental value – then a Humanist Celebrant will be able to include this.

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3. Burial or Cremation?

If using a Funeral Director, they will give you the relevant options and prices that accompany them as well as help with coffin choices. Burial is usually more expensive than a cremation. Normally, a cremation will be preceded by a funeral ceremony in the crematorium’s service hall or a church (prices vary).

No fuss direct cremations are becoming more and more popular, for the example the celebration of David Bowie has set the trend. This is also a good option if you are struggling to pay for the funeral costs. A separate ceremony can sometimes be held before hand at the Funeral Directors office or a venue of your choice.

To be buried in a church graveyard, a ceremony in the adjoining church would be usual. The Funeral Director can help you with the particulars and the ceremony would be organised by the minister in charge. If you are not using a Funeral Director your local minister can explain the process to you. It is worth noting that the current minister has absolute authority and their permission is needed if you wish for someone else to officiate.

Your loved one can also be buried in a public cemetery. Very often, there are ‘chapels’ onsite where a religious or non- religious ceremony can be carried out prior to the burial itself, or services can be conducted by the graveside.

It is possible to bury your loved one on privately owned land such as in your garden. The law is contained in the Burial Laws Amendment Act 1880. This needs careful consideration for number of reasons. (Not least because in the case of a new owner of the property, they are within their rights to apply to exhume the deceased) The death must be registered, and the policy of Local Authorities varies, so check with them for further details.

There has been an increase in recent years of families choosing a natural or woodland burial. There are dedicated areas, more and more each year, where the focus is on promoting the wellbeing of the trees, plants and wildlife as well as providing a peaceful burial site. They have strict rules on materials that can be used for the coffin or shroud and usually only allow a simple wooden marker for the site of the grave. Don’t worry, you won’t lose the burial plot as there will be detailed records kept and some are also marked with a microchip.

Eco coffins are now widely available, varying in price and material, if you really want to be as green as possible you could research a ‘Leafcocoon’!

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4. Choose the day and time

You may want to consider what might be a good day for travelling mourners – Fridays and Mondays are particularly popular with families who have relatives all over the country, but at busy times you may need to compromise, especially at crematoriums. Also, be aware of the allotted time at each venue.

Whilst churches and natural burial sites can usually offer longer ceremony slots, it is worth remembering that times at crematoriums can vary. Some do have services up to 90 minutes as standard, although these are very rare. Some are as short as 30 minutes, meaning that in fact the ceremony itself can only be 20 minutes long as the staff will need time to rearrange the service hall between ceremonies.

With a shorter time slot as standard, you might want to consider booking a double slot if you know there will be lots of readings or musical tributes in the ceremony. There is nothing worse than feeling rushed for time when trying to cope with the funeral of someone close to you, a double slot is certainly worth the extra money.

5. Choose transport

Although most transport for the coffin will be via a hearse, there are lots of options that you might want to consider. I have seen horse drawn carriages, tractors, milk floats and estate cars amongst other vehicles. The variations available can be a way of really personalising your loved one’s last journey.

You may wish to travel behind the hearse to the funeral venue, in which case, the Funeral Director can provide one or more limousines for this purpose, however, this is an extra cost. Even close family often choose to make their own way to the ceremony.

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6. Music

Music choices either seem to come easily or be incredibly difficult. If your loved one was a music fan and you know all the pieces they loved, then this should be quite straight forward after discussions with your family and friends.

Three pieces is usual for a ceremony lasting around 20 minutes, one to enter to, one to leave to and one for reflection in the middle of the ceremony. You may also wish to include a hymn. Longer slots lend themselves to a greater number of musical tributes if necessary. There is also the option of having live music, be that a singer, an instrumentalist or a whole band.

If you are struggling to think of any music or your loved one wasn’t really a fan of any genre in particular, your Celebrant or Minister will be able to advise you and there are many ideas online.

For some helpful options please see this on MusicChoices for your Loved Ones Funeral.

7. Do you need an Order of Service?

This is the A5 booklet containing photos of your loved one, readings that will be included and the running order of the ceremony. These can be a lovely memento for guests to take away but are by no means essential.

You may wish to produce these yourself or have a capable family member or friend do it for you, but the Funeral Director will provide this service for a fee. The Celebrant or Minister will help with these and the Funeral Director should send you a draft for you to approve.

If you are having hymns included in the ceremony then it is a good idea to have an order of service. There are usually hymnbooks provided but I find they can be confusing for some mourners and would always recommend printing the hymn words out separately for people if you are not having an order of service booklet.

8. Who will give the eulogy or read a poem?

There are often friends or family members who wish to read a tribute at the ceremony, be that the full eulogy (the story of someone’s life), some personal memories or a reading. Ask family and friends if they would like the opportunity to speak if you are comfortable for this to happen. If the tributes are shared with the Celebrant or Minister prior to the ceremony then they can take over the reading if the speaker becomes too overwhelmed to continue.

If there are more people wishing to share their memories than you are comfortable with or there is time for, you could suggest that they give their speech at the gathering after the ceremony.

Very understandably, sometimes no one from the family or friend circle feels able to write and deliver a tribute, and in this case your Minister or Celebrant should step in and do this for you. There are many Celebrants out there who are brilliant at writing these on behalf of the family and this can take the pressure off those who are grieving. The content of this is usually approved you, but if this is not standard from your Celebrant then do ask to see the tribute so you can check it through.

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9. Flowers or donations?

If your loved one was a keen gardener or loved flowers then you might wish to have lots of floral tributes from your guests. If you don’t know any local florists then your Funeral Director will be able to help you, they are usually linked to one or more. Often, there will be family flowers only and donations can be made to a charity if desired.

You might set up an online donation page or just wish to leave a contribution to a good cause in memory of your loved one. You will know if there was a charity close to their hearts, or can leave money to research care developments if their death was caused by a certain illness.

Donations can be made direct or you can ask your Funeral Director to deal with everything for you. If you are having an order of service, the details will be printed on the back along with any information about the gathering after the ceremony.

10. Arrangements for the gathering after the ceremony

There is no requirement at all to hold a gathering or ‘wake’. You may wish for only the immediate family to meet together afterwards.

Many families choose to hold a gathering so memories can be shared and people can unite. Lots of pubs and restaurants will be used to catering for wakes and will have packages to offer you.

Some people choose to provide food and drinks for guests, but again, this is certainly not expected. Don’t do anything that will leave you out of pocket. It is perfectly acceptable and usual to just meet and if people wish to have a drink or something to eat then they can sort this out themselves.

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The last word…

This is by no means an extensive catalogue of everything to do with a funeral, but it is a start and will offer people a guide on where to begin. Remember that as the person charged with arranging the funeral you have the final say.

Whatever you choose, make sure it is something you and your family are comfortable with to pay tribute to your loved one and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Extended family and friends are often only too pleased to lend a hand, and the funeral professionals you choose are experienced in their field and there to guide and assist you.


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