Pre-planning your funeral is important if you do not have a faith

With more people counting themselves out of the Catholic Church, Caomhan Keane spoke to three funeral celebrants who offer alternative funeral services and graveyards to those who want to be buried in tune with how they lived

There’s a saying, that when it comes to death, you don’t pull the chord until you’re ready to get off. But in a country where a growing number of people have no allegiance to the Catholic Church, if you don’t pre-plan your funeral you could end up in the ground being showered — not only in soil, but in the words of an institution you didn’t agree with.

Once on the highway to hell or the stairway to heaven, what happens to your corpse can be against your value system, unless your express your wishes in advance.

Thankfully, there are a lot more options out there now and to cope with demand Lorraine Mancey O’Brien of the Irish Institute of Celebrants has launched the Certificate in Funeral Celebrancy.

Pre-planning your funeral is important if you do not have a faith

Ten people are already confirmed to undertake the course which begins in June and when they graduate will join six celebrants that the institute already has in the field. “It came about through our success in the civil ceremony arena,” she says.

“People attending, who may have lost someone recently told us that they would have loved to have had a similar option when it came to funerals. It’s not that they or we, are anti-church, It’s just that people don’t feel that a church service is representative of who they are.”

The institute are stricter about who they take on in their certificate in funeral celebrancy than in their certificate in family celebrancy. “These people are going into a family’s life at a time that’s very difficult for them. We insist that they have either worked in the funeral industry before or are trained grief counsellors."

This can be particular helpful if they have to deal with families who try to over-rule the wishes of the deceased. “We work with them, try and find readings that don’t impinge on the wants of those gone or the feelings of those left behind.”

In 2012, Ireland’s 19 Humanist ministers performed 78 funeral services. That figure rose to 125 last year. “It’s growing big time,” says Brian Whiteside, Director of the Humanist Association of Ireland. Most humanist ceremonies take place in crematoriums, but Whiteside has noticed that more and more people are renting out venues such as the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham to facilitate larger crowds. Capitalising on this demand for funerals that are less about weeping and wailing and more about celebration, Mancey O’Brien has hooked up with a funeral home in the Midlands so that they can facilitate the totality of peoples demands, not just the service they want but the type of coffin or hearse they may want also. Hundreds of health people have contacted her to pre-plan their funerals and she has recently developed a relationship with the countries only green graveyard.

Dara Molloy is a former Roman Catholic priest. A married father of four, he left the Church in 1996 but remains a priest, performing ceremonies as a Celtic monk for people who want to mark an event in their lives with a meaningful, spiritual ceremony.

Pre-planning your funeral is important if you do not have a faith

While he performs hundreds of wedding celebrations every year, there’s less of a demand for an alternative funeral celebrant, because of the convenience of grief."

"Families often say ‘to hell with it, we will go to the church’- even though the person didn’t go himself in years,” he says. “It’s a crisis for them. They are too broken and too hurt to go to any difficult effort.”

Dara sees his role as a facilitator, to help those present remember those who have passed. “To tell, from beginning to end, the life story of the person. When people come for a funeral they may have known someone over a set period of years. They might not have known a person all their lives. My job is to get the full picture of that person’s life and give a summary of that.”

Like most other alternative services, there is lots of secular music and poetry. But Dara’s spirituality is deeply connected to the pre-Roman Celtic Church and some of the communal traditions he employs in the ceremony reach back as far as then. He uses a bowl of water and a bowl of oil to help in forgiveness and healing.

“Water is a means of apologising to the person about anything you regret about your relationship. If you didn’t get to see them to say you’re sorry or to put to bed a row you had years ago.

“While, with the bowl of oil (olive oil scented with lavender) I invite people up to apply that to themselves. It’s for healing. When someone dies you are hurt. It’s important that you recover from that healthily.”

The Rev Helen Grubert is an interfaith minister who was drawn to such alternative funerals when her sister passed away 15 years ago. “She wasn’t a religious person but had very strong spiritual beliefs. I felt it was important to follow up with a more personal ceremony,” she said.

She speaks to the chief mourners, who are not always family, via phone, in person or Skype, and if possible looks at the deceased’s Facebook page and, as with the Institute of Celebrants, her ceremony is very much about capturing the personality of the deceased.

She has presided over the personalised funeral of people as diverse as burlesque dancers to jazz musicians, knitting fanatics to airplane enthusiasts. “It’s important to tread a fine line that you don’t offend the other mourners.”

But there are not many places where people can be buried on non-consecrated ground, Enter Colin Mc Ateer of Woodbook Natural Burial Ground in Wexford, a meadow graveyard which has been in operation since 2010. “We believed in death and that’s it,” he said.

“This a natural burial ground. There’s a feelgood factor here, even though it’s a graveyard. It’s stunningly beautiful, and peaceful. We cut the grass twice a year, at the start and end of season, to maintain the wild flower meadows. The trees are clamped and we trim the pathways. The rest is kept natural, which is more beautiful then a manicured lawn that has no nature in it.”

Also, instead of granite gravestones, each grave is given a tree with a wooden marker.

At present there are 50 people buried there, although they have a significantly higher number of people pre-paying for plots. “Any graveyard takes 10 years to get going because a lot of the older generation already know where they are going to be buried. Maybe the husband or wife is buried somewhere else and their intention is to join them.”

Added to that, this is a new concept in Ireland.

“A lot of times people don’t get buried here because the family mightn’t think that it’s acceptable,” concludes McAteer. “ One thing I would say in that situation is do what the deceased wanted. It’s respect. Respect their wishes”.

For more information on training to be a celebrant or to book a celebrant contact the Irish Institute of Celebrants at

To contact Fr Dara Molloy about his funeral services contact him at

The Rev Helen Grubert can be contacted at.

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