Funeral officiants – your questions answered

A question we’re asked frequently is regarding who must officiate a funeral service: Abi Pattenden answers your questions here

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Abi Pattenden, Manager of Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors
Abi Pattenden, Manager of Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors

Freeman Brothers has been carrying out funerals in Sussex and Surrey since 1855. As we have been so long established as Funeral Directors, we have a good sense of some of the most common questions people have around funerals. Taking feedback from colleagues in Horsham, Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint as to what we are asked frequently, we have produced a series of blog posts addressing some of these issues.

Today, we will be looking at some of the questions that we are very often asked around someone to officiate at the service- what the options are, how they affect the service itself, and how we choose someone if you ask us to help you in that respect.

The first thing to mention is that, for some, the choice of who they want to take the service is easy. They may have come to this decision in a variety of ways. For anyone practicing an established faith, they may view their Minister, Pastor, or other community leader as the obvious choice. There might be someone in the family or close friendship group who is a Minister or Celebrant themselves, or skilled at public speaking, who is happy to fulfil this role. It is also quite common to have previous experience of an Officiant from a previous funeral. In all of these cases, and if there is any other reason for wanting someone specific to take the service for you, we are happy to accommodate this and will be pleased to contact them to confirm availability. One thing that should be noted is that this is an additional person whose availability must be taken into account when the funeral arrangements are made. We will usually not confirm a booking which has been made provisionally until we have personally confirmed your Officiant’s ability to take the service on that date and time, unless you tell us that them officiating is your preference but your chosen date must take priority and, if they are unavailable, we will move to other options.

If you ask us to find someone to officiate for you, the key factor we will need to know from you is the ‘type’ of person. The main thing which affects this is whether the service is to be a religious one. We are usually able to find a Minister of any faith to take a service. However, it should be noted that within some religions, there is less willingness on the part of a Minister to take a service for someone outside of his or her congregation or who was not regularly practicing. Some religions hold regular worship as one of their main principles, and so may not view someone who was lapsed or sceptical about the religion as being part of it, which may contrast with the family’s or Deceased person’s own thoughts and so can be complicated to navigate.

It should also be borne in mind that many religions have a set funeral service and so it may be that the content of a religious funeral may be less able to be customised. There might be music thought inappropriate, for instance, or some compulsory aspects which can’t be excluded.

If there is a wish to have a non-religious funeral, then there are also options available. There are broadly two types of non-religious officiant, and it’s probably most useful to look at the differences between them.

Humanists are, according to the Humanists UK website, ‘people who believe this life is the only life we have, (and) that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side’. The reference to ‘supernatural’ is about God and religion- Humanists do not believe in any God or in concepts such as Heaven. There are many Humanist officiants and some are more restrictive about the type of content they will be happy to include. For example, some might allow ‘Abide with Me’ to be sung because of its connection to the FA Cup final if the Deceased person’s love of football was central to the service, while others would refuse because of the religious connotations. It should be remembered that Humanism is a belief and, as you would not expect a Rabbi to read an excerpt from the Quran or a Church of England minister to lead the congregation in a Jehovah’s Witness worship song, you should not expect them to be willing to accommodate large amounts of religious content.

The other type of non-religious officiant is known as a Civil Celebrant. Like Humanist celebrants, they are not ordained ministers of any particular faith group, but unlike Humanists, they are not taking the service in the context of their underlying belief system. Most civil celebrants will be happy to include hymns or prayers within the service, but the service itself will be non-religious in tone. Many people find this to be a compromise when they want a service that is not based on religious faith but includes it in part. For example, it is still very common for families to wish to include The Lord’s Prayer within a service, even when the content is otherwise entirely secular.

How we choose an Officiant for you is quite simple. Sometimes there will be rules for us to follow – for example, if you ask for a Church of England Minister to take the service, unless you belong to a different congregation, we will ask the local parish in the first instance.

If it is a Humanist service, or to be led by a Civil Celebrant, unless you have a particular Officiant in mind, as mentioned earlier, it is our responsibility to find someone who we think will suit you, and be able to deliver the service to your requirements. Our staff will skilfully make this assessment in the course of discussing the funeral arrangements, although we may also ask you questions to help us with this. If this sounds mysterious, it isn’t really! When we sit down with a family to discuss a funeral, they are often someone who we will have ever met before and so, although we need to gain the same information from every arrangement, the ways we do this will subtly change as we take our cues from you. For example, some people wish to share plenty of personal information, which leads to a more conversational tone, where others obviously wish to keep discussions on a more formal footing and so we would be more business-like.

In the same way, we will pick up clues from you as to your wishes for the service. Sometimes it will be obvious – you might talk about wanting to celebrate the life of the person who has died, talk about wearing bright colours or fancy dress and tell us you have already chosen upbeat music. It might be far more subtle. But, by the end of the meeting, and perhaps with the help of some questions if we still aren’t sure, we will probably have identified two or three Officiants from those we know, and we would approach them in order of preference. Some Officiants are suitable for virtually any service, some are more serious or more light-hearted and sometimes we just get a feeling about a particular person for you. This sounds tenuous, perhaps, but our client feedback shows we overwhelmingly get it right, with the vast majority of clients thanking us for our choice of Officiant and commenting on their suitability.

If you have any questions about funeral services, please do let us know – we’ll be happy to help.


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Written by Abi Pattenden


November 15, 2019

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