Understanding funeral terminology


Facing one’s mortality is an immensely daunting experience, and for those navigating the funeral sector, the sheer volume of unfamiliar terminology can add to the emotional strain of bereavement. In the intricate web of funeral arrangements and proceedings, understanding various terms and roles can provide solace and clarity during challenging times; and they form the bedrock for making well-informed decisions about funeral arrangements.

Remember, no question is too trivial, and if anything appears unclear, do not hesitate to seek guidance from funeral planning experts, who are dedicated to supporting you during this challenging time. This article is here to serve as a comprehensive guide, acting as a bridge between yourself and funeral planners, offering clarity amidst the complexities of grief.


Casket vs. Coffin: Making the right choice

Let’s delve into the complexities of choosing between a casket and a coffin. While the concept of both remains similar, there are distinct differences. Although the idea of a casket or coffin remains similar the main difference is that a casket “is rectangular, and has a lid that can be half-opened to view the person at the service or wake”.

1 Whereas “a coffin’s shape is tapered along the lines of the human body’s typical proportions which is wider at the top and narrow at the bottom, like a kite with six to eight edges” and you are not able to view the deceased. 2 On average a casket tends to be more expensive than a coffin, with a coffin typically costing a few hundred pounds, and a casket typically coming in at over £1,000.3

Ultimately coffins tend to offer a more traditional appearance and therefore may be preferred for certain cultural or religious ceremonies, while caskets provide more customisation possibilities which may better meet the needs and logistical requirements of the deceased. Regardless, it’s vital that one considers the deceased’s preferences, if known, and if planning a funeral on behalf of someone else, that there’s a consultation with family members and funeral professionals for guidance. Ideally, the decision should reflect the wishes of the deceased and honour their memory in a meaningful way.


Embalming and Body Viewing: Understanding the process

Embalming plays a significant role in funeral traditions worldwide, this process not only allows for a final farewell in a respectful manner but also provides a sense of closure for loved ones. Embalming is defined “as the preservation of a body from decay, originally with spices and more recently through arterial injection of embalming fluid”.4 The embalming process is designed to “improve the visual appearance of the body, and to prevent deterioration in the period leading up to the funeral” so that family and close friends are able to visit their loved one in a dignified way.5

Encountering a loved one after death can be incredibly emotional and challenging. As the body naturally begins to undergo decomposition after death, the embalming process serves to mitigate this process, enabling a dignified viewing for family and friends. This gathering, known as a “viewing,” and provides an essential opportunity for loved ones to bid farewell before the funeral or burial. Such encounters often facilitate closure and mark the beginning of the grieving journey, allowing individuals to navigate their emotions amidst the supportive presence of their community.

However, it is also important to understand that in the era of modern refrigeration, there is often no technical need for a body to be embalmed. This is because the temperatures and humidity levels of the storage units where the deceased are held is such that decomposition can be prevented for longer than was historically the case. Embalming is therefore more of a personal choice than a strict requirement – it’s also offered at additional cost, which can be restrictive for some families who don’t have the means to add this as an extra.


Choosing Between Cremation and Burial: A personal decision

A cremation refers to “the disposal of a dead person’s body by burning it to ashes, typically after a funeral ceremony”.6 This method is often selected due to a multitude of personal, cultural, or religious considerations and is frequently preceded by a funeral ceremony dedicated to commemorating the departed individual. Conversely, a burial entails interring the deceased, typically within a casket or coffin, at a designated cemetery plot.7 This traditional practice provides a final resting place for the departed, allowing loved ones to visit and pay respects in a physical location.

Choosing between a cremation or burial is a deeply personal choice, which can be influenced by a variety of factors such as, cultural customs, religious beliefs, and individual preferences, offering families options to honour their loved ones with dignity and reverence. Burials can also be prohibitively expensive for some families or planholders, who instead may opt for the cheaper option of a cremation. This is as a result of extra costs for burial plots and associated burial fees.8


Comparing Attended and Unattended Funerals: Helping your loved ones make the right choice

Choosing between attended and unattended funerals entails careful consideration of personal preferences, traditions, and circumstances. During an attended funeral, mourners have the opportunity to spend time in the presence of the deceased (either as an open or closed casket), offer their condolences, and engage in any religious or cultural rites integral to the funeral proceedings.

Conversely, an unattended funeral typically entails a service or ceremony conducted without the presence of family members or friends, primarily to reduce spend or to minimise perceived ‘fuss’ at the request of the deceased.

Attended funerals offer a communal space for mourning, reminiscing, and finding closure amidst the support of family and friends, while unattended funerals, such as direct cremations or burials, offer simplicity and privacy, ideal for those preferring a more intimate farewell or dealing with logistical constraints. Read our guide on the differences between attended and unattended funerals.


Compassionate guidance: The essential role of a Celebrant in funeral ceremonies

At the heart of a funeral ceremony lies the celebrant, a compassionate and skilled individual who orchestrates the funeral proceedings with empathy and dignity. By definition a Celebrant refers to a “person who performs or leads a religious ceremony”.9 Whether religious or symbolic, celebrants craft and create personalised ceremonies that honour the life and legacy of the deceased. A celebrant’s role typically extends beyond officiating, offering comfort to grieving families and friends, whilst ensuring the ceremony reflects the wishes and beliefs of the deceased.


Officiant: Leading with respect

An Officiant refers to a “person, typically a priest or minister, who performs a religious service or ceremony”10. An officiant assumes a pivotal role in conducting funeral rites, carrying out the ceremony with reverence and solemnity.11 Typically ordained clergy members, civil servants, or officiants lead prayers, deliver eulogies, and facilitate rituals in accordance with the deceased’s religious or cultural beliefs. Their presence often provides a guiding light for close family and friends in a time of immense grief, offering words of solace and wisdom to those in struggling to cope with their loss.


Simplifying Funeral and Graveside Services: A Comprehensive Guide

A funeral service is a service held to celebrate and remember the life of the deceased according to their own funeral wishes.12 In some instances, individuals may proactively plan their funeral during their lifetime, while in other cases, an at-need funeral may be necessary, as discussed in the previous section.

Following the conclusion of the funeral service, some may choose to hold a graveside service, typically occurring after the main ceremony. This intimate gathering involves close family and friends paying their respects at the burial site, offering a final tribute to the departed.13


Understanding beneficiaries: Their role and importance

A funeral plan beneficiary refers to the individual who has taken out a funeral plan in advance of their passing. The beneficiary plays a proactive role in ensuring that their end-of-life arrangements are in place, offering peace of mind to both themselves and their loved ones.

Having taken proactive steps to arrange their funeral in advance the beneficiary alleviates the financial and logistical burdens that often accompany end-of-life preparations, whilst allowing their family members to focus on grieving and commemorating their life after their death, rather than worrying about practicalities. By taking control of their funeral plans, the beneficiary is able to make personalised choices regarding their final farewell, adding their personal touch in a time when everyone wants to reminisce about their legacy.

In the world of funeral planning, the beneficiary is not necessarily the person who has taken out, and paid for, the funeral plan. Often the planholder will be a spouse or person close to the beneficiary, who is helping arrange the funeral on behalf of the benificiary. There is nothing that prevents someone from taking out a funeral plan in someone else’s name, provided the financial aspects are managed appropriately in line with the beneficiary’s needs.


Committal Service: Honoring the final journey

The committal service marks the solemn moment of bidding farewell as your loved one is laid to rest or cremated. “It follows the funeral and involves a selection of prayers and, in some cases, a farewell to the person who has died from the community”.15 This poignant ritual offers families and friends acceptance, allowing loved ones to acknowledge the finality of death while embracing the fond memories left behind. Whether this service is accompanied by prayers, hymns, reflective moments of silence, or a few laughs the committal service honors the journey of the departed.


Coroner: Upholding the truth

“Coroners are independent judicial officers who investigate deaths reported to them”.16 In cases of unexpected or suspicious deaths, the coroner assumes the responsibility of investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of your loved one. In some instances, through meticulous examination and inquiry, coroners are able to uncover the truth which can provide closure to grieving families who may have feared foul play. Coroners play a vital role in ensuring accountability when necessary on behalf of the victim and their impartiality and dedication to upholding truth and integrity serve as key pillars of justice in times of uncertainty and grief.


Next of Kin: Navigating the path of loss

As the closest familial relation to the deceased, the next of kin assumes a central role in funeral arrangements and legal proceedings. From making crucial decisions regarding funeral arrangements to handling estate matters, next of kin shoulder significant responsibilities during times of loss. If you want to find out more about your responsibilities as next of kin or about the role of next of kin. As next of kin your presence is there to uphold the wishes of the deceased while comforting and supporting your loved ones extended family and friends, fostering unity and resilience amidst grief


Understanding the funeral process: Knowledge is power

In the journey of life and death, understanding dying and coming to terms with your own mortality is key. It is normal to be scared to think about such a time, but understanding the process will alleviate the burden on family and friends left behind. This article is here to offer you some clarity and guidance in navigating the journey of loss and remembrance. No question is ever a silly question, and if you are ever unclear about anything please do not hesitate to ask.

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1 Funeral Guide, 2020. Casket or Coffin: What is the difference. Available at: https://www.funeralguide.co.uk/help-resources/arranging-a-funeral/funeral-guides/casket-or-coffin-whats-the-difference. Last accessed, April 2024.

2 Funeral Guide, 2020. Casket or Coffin: What is the difference. Available at: https://www.funeralguide.co.uk/help-resources/arranging-a-funeral/funeral-guides/casket-or-coffin-whats-the-difference . Last accessed, April 2024.

3 Funeral Guide, 2020. Casket or Coffin: What is the difference. Available at: https://www.funeralguide.co.uk/help-resources/arranging-a-funeral/funeral-guides/casket-or-coffin-whats-the-difference . Last accessed, April 2024.

4 London Borough of Merton, 2024. Embalming. Available at: https://www.merton.gov.uk/births-marriages-and-deaths/deaths/embalming#:~:text=Embalming%20is%20defined%20as%20the,arterial%20injection%20of%20embalming%20fluid Last accessed, April 2024.

5 London Borough of Merton, 2024. Embalming. Available at: https://www.merton.gov.uk/births-marriages-and-deaths/deaths/embalming#:~:text=Embalming%20is%20defined%20as%20the,arterial%20injection%20of%20embalming%20fluid Last accessed, April 2024.

6 Dictionary, 2024. Cremation. https://languages.oup.com/google-dictionary-en/ Last accessed, April 2024.

7 Legal Wills, 2024. Burial – information & answers. Available at: https://www.legalwills.co.uk/burial . Last accessed, April 2024.

8 Ezell, 2018. Factsheet: Death and funerals in world religions. Available at: https://religionmediacentre.org.uk/factsheets/death-funeral-rituals-in-world-religions/. Last accessed April, 2024.

9 The Britannica Dictionary, 2024. Celebrant. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/dictionary/celebrant#:~:text=Britannica%20Dictionary%20definition%20of%20CELEBRANT,or%20leads%20a%20religious%20ceremony . Last accessed, April 2024.

10 Oxford Dictionary, 2024. Officiant. Available at: https://languages.oup.com/research/oxford-english-dictionary/ . Last accessed, April 2024.

11 Empathy, 2024. Choosing a funeral officiant. Available at: https://www.empathy.com/funeral/choosing-a-funeral-officiant . Last accessed April, 2024.

12 Funeral Guide, 2020. What happens at a funeral. Available at: https://www.funeralguide.co.uk/help-resources/arranging-a-funeral/what-happens-at-a-funeral Last accessed, April 2024.

13 Mcguire, 2024. Guide to different funeral ceremonies and how to thoughtfully plan them. Available at: https://www.bereave.io/post/guide-to-different-funeral-ceremonies-and-how-to-thoughtfully-plan-them . Last accessed, April 2024.

14 Investopedia, 2024. What is a beneficiary. Available at: https://www.investopedia.com/terms/b/beneficiary.asp . Last accessed, April 2024.

15 The Funeral Guide, 2021. What is a committal service? Available at: https://www.funeralguide.co.uk/help-resources/arranging-a-funeral/planning-the-service/what-is-a-committal-service . Last accessed April, 2024.

16 NI Direct Government Services, 2024. Coroners, post-mortem, and inquests. Available at: https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/coroners-post-mortems-and-inquests#:~:text=Coroners%20are%20independent%20judicial%20officers,records%2C%20or%20holding%20an%20inquest Last accessed, April 2024.