Religious or secular funeral services

Celebrant Trevor Donnelly

Five minute read

In the UK, the number of people choosing Christian funerals has declined by 50% over the last 20 years. Funeral celebrant, counsellor and former Church of England vicar, Trevor Donnelly, has witnessed this change from the inside. We spoke to him about leading religious and secular funerals and those which combine elements of both.

“When I started, the default for funerals was a Church of England service, but now it seems that there is a secular celebrant default,” reflects Trevor.

“When I was a vicar, I used to be seen by funeral directors as the ‘safe’ vicar, who wouldn’t be too religious. Now it’s flipped. I’m seen as the celebrant who will do a little bit of religion!

Having led both types of ceremony, what do you see as the main differences between religious and secular funerals?

“In the Church of England, you have to use the set funeral liturgy [order and content of service]. The liturgy has rules, for example you must have one reading from the Bible.

“A Church of England funeral service starts with the words, ‘We meet in the name of Jesus Christ’. I always felt uncomfortable with that — we should be meeting in the name of the person we’re saying goodbye to. I always used to do hybrid services anyway, and I don’t use the liturgy now as a celebrant.

“You can also be treated differently as a member of the clergy. Families tended to assume I was in charge. But, as both as a vicar and as a celebrant, I’ve always said to the family that they are in charge.

“Although, as a celebrant, it’s easier to be collaborative. Even now as a celebrant, I’m regularly asked what church I belong to. Even when the service is totally non-religious or just includes the Lord’s prayer. People are surprised when I say I don’t.”

“Everything about the funerals I lead focuses on the life of the person. I find out as much as possible. I have a really deep conversation about what the person was like. That’s where it starts and where it finishes. I let the service take shape after that.

“A non-religious service can have the same shape as a religious service, that’s the default setting I use, but now I can throw it all out and start from scratch.”

Are there aspects of your approach that are the same when planning a Church of England funeral service, a secular one, or a funeral with some religious elements?

“I do think there needs to be a moment in the funeral ceremony where sadness is allowed. It’s really important, that’s the counsellor in me coming out. There can be laughter, but there also needs to be a moment to be sad.

“I say to families that they don’t have to have the committal as part of the service, but people always want it, even in quite a celebratory service. For me, this is the moment to acknowledge sadness.

“There are echoes here of the religious service, I sometimes use the familiar ‘ashes to ashes’ words, although taken out of a religious context — it’s often the bit that everyone is waiting to hear!”

Although Christian funerals are declining, why do you think many people still choose them or choose to include religious elements in a celebrant-led funeral?

“More people have religious funeral services than go to church during their lives. It never ceases to amaze me how many people want to include the Lord’s prayer in a funeral service. I think that, at an extreme point of life, we can fall back on familiar, ancient wisdom.

“I tend to use lots of poetry in my services for the same reason — these are old words from people who have wrestled with these things in the past, they can be helpful.

“At the committal, I often use the familiar words from [the Biblical book of] Ecclesiastes - ‘A time to weep and a time to laugh; A time to mourn and a time to dance’ - but without saying it’s from the Bible.

Is there anything that you miss or find challenging now that you do not use the Church of England funeral liturgy?

“The only time I miss the liturgy and the religion is when doing babies’ funerals. It feels hard, there’s so little we can offer. That’s when I’m tempted to go into the mysticism, the idea of a flower that buds on earth, blooms in heaven. The liturgy is easier as well because there is so little life story to tell.

“I have also done a couple of funerals for people who have had dementia and have no remaining family. I still give these my absolute attention and time, but it’s hard when you know so little of their lives.”

What do you find most rewarding about your role as a celebrant?

“I love using quotes from the person who has died in the funeral service. I once did a funeral for Poppy’s of a psychotherapist. I used their words about the privilege of being a psychotherapist because they lived a thousand lives through the people they supported. This really stuck with me.

“It’s how I feel as a celebrant — hearing people’s life stories, making sense of them, expressing them, and shaping them into a story.

“There are not many jobs where you can say you’ve helped someone through one of the most difficult points of their life. This is one of the reasons I chose to carry on doing funerals once I left the clergy. I can’t give it up now to be a full-time counsellor, it’s too rewarding!

Every celebrant brings different skills, experiences and approach to leading a funeral ceremony. At Poppy’s, we know all our celebrants personally and always try to find you the right match. Read more about how to choose a funeral celebrant.

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