When and how to hire a BSL interpreter for a Church of England led funeral

Rev Canon Gill Behenna, the Church of England National Deaf Ministry Adviser

Deaf people who use British Sign Language (BSL) often go to their local Chaplain, or specialist minister for Deaf people to conduct the funerals of family members in BSL. However, it should be remembered that many Deaf people come from families where most of the members are not Deaf and may not have knowledge of the Deaf community.

It is often much easier for non-Deaf family members to arrange funerals because they can use the phone and communicate easily with the funeral director, but care needs to be taken over finding out what the Deaf person really wants. (For example, typically, a Deaf person may marry someone who is also Deaf but the children will probably be hearing. If one partner dies, the wishes of the surviving partner may be overlooked if the children arrange the funeral without an interpreter involved.)

The funerals of Deaf people are often extremely well attended by members of the Deaf community and this can sometimes be a surprise to other members of the family who may not have realised the extent of the Deaf community. If the funeral is a short service at the crematorium, the Deaf community may wish to hold a memorial service in order that several people can pay tribute to the person who has died.

The normal convention at funerals whereby the family sit at the front may need to be discussed if there are likely to be a large number of Deaf people since they will need to see the interpreter. These conversations need to be sensitively handled.

Sign Language interpreters are highly trained professionals who will need to be paid for their services just like anyone else taking a professional role in the funeral. If the principal mourners are Deaf and request an interpreter, they should not be expected to pay for the provision.

Your diocese may have a policy for the funding of Sign Language interpreters at Occasional Offices but this should not be assumed. If the diocese has a specialist minister, working with Deaf people, he or she should always be consulted for advice.

You can find briefing papers to help you to use an interpreter at a funeral by following this link.

Further advice may be obtained from Rev Canon Gill Behenna, the Church of England National Deaf Ministry Adviser: gill.behenna@churchofengland.org

Frequently asked questions

How much will it cost?
This is difficult to answer because most interpreters are free-lance workers and so their fees vary. In 2015 the national average fee charged was £30 an hour but you should remember that most interpreters will have a minimum call-out fee that they will charge that equates to two or three hours. (source: National Union of Sign Language Interpreters www.nubsli.com/guidance/interpretingfees)

Can’t some interpreters provide this for free for the Church?
Some interpreters already work for free in their local churches, Sunday by Sunday, interpreting the services. Some will reduce their fees for Church work and some will occasionally work without a fee, if the Deaf person who has died, or the Deaf people who are getting married, are known to them personally. However, it should be remembered that free-lance interpreters are highly trained interpreters who need to earn a living. They should be treated fairly. Even volunteers should have their travelling expenses met.

Our service is entirely on the screen/written in a service sheet/book so why can’t the Deaf person simply read the text?
Having written/projected material is really helpful for Deaf people. However, many people do not use English as their first or preferred language and will not be able to engage in worship simply through the written word. A BSL/English interpreter gives access to tone of voice, emotional content and, of course, all the parts of a service that are not written down.

We have someone in our congregation who has been studying sign language – why can’t they do it?
They may be able to – but you need to make sure that they have learnt BSL to at least level 3 (A level equivalent) and also had some interpreter training. Weddings and funerals use very complex language and interpreters are trained to deal with such language. It would be good if the sign language user could come to the service to be around for Deaf people who may attend – even if they are not actually interpreting.
In most instances, trained interpreters, registered with the National Register of Communication Professionals with Deaf and Deafblind People (NRCPD) should be used.

We have a local Chaplain for the Deaf. Can they do it?
As above, they may be able to do it. However, some of the Chaplains do not have the required skill level and some of the Chaplains are Deaf themselves so may not be able to interpret. You should ask for their advice because even if they are not able to interpret, they will be able to put you in touch with an interpreter.

A Deaf person wants to give a tribute/do a Bible reading in the service. How would that work?
Easily, the interpreters work between two languages: English and BSL, so if something is presented in BSL, it can be interpreted into spoken English for the benefit of the members of the congregation who do not sign.

Where can I find an interpreter?