Funerals are a time of mixed emotions. You will want to say goodbye to your loved one, spend time grieving, and celebrate their life, but there can also be a rush to get things organised in the days immediately following a death. We'd never plan a wedding or a birth like this, so why should it be different for funerals?
Planning an event is usually an enjoyable process because you often have something to look forward to at the end of it. Planning your funeral might then seem slightly odd or surreal, but in some ways it also means that you are still able to participate in it.
No matter what your age or health, it is hard to think about your own death. If you have been diagnosed with a terminal illness, then your funeral will probably seem a lot closer, but this doesn’t necessarily make it any easier.
Music, readings and prayers usually form a big part of the funeral service. If you have specific ideas about your choices, it might be a good idea to keep a note of them and to tell a close relative or friend where they can find this document. Thinking about your favourite hymns or songs might also be a way of easing the process of funeral planning.
Before she died in April 2016, Sister Anne Donockley, a nun who lived in Cumbria, chose the readings and hymns for her funeral.
She said: “I actually enjoyed doing that in a strange sort of way, it was a thing to bring myself in line with the whole thought of death, that I’m not immortal. That what I have comes from God and one day it’ll go back to God, and it was really within the context of that.”
It will, of course, not always be possible to plan a funeral in advance, if, for example, someone dies unexpectedly. If this is something that worries you, there’s nothing to stop you from starting to plan at any time of your life.
You can start just by thinking about the form you’d like the funeral to take. This could include things like whether you’d like a religious service, and whether you’d like to be buried or cremated. It might be helpful to talk to those around you – be it friends, family, a chaplain, or a funeral director – to get some advice on the options available.
Adrian Forsey, a funeral director from Glastonbury, Somerset, says: “I think it’s very beneficial for people to discuss things and find out more. Nowadays, crematoria hold open days for people to go and see behind the scenes, so that their worries and questions can be answered.
“It can also be beneficial to talk with your family, which can be very comforting all round. On more practical elements, you can make an appointment to go and see your local funeral director who can give you some guidance. Visiting your priest or vicar can also help to give you peace from a spiritual respect.”
The Catholic funeral is one of the ways in which you can offer worship, praise and thanksgiving to God for the gift of a life that has now been returned to him. This celebration also brings hope and consolation to the living.
In its fullest form a Catholic funeral has three stages:
Some people will want all three stages, others may choose a single funeral service at the cemetery or crematorium. Talking to your parish priest or chaplain will be a good way to receive some guidance on what is right for you or your loved one, including thinking about specific prayers, readings and music, that you may want to include.
The prayer vigil is customary in some parts of the UK, especially when a large number of mourners are expected. It is usually held on the eve of the funeral and is a prayerful and peaceful way to begin the funeral celebrations of a loved one. It can be especially useful if there are people who cannot attend the funeral because of work commitments but are able to get to the vigil.
The vigil may be held in the home of the deceased person, in a funeral home or in the church. There can be prayers, readings, and hymns, or you may prefer a quieter, reflective atmosphere.
The funeral is the community’s main celebration and prayer for the deceased person. It may take two forms: a funeral Mass, also known as a Requiem Mass, or a funeral liturgy.
A funeral Mass is celebrated by a priest and includes Holy Communion. The Church encourages a funeral Mass because it celebrates Christ’s death and resurrection.
The committal is the final act of saying farewell. It is a brief service at the graveside or at the crematorium.
If you are planning your own funeral, or that of a loved one, it is crucial to talk with others who will be affected and, for a Catholic funeral, also with a priest. Planning the funeral together may also help to bring about a sense of acceptance and hope to all concerned.
It may be a good idea to include a ‘get out clause’ in your funeral plan. This will ease your family’s concerns if it is not possible to follow your wishes exactly. Martin Foster says:
“It’s better to give your family a bit of leeway. For example, you may request a hymn that includes the Alleluia to be sung at your funeral Mass but if you die during Lent, the Alleluia is not recited. A get out clause can be a relief for your loved ones.”
In the Catholic Church, the date of a martyr’s death is known as the dies natalis – Latin for ‘birthday’. On the Feast of St Stephen (26 December), Pope John Paul II said the death of a martyr is a birth in heaven and explained why it was meaningful to celebrate the first martyr the day after Christmas:
“Jesus who was born in Bethlehem gave his life for us so that we too, reborn ‘from on high’ through faith and Baptism, might be willing to give up our own lives for love of our brothers and sisters.”
St John Paul II speaking at the Angelus on 26 December, 2003.