Creating a Meaningful Funeral

For centuries, funerals have helped us say goodbye. No matter what kind of funeral ceremony you are planning, it helps to understand the parts of a meaningful funeral. Each element serves a unique purpose and plays an important role. When you put the elements together, you create a ceremony deserving of the special life that was lived.

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Click on the tabs at the left to learn more about each
element of a meaningful service.

One of the purposes of music is to help us access our feelings both happy and sad.

During the funeral ceremony, music helps us think about our loss and embrace our painful feelings of grief. Music is an important part of many social rituals.

  • Choosing Music for the Service
    Consider music that was meaningful to the person who died or to your family.
  • Music Services are Typically Available at the Funeral Home
    Most funeral homes and many churches and other places of worship have the capability to play CDs or music from iPods. Make sure to check out the quality of the sound system.
  • Arranging for Live Music
    If you’d like to have live singers or musicians, your funeral director or clergyperson can help you contact and schedule them. Most funeral homes and churches will have their own organist or pianist.
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Readings help us acknowledge reality and move toward the pain of the loss.

Including readings helps those attending the funeral to acknowledge the reality of the death and to move toward the pain of the loss.

  • Religious funeral ceremonies typically contain a number of standard readings from the faith’s literature.
  • Both religious and secular ceremonies may also allow time for readings that represent the person who died.
  • Readings can be selected that capture the unique life and philosophies of the person who died.
  • It is completely appropriate to inject humor if it is a true reflection of your loved one.

Receiving friends through a visitation activates your support system

Receiving friends through a visitation activates your support system and allows others to express their concern and love for you. Having a visitation encourages you to openly and honestly mourn the death. Friends and family will remember you invited them and often stay more available to you in the months that follow the death.

Sometimes called the wake, calling hours and viewing, the visitation is a time for friends and family to support one another in their grief. The body is often present in an open or unopened casket, allowing you and others who loved the person who has died to acknowledge the reality of the death and to have the privilege of saying goodbye.

Often the eulogy is the most remembered and meaningful element of a funeral ceremony.

Also called the homily, the eulogy is a speech that is given that acknowledges the unique life of the person who died and affirms the significance of that life for all who shared it.

Who should deliver the eulogy?

The eulogy can be delivered by a clergy person, a family member or a friend of the person who died. Instead of a traditional eulogy delivered by one person, you may choose to ask several people to speak and share their memories. There is also a growing trend toward having people attending the funeral stand up and share a memory of the person who died. This works well, especially at smaller or less formal gatherings.

What are our different options?

Be creative as you discuss ways to share memories of the person who died. Try to avoid having someone who didn’t really know the person give the eulogy. While some have learned to give excellent, personalized eulogies, other clergy members may speak a few generic words about the person who died or resort to sermonizing about life and death in lieu of personalizing their message. If your family would feel comforted by a religious sermon during the ceremony, by all means, ask a clergyperson to give one. Just be sure to have someone else (or several people) deliver a personalized eulogy in addition to the sermon.

How do we prepare for the eulogy?

If the person who will be delivering the eulogy didn’t really know the person who died, make an effort to share with him or her anecdotes and memories that are important to you. Ask yourself, “What stands out to me about this person’s life? What are some special memories I’d like to share? What were times when I felt particularly close to this person? What were some admirable qualities about this person?”

Symbols say for us what we could not possibly say in words at this time.

When words are inadequate, ritual and the presence of symbols like flowers, food, candles and even the body of the person who has died, help us express our thoughts and feelings.

Examples of Symbols Include:

  • Flowers
    Flowers represent love and beauty. Accepting flowers from friends is a way of accepting their support.
  • Food
    Friends bring food as a way of nurturing mourners and demonstrating their support.
  • Candles
    The flame of a candle represents the spirit. For some, it also represents life’s continuation beyond death.
  • The Body
    Whether present in an open or unopened casket, the body of the person who has died serves as a focus for mourners and helps them acknowledge and embrace their pain.

This is the procession from the funeral service to the final resting place

Also called the cortege, the funeral procession from the funeral service to the gravesite or columbarium, scattering garden or other final resting place is usually led by the hearse containing the casketed body.

The procession is a symbol of mutual support and public honoring of the death. Mourners accompany one another to the final resting place of the person who died. Often, even strangers take pause and are respectful because they know someone in your family has died.

The graveside service is the final opportunity to say goodbye.

It is a way of honoring the dead and helping them to exit this life with honor, dignity and respect. The act of watching the casket being lowered into the vault can be extremely powerful and offer additional momentum in the healing process to loved ones, relatives and friends. Some families choose to actively participate by placing earth on the vault.

Accompanying a body to its final resting place and saying a few last words brings a necessary feeling of finality to the funeral process. Even if you are having a full funeral service, you may want to consider having a short committal service at the gravesite, mausoleum, columbarium or scattering site. The committal service gives a feeling of finality to the funeral that you’ll never have otherwise.

This special time allows your family and friends to support one another

Most funerals are followed by a gathering of friends and family. This special and essential time allows your family and friends to tell stories about the person who dies, to cry, to laugh and to support one another. It is an informal time of release after the more formal elements of the funeral ceremony. The gathering is also a transition, a rite of passage back to loving again. It demonstrates the continuity of life, even in the face of death.

Some family members or friends may tell you that the gathering isn’t necessary or that they would prefer not to attend. It’s OK if everyone can’t (or chooses not to) be there. It’s still a very important time for many people who will attend the service.

The reception can be held in your family home, in a park or in a church meeting room. Many funeral homes also have reception rooms. A buffet-style meal is usually served at the reception. Sometimes family and friends contribute food potluck-style and sometimes the meal is catered. Again, do what feels right for you and your family.

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Memories are the most precious legacy we have after someone we love dies.

Memories are the most precious legacy we have after someone we love dies. Your family can choose to provide opportunities for memory-sharing beyond the eulogy. As we all realize, not everyone feels comfortable speaking in front of a crowd. Through memories, those who have died continue to live on in us.

Be sure to talk to your funeral director about ways of sharing memories at the funeral. Some creative alternatives include:

  • Memory Baskets
    Provide a time and place during the visitation or the funeral service where people can write down memories on paper and place them in a memory basket. Some of these memories can be read during the eulogy or tacked on a board for others to read.
  • Memory Books
    Convert your registration book into a registration/memory book. Leave a column on the right-hand side of the registration book and encourage people not only to sign their names, but to write out a memory or two of the person who has died. Later, you can make copies of this book for everyone in the family.
  • Memory Tables or Memory Boards
    Many funeral homes make available tables or boards for families to display memorabilia and photos. If the person who died had a favorite hobby, consider setting up a display that represents this (e.g. model trains, photos of her garden, fishing tackle). Physical objects that link mourners to the person who died can be displayed too (e.g. special articles of clothing, favorite toys for a child). You could also set out family photo albums and framed pictures. Memory tables give mourners a good place to gather and share memories of the person who died.
  • Memory DVDs
    Some funeral homes offer memory DVDs that incorporate visual images with music. There are a growing number of companies that can offer this service, including websites that guide you through the process of developing your own video. Ask your funeral director for details.
  • Memory Letters
    Some friends and family members may want to write a personal letter to the person who died. These letters can then be sealed and placed in the casket or displayed near the casket for other mourners to read.
  • Recording the Service
    Many funeral homes have equipment to videotape and/or audiotape funeral ceremonies. More and more families are finding that capturing the funeral for posterity allows them to replay it later in their grief journeys, when they’re not so overwhelmed and exhausted. The recording often becomes a cherished family keepsake. It can also be duplicated for friends and family who are not able to attend the service.

Download our guide to creating a meaningful funeral.

How to Write a Eulogy

This is the time to give thanks for a person’s life and to honor his or her memory.

Writing and delivering a eulogy is a loving, important gesture that merits your time and attention over the next day or two. Though the task may seem daunting right now, you’ll find that once you start jotting down ideas, your eulogy will come together naturally. Afterwards, many who attend the funeral will thank you for your contribution, and your eulogy will be cherished always by the family and friends of the person who died.

Here are some ideas to get you started.

  • Be brave. The thought of writing a speech and presenting it in public makes many people anxious. Set aside your fears for now. You can do this. Focus on the person who died and the gift you will be giving to all who knew and loved him or her.
  • Think. Before you start writing, go for a long walk or drive and think about the life of the person who died. This will help you collect your thoughts and focus on writing the eulogy.
  • Brainstorm. Spend half an hour (longer if you want) writing down all the thoughts, ideas and memories that come to you.
  • Look at photos. Flipping through photo albums may remind you of important qualities and memories of the person who died.
  • Don’t try to do it all. Your eulogy doesn’t have to cover every aspect of this person’s life. In fact, often the best eulogies are those that focus on the eulogy-giver’s personal thoughts and memories. Do try to acknowledge those who were closest to the person who died as well as important achievements in the person’s life, but don’t feel obligated to create and exhaustive biography.
  • Ask others to share memories. A good way to include others in the ceremony is to ask them to share thoughts and memories, which you can then incorporate into the eulogy.
  • Write a draft. Once you’ve brainstormed and collected memories, it’s time to write the first draft. Go somewhere quiet and write it all in one sitting, start to finish. Don’t worry about getting it perfect for now—just get it down on paper.
  • Let it sit. If time allows, let your eulogy draft sit for a few hours or a day before revising.
  • Get a second opinion. Have someone else—preferably someone who was close to the person who died—read over your draft. This person can make revision suggestions and help you avoid inadvertently saying something that might offend others.
  • Polish. Read over your first draft. Look for awkward phrases or stiff wording. Improve the transitions from paragraph to paragraph or thought to thought. Find adjectives and verbs that really capture the essence of the person who died.
  • Present your eulogy with love. Now you need to present your eulogy. You may well feel nervous, but if you can keep your focus on the person who died instead of your own fears, you’ll loosen up. If you break down as your talking, that’s OK. Everyone will understand. Just stop a few seconds, collect yourself and continue.
  • Speak up. It’s very important that you speak clearly and loudly so that everyone can hear you.

A Word of Caution
This is not the time to bring up painful or difficult memories but to emphasize the good we can find in someone. You may privately mourn some of what you wished could have been different about this person, or your unique relationship with him or her; however, the public eulogy is not the time to do that.

Making Your Family’s Funeral Uniquely Yours

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Be Creative & Focus on the Person’s Life

Be creative as you, together with your family, friends, funeral director and the person who will lead the service, brainstorm how to remember and honor the person who died. If he was zany, don’t be afraid to use humor. If she was affectionate, have everyone stand up and hug the person next to them during the ceremony.

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Create a List of Important Details

The following ideas will help you get started personalizing the funeral.

  • Attributes or passions of the person who died
  • Memories to share and who will share them
  • Important people to include in the service
  • Music & reading ideas for the visitation and ceremony
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Honorary Roles at the Funeral

Consider including those who loved the deceased by asking them to be a part of the ceremony. You will want to choose pallbearers (usually 6), honorary pallbearers, ushers, readers, and the singer or musicians.

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Personal Items to Display

These items could include photos, collections, hobby paraphernalia, artwork and many other objects that tangibly depict the life of the person who died. Any item that is meaningful and appropriate for display should be considered.

Creating Meaningful Funeral Ceremonies: A Guide for Families

This compassionate, friendly workbook affirms the importance of the personalized funeral ritual and helps families create a ceremony that will be both healing and meaningful for years to come. Designed to complement the role of the clergy, celebrant and funeral director in the funeral planning process, A Guide for Families walks readers through the many decisions they will make at the time of a death.