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.
Click on the tabs at the left to learn more about each
element of a meaningful service.
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.
Including readings helps those attending the funeral to acknowledge the reality of the death and to move toward the pain of the loss.
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.
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?”
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
The following ideas will help you get started personalizing 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.
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.
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.