Why churches take a share of charity collections at funerals — and how to stop them!

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Funeral collections meant for a specific charity belong to the church, by law. Pass the hat at the wake if you want to keep the collection intact

FAMILIES WHO WISH TO TAKE A FUNERAL COLLECTION for a favourite charity and do NOT wish to see the church take a share should instead ‘pass the hat’ at the reception following the service or ask for donations in lieu of flowers to be made direct to the charity or to the family.

Most important: make the arrangements clear to the vicar, priest or celebrant BEFORE the funeral takes place.

That was the advice from north Northumberland funeral director John Abercrombie following a recent Clarion article telling of some relatives’ distress at the ‘unexpected’ charge levied on collections by churches in the Berwick area in addition to a range of statutory funeral fees.

The validity of the Crookham-based undertaker’s advice was confirmed by a number of responses from local clerics and lay officers.

“By law, the purposes for which money is collected in a Church of England church or churchyard have to be agreed by the vicar and Parochial Church Council (PCC) and accounted for by the PCC before being passed on to the nominated charity,” said the Rev. Rob Kelsey, vicar of Norham and Area Dean for the Anglican Norham Deanery in the Newcastle Diocese.

“Some, but not all, churches retain a proportion of the retiring collection, typically 50 per cent and sometimes up to a maximum amount of £100.”

Cornhill on Tweed farmer Ronald Barber, who is a church warden at the village’s St Helens Church, said: “By rights, all collections taken in church belong to the church but concessions are made in different parishes.

Simple cremation with no celebrant, no send-off and no mourners will burn up more than £700. Add £150 for a minister and £120 for the chapel and it’s money up in smoke!

“It is a subject that causes a huge amount of confusion. We have had problems in the past, mostly because mourners were unaware of the legal situation. Most churches are open to a mutual agreement with funeral participants, however.”

A spokesperson for St Mary and All Souls Scottish Episcopal church, over the Border in Coldstream, said that retiral collections intended for a particular charity were paid into the church’s account then sent in their entirety to the charity with details of the deceased’s family. She expressed surprise that this was not standard practice and added that, although the church preferred to handle the submission of donations, relatives sometimes elected to send the collection to the charity themselves.

St Ninian’s Roman Catholic church in Wooler also imposes no sharing arrangement on charitable collections.

The misunderstanding between church and family appears to occur the beginning of the arrangement process, at an upsetting time when practice neither celebrant nor grieving next of kin are willing to tackle the monetary issue.

“The important thing is for both the family and the church to be clear and transparent about what happens,” said the Rev. Kelsey. “ Either an announcement should be made during the funeral, and/or a note should be included on the service sheet, so that everyone knows where the money is going.”

Do it on the cheap with a pauper’s funeral? Like a free lunch, there’s virtually no such thing; if there is anything left remotely resembling an estate the local authority will have first dibs to cover expenses.

In my original article I promised anonymity (if required) in exchange for information, as long as I could satisfy myself as to the probity of my informant. In the case of the following prominent member of the congregation at both Ford and Lowick churches who wishes not to be named, I believe his well-intentioned comments pass the ‘truth’ test.

“I know from my conversations with attendees at Norham Deanery clergy meetings that ‘who gets the collection?’ has been a recurring topic since before I came to live locally, first at Ford, in the mid-1990s. Chiefly, it centred on the urban parishes of Tweedmouth and Spittal.

“The bottom line is that any money collected in a church service belongs to the parish but I don’t think that has always been made clear, or been clearly understood, in those places where a share is asked for. When I lived in Ford no share was asked for: the vicar felt that the fees were not small sums and that it would be small-minded to ask for a cut, would upset people and, in the end, be counterproductive.

“If a family offers a share then okay, but don’t ask. Our parochial church council never wanted a share, thankfully.

“Having said that, families do assume they can decide where the collection goes and often tell the vicar so when he or she visits; perhaps unsurprising if no one tells them anything different, and I guess they are rarely told at such a sensitive time.

“In my opinion, the time to talk of such things is when discussing the service sheet and what to print, including details about any refreshments and which charity the collection was to go to.”

There is rarely an issue where set fees for church use, minister and gravedigger are concerned. You can find CofE fees for a variety of services by clicking here.

The Catholic church makes no charge for holding the service, although celebrant, gravedigger and organist will make a charge, usually included in the undertaker’s bill.

The Scottish Episcopal church at Lennel in Coldstream charges £200 for a service which includes the Rector, although the charge is waived for someone who has been a considerable benefactor or who has had a long association with St.Mary’s. The undertaker deals with the organist and the local authority for the gravedigger. Any flowers are either paid for or provided by the family.

Final word from the CofE’s Newcastle Diocesan website: “Families often like to ask for a collection to be taken during or after a funeral service for a charity or cause special to their loved one.

“Churches are usually happy for this to take place but do discuss it with the vicar before the service as the church may have its own policies concerning collections.”

So now you know!

3 COMMENTS

  1. I asked a couple of “churchy” people and a former funeral director about this. The churchy people said their churches would never do this (both Baptists, in different parts of the country) and the ex FD said it was unusual and the churches that do it have a pretty poor reputation as a result. — Clare

  2. A lot of my life, for 45 years now has been spent conducting church or crematoria funerals. Over these years the growth in the practice of taking a retiral collection has increased from very rare to normal practice. As these grew in popularity I became concerned that asking for a donation for a cause close to the heart of deceased or family would be a distraction from the simplicity of the service. To be a bit theological I do believe grace should be free and was never comfortable with the church having a fee for this purpose. However the church doesn’t live on air and a contribution to the building for its use might seem a reasonable thing. On the Scottish side Church of Scotland ministers are forbidden from taking a fee. Two things from your story strike me. It is an abhorrent practice to chase after people begging for a sub after a funeral. It is just disgraceful and adds to the growing contempt people have the church and her apparent Christian leaders. Secondly, I am fairly sure it is against the law. If I announced an offering being taken for McMillan say and retained any portion I would be in breach of the charities act. As churches we have to be careful with these collections. It is much safer not to touch it but let the family or the undertaker take it away. If church office bearers through kindness count it for the family there is a danger that is seen as taking responsibility for it and we would need to have an audit trail in and out.
    But to sum up here is another nail in the coffin of the institutional church. One more contribution to the shame I often feel about our dealings with people

  3. At my most recent family funeral [in York, not in Northumberland], there were two collecting plates, one clearly labelled for the chosen charity and one for the church. The funeral director took charge of the first and the second was left with the church. We were told that money placed into the church collecting plate had to be counted and deposited in the church’s account so this arrangement simplified administration, although I don’t recall any suggestion that this process would mean less money for the charity. As far as I can remember, two other family funerals, also in York but at different churches, worked in the same way.

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