Graveside Ceremony

A friend who will be presiding over her first graveside ceremony asked me for a copy of my commital service. I was happy to share a couple of versions of what I typically say at the graveside, but after I attached the files and sent them to her, the Worship and Liturgy professor in me felt compelled to pass along a few tips. I told my friend that she could smack me around if she knew all that already — but in my experience, seminaries do NOT teach these things and ministers are left all alone in the world to figure them out themselves — usually after the fact and when they are reviewing a job poorly done, through no fault of their own. And so, for those who might benefit from my mistakes and my subsequent positive experiences presiding over commitals…

The Rev. Professor PeaceBang’s Guidance on Graveside Ceremonies

1. Drive to the cemetery with the undertaker in the hearse. It’s respectful, no one else will want to, and I think it shows great pastoral commitment. You can relax and look at your words and prepare. Often the undertaker will have great community tidbits to regale you along the way.

2. When you arrive at the site, stand back for a moment and then discreetly ask the undertaker which direction the head of the casket is. Stand there, as close to the casket as you can get. Wait a few moments for everyone to gather around. I guarantee you that everyone will stand a mile away because no one likes to be that close to death. Do your silent, smiling pastoral presence thing until they get nearby, then say, “Please come in closer. Let’s get nice and close to each other.”

3. Say your words, and take your time with them. Take a good, long moment of silence after your prayer, or wherever it feels appropriate.

4. When you are done, close your book, then if your physical position allows it and you feel moved to do so, place your hand for a brief moment of silent blessing on the casket. Close your eyes and pray silently. This gives people a moment to transition. When you are done, step back from the grave. The undertaker will step forward and say “This concludes our services, bla bla bla.” This is a nice time to go to the widow/widower/next of kin and put a hand on their shoulder. After you have done that, step discreetly away and let people mill around as they need to. They will need to. Obviously, if someone’s gripping your paw, you’ll stay with them. If I feel like I can’t hold back tears at this point, I will get out my hankie and let them flow. However, under no circumstances do I allow myself to cry openly during the service. If I get choked up (and I often do), I stop until I regain control of my voice. If a few tears leak out, I ignore them.

5. It is perfectly acceptable for you to bid your farewells to people who are still there and get back in the hearse for the ride back to church, or to get a ride from someone else. It is up to you whether or not to go back to the house. If there is a collation at church, you should make an appearance.

This is a ceremony for which I think we have to have absolutely every move and every moment under total control, or at least look like we do! I always say to my students, “No cute muff-ups allowed at the graveside. Anywhere else, okay. Not there. Presiding over the graveside ceremony is the most priestly of functions and we must be impeccable.”

P.S. Shine your shoes!!

14 Replies to “Graveside Ceremony”

  1. Back when I was doing these kinds of services, I always felt like it was my job to “shepherd” the casket. When the funeral home staff moved it to the door, I accompanied it to the door, and out to the hearse. I rode in the hearse with it. I walked with it to the graveside. I felt like it was in my care, until the moment when we committed it (and of course the body of person we had loved) to the ground. [My feelings exactly. – PB]

  2. Committal services with cremains in urns are a somewhat different matter — usually, you just meet up at the cemetery — often they’re well after the date of the death.

    Oh, and not all funeral directors will let you drive in the hearse.

  3. If the casket is standing over the hole, be careful as you step near it. One of my mom’s Episcopal priest friends was newly ordained and doing her first funeral. She intended to stand at the head of the casket, but it was muddy, and she slipped right down into the hole. The people attending this service were not Episcopalians, and assumed that this was something Episcopalians did. Meanwhile, my mom’s friend was standing *in* the grave, wondering how she was going to get out, and whether the prayers would still “take” if they were said from under the casket.

  4. Very good advice. I usually ride with the undertaker unless there is good reason not to. I always ask him where the head of the casket is. I have a great pair of dressy low-heeled boots that I keep well oiled so that I am protected against long wet grass in rural cemeteries, or rain, snow or sleet.

  5. Thanks for this, PB. It’s always good for ministers to share this lore.

    You didn’t say anything about symbolically burying the casket. I have done only one graveside committal service with a casket (several with cremains) — I guess we are more of a cremation crowd. Anyway, the undertaker discreetly handed me a small vial of dirt, and when it was time (he let me know), I poured it over the casket (I’m pretty sure this was while it was still above ground). The widower then took the cue and somehow (?) placed some soil on the casket as well, and perhaps some others did, too. What are your thoughts on this?

    And everyone, if you want to laugh hysterically some time at a ministers meeting, get Patrick O’Neill to tell you about one of his first graveside services, when FOUR people fell into the grave!

    [oh my heavens!! Okay, well, I used to do the dirt on the casket during the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” segment, but I got frustrated over the years trying to get some actual dirt rather than the sand in a vial provided by the funeral director (!). I didn’t want to be seen clawing and scrabbling at the soil like some deranged troll before the service (nor did I want to have to stand there with it in my filthy paw for all the words previous to the “ashes to ashes” moment), so I gave it up. I like the flower idea a lot, but have observed that funeral directors often do that. Remind me to tell you the story of how I poured sand OVER THE FLAG at my first military funeral and when someone asked me the symbolism of that, I replied in my best pastoral tones, “What that represents is that before Mr. Smith belonged to the United States Marines, he belonged to the Earth.” “That’s what I thought,” said the old military brass, and walked away pondering. I’m told that I am lucky they didn’t shoot ME during the 21-gun salute for desecrating the flag! I could have died a thousand deaths when the cadets began folding the flag WITH THE SAND INSIDE IT. It is the single moment in ministry when I have been most glad for my acting training. I looked so beatific I could have walked on water while inside my brain I was screaming ‘OH MY GOOOOOOOD!” – PB]

  6. I usually invite people present to put a flower on the grave, which the funeral home will supply if you ask. I use a segment from this poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

    Love in the open hand, no thing but that,
    Ungemmed, unhidden, wishing not to hurt,
    as one might bring you cowslips in a hat,
    or apples in a skirt,
    I bring you, calling out as children do,
    Look what I have, and these are all for you!

    It sounds a bit too perky just looking at it in print, but read gently, it is lovely.

    I invite people to come up and silently place their flower as final goodbye.

  7. Peacebang,

    At a graveside a few years ago, a four year old boy proudly announced to everyone as they arrived, “My grandma is in that box!”

  8. I like the fact that folks who used to mostly be called ‘undertakers’ – now generally go by ‘funeral director’….and it covers more of their duties anyway.

    PB – I like your service – it’s much like my own general outline. And the ‘shine your shoes’ reminder is excellent. I keep a pair of ‘cemetery shoes’ to change to (not sneakers – but low or flat heels and simple) but one should always make sure they are tidy.

    At the end of the committal service I remove a flower from the casket spray and hand it to the next of kin – spouse or eldest child, partner, etc….and then to each member of the immediate family. I always tell them they need to leave that place with life and love in their hearts and beauty in their hands. I also gives me a moment to speak to each of them….and a way to move out of the way as people begin to take their leave.

    If the service is with cremains or delayed (as in another state, etc) – I bring a bouquet of loose flowers to leave – and one for the closest relative as well.

  9. Great post! I’d add two things:

    If there are going to be cremains and they are to be scattered, call ahead if possible and ask if they are pulverized. Occasionally they are chunky, and that is for obvious reasons disturbing. Another obvious thing is to hold the container DOWN when distributing them.

    If there is a burial and in your services you do scatter dirt on the coffin, grab a handful of dry dirt from near the driveway. Sometimes all the ground is covered with astroturf and you can’t get to real dirt. They may give you sand in a little vial, but real dirt works better.

    Finally, my liturgics prof always suggested to have smelling salts in your vestment pocket just in case (we Episcopalians tend to wear cassock surplice stole and, weather permitting, cape or cope to the gravesite).

  10. I agree with madgebaby that real dirt is far preferable to ceremonial sand. After a funeral or two where I asked the gravediggers to find me some dirt, the funeral director caught on and learned to have it ready for me (though in his first kindly effort he presented it to me in a red velvet pouch, which wasn’t quite the point.)

    Gus — how did she get out of the grave??

  11. A nuts n’bolts question, please, from a minister who’s never been summoned for this sacred task: PB, you talk about shining your shoes, and on the other blog you talked about your festive, flowery hat — but are you still robed & stoled? That would make sense out here in California…but can’t work for you, weather-wise, year-round. And yet it seems *off*, somehow, to conduct a memorial service in vestments, strip them off, and then conduct the graveside piece in our civies. More details, please! (And thanks much for the detailed post & the many comments.)

    [Good question, E. I do not wear vestments to graveside services and don’t know anyone who does. Priests that I know wear collars and suits. Sometimes minsiters put on a stole over a blazer. That drives some clergypeople nuts, but I do that as well. In the winter, though, not. In the winter or inclement weather I disrobe, bundle up in a classic trench or wool coat with scarf tucked neatly in, and preside that way. Only once was the sun so bright that I literally could not see my paper and had to wear sunglasses, which I think is a terrible idea in general. But on this one occasion it was either wear the sunglasses or hold my binder over my head to block the blinding sun. Hope this helps. – PB]

  12. Thank you PB for sharing.

    Altough funerals work completely different in my tradition it is always good to share and learn from others.

    Funerals and weddings are i.m.h.o the most difficult things to “do” as a priest/pastor.
    Because you usualy have only on chance to do it “well”.

    If you -for whatever reasons-upset the families involved, they are very likely to turn away from church for a looong time or even for ever.
    There is no second chance to make it better.

    So we´d better be very careful with those sometimes rather delicate occasions.

  13. Apropos of casting dirt on the coffin while saying “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” – I usually use ashes left over from the Ash Wednesday service.

    However, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER cast dirt on the US Flag at the funeral of a veteran. Though your intent may be innocent, this is considered tremendously disrespectful and may severely alienate any veterans in the funeral party. At the funeral of a veteran, I suggest you either dispense with the casting of dirt / ashes / dust, or you should cast it into the grave. [I know that NOW, thank God. If only you had been there at that terrible moment when I had no idea what to do and made this stupid, horrendous mistake. Eeek. I still cringe when I think of it. What an omission in my theological education and preparation! Well, at least I have the small recompense of being able to use my bad example for seminarians who won’t go on to commit the same error. – PB]

  14. mostly good words, but OMG I never drive with the undertaker. They want to gossip, and I am still in the middle of the service. I want quiet and focus, a chance to absorb who had real difficulty and what words I might need to add to deal with that.

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