Funerals and other ceremonies at a time of death help us process our most profound thoughts and feelings. They make a significant difference in helping us channel our grief toward healing.
When everyday words and actions are inadequate, the ritual of ceremony provides a needed structure of what to say and do. Funerals also help us acknowledge the reality of the death, remember the life that was lived, support one another in our grief, express our grief outside of ourselves, consider the meaning of life, and begin the long, hard process of coming to transcend our grief and move toward a new wholeness.
The following topics answer many common questions about funerals and funeral planning. We hope the answers help you create transformative funerals when someone you love dies.
“People who take the time and make the effort to create meaningful funeral arrangements when someone loved dies often end up making new arrangements in their own lives. They remember and reconnect with what is most meaningful to them in life. They strengthen bonds with family members and friends. They emerge changed, more authentic and purposeful. The best funerals remind us how we should live.”— Dr. Alan Wolfelt
Writing a good obituary
If you’ve read many obituaries, you’ll see that they often follow a certain formula. A good way to get started is to follow a template or examples you find online. Your funeral director can also help. Like a good funeral, a good obituary feels personal. It uses language that sounds right to the family. It tells the story of the person’s life, and it expresses how family and friends felt about the person. Longer and more detailed is generally better, though newspapers charge for the space, so costs also have to be considered.
If you’re writing an obituary, ask other friends and family members for help. Gather many people’s ideas and insights, if possible. Then show your draft around, soliciting feedback and making sure you didn’t leave out something important. Finally, try to choose a photo of the person that captures their personality. A candid shot often has the most impact, though the photo must also be crisp and high resolution.
Why the funeral is important
For thousands of years, funerals have been how we express our beliefs, thoughts, and feelings about the death of someone we love. The funeral ceremony helps us acknowledge that someone we love has died. It allows us to say goodbye. It helps us remember the person who died and gives us a time and place to share those memories with others. It provides a social support system for everyone grieving the death. It gives us a focused time for us to think about the meaning of life and death. And it offers a sense of continuity and hope for the living.
Funerals may be about the person who died, but they are for the living. A good funeral puts you on the path to good grief and healthy mourning.
A good funeral director will not only walk your family through the funeral and burial process, but he will also help you make choices along the way that will help your family create a meaningful funeral and begin the healing process. If you haven’t planned a funeral before, the funeral director should educate you about all of the parts and pieces of the funeral and why they’re important. He should help you personalize the funeral as much as possible so that it is represents the person who died and is meaningful to your family.
Meaningful funerals are personalized funerals. They tell the story of the life of the person who died, and they include as many people as possible in the planning and activities of the funeral. They also represent your family’s beliefs and values.
Think of the funeral as a gift to the person who died. It is your chance to think about and express the value of the life that was lived. It is also your chance to say goodbye.
When possible (and culturally appropriate), I always encourage families to spend time with the body of the person who died. Your family can have a private visitation only, or you can also have a public visitation, which gives community members the same chance to gather around the person who died. Over and over again families have told me that spending time with the body helped them come to terms with the death and begin to make the transition from life before the death to life after the death. Although it can be painful at first, time spent with the body is usually extremely healing in the long run.
Any child old enough to love is old enough to grieve and mourn. Including children in the funeral process acknowledges that they, too, are part of the community of mourners. It mentors them in being open and honest about death and grief. It also gives them an opportunity to learn what the normal, natural process of what happens after someone dies. Consider asking the children to participate in the funeral in some way. They might sing, light a candle, or contribute a drawing to be placed inside the casket.
If you will be busy planning the funeral and talking with guests, consider asking a trusted family friend to guide the children through the funeral process. They do need someone to explain things at their developmental level of understanding as well as pay attention to their needs. For example, during a visitation, children need to be able to take play breaks and have a snack.
Unless you’ve attended a number of funerals, you might feel unsure about what to say or how to act. Like other public ceremonies, such as graduations and weddings, funerals generally follow a certain protocol. The type of ceremony will depend on whether or not it is a religious service and if so, which religion or denomination. It will also depend on whether the body will be present, if it is a ceremony soon after the death or a memorial service weeks or months later, and if it will be formal or informal. If you’re unsure, ask a family member beforehand about what the service will be like.
The obituary or death notice notifies the community of the date, time, and location of the funeral and visitation, if any. A good rule of thumb is to dress as if you were attending a wedding in that same venue, though colors and patterns are usually more subdued. In general, funerals held in churches are more formal. It’s customary to bring a sympathy card with a personal note inscribed to the family. Memorial donations can be included inside the card, if appropriate.
Most of all, keep in mind that you are attending the funeral to honor the person who died and to show your support for the family and close friends. The most important thing is your presence. If you attend, you can rest assured that you are doing the right thing. Try to attend all the parts of this service, if possible, which may include visitation, the ceremony, the committal, and a reception. If you’re unsure what to say to the primary mourners, it’s fine just to say, “I’m so sorry.” It’s not that you have something to apologize for; it’s just that you’re sorry they’re having to go through this painful time. Try listening more than talking. Give the gift of your quiet empathy and understanding. If you have a good memory of the person who died that you can share, by all means, share it. The reception after the funeral is often a time for telling stories.
Ceremonies after the funeral
Long after the funeral, you can still call on the power of ceremony to help you remember and mourn the person who died. Consider having a small ceremony on the anniversary of the death, the person’s birthday, or a holiday that’s meaningful to your family. You can gather at the cemetery or scattering site and join together in prayer or song. Or you can hold a tree planting or candle-lighting ceremony at your home.
Ceremonies are helpful in grief because they give us a time and place to express our thoughts and feelings. They give us a structure for mourning. They also bring people together to support one another.