How to Plan a Funeral or Memorial Service

There are many contributing factors that influence the planning of a funeral, memorial service or celebration of life such as customs determined by religion, culture or geography. There is no right way to plan it. For most, it is the place to celebrate the life of our loved one and help us say goodbye — and sometimes there is no easy way to do that. In the wake of grief, it can feel beyond our abilities to manage logistics of an event. Here is some advice to help you through this challenging time.

Make your “first calls”

When someone passes away, there is a lot of information to communicate and this task can be overwhelming. One recommendation from those who have been there before is to enlist help for fielding or making phone calls.

Find a funeral director

In cases where a loved one has suddenly and unexpectedly died, there is sometimes no plan in place. Calling a funeral director will then help guide you through the next steps. John C. Carmon, CFSP, the previous President of the National Funeral Directors Association, recommends that you should “choose a funeral director as carefully as you would a clergyman, lawyer or doctor — they are not all the same. A member of the NFDA is a good place to start as they have made a commitment to lifelong learning, high ethical standards, and placing your needs first.” He also said the job of a funeral director includes giving cost estimates based on options near you and what you envision for the funeral. They may also help with filing for insurance, come up with an itemized memorandum of costs, as well as many other jobs.  

Choosing a funeral director can be difficult, but Carmon suggests starting with “recommendations from clergy and friends who have gone through a loss […] You may have a local funeral director who has been the go-to person in your community for years and the decision may be simple.” When speaking with the funeral director, Carmon says to “be clear about your needs and wishes.” Remember, funeral directors are there to make your life easier through this incredibly difficult time. Here is a link from the National Funeral Director Association for finding a funeral director near you.

Identify wishes + limitations

Before making immediate decisions, think about how the event should look and feel. Although creating a vision may be difficult, articulating wishes while also considering possible limitations is important. Some things to consider are location, number of guests and budget. 

Also remember to take your time before making final decisions. John Carmon of the NFDA believes that “the most common pitfall may be that [families] must make many decisions right away. We always encourage a family to take their time and if it takes a few days to be ready to think and discuss their choices, that is fine.”

Choose a service option

There are different service options and it is up to you how you want your loved one to be honored. For example, a viewing or visitation is typically held in a funeral facility or private home, and the casket can be present or not. Viewings and visitations are usually intimate and informal, in comparison with a typical funeral. These services usually have the casket or urn with the deceased inside, and the way that these funerals are held is dictated mainly by religious preferences.

If this is the route you choose, contacting your priest, minister, rabbi or other religious figure will help guide you. However, funerals or memorial services do not have to be religious – they can be held instead by someone who was close to the deceased and comfortable taking on that role. Finally, a committal or graveside service is a service that is held at the deceased’s final resting place, and can be held after or instead of a funeral service.

Consider personal touches

Consider what was important or special to your loved one and see if there is an opportunity to incorporate those details into the event. 

Some examples of personalizations are:

  1. Encourage guests to wear your loved one’s favorite color.
  2. Create a picture wall. You can even have the people attending add pictures to this wall. Or create a slideshow.
  3. Give away books at the funeral. This will help with the process of cleaning out while also giving those in attendance something to remember your loved one by.
  4. Personalize the casket or urn. You can have those attending the event add momentos.
  5. Ask attendees to write personal notes to the loved one and these could be saved by the immediate family.
  6. Incorporating symbols or themes into the service. Pick something that your loved one truly cared about, such as a particular artist or musician or hobby and find ways to incorporate that into the service.

Choose the final resting place of your loved one

For some, a burial in a casket with headstone and plot in a cemetery is traditional. Other options for burial places may be a graveliner or burial vault. Burying a loved one can offer a place to return to and visit. Consider though, if you move, you may not be near your loved one. Cremation is another option that allows you to take your loved one with you or keep their ashes in your home in an urn or columbarium. Sometimes people elect to scatter ashes in places that hold significance to the deceased person or the family.   

Planning a funeral or memorial service can be logistically difficult and emotionally taxing, but honoring the memory of your loved one can be seen as an opportunity. Even though the sheer amount of decisions and things that need to be done can be paralyzing, give yourself the time to take a breath. Forgive yourself for not being perfect. Carmon of the NFDA says, it is a time to “follow a heartfelt need and once all the options are outlined, a clear path emerges.”

Read How You Can Help – The Friends and Family Guide.