7 Tips for Creating the Perfect Funeral Ceremony

Creating the perfect funeral ceremony for a loved one can seem overwhelming when you are in the depth of grief. It will help if your loved one has left an Emotional Will or instructions in their Rest Easy Journal as a guideline, but if they haven’t, knowing where to start can feel daunting. Some people hand over the planning to their funeral home, while others prefer to take a more active role, and others prefer a DIY approach. Here are some tips to help you create an event worthy of your loved one’s memory.

Whether you (or your loved one) choose a funeral ceremony or memorial, a church minister or celebrant, the order of events essentially are the same. It’s the unique contributions of each person, song, imagery and tributes that make it truly individual to the person you are honouring. Give yourself permission to be creative and add elements you may not have seen at a funeral before.

1. Choosing your priest or celebrant
Of all the funeral ceremonies I have attended, by far the most rewarding were those led by someone who knew the person who died. There is something soothing to hear the celebrant speaking from a place of knowing the person’s qualities and frailties, dreams and desires and the family they leave behind.

If your loved one regularly attended a church/synagogue/temple, ask for the minister, rabbi, imam or pundit who knew them well to lead the funeral ceremony. Hopefully, they will have written down their preference in the My Funeral Wishes section of the Rest Easy Journal.

In Australia, there is no law that stops you from having a friend or someone from the community to oversee a funeral ceremony (I have been the celebrant for a number of funerals and am not a minister of religion nor certified celebrant). It is very important though, that you have someone who knows exactly what to do, when and how to ensure a natural rhythm and respectful but uplifting mood unfolds.

Whomever you choose, the funeral ceremony will contain the following elements:

2. Focusing the group
There can be a lot of tension and unexpressed grief in the room at a funeral ceremony, so I usually start the proceedings by asking everyone to take a deep breath with me and all present let it out together. This seems to relieve the tension a bit and focuses the group as one.

3. Opening remarks
The opening remarks set the tone for the entire service and create space for what people are feeling. Recognising that you are gathered in sacred ceremony (regardless of religion, atheist or other philosophical points of view) to honour and farewell someone much loved by those present. The opening words should invoke a spirit of love, acceptance and a desire for healing.

Always use the person’s full name and nickname often – don’t ever refer to them as ‘the deceased’. Another good reason to have a celebrant who knew the person well is so there is no chance of mispronunciations or (and it has happened) the wrong name being spoken.

Important note: often a funeral ceremony will open with the words, “We are gathered here to celebrate the life of….’. I have a different point of view. I believe that we are also gathered to mourn the death of the person (and in some instances to celebrate the death of a person who has had a long period of suffering ill health, although few would say that publicly). Funeral ceremonies should be designed to create a space to allow the tears to flow if they need to. Only focusing on the life of the person and not on our feelings of loss doesn’t allow for true mourning.

If you are the celebrant, don’t make it about you! Whilst it is wonderful that people understand that you knew the person well, everyone has fond memories or a personal tale to tell and will tire if you make the ceremony all about your relationship with the person who has died. It’s your job to keep the funeral ceremony moving and to let those whom the family has chosen to express their memories and feelings.

4. Honouring and remembering: the tribute
This is the heart of the funeral ceremony, where family and friends sketch a life for us of the person we are honouring. This usually comes in the form of a eulogy, poems, songs, prayers and imagery. The family will decide who is to speak and in what form.

TIP: Don’t ask children to speak unless they feel confident and comfortable in doing so. If there are young ones who want to honour the person, perhaps they can do drawings or paintings to place on the coffin. They can also be led by an older, more confident child who can read a poem or prayer on their behalf.

5. The Readings
Poems, prayers and songs shared at a funeral ceremony make us feel connected to the person who has died and sometimes provoke emotional release. If these have been listed in the Rest Easy Journal that will make your task easier, but if not, it’s a good idea to have a consensus from family and close friends about what is to be said or sung, and be mindful to include items that are inclusive of everyone. You can find some nice ideas on my Pinterest page.

Ask a great friend of your loved one or someone who knew them for a good span of their life to write and speak the eulogy. Ask them to keep it to five minutes maximum (they will more than likely go over). Remember that people are grieving, and whilst they want to hear about the life of their loved one/friend, they don’t want to hear every minuscule event. So many ceremonies fall in a hole if the eulogy is allowed to go on for too long.

TIP: keep the readings poignant but brief.

Thirty to forty minutes is a good length of time for the entire funeral ceremony (particularly in large cities where funerals run back to back), so make sure your program is shaped to fit within that timing (of course there may be other elements that lengthen the ceremony, such as driving to the graveside if it is a burial, and the wake, but the funeral/memorial aspect should be kept tight.

Many funeral homes and churches now have the facility to play audio/visual tributes at a funeral ceremony, but you will need to check in advance that the format you provide your tribute in (DVD, USB stick) is compatible with the venue’s equipment. There is nothing more distressing for families than a technical breakdown mid-service.

Keep music choices relevant to the person – either a song they composed, loved or requested or one that holds special meaning to the people mourning. Listen carefully to all the words in a song, as some people only remember a chorus, which may be lovely, but on closer inspection discover that the words in the verses aren’t appropriate (a great example is Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah).

6. The Interment
Perhaps the most intense part of the funeral ceremony is the time when mourners need to say a final goodbye to the person who has died. Often a prayer or statement is read to signify that the time has come, and a minute’s silence is offered so that people can say goodbye quietly in their own way.

Depending on where the ceremony is held (graveside, a church, a cremation chapel), mourners will be invited to either place an item on the coffin, pour dirt or stand in silence as the coffin passes. It’s important that the family goes first and gets to say goodbye together.

7. The Wake
A funeral ceremony that ends with a wake where people gather to eat, drink and share stories is a vital element of a funeral. There’s often a more light-hearted air at the wake, as people can relax after having been through an intense mourning ritual.

TIP: Have the time, address and directions to the wake venue written in the program and ask the priest/minister/celebrant to announce it before the end of the funeral ceremony so everyone is clear about where to gather.

Download and print out this simple Ceremony Checklist
For some tips on how to write a eulogy click here.
For some ideas of popular songs and poems for funerals click here.
For ideas about how people around the world celebrate the death of a loved one click here.
You can access ideas on coffins, poems and other ideas on my Pinterest page.