There are no longer rigid rules about the conduct of funerals - and many humanist, non-denominational services are devised by the mourners and completely free from convention.
If, however, you are planning a traditional funeral, it may be helpful to be aware of the following conventions, which you may want to incorporate into your arrangements:
- The progress of the hearse from the home of the deceased to the church/crematorium: conventionally, the body of the deceased is transported in a hearse, with the chief mourners following behind in special cars (supplied and driven by the undertakers). This makes for a slow, dignified procession.
- At the church: The congregation generally assembles and takes their places before the arrival of the chief mourners. They rise to their feet as the coffin enters.
- Pall-bearers: Traditionally four to six pall-bearers carry the coffin to the front of the church/chapel, where it is placed on a trestle. The pall-bearers may be undertakers, or volunteers from amongst the friends and family of the deceased. The coffin is followed into the church by the chief mourners.
- Seating at the ceremony: It is usual for the chief mourners to be seated in the front pews to the right of the aisle (facing the altar). The chief mourner (widow, eldest son etc.) would take the seat nearest the aisle. In some churches, however, this arrangement is impractical, and in cases like this it is understood that the chief mourners will take the best, and most prominent, pew.
- Pall-bearers should ensure that they are seated near the aisle, so that they can exit easily when the time comes to carry out the coffin. The people who are going to give readings or tributes should also secure aisle seats to avoid undignified scrambles during the service.
Order of precedence: There is a mourning order of precedence, which may still be observed:
A widow, accompanied by her eldest child, follows her husband's coffin, with her other children behind, followed by the dead man's parents. The same basic order would apply in the case of a widower.
Where there is no surviving spouse, children would traditionally follow the coffin in order of age, with the eldest in front, though in practice siblings tend to walk side by side.
A childless individual, a widow, or widower, may be accompanied by a sibling or other near relation and, behind them, other siblings, and their spouses and children.
At a child's funeral, the parents follow the coffin.
In instances where there are no surviving spouses or children, common sense will dictate the order of precedence amongst family members: parents, siblings, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, cousins, and so on…
At the end of the service: The congregation waits for the family to leave the church first. At the graveside: Often only the close family will gather close to the graveside. Conventionally, the chief mourner throws a clod of earth into the grave. Other mourners may follow suit, or throw in flowers.