Basics to Consider
Over the past five years as a hospice chaplain and bereavement manager, I have had the privilege of meeting with many families to help them create remembrance, memorial, funeral and burial services. Since working with families, I now have the conviction that difficult experiences can become the most meaningful ones. The understanding that we work collaboratively is what counts.
The services and celebrations in Part 2 of this book represent a wide variety of cultures and traditions. I have collected them over the years and now offer them here as examples in the hopes of helping as you create a befitting service for a loved one or yourself. I believe each service, in its own way, honors the person for whom it was written and holds integrity for who they were and the values they held.
To give you some direction let me begin by sharing what I believe the service can be. Think of these ten points as a primer to honor your loved one with reverence, light-heartedness and grace.
#1 Find a Facilitator
For many people, the idea of planning an event, large or small, can be overwhelming. In these cases, a facilitator, officiant or celebrant can help take the pressure off by helping you work through the details. I am often invited to be the officiant because, even after deep sharing by the family in such an intimate and personal time, I am a bit removed. I am able to step back and view the bigger picture.
If you want to be very hands-off, that is also okay. Alternatively, if you would like to handle just a certain segment of the planning, your officiant can work with you in that particular area and handle the rest.
There are professional officiants who can facilitate the service for a fee, honorarium or donation. My personal practice is to not accept remuneration for services. Instead, I invite them to make a donation in the name of their loved one to a charity close to my heart. On the other hand, perhaps you know a respected teacher, leader, or clergy person who will do this for you. Whomever you choose to facilitate your service, look for someone who has the special ability to do such work. Their skillset should include the ability to hold the sense of the room, keep everyone on track, keep the service moving, look for the comfort of others, and someone with a public speaker’s ability.
#2 Date, Time and Budget
Once you have the principle players and have made initial contact with those who must be present, you can pin down a date and time. Will it be a soon-after-death funeral or a sometime-later memorial service or celebration of life? Your officiant can help you decide.
Your budget may be a concern. How much you can reasonably afford or want to spend? Doing so will help you narrow down your choices for the details of the celebration such as the type of venue. Don’t let your emotions carry you to debt you’ll regret later.
#3 Make it Personal
I believe the funeral or burial service can be highly personal. Your desirers, your relationship to the deceased, and what the deceased wanted or might have wanted will shape the decisions you make. You will want the service to reflect the unique life and personality of the person as well as their values. Therefore, you should imagine and plan the service that you or the person who died would consider the most meaningful way to say "goodbye" -- something that captures the unique qualities of the deceased; reflects their and your own personal, religious or spiritual beliefs and life values.
Decide on how you will personalize the event. There are an unlimited number of choices. You might create a tribute movie or slide show or display personal photos. If the person you are remembering was a collector, display some of their items on a table. A common way to honour the living is to specify charities and organizations to make a donation in memory of the deceased. Friends and relatives who might never consider donating to a certain charity will often honour such requests
Remember, it is okay to have fun and gaiety as well as somber serious parts within the service. You do not want to make the person you are remembering a perfect saint now that they are dead. Neither do you need to bring up all their shortcomings and deficits. Allow their humanness to shine through in whatever you say and do. When all is said and done, hopefully you will have produced a beautiful piece that expresses who you and they truly are.
#4 Choose the Venue
When selecting a location to hold the service it is helpful to estimate how many people might attend. A head count is important for selecting the right sized and type of venue. Keep in mind who is coming. Not all friends and family may be able to participate in some locations, due to physical limitations, especially the elderly or very young.
You are not limited in your choice of venue. Think outside the box. Maybe you are thinking of a ceremony at a location other than a church or funeral home. You can certainly use a funeral home but you can also choose to have your event at your home. In the times of our forbearers, having a funeral in the home, or at the graveside, was common. One of my earliest remembrances is as a four-year-old playing in my grandmother’s living room where my grandfather was laid out in his best clothes for an old fashion “viewing” before his burial in the church cemetery. It has only been since the later twentieth century that the funeral home has taken over the role previously done by the family. There is no reason not to hold a home funeral, and there are morticians who will assist you.
Do not forget to consider unconventional locations as well. For example, if the deceased was a film lover you might consider renting a theater. A local park, a ball field or another location that held meaning for the person you are honoring are all possibilities.
#5 Creating Sacred Space
Wherever you choose, be it a sanctuary, fire hall, field, crematorium or gravesite, you can create what I refer to as “sacred space.” Your aim is to create an atmosphere and space so that those attending will connect into a coherent gathering. Seek a space where there can exist a spaciousness; where individuals can sit side-by-side in their expressions of grief.
Nursing home community rooms, church and synagogue social rooms, hotel ballrooms, and conference rooms that may at first appear sterile can all be configured to provide space where family and friends can express the spiritual part of themselves. With a simple rearranging of seating, selection of restful warm lighting and helpful props, you can create a physical space where they can glimpse and experience a sacred moment. Consider the use of flowers and lighting. All this can come together to facilitate those attending to move past the pain and shock to find comfort and peace. Your preparations say to those who come that “something holy is happening here”. With a well-prepared physical space you can plan a unique, memorable tribute to your loved one.
I like what Peg Streep has to say about the importance of creating sacred space. Streep found North Americans to be unusual in their separation of the sacred from everyday life. She states that people are looking for a vision of life that is not chopped into a million pieces. They are trying, she says, to break down the distinction between their spiritual selves and their mundane selves. [FN] A funeral is a moment when this can happen.
My preference is to have the decreased present in some physical form. This might be the body or cremains or, when those are not available, a photo or portrait. Whatever you choose place the remembrance in the front or center of the room so mourners have a mutual place to focus their grief. One informal home funeral where I served as an officiant used their coffee table as an altar and placed upon it the cremains along with a photo, some colorful fall leaves and river rocks representative of their mother’s love of nature.
More and more people are turning to destination settings for a memorial. Many beautiful facilities such as gardens and greenhouses, museums, clubhouses, parks, aquariums, and wineries, offer private event rentals that are perfectly suitable for a remembrance of life. When my father of 89 years died the family decided to hold the service at the local fire hall. In his younger days Dad was a volunteer firefighter. Therefore, the location was fitting. Whatever space you choose, let it be representative of the moment. Your own backyard, a garden or an elaborate cathedral can all become a space for reflection that holds meaning and importance.
A table of memories in an accessible location within the space is a wonderful way to personalize the space. Invite those who are coming to bring a variety of items. Photographs, hobbies, pictures of pets, awards from work, sports or community service, favorite books and sayings, artistic creations of your loved one, recipes, and sports jerseys all say, “This is who they are”.
#6 Write it Down
My preference is to have a written program and give it to people as they arrive. This allows the grieving to scan the service and prepare themselves for what’s coming. No surprises. I have found that this helps them feel more at ease and part of the observance.
I usually print the service on a single heavy stock 9 X12 sheet of paper, front and back. This makes the printed document easy to handle. It does not fly away if outdoors, and remains noiseless. Employ the largest print type possible for easy reading.
Not all that is said and done needs to be printed on the program, especially if it does not all fit. However, you will want the major movements of the service noted, and any music played or performed, and perhaps a poem or prayer that attendees can take away with them for reflection after the service. It is a nice keepsake for the guest to take home.
#7 Be Mindful of the Many Traditions
Yes, you want the service to reflect the now deceased or yourself, but you will also want to make sure the family and friends who gather feel comfortable in the setting and find comfort within the ceremony. It can be a roller-coaster ride to help all who attend to feel included and not excluded.
Most families who come seeking my counsel want a service that will minister to a variety of family members representing different cultural and religious beliefs and traditions. One of the very first families I worked with included a brother from the Jewish tradition, a sister who professed Christianity and a second sister who shared she was “spiritual but not religious”.
Within the give and take of our time together we were able to find common ground. Each sibling was able to be open to hear the other’s needs and concerns. In the end, they crafted a service that reflected each of their traditions as well as honored their loved one. The brother and sisters felt heard and, in the end, left our preparations comforted and at peace with the ceremony they had designed.
#8 Watch Your Time
You will want to watch the time; the length of the service. I usually keep it to a half hour and no longer than forty-five minutes. Any longer can feel like an eternity and be hard for grieving friends and family to navigate.
This is when an officiant who is not a member of the family or a close friend comes in handy. They have a way of steering individuals who become long-winded to keep what they have to share or say within the designated time limit. Moreover, if necessary, the officiant can cut the person off. Whereas, if you as a family member does so, you may have to put up with hurt feelings later.
#9 Decide on Rituals and Symbolic Actions
I always encourage families to include community based or personal rituals in the service. They weave the past, present and future into life’s ongoing story. Symbolic actions help us face and mark the shock, triumphs and mysteries of everyday life by giving us tangible memories that we can hold onto. Rituals can be composed of symbols, words and gestures that give expression to what is beyond understanding or explanation. They can help us look at life, and in this case death, in new ways, and make sense of it in the process. Our physical symbolic expressions, symbols, and movements within the service, as well as our words, are important
An easily familiar ritual is the lighting of candles. This can signify that the service is beginning. Some may identify the lighting as an indication that they have entered a sacred space and time. Light multiple candles, each representative of an ancestor, or a credo such as “Faith, Hope, Love”. You can customize your candle lighting for your own purposes. You’ll find examples in Part 2.
How did your loved one prefer to spend their time? A sky lantern or butterfly release, a group motorcycle or bicycle ride, a canned food drive to give to the homeless shelter, or a group walk are all examples of activities reflective of a life. The important thing is that the activity is an appropriate tribute to your loved one.
In the end, all this being said, ritual or activity need not always represent something. Sometimes the reality works the other way. The meaning develops out of the doing. Our outward actions often reflect our inward state. This means you can allow each attendee to interpret the movements, actions and rituals in their own way. Ceremony and ritual speak when words fail and create tremendous impact.
#10 Encourage Participation
I’ve stated this earlier, but let me say it again. Encourage participation. I’ve found that it is more important to engage families in the moment instead of fearing their reactions and trying to shield them from the reality of the death.
In planning, invite friends and family to sing a song, give a reading or personal anecdote. This is the time when someone may have written a story about their loved one’s life. On the other hand, you may want to go around and invite the telling and sharing of short memories. If specific individuals ask to share their thoughts offer them some guidance on the type of story they might contribute.
We all recall times when something unplanned or unforeseen happened during a wedding or funeral service. A baby cries, the flowers get knocked over, a major player arrives late or someone faints. Ignoring the unplanned event or situation — the elephant in the room — never works. Instead, the experienced officiant may comment on the baby crying, saying that it reminds us that even as we weep quietly perhaps the child is expressing our inner turmoil. When the uncle takes ill and the ambulance is called, pause the service and suggest the remainder of the party take a time of quiet prayer on her behalf. Once a young woman singing a solo of Amazing Grace, broke down in tears, whereas I stepped over, placed my arm around her and picked up the song. Others joined in. It truly became a moment of grace.
Typical Components of the Service
There are a number of components that typically make up a funeral service, memorial, remembrance, ash-scattering ceremony or celebration of life. The parts tend to go in this order, but need not do so. Each ceremony is unique. I’ve placed here a template to get you started. Look them over, then turn to the following chapters for examples of each part.
Music for Gathering
Welcome, Share Information and Announcements
Opening Rituals and Actions
Reflections on the Occasion and Time of Tribute
Autobiography and Life Story
Remembrances from Family and Friends
Poems, Prayers, and Readings
Closing Words, Blessing, Benediction
Music for Departure