It may seem surprising that, in a country renowned for its strong Catholic faith, the popularity of civil funerals in Ireland is now beginning to emerge. The rise of a more secular society has seen requests for civil funerals increase sizably in the past twelve months.
So, what is a civil funeral?
It is defined as; “A funeral that is driven by the wishes, beliefs and values of the deceased and their family; not by the beliefs or ideology of the person conducting the funeral.” In essence, it is a ceremony that is a bespoke service celebrating the life of the deceased, unconstrained by the structure or traditions of a religious service. It is devised by the family, incorporating poems, readings, music and stories which best reflect the person’s life. However, unlike a humanist service, a civil ceremony can contain elements of religion if required by the family.
In terms of procedure, the process is not unlike that of a normal funeral. The civil celebrant takes the role of the priest or vicar, spending time with the family talking and learning about the life of the deceased person. Working together, a funeral service is devised. Sometimes the role of the civil celebrant is simply that of Master of Ceremonies; at others it can be to lead the service including delivering a eulogy. Locations for such services can vary. Generally they are held in a crematorium, but they can also be held in a funeral home, private house or graveside.
As a nation, the Irish have always had a curious interest in funerals.
They are occasions when people gather to mourn, to celebrate the life of the deceased and to offer support and sympathy to the bereaved. The tradition of the ‘Irish wake’ is still very much in evidence, albeit with less whiskey and keening! The convention of a church funeral is very much part of this custom. Therefore, the challenge facing the civil celebrant in Ireland is how to market his/her services so that this option becomes widely available to families. Currently there are only four crematoria in the Republic, three in the Dublin County and one in Cork in the south of Ireland. As this article goes to press, a new crematorium is being constructed in County Cavan, and its developers hope to open later this year. The numbers of deaths in the Irish Republic are 29,000 annually. Of this figure an average of 30% in the Dublin area, select the option of cremation. This figure is as low as 10% in the rural counties. Initial growth has been slow for the Institute of Civil Funerals. In 2012, only eight civil funerals were conducted in Ireland in contrast to 4,500 in the UK. However, in the first four months of 2013, I personally have conducted ten civil ceremonies, which indicates that interest is definitely growing.
The challenge for the Irish undertakers is to educate the public about the options that they have when a loved one passes.
We Irish can be set in our ways. We use the same bank since our first job, generally drive the same type of car, shop in the same shops, and are generally slow to change. The same can be said of Undertakers. They are afraid to offer their clients a different option for fear of offending a family and loosing the business. The future for funerals will be very different to the model that we have today. Already we are seeing a change in the traditional evening removal to a church. Families now want to spend more time with their loved one, and are opting for a one day funeral. In Dublin about 30% of funerals happen on one day. Also with the decline in the number of priests, there is a shortage of man power to cover grave side committals. While a large number of Catholics are non practising, they will still hedge their bets and go to a Church for their funeral. This is starting to change, the future generations will opt for a non church service.