What's an Episcopal (Anglican) Funeral Service Like?

Updated

There’s a lot of confusion around the Episcopal church, specifically when it comes to traditions, beliefs, and customs. The Episcopal Church was actually established after the American Revolution once the nation became separate from England. 

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Though many Americans still wished to practice Anglican, the official Christian religion of England, they separated into a new branch known as the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church continues to share many key things with the Anglican church, but it’s still important to recognize how it stands on its own. 

One of the best ways to get to know a specific religion and its beliefs is through its funeral practices. What is an Episcopal funeral or graveside service? While most people understand what a general Christian funeral is like nowadays, let’s dive deeper into this specific branch. 

Episcopal Beliefs About Death and Dying

First, before we can uncover specific funeral traditions, we must also understand the core beliefs Episcopalians believe about death and dying. In this faith, it is believed that after a person dies, the Holy Spirit is released from the body and returns to God. Meanwhile, the body returns to the earth that sustained it throughout life. 

Death isn’t just a time for mourning. It’s also a time to reflect on life, one’s relationship with God, and the role of the earth in sustaining life. During an Episcopal or Anglican funeral, family and friends come to terms with the loss of someone important. It’s an opportunity to express grief openly and with the support of those they love. 

Beliefs about the afterlife

In the Episcopal belief system, the afterlife is a big part of daily life. To live a life free from sin means to be welcomed into Heaven after death. Heaven is defined as “eternal life in [the] enjoyment of God,” or neverending fulfillment and happiness. 

Heaven is a place where God lives with the angels, though God is not contained by any space. Knowing that one’s loved one is safe and happy in Heaven is a form of comfort to those going through grief and mourning. 

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Episcopal Funeral Service Traditions

Episcopal funeral service traditions resemble most other branches of Christianity. While things are rapidly modernizing, many Episcopalians prefer to follow these traditions as a way to come closer together and feel connected with one’s faith.

After death

When an Episcopalian dies, it’s important for the family to take action immediately. It’s typical for the priest to be contacted first, even before choosing a funeral home. The priest assists with the planning process, and priests are also a strong form of support for the grieving family. 

In the Episcopal faith, there is a lot of freedom of choice when it comes to burial and funeral customs. It’s even acceptable to have a virtual funeral if the situation warrants it. Organ donation, cremation, embalming, and wakes are allowed if the family chooses.

Order of service or program

There is a traditional order of service or program that most families follow with Episcopalian funerals. These are generally planned by the clergy, and they take place at the church. The service can be part of an existing service as part of the requirement, or it can also exist on its own with only close friends and family. 

The priest officiates the service, beginning with a reading of scripture. These are usually taken from the Book of Common prayers. It might be followed by a sermon, hymns, or eulogies. Close family and friends might also be invited to speak. An Episcopalian funeral is generally a short and sweet occasion, but families are welcome to add more elements to the service if they wish.

From there, the family might hold a repast or informal gathering. There might also be a graveside burial service. Again, there is a lot of flexibility in planning the funeral service. 

Music or hymns

Episcopalian ceremonies are unique in that they often include both secular and religious funeral songs and hymns. There are no strict rules about what can and or cannot be shared at a funeral, and much of these decisions are left to the clergy and the family.

Many secular songs are included in these services. It’s common to choose a song that was meaningful to the deceased or the family, whether this was religious or secular. It’s about creating a meaningful tribute to the deceased and their memory. 

Prayers

Like other Christian funerals, it’s common for the priest to lead the service with prayers. These can be more general and read by the entire congregation, or the family might choose a specific prayer that’s meaningful to them. The most common prayers are:

  • Prayers of thanksgiving for the life of the departed
  • Prayers of penitence
  • Prayers of readiness to live in eternity

Readings

This funeral service often includes a reading of scripture as well as eulogy readings. The clergy might lead these readings, or a family member of the deceased could give them as well. Again, the choice usually comes down to the family and the type of service. 

The readings of scripture usually focus on eternal life in Heaven as well as remembrance. These religious readings help bring peace and comfort to the family after a loss, no matter how brief. 

Following the scripture, the priest or a family member usually reads a eulogy to the deceased. A eulogy is a short passage highlighting someone’s life and remarking upon his or her legacy. After this, guests might be invited to say a few words about the deceased. 

Closed casket

It’s also important to note that Episcopalian funerals generally call for a closed casket. The casket doesn’t need to be present at the funeral at all, and many families choose cremation or a burial alternative. 

Instead of an open casket ceremony, families are welcome to display a photograph of the deceased at the front of the room. In the Episcopal faith, the soul is said to go to God immediately after death, so there is no need to display the body at the funeral service. 

What Happens During an Episcopalian Graveside Burial Service?

During an Episcopalian graveside burial service, the body is lowered into the ground or entombed in a mausoleum. All guests of the funeral service are typically welcome to attend the interment, and a priest also leads this service. 

Episcopalian Burial Customs

There are no complicated or unique burial customs for Episcopalian funerals. They resemble other Christian faiths in that a priest recites prayers and wishes the soul to rest. This is an opportunity for friends and family of the deceased to say their final goodbyes. 

This service ends with a blessing, and the body is either lowered into the earth or cremated. Each step of this process is a way to assist families with their last moments with their deceased loved one.

Views on cremation and burial

The Episcopal or Anglican faith is very open-minded when it comes to burial practices. Both cremation and burial are welcome, and more Episcopalians are choosing natural or green options as well. 

All final resting options are welcome and accepted in the Episcopal faith, so it all comes down to the family’s wishes. Many people speak about their own burial wishes before they die, and this can help the family during this difficult time. 

Episcopal Funeral Etiquette

Like other Christian faiths, it’s important to be familiar with Episcopal funeral etiquette if you’re planning on attending a funeral yourself. This etiquette exists to help the family grieve, and you don’t want to accidentally offend anyone with your actions or dress. 

What to wear

No matter where the Episcopal funeral takes place, dress conservatively. It’s traditional to wear black to these funerals and to not draw any attention in your manner of dress. Church wear is acceptable, which means no short hemlines or flashy clothing.

When choosing your clothing for a funeral, remember that it’s about keeping the attention on the family and the deceased. By dressing modestly and in neutral clothing, you ensure this moment is about them. 

Offering condolences

Episcopal funerals are an opportunity to offer condolences to the family of the deceased. When attending, it’s appropriate to say you’re sorry for their loss. You might also bring flowers or food to the family leading up to the service.

LIke at any other funeral, avoid telling the family that the deceased is “in a better place.” Instead, remark upon how they’re “with God” or “under God’s care.” Another great idea is to share what the individual meant to you and how you’ll remember them. 

Attending an Episcopal Funeral

Episcopal or Anglican funerals are all about honoring the deceased and the family through religious tradition. Though more conservative than other faiths, these rituals and etiquettes above exist for a reason. They’re a familiar way of helping a family through some of the most difficult moments of their lives. 

If you’re attending an Episcopal funeral, it’s important to know what to expect. This guide helps you understand just what’s expected and how the service will go. From the closed casket to the graveside service, make sure the focus is on the deceased, their legacy, and the family. 

If you're looking to read more on funeral planning or etiquette, read our guides on funeral poems for a son and questions to ask a funeral director.


Sources

  1. “Anglican Episcopalian Funeral Traditions, Burial Services, and Memorial Death Prayers.” Lexikin. Lexikin.com
  2. “Heaven.” An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church. EpiscopalChurch.org

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