Officiating a Funeral: Brief Guide on How It’s Done

Published October 22, 2020
A priest standing graveside at a funeral

The person officiating a funeral service is called a funeral celebrant. This person may or may not be a minister of a religion, so understanding how to lead a funeral service is an important skill for both religious and civil leaders. Here are some important aspects of how to officiate a funeral.

Guide to Officiating a Funeral

The funeral celebrant presides over the memorial service itself. The officiant carries the task of memorializing the life of the deceased and coordinates all of the other individuals involved in the service. The funeral celebrant does the following:

  • Organizes or oversees the preparation for the funeral service
  • Leads the service
  • Eulogizes the person who died (or provides guidance and introduction to the one who will)
  • Leads religious prayers, Scripture readings, or civic customs
  • Oversees the music or other special requests of family
  • Leads or provides a brief message or thought
  • Invites those who attend to activities after the funeral service
  • Ensures everything operates smoothly within the wishes of the family
Clasped hands on a bible while praying

Celebrant's Duties Before the Funeral

The officiating of the funeral begins before the service for most celebrants. They will arrange a meeting with the family to talk about their unique circumstances and about their desires and expectations for the service. The family is often in shock or deep grief and often need recommendations and guidance. Here are some guiding points for items that should be covered before the service:

  • The celebrant talks to the family about the specific needs and their circumstances. This is often performed at the funeral home. This is the time to find out about specific family members or friends who should be involved in the service in some way, military or civic organizations that need to be represented, travel and accommodation arrangements for family members and favorite music or Scriptures of the deceased.
  • If the family has any religious beliefs or requirements, the celebrant should find out at this point and become familiar with the customs.
  • The celebrant should create a schedule or order of service, combining the family's wishes, religious specifications and personal preferences.
  • The celebrant is often the one in charge of reading the obituary and delivering a eulogy. The celebrant may want to talk to family members for pieces of information to make the eulogy a very personal tribute. If the family wishes a different person to deliver the eulogy, the celebrant offers guidance and advice.

Celebrant's Duties at the Funeral

From greeting people at the door to the closing moments of any reception after the service at the final resting place, the funeral celebrant remains in command of the activities. The duties include starting and ending the service at the funeral home, religious building or other location; continuing the somber flow of the service to the final resting place, and then ultimately directing friends and family to a reception following the events. Families may invite the celebrant to join in the final reception if the celebrant was close to the deceased or family.

Leading the Funeral Service

One of the celebrant's biggest duties is to lead the funeral service. The structure of the funeral service provides comfort and strength to the bereaved. The service should have definite, recognizable parts which make it easy for non-professionals to identify and participate.

Duties at the Final Resting Place

The duties of the celebrant continue after the funeral service. If there are any post-funeral arrangements, such as a graveside service or reception (especially if the reception will include a meal), the celebrant formally announces these to the guests at the close of the funeral service. The celebrant may be asked to lead these services as well.

Celebrant and mourners at a graveside

The Role of the Celebrant

A funeral can be conducted by whomever the family of the deceased chooses. If the funeral is to be held in a religious place of worship, the clergy is often willing to lead the service. If the funeral will be held in a funeral home, the director of the funeral home can lead the service, or you can bring in a member of the clergy or someone else to preside, such as a family member or friend who can officiate at the service.

Understanding the Setting and Service

Since every family and every circumstance are different, it would be impossible to provide one order of service that will meet the needs of everyone. Some religious settings have approved procedures and music which dictate some of the decisions. Many of the decisions that need to be made before the service are handled once the use of a funeral director is secured. Logistics, timing, coordination, and communication are vital in officiating a funeral service. The celebrant must be prepared to be flexible and compassionate. There is only one opportunity to get things right. There are several settings for the funeral which may come into use.

  • A non-religious cremation, with a ceremony at the crematorium
  • A religious or semi-religious cremation, with a ceremony at the crematorium
  • A religious or semi-religious gathering, followed by a cemetery burial
  • A religious or semi-religious gathering, followed by a service at a mausoleum
  • A religious, semi-religious or non-religious burial in nature, with one ceremony at the gravesite
  • A religious, semi-religious, or non-religious cremation (committal only), with the ceremony at the crematorium

Customary Funeral Honorarium

A payment given for a service that is provided for free constitutes an honorarium. Most clergy or religious leaders will conduct a funeral for no charge, particularly if the deceased or family attends the congregation. It is customary to offer an honorarium to the clergy member, but the amount given remains within the family's discretion. The funeral home can pay the honorarium through their disbursements, or it can be given personally by the family.

The Value of the Funeral Celebrant

It takes a person with a special personality to serve others at one of the worst days of life. Funerals bring people together when stress and tension are high and families are in mourning with raw emotions. When officiating a funeral, the celebrant attempts to create an atmosphere and a service that fits properly with the family of the deceased.

Officiating a Funeral: Brief Guide on How It’s Done