The Funeral Ceremony
Organising the 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 the funeral home, while others prefer to take a more active role. 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 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.
Choosing your priest or celebrant
Of all the funerals I have attended, by far the most delightful were those led by someone who knew the person who had died. There is something soothing in hearing 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/pundit who knew them well to officiate. Hopefully they 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 or certified celebrant). It is very important though, that you have someone who is experienced or a confident speaker; knows exactly what to do (and when and how) to ensure that a natural rhythm and appropriate mood unfolds.
Focusing the group
There can be a lot of tension and unexpressed grief at a funeral ceremony, so I usually start the proceedings by asking everyone to take a deep breath with me and we let it out together. This seems to relieve the tension a bit and gather the group as one.
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, atheistic 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 – and 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.
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 all 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 for them while standing beside them.
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 Dying Well 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. Remember that people are grieving, and whilst they want to hear about the life of their loved one/friend, remember that they have to deal with the intensity of grief during the funeral ceremony. So many ceremonies fall in a hole if the eulogy is allowed to go on for too long.
TIP: keep the funeral ceremony poignant but fairly 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’ve put your tribute on 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).
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 offered (or a particular song) 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 on it or stand in silence as the coffin passes out of the chapel and into a hearse. It’s important that the family goes first and gets to say goodbye together.
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.
You can also access ideas on coffins, eco-options and other ideas on my Pinterest page.