You may find yourself anxious about an upcoming funeral, particularly if you’re giving a reading or if you’ve never attended a funeral service before. Here’s a straightforward guide to the steps of a funeral service, which may help if you’re wondering what to expect at a funeral or you’re trying to work out how to arrange a funeral service yourself.

Defining the typical funeral service

Different faiths have different funeral traditions, of course, so it’s not possible to answer the question ‘what happens at a funeral?’ in a way that applies to everyone. We’re going to aim to describe a typical funeral service, but how do we decide what ‘typical’ means?

In the UK, it’s very common to have a Church of England funeral service, even if the person being remembered wasn’t religious, so that’s the type of funeral service we describe here. If your loved one belonged to a different faith, though, or requested an unusual funeral, the memorial funeral service you attend may look very different.

 

Before the funeral: the funeral procession

Before the funeral, there’s usually a funeral procession. The person who has died is carried by a hearse to the funeral venue, in their coffin. The hearse itself is driven by the funeral director, with friends and family following in cars.

The close family traditionally leads the procession behind the hearse.

 

What happens at a funeral service, point by point

  • At the venue, usually a church or crematorium, the coffin will often be displayed prominently. It’s usual for the person who has died to be in a coffin regardless of whether they’re to be buried or cremated. The lid will usually be on and the person inside will not be visible; open-casket funerals are rare in the UK.
  • Traditionally, the close family sit at the front. If you’re not close family and you haven’t been told of a specific seating order, you can sit anywhere that isn’t in the first couple of rows.
  • You may be given an order of service when you arrive at the venue, or may find one on your seat. This will outline what will happen at the funeral in order, listing the people who will be giving tributes.
  • Someone will introduce and lead the service. Can anyone conduct a funeral service? Yes; you don’t need particular qualifications, so you may choose to lead the funeral for your loved one. However, there’s a lot of pressure and responsibility involved, so the person organising the funeral may book a celebrant or (for religious funerals) a member of the clergy to take this role.
  • During the funeral, friends and family will pay tribute to the person who died. They may talk about their fond memories, sing hymns or read poetry. These tributes are generally arranged in advance, and there may not be an opportunity to speak if you’re not already listed as a speaker. If you’d like to give a speech or reading at the funeral, speak to the person arranging the funeral as early as possible, rather than waiting for the day itself.

 

After the funeral

The cremation or burial will take place after the funeral service.

For a cremation, the coffin will be removed or hidden from view at the end of the service. The coffin may be concealed behind a curtain as the service ends, lowered below the floor, or transported out of the room across rollers. You won’t see the cremation itself.

If the coffin physically leaves the room, it isn’t going straight into the cremator. It can be emotionally difficult for mourners to walk away from the coffin, so the tradition of hiding or removing the coffin at the end of the service exists to remove some of that pressure; the coffin is taken away so the mourners don’t have to feel they’re making the decision to leave it.

For a burial, the hearse will bring the coffin to the burial site, again followed by the friends and family of the person who has died. The pallbearers will carry the coffin to the graveside and lower it into the grave, which will already have been dug. The person leading the funeral may give a short speech.

You may be given the opportunity to throw flowers or a handful of earth into the grave, if you wish. You can leave the graveside when you feel ready. The grave won’t be filled in while the mourners are present.

There will often be a reception after the funeral, where the people who attended gather together to talk and remember the life of the person who has died. A funeral is a structured event and will commonly take about thirty minutes to an hour, but a reception is more of a social gathering. There’s no obligation to stay until the reception winds down completely – as with other social gatherings, people will arrive and leave in their own time – but you may wish to say goodbye and offer good wishes to the family of the person who died before you leave.

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