How to organise a funeral

Where to start?

Once you have completed the initial administrative and practical tasks such as registering the death and ensuring your loved one is being cared for, you can start to think about the funeral arrangements.

It may seem a daunting challenge – most people are not experienced at arranging funerals and they normally have to be organised within the space of two to three weeks. If the person who died didn’t specify their funeral wishes in advance or have a funeral plan in place, you may feel at a loss as to where to start.

The first thing to know is that there is no right or wrong way to do things – just because something is ‘traditional’ doesn’t mean you have to adhere to any particular protocol. It may be helpful to think of a funeral as having two key parts – one is the disposal of the body (a legal requirement) and the other is a ceremony to commemorate the life of the person who has died (optional). These may take place together or separately. There are no set rules for how a funeral service should run – and in fact you may prefer to not have one at all, in which case you can opt for an unattended direct cremation instead, with a memorial at a later date if you wish.

When planning a funeral, you will be faced with a number of decisions, but once the key decisions have been made, the funeral arrangements will naturally fall into place. This is where an experienced funeral director such as the team at White Rose can help guide you through the choices available to you and help make the arrangements on your behalf. You will also find the input of a celebrant invaluable as you begin to personalise the funeral service itself.

Here is a guide to the key elements that you may want to consider.

Care of the body

The body will normally be held in a private mortuary belonging to the funeral director prior to the funeral. You may decide to spend private time with the person who has died (referred to as a viewing), but there is no compulsion to do this and increasingly families do not require it, especially if they had the opportunity to be with the person before they died. Equally, embalming – the preservation of the body using chemicals – is something that modern refrigeration and hygiene has rendered unnecessary. You may wish for your loved one to be dressed in particular clothing or a favourite outfit, in which case you should specify this in advance to your funeral director (there may be an additional fee for this), if not then a soft coffin sheet will be used instead.

Cremation or Burial

This is normally the first decision to be made, as it also impacts on the official paperwork you will need to obtain (particularly cremation forms). With a cremation funeral, the body is cremated, leaving the ashes which you can decide what you want to do with (see ashes options). With a burial funeral, the body is interred in a cemetery plot or natural burial ground.

In the UK, around 80% of funerals involve a cremation. They are generally less expensive than burials, however interest in natural burials is growing as environmental considerations are becoming more prevalent. The only other permitted alternative is burial at sea.

Religious or non-religious funeral

This depends on the views of the person who has died. A religious funeral will normally involve a service in a church conducted by a minister, whereas a non-religious funeral may take place in a crematorium chapel led by a celebrant.

What is a funeral celebrant?

A funeral celebrant is someone who conducts the funeral. They may be a Humanist Celebrant (no religious content allowed) or a Civil Celebrant (more flexible with religious-type content). The celebrant will work with the family to create a ceremony that reflects and commemorates the life of the person who has died.

At White Rose we are able to recommend an experienced funeral celebrant to officiate.

Choosing a funeral venue

Traditional funeral venues are crematoria and cemeteries, where the ceremony is held in the crematorium or cemetery chapel. Alternative venues include woodland or natural burial grounds. The funeral service is typically followed by a relaxed reception (see funeral reception venue suggestions) where memories can be shared over a drink and a bite to eat.

Some families prefer to keep the actual cremation or burial separate, perhaps attended by close family only, and then have another more ‘public’ event either on the same day or another date. This could be a memorial or celebration of life event, attended by a wider circle of friends and relations and could be held in a pub, restaurant, hotel function room, community centre, village hall, sports or social club.

Booking a crematorium: you are free to choose any crematorium. Your funeral director will normally make the arrangements, as there are a number of forms to be completed. The cremation fees depend on what time of day it is booked for (early morning bookings are cheaper) and the length of the service (you normally have 20 to 30 minutes in the chapel for a standard service, however this can be extended by booking a double slot for an extra fee).

Timing

Funerals are normally held during the daytime (between 10am and 4pm) on a weekday although weekends are also possible, however fees will be higher. Crematoriums do get quite booked up, so sometimes your ideal time and date may not be available. Fridays are a particularly popular choice of day.

Choosing a coffin

The choice of coffins today is huge – from affordable wood effect veneered coffins to eco-coffins made from cardboard, bamboo or wool (to name just a few). For a cremation, bear in mind that the coffin will only be on display for less than half an hour and then incinerated, so unless you have a specific preference, the most basic coffin is perfectly adequate. Alternatively you may prefer a shroud to a coffin.

You can also request for other items to be placed in the coffin, such as personal mementoes (subject to certain regulations for cremations). Some coffins can be personalised or decorated by the family. It is even possible to build your own coffin, but there are certain regulations so this should not be undertaken lightly (see how to build your own coffin).

At White Rose we have hand picked a number of different coffins which you can see on our coffin options page – however, many more styles are available, so please do ask if you can’t see one that is right.

Funeral transportation

A suitable vehicle needs to be used to transport the coffin to the crematorium or place of burial. Traditionally a black hearse is used for this, however it isn’t necessarily the only choice. You can use an informal vehicle (known as a hearsette) or there’s a variety of alternative hearse options available to hire, from a VW Camper Van to a motorcycle with a specially adapted sidecar hearse.

You may wish to book additional limousine transport for immediate family, but if you want to avoid any unnecessary expense then simply use your own car or a private hire service. Traditional funerals may involve a hearse procession departing from the family home, however you don’t have to include this and it’s becoming more common for the coffin to be transported directly to the crematorium or burial place, with family and mourners making their own way there.

At White Rose we can provide a range of funeral transport options.

Pallbearers

A coffin can be surprisingly heavy and you will normally require between 4 and 6 people to carry the coffin. You can choose if you would like to have the coffin pre-placed in the chapel before the mourners enter – or it can be carried in after everyone has entered for a more ceremonial feel.

The funeral director will normally provide a team of pallbearers, however if you have family members or friends willing to help that it is a nice way for them to get involved. Pallbearers should ideally be of a similar height and physically able to bear the weight (see our helpful guide for pallbearers).

Funeral flowers

Flowers are a very traditional form of tribute at a funeral, however these days families are increasingly requesting charitable donations in lieu of flowers. You may still wish to have a casket spray which you can place directly on top of the coffin.

A nice way to personalise a funeral ceremony is to bring a basket of individual flowers and invite mourners to place a flower each on the coffin. With a cremation, only a small amount of flowers can be cremated with the coffin, so any larger floral tributes are normally moved to an outside viewing area afterwards.

At White Rose we recommend our talented funeral florist Leonoor at Rose & Mary (view examples of her funeral flowers here).

Funeral Notice

A funeral notice can take the form of an online page that provides useful information about the funeral service and wake or reception. It can also advise mourners on attire for the funeral and whether flowers or charitable donations are preferred. It can also have an RSVP function to help you manage and plan for the reception, so you know in advance who is coming.

Make a list of people to invite, typically drawn from family, friends, work colleagues, neighbours and members of relevant clubs or societies. Ideally you shouldn’t exclude children from a funeral, they cope surprisingly well in most situations.

Traditional newspaper announcements are increasingly being replaced by online funeral notices, social media and email communication channels.

At White Rose, we have created our own dedicated Funeral Notices website. You can view an example of an online funeral notice (please note this is a generic demonstration page).

Funeral Service

The funeral service itself should be highly personal rather than formulaic. It shouldn’t follow any particular protocol for the sake of it. A funeral will be all the more memorable when it reflects the true personality of your loved one.

A funeral is there to meet several needs – these include expressing grief, honouring and celebrating the life of your loved one, sharing memories and bringing comfort to the family. Rather than focusing initially on the individual parts of the ceremony, think about how you want the funeral to ‘feel’. Here are some questions to help guide your thinking:

  • Should it be a formal, sombre, religious or non-religious service – or a more uplifting celebration of life, with humour as well as tears?
  • Think about who should conduct the service – should it be family-led or would you prefer to have a celebrant or minister leading it?
  • Are there any particular personal items you may want to bring along to personalise the space?
  • Do you want those attending to dress in formal black attire or would you prefer informal or colourful clothing to be worn? It’s always helpful to specify a dress code.

Once you have decided on the overall tone or even ‘theme’ of the funeral, you can start to define the individual elements and format.

Common elements of a funeral ceremony

Officiant: unless you are having a family-led funeral service, you would normally appoint a celebrant or a member of the clergy to lead the ceremony.

Order of service: a printed order of service is often handed to those attending as they arrive (or given to anyone who was unable to attend the ceremony). It may contain a schedule of the ceremony and details of the funeral reception. It can also be a more creatively designed souvenir booklet, with photos and quotes related to the person who has died.

Visual tribute: a nice way to personalise a funeral service is to have a large photo of your loved one on display, either on a TV screen (these are increasingly available at most funeral venues) or as a printed photo or photo memory board (ideally A2 sized, displayed on an easel).

Music: a selection of pre-recorded tracks can be played (most crematoria have a sophisticated music system) or you may wish to book an organist or musicians for a live performance. You may want to choose three songs for the service – one for the entrance, one during the service and one for the closing of the ceremony. We have a guide to choosing music for a funeral service.

Readings: these could be selected verses or poems read by a minister, celebrant and/or friends and family.

Eulogy or tribute: a funeral eulogy is a speech about the person who has died. This could be given by a family member or a funeral celebrant. If a family member will deliver the eulogy, it is a good idea to have it written down in advance.

Prayers and/or hymns: even if the funeral itself is not particularly religious, you may still wish to include prayers and/or hymns. Do bear in mind that if you have a humanist celebrant, they may not permit the inclusion of any religious content (a civil celebrant may be more flexible in that regard).

Moment for reflection: time for quiet personal contemplation – this may replace any formal prayers, allowing mourners to reflect on the person who has died or pray in their own way. You may wish to have specific music playing during this time.

Committal and blessing: a traditional form of words or a poem is spoken at the end of the service. At a crematorium you can usually choose if you would like the curtains to close around the coffin which helps to signify that the service has ended – or alternatively you may prefer for the coffin to remain in situ as everyone depart.

Closing the ceremony: a form of words or a particular piece of music to close the ceremony. Attendees will typically congregate outside where any flowers and cards may be on display.

Personalising the ceremony: You should feel free to make the funeral ceremony as personal as possible. Some of the above, such as visual tributes and music will help to achieve this. For other ideas for how to personalise the ceremony read our blog on how to personalise a funeral ceremony.

Funeral reception

After a cremation service or burial ceremony, mourners are typically invited to attend a reception (sometimes referred to as a ‘wake’) where food and drinks are normally served. This may take place in a pub, hotel, sports club or the home of a family member (see our funeral reception venue suggestions). Hiring a professional caterer will relieve you of the pressure of preparing food or a buffet menu when you have a lot of others things to organise.

Ashes

With a cremation, you will need to decide what should happen with the ashes (sometimes termed cremated remains). You may choose for them to be strewn in the Crematorium’s Garden of Remembrance or collected by the family so you can make your own arrangements.

Different crematoria have different ways of presenting the ashes, from a functional box to a nicely designed presentation case. You can obtain urns for ashes, should you wish to keep them on display – or scattering tubes if you are planning to scatter the ashes. There are lots of options when it comes to scattering of ashes or creating lasting keepsakes such as jewellery or even vinyl records (see ashes options).

Final thoughts on how to arrange a funeral

Arranging a funeral can seem overwhelming. It is a good idea to involve several family members so that tasks can be shared and everyone feels involved. At White Rose Modern Funerals we can work through the arrangements with you in a methodical way so that you feel in control and properly organised.

Planning a unique and memorable send-off can be a hugely rewarding opportunity to honour the life of your loved one. A ‘good’ funeral does not need to be expensive, it’s not about what you spend but how you personalise it that counts.


The team at White Rose Modern Funerals are always on hand to answer any questions you may have and guide you through the process.

White Rose Modern Funerals team

We’re here to help

If you have any questions regarding arranging a funeral or planning ahead, please get in touch. Call us on 020 3281 1045 or send us a message.

Independent funeral director

helping families across London & Surrey

You can speak to us anytime on 020 3281 1045 – we’re open 24/7