You might know that the proper term “Quaker” usually refers to a protestant movement that arose in England during the 1600s. Their goal was to distance themselves from the Church of England. The movement, spread by many women ministers, was based on the belief that followers could have a direct relationship with God.
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The Quaker Church history is challenging to follow, much like the history of most protestant denominations. As the founders of Quakerism spread throughout the world, different groups formed with variations in doctrine and beliefs.
Quakers who arrived in colonial America also went through a series of successions. Today, when searching for a Quaker church near you, you may find that most Quakers in America call themselves members of the Society of Friends. Although there may be small groups that only accept the Quaker name, it seems as if the members of the Society of Friends use the terms “Friends” and “Quakers” interchangeably.
It is important to note that both groups don't refer to their building as a “church” even though some groups may meet in the basement or common room of other protestant churches. Instead, Friends gather together in “meeting houses.”
Aside from meeting houses, how does a Quaker or Friends funeral service differ from other religious funeral or memorial services? Due to the different protestant denominations, you may not have had the opportunity to attend a Quaker funeral. Here’s what to expect if you’re attending a Quaker funeral.
Quaker Funeral Order of Service
Those who are used to religious services that are pre-scripted and have a specific format may find a Quaker funeral surprising. There is no written liturgy for a Quaker service.
In fact, a Friends funeral may be the least-structured feeling service you have ever attended. Not only will there be an absence of formal responses, but you will also experience several long periods of silence.
Another thing to realize is that some Quaker congregations do not have a “minister.” Instead, everyone is encouraged to speak at the meetings.
According to the Friends General Conference website, they are very aware of the differences between their services and other protestant funerals. The website suggests that before the service, a member of the family or the “clerk of the meeting” should explain how a Quaker memorial proceeds. Some of the attendees may have never experienced a funeral in a Friends house of worship.
Hopefully, if you find yourself attending a Friends funeral service, this explanation will be made to you. If not, here is a sample Quaker service.
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Since Quakers believe that everyone is equal before God, there may not be a “minister” present. Instead, a family member of the deceased, or another Friend, will greet those in attendance.
If non-Quakers are present, he or she may explain the “Open Worship” section of the service.
A family member of another Friend may present a funeral reading. This reading may be a poem or verses from the Bible. Like other protestant churches, Quakers may look to the Book of Psalms for inspiration, such as this passage from chapter 23:
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”
The type of funeral music played at a Quaker meeting house depends upon the traditions of that particular group. Some use instruments, and others do not. There may not be a hymn book present in the meeting house.
There may be a brief eulogy read during the meeting.
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One way that a Quaker funeral is different than most protest funerals is the time that is set aside for “Open Worship.” At this point, the gathering sits silently, sometimes with eyes opened and sometimes with eyes closed.
This time can be used for prayer, for giving thanks, and for remembering the person who died. Some may laugh during this time when reflecting upon a good memory, and others may cry.
Also, during Open Worship, Friends open themselves up to connect with the Divine. During Open Worship, participants may be moved to speak. This speech is not written before the service. Instead, the words are often the result of the thoughts that come during the silence of the service.
During a memorial service, it is common that the messages would be about the deceased. One may talk about the accomplishments of the deceased as well as any positive personal qualities. All are welcome to speak during this time, whether you are a Quaker or not.
At some point, you will sense movement around you. When this happens, open your eyes if they had previously been closed.
You will probably see people around you shaking hands. This is usually the indication that the service is complete. Expect a Quaker service to last between 60 and 90 minutes.
Listen for instructions at the conclusion of the meeting. At times, a light meal will be served. After the service would be an appropriate time to greet the members of the immediate family.
Sometimes there may be a burial service at the cemetery after the funeral. Burial services are usually brief. They use the time for prayer, short readings, and silent reflections.
Quaker Burial Practices
Generally, Quakers value simplicity. Many Friends chose to be cremated. Sometimes a small photo of the deceased is present in the meeting house. The body is not usually present during a Quaker funeral.
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Quaker funeral etiquette
Because of the focus on one’s relationship with the divine, it is suggested to enter the meeting house quietly, and choose a place to remain silent in advance of the funeral. This is not the time to approach the family members or speak with acquaintances. Make sure your phone is off at this time.
Traditionally, the front row of funerals is reserved for the family members of the deceased. Keep this in mind as you enter the meeting house.
Probably the most important rule of funeral etiquette at a Quaker service is to respect the quiet, reflective part of the service. Even if you do not feel the spiritual connection that Quakers feel during this time, do not disrupt the silence with excessive movement or whispering.
Quaker funerals are usually serious and somber occasions. At times, happy memories of the deceased may be shared that inspires joy and laughter.
Generally, the mood at a Quaker funeral can be described as quiet and reflective.
What to wear
It is important to realize that members of the Friends General Conference are not Amish, even though some may mix up Amish and Quakers. While some Amish may have a strict dress code for themselves, this is not true of Friends.
What is the appropriate funeral attire to a Friends funeral service? It would be appropriate to wear business clothing or dressier casual clothing to a Quaker funeral. It is common practice to dress in muted colors, but you do not need to be entirely dressed in black.
Condolences, cards, and gifts
Since many Quakers value simplicity, it is common practice to make donations to charities instead of purchasing flowers or gifts.
Some Quakers choose to bring in flowers from their gardens to adorn the space for the service.
Quaker Funerals Value Simplicity
During the silent part of the Quaker funeral service, you will have time to reflect on your own life and your end-of-life planning. Perhaps it is time to put some of your wishes in writing.
What kind of funeral service do you want to have? Do you want it to be quiet and reflective like the Quaker services? Or do you want to have a New Orleans Jazz Band perform at your funeral?
Do you want to be buried or cremated? Do you want to have scripture read at your funeral or a poem?
Completing your own funeral planning will not only ensure that your funeral will be the way you want it, but it is also a loving thing to do for your survivors. Planning a funeral when you are in the midst of grief is very hard. Decisions may seem overwhelming. Your family members will appreciate having the decisions already made for them.
- Barnard, Sharon. “Taking the Lead. The Quaker.” Funeral Service Journal. www.fsj.co.uk/stories/view?articleid=1075
- “Quaker Memorial Service.” Friends General Conference. www.fgcquaker.org/spiritual-deepening/library/aging-death-and-dying/quaker-memorial-service