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Planning a Meaningful Funeral

Meaningful funerals do not just happen. They are well-thought-out ceremonies that require your focus and your time. But the planning need not be a burden if you keep in mind you as officiate will guide and help the family through this process, and the energy you expend now to create a personalized, inclusive ceremony will help them and other mourners for the rest of their lives.

The following list is intended to empower you to create a funeral ceremony that will be meaningful to family and friends.

Remember: Funerals are for the survivors. They need to understand:

1. You have the right to make use of a ceremony.

The funeral ceremony does more than acknowledge the death of someone loved. It helps provide you with the support of caring people. It is a way for you and others who loved the person who died to say, We mourn this death and we need each other during this painful time. When a person is born we have a ceremony. When a person gets married we have a ceremony. When a person dies we have a ceremony. Ceremonies are the milestones of life.

2. You have the freedom to plan a funeral ceremony that will meet the unique needs of your family.

Funeral ceremonies are equally important if someone wants to be buried or if someone wants to be cremated. While you may find comfort and meaning in a traditional funeral ceremony, you also have the right to create a ceremony that reflects the unique personality of your family and the person who died. Do not be afraid to add personal touches to even traditional funerals.

3. You have the freedom to ask friends and family members to be involved in the funeral.

For many, funerals are most meaningful when they involve a variety of people who loved the person who died. You might ask one or several others to give a reading, deliver a eulogy, play music or plan some other event that will be part of the funeral.

4. You have the freedom to view the body before and during the funeral ceremony.

While viewing the body is not appropriate for all cultures and faiths, many people find it helps them acknowledge the reality of death. It also provides a way to say good-bye to the person who died. There are many benefits to viewings and open casket ceremonies.

5. You have the freedom to embrace your pain during the funeral ceremony.

The funeral may be one of the most painful but also the most cathartic moments of your life. Allow yourself to embrace your pain and to express it openly. Do not be ashamed to cry.

6. You have the freedom to plan a funeral ceremony that will reflect your spirituality.

If faith is a part of your life, the funeral is an ideal time for you to uphold and find comfort in that faith. Those with alternative beliefs have the freedom to plan a ceremony that meets their needs.

7. You have the freedom to search for meaning before, during and after the funeral ceremony.

When someone loved dies, you may find yourself questioning the very meaning of life and death. This is natural and in no way wrong.

8. You have the freedom to make use of memory during the funeral ceremony.

Memories are one of the best legacies that exist after the death of someone loved. You will always remember. Ask those attending the funeral to share with you their most special memory of the person who died.

9. You have the freedom to be tolerant of your physical and emotional limits.

Especially in the days immediately following the death, your feelings of loss and sadness will probably leave you feeling fatigued. Respect what your body and mind are telling you. Get daily rest. Eat balanced meals.

10. You have the freedom to move toward your grief and heal.

While the funeral ceremony is an event, your grief is not. Reconciling your grief will not happen quickly. Be patient and tolerant with yourself. Neither you, nor those around you, must forget that the death of someone loved changes your life forever.

Helping The Family Personalize the Funeral

If you are in the midst of planning a funeral, you may be feeling overwhelmed right now. Many details must be attended to. Many people must be contacted. Many decisions must be made. Your natural and necessary feelings of grief make these tasks even more difficult.

Still, I encourage you to slow down, take a deep breath and focus on what is really important-what is essential-about the funeral you are planning. What is essential is the life that was lived and the impact that life had on family and friends. To honor that unique life, the funeral must also be unique. Over and over families tell me that the best funerals are those that are personalized.

Consider the unique life of the person who died

As you begin to think about personalizing the funeral, turn your thoughts to your memories of the person who died. Think about his or her qualities and what he or she meant to others. Consider his or her passions, hobbies, pastimes, likes, dislikes.

You might try making a list of the following:

  • attributes or passions of the person who died
  • special memories to share
  • achievements of the person who died
  • important people to include somehow

Personalize the elements of ceremony.

Once you've given thought to the unique life and personality of the person who died, it's time to incorporate those memories into the funeral plan. 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 this special person.

A good way to personalize the funeral is to personalize the common elements of funeral ceremonies:

  • the visitation
  • the eulogy
  • the music
  • the readings
  • the procession
  • the committal service
  • the gathering or reception

Each of these elements can be personalized in many ways. If you're having a visitation, for example, you could set up a display of photos, memorabilia, collections or artwork. You could do the same at the gathering following the ceremony. Choose music that was meaningful to the person who died or to your family. Select poetry and other readings that speak to the life of this unique person. Ask the people who were closest to the person who died to participate by playing music, giving readings, being pallbearers, making food for the gathering-whatever suits their own unique talents.

The eulogy is especially important

When personalized, the eulogy is perhaps the most memorable and healing element of the funeral ceremony. Also called the remembrance, the eulogy is the speech during the funeral ceremony that talks about the life and character of the person who died. The eulogy acknowledges the unique life of the person who died and affirms the significance of that life for all who shared in it.

The eulogy can be delivered by a clergyperson, 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.

More ideas for personalizing a funeral service

The funeral service you have should be as special as the life you will be remembering. Here are a few more ideas:

Write a personalized obituary. Some newspapers allow you to express a little more than the usual who/what/why/where/when. Appoint a creative "word" person in the family to handle this task.

Create a column in the guest book for people to jot down a memory after they sign their name.

Display personal items or hobby paraphernalia on a table at the visitation, the ceremony and/or the gathering afterwards.

Have more than one person deliver the eulogy. Ask several people to share memories and talk about different aspects of the person who died.

Choose clothing for the person who died that reflects his or her life, interests, passions, etc. The clothing needn't be formal or somber!

Create a personalized program for the ceremony. You can include photos, poems, anecdotes-whatever you'd like! Your funeral director can help you with this.

Show a videotape or slide show of the person's life during the funeral. Pictures tell a thousand words!

Ask children if they would like to write a letter or draw a picture for the person who died. Their "goodbyes" can then be placed in the casket alongside the body.

Select flowers that were meaningful to the person who died. A simple arrangement of freshly-cut lilacs, for example, might be perfect.

At the funeral, invite people to write down a memory of the person who died. Appoint someone to gather and read the memories aloud.

Create a funeral that captures the personality of 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.

Display photos of the person who died at the visitation, the ceremony and/or the gathering. In fact, putting together a photo collage can be a very healing experience for the family in the days before the funeral.

Use lots of music, especially if music was meaningful to the person who died or is to your family. Music can be played at the visitation, the committal service and the gathering as well as the funeral service itself!

Create a personalized grave marker. Include a poem, a drawing or a short phrase that defines the person who died.

A Final Word

I hope you have been encouraged in your efforts to create a personalized funeral ceremony. While it may seem overwhelming right now, I promise you this: a well-planned, inclusive, personalized funeral will touch your family, the friends of the person who died and you yourself deeply. The funeral will help you begin to heal and will provide you with great comfort and satisfaction in the months and years to come.

About the Author- Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt is a noted author, educator and practicing grief counselor. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado and presents numerous workshops each year across North America.