Thursday 25 April 2013

The 'Hit and Miss' of Funeral Ministry

What I am about to describe is common but by no means universal, and before I do write, would like to comment that as a priest, I am considerably blessed by the reciprocal and open relationships I share with many of the Funeral Directors with whom I work.

The simple fact is that I have done lots of funerals services and value its ministry considerably (as do the families I have served). It has also given me a significant insight to the world of Funeral Directors and pressures that they face in meeting the acute needs of their clients. 

In an ideal world, a client would seek out a FD, and as part of the transaction of arranging the funeral, may disclose a need in faith. That is, more often than not, a denominational identity ("mum is/we are Catholics/CofE/Methodist, and so on). Once known, the understanding is that the FD would contact the nearest minister of that denomination within whose pastoral boundaries the deceased lived and commission their services to lead the funeral. That means that if mum was a Catholic she will be given her send-off by the RC priest in the area; by the local Vicar is she was Church of England (also the default if their faith is known but not the denomination); or by a anti-faith activist if mum claimed humanism among her character traits. 

I have sympathy for the FDs here. Before them sits a grieving family and they are keen to meet their needs for their sake and indeed for the sake of the business for whom they work. They may fail to reach the Catholic priest or the local Vicar in the moment that they sit with the family, so what do they do? Do they wait? Do they inconvenience the family by delaying a service date for their dear departed mum?

Very often, and for quite understandable reasons, they ring the friendly ash-cash collar-for-hire who is their pet minister and often has no "parish" so is easily and immediately contactable. The date is booked, their pet minister will look after the the family, job done. 

If your job is within the realm of "getting the job done" by the tick-list - then this would be fine. Then imagine that dear departed mum was the pillar of local parish church. In that situation, often the family will know and will be specific about the priest, not the denomination, and the job is arranged. More and more often though, people's faith habits become eclipsed and so they may know that mum was a CofE person but not a lot more. The FD tries to ring the Vicar who is, for sake of argument, running his parish and not able to take the call at that moment, and so it is that the ash-cash-collar is commissioned, the date booked and everyone is happy. Mum gets a 'vicar' of some sort, the family leave happy. 

Except that the ash-cash-collar is a, for sake of illustration, a Methodist or other. You may imagine that it makes no difference, but to a lifelong Anglican who had a chance throughout their life to change denomination, it does make a difference. A big difference. The service is done, it's nice, boxes are ticked. But there may be another factor. In many cases, the deceased wasn't a current congregant often through infirmity and may have moved into a care-home many years before the present Vicar arrived. The direct connection can be, and often is, fractured so that the death itself isn't known at parish level. 

What happens to the rightful pastoral needs of the family in this instance? Where is the follow-up? The amount of times I have visited the Crem to see a Church of England person being given their once-only send-off by, for example, a Methodist minister - you'd be astounded. And I doubt that the pastoral needs of the family are met because to ash-cash-collars, this is big business (a figure of 40k per annum was mentioned in a chat I had with someone yesterday). The funeral is not the end of the process - it is often the beginning. The follow-up is of the highest importance and is quite often therefore non-existent for a significant number of families who took the minister who answered their mobile first. As I have sympathies for the FD who have a job to do, so I have greater sympathy for a family whose mother simply got the wrong funeral, perhaps in a theological language that they would never have understood or subscribed to, in the presence of a man or woman who wouldn't have ministered to them in the first place. 

I can't pretend to know what the answer is, but it is a big issue certainly in the minds of many Anglicans (whose opinions I hear most) who have simply given up trying to minister to their dispersed flock because they barely get a look in through the friendly arrangements put in place before they themselves moved into the parish. 

I sat with all the Christians ministers in my area yesterday for lunch. I mentioned a name to them of a chap who does much in the town in this ministry - and not one of us knew his name or who he was, including the person who shared his denomination. She hasn't done many funerals at all - and now I think she knows why. I doubt, too, that those who claim her denomination in the area are immortal, either. 


  1. To my athiest friends (who are not humanists), I ought to say that the civic registrar around here is great. I have seen what she does and it is very good. The Humanist person that I saw, however, used Jewish Blessings, the Lord's Prayer and one other thing - not good. (She cited the former as a nice poem)

  2. Why can't each area/diocese in the Church of England have funeral chaplains on a stipend (in the same way we have hospital chaplains), they could also ban the friendly ash-cash collar-for-hire. The other denominations could also have a similar set up, perhaps everyone needs to get together and discuss these issues.

  3. I think that Funeral Directors have a moral responsibility in this. Using an available 'Funeral Minister' to meet the needs of a family is intrinsically wrong. They shoudln''t make promises about times and dates of funerals until they've secured the correct minister of whatever denomination (or none) for the deceased.

    It comes down the commercial interests of the FD, whose priority is profit not people, although most do provide an compassionate service to the families, their ulterior motivation is to get the business.

    When my Uncle died a couple of years ago, he was born and raised Catholic and remained a Catholic, although Not practicing for a long time, in fact since his experiences as a POW in WW2 seemed to convince him that he didn't deserve God's Mercy. I had a conversation about this a year or so before he died and he was still a believer in God and I'm sure would have wanted a Christian funeral.

    However, his children thought different and arranged a humanist funeral as they said that while their Dad had been a Catholic, they'd never known him to go to Church. The funeral was awful, insipid and full of platitudes, such as "Danny is now up in the sky - that new star and is walking his favourite pet Dog" and more of the same. It upset his life partner (they weren't married) who is an Anglican who had wanted a Christian funeral for him, but her wishes were ignored.

    Such was the atomosphere after the funeral, that we went to separate Wakes because, she couldn't bear to be with his children after that event. They even scattered is ashes without telling her. Later on, she was able to visit his ashes and say a prayer for him.

    I was able to arrange a private memorial service in my own parish for him, which gave us some closure, but didn't take away the sadness of his funeral.

    Another Saint gone to meet his maker without the proper Christian rites that he would have wanted and should have had.

    1. The right funeral home can help create the preparing of the funeral and cremation as simple as possible. In some circumstances they will take over all arrangements and cope with many factors of the day that you do not want to cope with.

  4. In this deanery we have just produced a booklet from all the (Anglican) churches giving parish priests' contact details, days off, alternative contacts, maps of parish boundaries, details of fees etc etc. This has been much appreciated by FDs in the area.

    Although it doesn't entirely solve the problem of people saying "must book date and time right now" it has made an appreciable difference. The booklet also had a little introduction explaining some of the reasons why the Vicar might not be contactable right away (being out & about in the parish, not having admin support, having time off even in other people's office hours) and also the reasons why we thought we parish clergy thought we provided a better service (better pastoral support and follow-up, essentially). There are one or two FDs who don't care about the level of service (for whom it's all about throughput) but most reacted well to that.

  5. One of the best ways to make sure you're the first port of call for the local FD is to do a good job with those that come your way. Word of mouth is a big part of getting the connections, a little extra time in preparation and listening to families can make an enormous difference, but be warned, you may end up with more than you bargained for!

  6. Sui - email or send a copy, please. That would be a great help, and i think I might open it up to Churches Together. We talked about this within that circle yesterday, and it caused similar consternation for the others too, and for same reasons.

    1. David
      If Sui Juris is willing to share the booklet. Please can you put in a good word for me? I'd really like a copy (electronic if possible) as an example of good practice for the thousands of rural churches of all denominations that we resource through the Arthur Rank Centre.
      Email is
      Many thanks, Simon Martin

  7. Mark - agree, completely! Thanks for commenting

  8. Useful post, thanks. I've done some funerals for people living in our local dementia care home, and that can be particularly difficult. Often they've lived here for some years, and so their "home" church has changed out of recognition, and clergy have moved on. I always ask the families if they have contacted the home church, and this has occasionally resulted in some collaborative efforts which have been appreciated by all concerned (especially me!). It's good to be able to involve others where willingness exists - and a little flexibility and common sense can go a long way.

  9. Thanks - one or two observations.

    First whilst many/most undertakers trade under the traditional name of their firm, many (most?) are part of large sometimes multi national corporations with all the pressures from corporate head office to maximise efficiency ( = tick boxes) that brings. It's not just the pressure of dealing with grieving families. I'm enormously fortunate. The undertakers I deal with most is still an independent. I guess that Tenbury just isn't big enough for one of the big firms to move in on.

    Second we clergy can be awkward and if we get a name with the undertakers as being awkward they're likely to work with and ash cash collar. One of the (few) things I remember from theological college - many years ago - was being told that if you are ever asked if you can do a funeral the answer is always "yes". You may then need to find someone you trust who can take it, but the starting point is "yes". To say "no" leads to some of the garbage being said at funerals described above. Or worse, it communicates to a family that they are not important enough for the Church and/or God to be interested in them.

    Third, we're not always good at letting undertakers know how to find us. Recent phone call from an undertaker (not local) about a funeral in one of "my" seven churches. They'd got my contact by phoning the diocesan office. They hadn't heard of the "A Church Near You" website.

    Fourth, taking funerals (or any of the occasional offices) is always (even after nearly 30 years ordained) a privileged. Why at an incredibly significant time in a family's story they should want someone - often a (comparative) stranger - to play a key role continues to amaze me.



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