The Funeral Service

Services have changed.  Some people still have a traditional funeral.  Others choose to have a memorial or celebration of life service.  Yet others, have both.  Instead of the somber mood of grief that usually surrounds a traditional funeral, people are creating events that celebrate life.

Robert Tisch, who ran the Lowes Corporation, had a marching band at his memorial service.  Source: NY Times 7/20/06

Wedding planners have often been used to handle all the details of that happy day.  Now, determined not to follow cookie cutter plans but to do things their own way, people are beginning to use funeral planners to handle all of the details of their last official act or the celebration of life of a deceased loved one.  There’s even a company, “Everest Funeral Package”, that calls itself the first nationwide funeral concierge service.
Whether you use a funeral planner or handle it all yourself, you may want to customize the rites and add personal touches that uniquely fit the personality, hobbies, family, career or interests of the person whose funeral it is.  Perhaps the service can be enriched with photos, videos, messages, music and poetry.

Regardless of the mood of the event, there are steps that must be taken:

Making Arrangements

The person who makes the arrangements should be someone who is sensitive to the family’s wishes, is organized, has a penchant for detail and can execute the plan well.  If at all possible, there should be a point person assigned to oversee and coordinate the arrangements.  This person does not have to be a close family member.  Often mortuaries and/or churches have a staff person who can assist or actually take care of the coordination of the service and celebration once the family has decided what is to be done.  This comes with a cost and that cost would need to be carefully reviewed before making a final commitment.  As mentioned above, another option is to hire a funeral planner.  Be mindful of the expenses associated with the arrangements made – they add up and can get out of control very quickly.  Emotions are at a peak and can overrule good judgment as decisions are made about what to do.

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Planning the Service

The person in charge of the arrangements should find out whether the decedent had preplanned the funeral before making final choices.  If the decedent preplanned the funeral, the funeral agent should take steps to carry out his or her wishes.  This person should also check to see whether the deceased is eligible for a military burial before finalizing the arrangements.

Depending on the lead time and the complexity of what the family wants or the decedent desired will shape who will plan and actually execute the plan.  Not uncommon is a division of labor approach including several family members.  But there still needs to someone in charge to make sure that everything is handled.

The first decision to be made is what type of service to have.

Unless the decedent made known what type of service was wanted, the family and/or the person in charge will have to make the decision(s).  Here are some possible choices:

  • Formal visitation (common in some religions)
  • A funeral service
  • A funeral service with a reception following it
  • A memorial service
  • A memorial service with a reception following it
  • A graveside service
  • A graveside service with a reception following it
  • Both funeral and graveside services
  • Both funeral and graveside services with a reception following them
  • A military service
  • A military service with a separate memorial or celebration of life service

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The next choice is where and when to have the service(s).

Once you decide on the type of service(s) and the budget is set, there are other considerations that have to be taken into account before you can determine where to hold the services.

How many people will be in attendance?  That will dictate the size of the facility needed.

When is the facility available?  It may not be available at the time you would like to have the service.  And is the person you want to officiate at the service available at the same time?  He or she may be booked at another event and you may have to settle for a different time.  In selecting the date and time for the service, take into consideration travel arrangements of family members who live far away.  You may have to allow an extra day for them to arrive unless religious restrictions forbid this delay.

Can the facility accommodate the type of presentation you want to include?  For example, if you want to show a video about the decedent, check to be sure the facility has the necessary projection equipment.

Does the facility you have selected have the auxiliary services that you may need?

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Choose the person to officiate at the service(s).

If the deceased was a member of a church, synagogue or other religious institution, you could ask a religious leader from that institution to officiate.  If the deceased had no contact with such an institution, you can ask the funeral home to recommend someone.  If that person did not know the deceased, you will have to provide information about the deceased to be included in a message that will be delivered by him or her during the service(s).  The person you choose will play a large part in determining the format of the service.

Then the service has to be planned.

A family meeting with the person who will be officiating at the service(s) is a good place to start.  This meeting usually includes the immediate family and will probably be an exhausting, emotional and sometimes out of control experience; being prepared will help to ease some of the pain and avoid upsets.  If the deceased did not attend religious services, the person who is officiating (pastor, priest, rabbi or funeral director) may not know the decedent.  Check to see what information that person expects before you get to the meeting.

You need to decide whether you will have a traditional funeral service.  It is not necessary unless the decedent had a religious affiliation that would require a certain type of service.  Today, it is common to either forgo the traditional funeral service in favor of a celebration of life/memorial service or to have a funeral and/or graveside service for immediate family and close friends followed by a reception for a larger group.  Yet another way is to have a funeral or a graveside service shortly after the death of a loved one and then a larger memorial or celebration of life service at a later date.

If the decedent was cremated there can also be a separate service for the scattering of the ashes and there can be a luncheon or reception following that event.  Or you may decide to make this an occasion for only the immediate family.

You need to decide how long the service will be;  though some religious services run longer, you should try to keep it no longer than an hour.  Shorter is usually better for this type of service.

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If you decide to have a traditional funeral service there may be very little room for creativity.  For example, many churches require that their pastor be present and participate in the service if the decedent or spouse is not a member, even though a different pastor may have been selected to lead the service.  Many churches have certain scriptures and/or procedures that must be adhered to.  However, if you have a celebration of life/memorial service, you can be as creative as your imagination and the money available allow.

Harry Ewell had been an ice cream vendor in Rockland, MA. When he died, his old ice cream truck led the funeral procession and dispensed Popsicles at the end. Source: NY Times 7/20/06

Florida real estate developer, Ed Peck, built a green-pillared, neo-classical style mausoleum with a granite patio, meditation room, doors of hand-cast bronze and a chandelier to house himself and his family. Cost – $400,000! Source: NY Times 4/17/06

Russian River Valley, CA residents Judith Olney and Marc Boomersbach built a special nook in their home for their favorite sculpture which, unbeknownst to visitors, will eventually be the cremation urn for their ashes. Source: NY Times 1/18/07

Sandy R’s parents died within 100 days of each other and were both cremated. Sandy and her siblings decided to have a commemorative bench built and the ashes placed inside of it. The bench was placed lakeside on a piece of family property where it can be seen from their homes and visited by their family.

Estee Lauder, the former cosmetics queen, had waiters passing out chocolate covered marshmallows on silver trays. Source: NY Times 7/20/06

Decisions also need to be made about any special songs or music to be included in the service, any readings or poems to be read, other speakers who will participate and any photos of the deceased you want to display during the service(s).

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Creating a Printed Program

Check to see what capabilities are offered by the facility where you plan to have your service.  Some facilities have complete printing facilities, such as scanning of photos and four-color printing and will be there to assist what they may want for the program.  Most, however, will only provide a simple text message covering the flow of the ceremony that will then be printed in the actual program.  There are usually no set ground rules as to what the family offers as a memory of the loved one; it is strictly a personal choice.

From a practical standpoint, the program is usually printed on an 8 1/2 x 11″ sheet folded in half with a text insert outlining the flow of the service.  Quantity will depend upon how well the decedent and family are known in the community or how many people you expect to attend.  Age of the decedent will also play a part.  It is best to plan at least 50 – 100 overprints.  They can always be sent to those who were unable to attend the service.

You need to decide whether to use what is available to you from the religious institution or funeral home, keeping it very simple and cost efficient.  Or you can print a program that includes photos and information about the decedent and then use an insert for the program flow or a song sheet.  Again, your choice may be determined by what the family wants to convey and/or by the budget available for printing.

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Notifying Family, Friends and Colleagues

This is always an emotion drain, especially for the immediate family.  While there are those who should be contacted personally, it is acceptable to hear from someone slightly removed from the family.  Regardless of who is making the calls, it is an exhausting task so the list should be divided among family members and close friends.  Whomever the task is assigned to must be informed, prepared to answer questions, a good listener and able to convey comfort to the person just receiving the sad news.  Whenever possible, accept offers of assistance from caring family and friends; this is part of their healing process.  Take care and only assign to them tasks that would not create a dilemma if they were not performed.

  • When did the death occur?
  • Where did the death occur?
  • How did the death occur?
  • Had the decedent been sick for a long time?
  • How is the family doing?
  • Does the family want visitors?
  • How can I help: food, lodging, childcare, airport pickup, man the phone, funeral service, reception?
  • Will there be a service?
  • Will there be visitation or viewing hours?
  • When will the funeral be?
  • Where will it be?
  • Can I send flowers, cards or a donation?  Note that flowers are generally not sent to Jewish synagogues or Catholic churches.
  • Where should I send my gift?

As people are notified, keep a headcount.  This will be helpful in determining the size of the facility and the amount of refreshments that will be needed.

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Planning a Reception

If you decide to have a reception, budget and headcount are two things that should be considered.  They may impact whether the reception is held at the same place as the services or at another location. If the reception is not at the same place as the services, the location should ideally be as close as possible to where the service is being held. In some cases, the reception is only a small one held in a relative’s home for family members and close friends.

Preparing the Obituary

Many people today are writing their own obituary as part of planning their funeral.  If the decedent left written instructions regarding their funeral arrangements, the family can use the information provided for assistance in writing the obituary.  It is not uncommon today to use a less clinical approach than was used years ago.  Generally, the obituary is also reprinted or incorporate as part of the program used for the service.

The funeral provider will usually offer assistance in writing an obituary and submitting it to local newspapers.  Many papers today accept obituaries as some type of email or online submission.  Like other parts of a funeral, there may be charges for placing an obituary as either a flat fee or based on the number of words and photos contained in the obituary.  Make sure the fees are understood before agreeing to its placement in the newspaper as these fees add up very quickly.

Some newspapers also offer an online obituary service.  This service allows guests to view the obituary and sign an online guest book.  Again, find out what the associated fees will be before making the decision to use this service.

It should be noted that some insurance companies require a copy of the obituary along with a certified copy of the death certificate.

When Art Buchwald, the newspaper columnist died early in 2007, he announced his own death in a video obituary he had previously recorded.  It began, “Hi, I’m Art Buchwald and I just died.”

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Selecting a Eulogist and Writing the Eulogy

The person chosen to deliver a eulogy should probably be someone who had a relationship with the decedent.  However, there is no rule on that person should be.  The family can choose anyone who they would like to honor and who they feel will do a good job.

A eulogy can be very hard to write.  There’s so much the writer wants to say about the deceased.  However, the length should be kept to five minutes or less.  The eulogy can include general information about the deceased – key points in his or her life, accomplishments, milestones.  In that way, it’s very similar to an obituary.  The person delivering the eulogy should explain what the person who died meant to him or her.  It doesn’t have to be all serious.  There can be anecdotes about funny or memorable things the deceased did or stories or experiences that they shared.

Choosing Pallbearers

Pallbearers are usually chosen by the family of the deceased and are most often friends, relatives such as sons and grandsons, church members or business associates.  There are no specific rules about who to choose.  If there are not six people that are able to perform the function, the funeral home may be able to help.

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Here are some other suggestions:

  • You can hire a professional producer/writer to create a video obituary or a video memorial for the deceased.  Just one thing – any professional video will be expensive!  If you like this idea, think about producing your own video and getting friends to help.
  • You may want to plan a custom memorial service in a place that means a great deal to you (or to the deceased) – a park, an art gallery, a beach or a vacation house and that, incidentally, will probably cost less than a service in a mortuary.
  • Instead of buying lots of expensive flowers for the funeral or memorial service, friends or relatives can be asked to decorate with special reminders they have about the deceased’s life – photos, mementos from a sport that was liked, i.e. a tennis racquet or golf club, awards that were won or even some favorite foods. It will be a lot cheaper and more personal.
  • If you are planning your funeral in advance, think about leaving a video of yourself for your friends and family to show at your funeral. If you’re planning a funeral for someone who has died, perhaps you can put together a short video about the deceased.
  • If you graduated from a university, you may be able to arrange to be buried on the grounds of your old alma mater. For example, if you went to Duke University in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, you can be buried or have your ashes scattered in the Sarah Duke Gardens there; according to Paul Kartcheske of Duke Gardens, “it’s still very natural and doesn’t look like you’re going into a cemetery. All you need is $25,000!”
  • If you want the ashes scattered at a place you can’t get to, there may be a company to help you. The International Scattering Society functions as a travel agency for cremains; they will handle all of the legal paperwork and logistics and take the ashes where you want them to go. One man wanted his mother’s ashes taken to Ireland; May 2007 the ashes were scattered there.
  • If you live in California, you might want to check out Final Flights, a company which uses its Piper Cherokee plane to scatter ashes above places like La Jolla, Big Bear and Catalina Islands.
  • The Eternal Ascent Society of Crystal River, Florida has a unique ash scattering company. Cremated remains are launched inside of a large helium balloon. When it reaches a height of five miles, it pops and releases the ashes inside.
  • Eternal Reefs, Inc. has a unique use for your ashes. You can choose to become a part of a memorial reef that has been built to replace a damaged or destroyed natural reef. These reefs are located along the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean and are created from balls made up of cremains and marine-grade concrete.

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