What’s in a civil funeral?

Social groups have a strong predisposition towards death rituals. Elephants, chimpanzees and magpies all show grieving and funeral rituals. Some Buddhist Tibetans and Mongolians carry out ‘sky burials’, where bodies are left at the top of a mountain to be ravaged by vultures, who then carry the deceased’s soul to heaven. I’m not too familiar with my local council’s bye-laws, but I’m fairly sure they would not allow us to troop up a hillside with a dead body and leave it to be pecked at by passing crows. So I tend to stick to the more usual practice of a service conducted in a crematorium, natural burial ground or woodland, cemetery, memorial chapel etc. As I am a civil funeral celebrant, I don’t lead ceremonies in religious settings such as a church or mosque. 

So what is in a civil funeral? The short answer is ‘whatever you like‘ but that isn’t necessarily very helpful, so I’d like to share some ideas of things to think about if you’d like me to lead a funeral ceremony for you.

The words

I don’t have a funeral script. Each and every funeral that I conduct is written specially. My aim is to produce a personal service, one which reflects the wishes, values and beliefs of your family as well as the deceased’s personality, interests and achievements. I want your family to know that everything I do is to help you have the funeral you want, to make saying goodbye for the last time a meaningful and relevant occasion.

Let’s start with…


music scoreMany funeral services incorporate music, most often a piece of entrance music, to accompany the funeral procession and then another as the mourners leave at the end of the service (‘exit’ music). It’s also common to choose a third piece, to play at the committal, or as the background to a short period of quiet reflection. But if your family doesn’t have a particular love of music, you don’t have to have any at all – or you could include other accompaniments such as birdsong, story tapes for young children,  or the sounds of the sea.

The majority of crematoria have special music systems where the music is pre-programmed in advance of the service – I can help arrange this. However you may also like to include a musical contribution which is played live on the day, by musicians, a soloist or group of singers.

With an endless array of music to choose from, you could opt for classical, jazz or pop music. With or without lyrics, rousing or calming, sombre or joyful. Here is a link to the Co-op’s most popular funeral music. Some of it may surprise you!

If you’d like music you can think along the lines of tunes which have a special relevance to your family – the tape in the car on long journeys, ‘your song’, classical pieces which you play or sing together, melodies from the dance hall or school disco, lullabies or nursery rhymes for babies, film soundtracks, folk music, opera, bagpipes. Songs with explicit lyrics usually have ‘censored versions’ and so they may have their place e.g. at a young person’s funeral.

And what about hymns? Although I don’t lead religious ceremonies, I am happy to include a hymn in a funeral if that is what the family would like. Traditional hymns such as ‘The Lord is my Shepherd‘ and ‘Abide with Me‘ often resonate deeply with families for many reasons other than purely religious ones. You can choose to sing the hymn, or simply listen to it.

For most families, music is an integral part of a funeral ceremony – sometimes the deceased will have talked about what they would like played. But if not and you’d like some help choosing, I’m happy to make suggestions.

“You’re a what?” (or why I do what I do)

It usually goes something a bit like this:

I work in IT. How about you?”

I’m a funeral celebrant.”

A what? You’re celibate?

Well that’s none of your business, but I am a celebrant. I write and deliver funeral ceremonies for people who may not want a standard religious service.”

Oh. That’s a bit weird. Dead people, eurgh. What on Earth made you want to do that?!”

So as I’m sitting here on a Saturday afternoon composing a service for someone who died unexpectedly, I am reflecting again upon why I do this.

Firstly, and most importantly, I genuinely want to help the families I serve. Losing a loved one is utterly devastating: with every single funeral, I do everything possible to ensure that the final farewell is unique and personal. Families don’t always realise how much scope there is within a funeral ceremony, to include music, readings, poetry, tributes, mementos, candles, photographs, flowers – even doves! I know that I can guide people towards choices which truly reflect their loved one’s beliefs, values and interests. Taking pride in my work gives me enormous satisfaction.

Secondly, funeral celebrancy makes good use of my skills. As a writer and lifelong lover of literature, I am able to compose highly personal ceremonies which give a true insight into the person who has died. Although naturally rather quietly spoken, I have a great deal of experience of speaking in public and deliver funerals with clarity and warmth. Empathy comes naturally to me: I love putting people at ease and listening to their stories.

Thirdly, (and this is probably the only slightly weird bit), death interests me. Death is the only certainty in life and as we are all heading in the same direction, I am intrigued by our reactions to death, how death is viewed by society, and the rituals surrounding death, bereavement and grief.

So if you meet me at a party and ask me what I do, please feel free to chat to me about celebrancy. Because, odd as it seems, I really do like talking about funerals!


“A Civil Funeral is a funeral driven by the wishes, beliefs and values of the deceased and their family, not by the beliefs or ideology of the person conducting the funeral.” The Institute of Civil Funerals