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Planning a Funeral

A friend or loved one dies. You find yourself in the position of needing to plan the funeral. Here are the steps you'll need to take and the things you'll need to consider in designing a fitting tribute for your loved one.

Before we begin, you may have some additional questions:

What is the difference between a funeral and a memorial service?
What is the committal service?
What about burial at sea, on the beach, in a forest of elsewhere?
What is my funeral likely to cost?

Your first step. Contact a funeral director and your priest or minister.

If the deceased was involved in a local congregation, that's the church to call. It is possible that the minister has been visiting your loved one and may have discussed the funeral. If that's the case, so much the better.

If your friend of loved one did not have a strong church connection, you might try your own minister, or the minister of a close relative of the deceased. Where there is no church connection, your funeral director can assist you in planning the service.

Second, a decision needs to be made as to whether you want a funeral or a memorial service.

A funeral service is normally thought of as one where the body is present in the sanctuary. As a practical matter this means it will take place within a very few days of death. A memorial service is one that takes place after burial or cremation. A memorial service can be held several weeks or even months after death, allowing much more time for planning.

In recent years memorial services are more common than funerals. Part of the reason for this is the complexity involved in bringing people together across great distances on short notice.

If neither you nor the deceased have a membership in a local congregation, you may want to hold the service in a funeral home. Most funeral homes have chapels. Funeral directors, like priests or ministers, will work with you in designing the service.

What should be included in the service?

Whether you are planning a funeral or a memorial service there are several elements that may be included:

    1) readings from the Bible, or other sources,
    2) prayers,
    3) a sermon, eulogy, or meditation from the minister,
    4) comments by friends and relatives about the deceased, and
    5) appropriate music.

Here are a few suggestions for readings you can use in a funeral.


Most denominations have service or prayer books that include an outline of the service, suggested readings and other standards that can and should be followed. Beyond that, most pastoral leaders are willing to work with you to insure that the service is distinctive and personal, allowing family members and loved ones to process their emotions as well as paying tribute to the life of the deceased.

Differing Expectations About The Funeral

That said, I have found that in planning for funerals, the priest or minister may have a different view of what a funeral is meant to be than the deceased's family and closest friends.

Clergy tend to view the funeral service as a "celebration of the resurrection." By contrast, those who are close to the deceased are primarily interested in paying tribute to the person they've just lost. Clergy tend to think of including a sermon or meditation as well as scripture readings that address the reality of death and the hope of eternal life. Family members tend to think of including a eulogy, or words about the deceased written and spoken by relatives, loved ones, or in some cases, business associates.

You should be aware of this difference in perspectives from the outset, so that you can work with your priest or minister to make this a celebration not only of a life well lived, but also of the church's hope for life in the world to come.

As you continue to discuss the service with the clergy or funeral director, you may want to suggest music and readings for the service. You may know members of the family, friends or colleagues of the deceased who might be willing to participate in the service. Perhaps the deceased left you with written instructions about his or her expectations for the service, including people that should be invited to the service and those whom you might include in it. Such persons can volunteer as ushers, for example, or they can play a more visible role as a worship leader. The clergy normally encourage such participation.

What about the cost of a Christian funeral in a church?

While different churches have different policies, if the deceased was a church member, it is likely you won't be charged for the use of the church building.

You may need to pay the organist, choir director, soloist or other persons who participate in the service. Some churches expect you to pay an honorarium to the sexton who is responsible to preparing the sanctuary for the funeral and for straightening up afterwards. Some of these people may not be salaried, so your honorarium is their only means of being compensated for their efforts on your behalf. In addition, Some churches expect you to pay an honorarium to the sexton who is responsible for preparing the sanctuary and for straightening up afterwards. If there is a reception at the church following the service, there may be some extra expense for refreshments.

The minister's honorarium

Finally, it is customary to give the minister an "honorarium," for his/her leadership. The amount of such honorariums is usually up to you. In less affluent neighborhoods a $100 honorarium might be appropriate; in more privileged communities a $250 honorarium (or larger) might work. Naturally, you should take into account the time spent by the clergy in working with you in planning and counseling prior to the service.

Additional costs of a funeral, and one idea for keeping then under control

These costs mentioned above are for the religious service. Not included are the funeral director's charges: these include, preparing the body for burial or cremation, the casket, use of the funeral parlor for a wake, etc. Also, not included are the costs of a burial plot in the cemetery. The cost of these services can easily fall within a range of $5,000 to $10,000.

Which brings me to one of the most important reasons for suggesting that the call to a priest or minister should be the first thing you do after learning of the death of a loved one. Most clergy appreciate how high the cost of a funeral can be, and if your family is facing hardship in affording these costs, the clergy might be able to work with your funeral director on your behalf to keep such cost under control.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
  CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.