Here is a step-by-step guide to what happens at a Celebrant-led funeral. This is a typical funeral at a crematorium. There will be differences between venues and between burials and cremations but the underlying structures and patterns will be similar. This describes the most common version of the nuts and bolts of the event itself and is based on a cremation. Burials differ in that the committal and closing words happen at the graveside; the funeral party usually moves there after the tribute.
In the lead-up to the funeral
The Celebrant will have been engaged by the Funeral Director and met with the client (usually family but also possibly friends or a solicitor). The service will have been drafted and approved by the client – any alterations will have been made.
The crematorium will have been told about music choices, and whether ashes are to be collected or placed in the garden of remembrance.
On the day
I get to the crematorium early; always a good half an hour before the appointed time, often longer. All slots in the crematorium I do most of my work in are 30 minutes – time for a 20-minute service/ ceremony meaning that I generally arrive as the previous service is starting.
As the Celebrant I use this time to speak to the crematorium staff. We make sure we are all expecting the same funeral director and deceased, I hand over the music cue sheet, and talk through anything particular that will be happening: guests speaking, children laying flowers on the coffin etc.
Whether the family are arriving with the hearse or separately, the guests or other mourners will usually gather 10-15 minutes before the time of the funeral. Everyone waits in the waiting room or outside the crematorium. If the weather in pleasant then watching up the drive for the arrival of the hearse gives mourners an opportunity to mingle and greet each other.
People will often say that they only see each other at funerals. This can be an important time for people. I will then speak to mourners if they seem to want that, otherwise I wait quietly near the entrance.
The hearse arrives
A short distance from the entrance to the crematorium chapel the hearse stops, the Funeral Director gets out and leads the hearse at walking pace for the last stretch.
The Funeral Director is in charge of this part of the ceremony. The hearse pulls up and the pall-bearers open the back door. The crematorium staff check the name plate on the coffin against their records. The FD double checks the music, puts out any orders of service, the collection box if required, any photographs etc.
The entrance music begins and, once everything is ready, the pallbearers take the coffin out of the hearse and lift it onto their shoulders.
Into the chapel
I lead the way in with the Funeral Director, followed by the coffin, the chief mourners and finally, everyone else. The Funeral Director shows everyone to their seats and guests fill up the seats behind and across from the family.
Once the Funeral Director has bowed to the coffin and left and everyone has settled, the entry music is faded. At this point the celebrant takes over – I begin.
The ceremony takes the mourners on a journey along the life of the deceased into their grief and sadness and back out. It structures the mourning process and speaks to the themes that emerged during the meeting with the family before the funeral.
- The ceremony starts with an introduction, and any information about the wake, a collection etc.
- The middle section is largely made up of the eulogy or tribute, guests or family may speak during this phase.
- The committal will often be preceded by a time for quiet reflection with a prayer or poem, music, or silence. The committal itself is the heart of the ceremony – it is the moment that the funeral has led up to.
- After the committal, final words round the event off and closes on a more hopeful note; it gives people a minute or two to collect themselves before they have to leave.
Once the exit music has started I will leave, bowing in front of the coffin on my way out. I generally wait near the exit and say goodbye to family members or speak to any guests that want to say anything. Sometimes a lot of people want to speak to me, sometimes not. I try to be unobtrusive.
The Funeral Director leads the mourners out and then brings the flowers to the terrace and gives any money from the collection to the chief mourner.
Once everyone is out and on the flower terrace I will quietly leave.
For the family, myself and the funeral director, the funeral itself is now over. Family and friends may move onto a pub or hotel for a wake. Inside the crematorium the process of cremation begins. It is worth getting a tour of this and learning the process.
At the crematorium I visited a card with the details of the deceased accompanies the coffin as it moves out of the chapel, into the cremator, into the ash pit, into the cremulator, and into a container for collection or interment in the garden of rest.
For families wishing to collect and keep or scatter ashes – there remains that task but, the day of the funeral – and the ceremony – have enabled the body to be dealt with.