Your guide to committal services including what happens, who attends, and the difference between religious and non-religious committal services.
What is a committal service?
A committal service is the last part of a funeral. It's a short ceremony that happens just before the person is buried or cremated and is a final chance to say goodbye. Most committal services include readings, poems or songs. Though what happens varies slightly depending on whether the committal is part of a religious or non-religious funeral.
For example, at a Christian funeral the committal service signifies that the person who has died is now with God. Reading prayers is an important part of the service.
Some Humanist and other non-religious funerals also include committal services. At these funerals, the committal is more like a final goodbye. It’s a chance to reflect on the life of the person and perhaps say a few last words.
What’s the difference between a funeral and committal service?
The committal is part of the funeral service. It often comes after a moment of reflection and before the priest or officiant says their final words.
If the person is being buried, the committal often happens at the graveside. This means the people at the funeral will travel from the main service to the burial ground. If this happens, it can feel like a separate service. However, it always happens on the same day as the funeral and usually takes place shortly afterwards.
Occasionally, the committal takes place before the main service. Sometimes the whole funeral is held at the person’s grave, including the committal. This is called a graveside funeral service.
What is a graveside committal service like?
A committal service can happen at either a burial or a cremation. If it’s a burial, the person’s coffin will be lowered into the ground to represent that they’ve moved on. Readings and poems might be read out or music can be played as the coffin is lowered into the grave. Some people might also scatter soil or flowers onto the coffin during the committal service.
What is a committal service at a crematorium like?
During a committal at a crematorium, the coffin usually isn’t moved anywhere. Instead, it’s hidden from view by curtains. This signposts the final goodbye to a loved one. Before and during the cremation committal, prayers, readings or poems can be read. And often music is played as the curtains close. The officiant might also recite cremation committal words that are religious or non-religious.
How long will the committal service last?
The committal at a funeral can last anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour. This is because a cremation committal can be very short with just a few words said. Or it can be a longer goodbye. And generally a graveside committal can take longer as the coffin is lowered into the ground. But the person planning the funeral can decide what readings, prayers or words are used, if any at all. This will determine how long the committal lasts.
Who is invited to the committal service?
Anyone can go to the committal unless the person’s family has asked people not to. This might be the case if they’ve planned a graveside committal service. There’s not much space beside a grave, so they may limit invitations to the person’s closest friends and relatives.
What happens at a committal service?
At a Christian funeral
There are lots of types of Christianity and each may take a slightly different approach to committals. This is what typically happens at a Church of England (Anglican) committal service when a person is being buried:
1. People arrive at the burial ground
People might arrive as part of a funeral procession or meet at a set time. Often, a few chairs are set up. These are for the person’s close family members to use.
2. The priest says prayers and reads scriptures
The priest will lead a brief service that includes prayers and religious readings. This lasts about 15 or 20 minutes.
Church of England committals often include this verse from the Book of Common Prayer:
MAN, that is born of a woman, hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.
In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O LORD, who for our sins art justly displeased?
You may also hear Psalm 103.13-17, which says that life is short but God’s love lasts forever.
3. People pay their respects
During this part of the funeral committal, words may be spoken by the person’s friends and relatives. People are allowed to walk up to the coffin to pay their respects.
4. The coffin is lowered
Next, the coffin is gently lowered into the grave. People sometimes throw flowers or handfuls of soil into the grave. The soil represents the person returning to the earth.
As this happens, the priest reads another extract from the Book of Common Prayer:
In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother, and we commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless him and keep him, the Lord make his face to shine upon him and be gracious to him, the Lord lift up his countenance upon him and give him peace. Amen.
This is a very emotional part of the service because it signifies that the person is going away and not coming back.
5. People offer condolences
Once the coffin is lowered, the priest may say a few final words to bring the service to a close. It’s common for people to remain at the graveside and offer words of sympathy to the person’s friends and relatives.
Afterwards, people might go home or move on to the funeral wake.
At a non-religious committal service
Non-religious funeral committals have a different purpose to Christian committals. Because they don’t include religious elements, they’re more about remembering the person and giving people the chance to say a last goodbye.
A non-religious committal is led by a celebrant rather than a priest. They won’t say prayers or read from the Bible. Instead, they read poems or say a speech, which the person’s family may have chosen.
Can you choose what happens at the funeral committal?
Yes, but how much you can change it depends on the type of funeral.
At Christian funerals, many of the funeral committal words can’t be changed. This is because they serve a religious purpose as well as being there to say a final goodbye.
However, you’re free to say some words of your own during the committal service. You might also be able to choose committal service music that plays while people pay their respects.
Non-religious funerals are usually more flexible. You can choose any poems, readings or music you like, as long as they don’t mention anything religious.
What is a direct-committal funeral?
A direct-committal funeral is another name for a direct cremation or burial. This is a kind of funeral where the person is cremated or buried without a service.
Learn more in this guide to direct cremations.
Learn more about how funerals work
- What happens at a burial?
- What happens at a cremation?
- Church of England funerals: a step-by-step guide