Planning a Funeral
Information on organizing a Funeral service in a church, chapel or public place, that is nominally Christian, but not overly religious.
It's not easy saying farewell to someone we love. We usually feel dulled by the whole experience. Sometimes it takes a few days for us to face what's happened and for us to get into the grieving process. The feelings are actually quite strange. We start out denying death, then we get angry and start blaming, then there is grief and finally, after many months, acceptance.
We have to deal with all the things we should have said and didn't, all the things we said and shouldn't have. If we didn't get to say goodbye we can be quite broken hearted, even angry with the person who has left us.
We are also faced with our own mortality and so fear is added to the feelings. When we were young we had all the answers, now there is mystery. Life's shadows leave us disturbed. Each of us must draw from our own spiritual source as we face the darkness. When my son was dying of a brain tumor, I reminded him one day of the Bible story where Jesus was on the cross and the thief next to him asked "remember me." Jesus said to him, "this evening you will be with me in paradise." I said to my son, "if Jesus is willing to remember a thief, he will certainly remember you if you ask him."
The funeral service is a very important part of the grieving process, but its organization is terribly confronting. Making it a thanksgiving, an affirmation of the person's life, a celebration even, is the way to go - dignified yes, but not morbid. We want to affirm all that is good in the person we loved, and so in this final moment, allow them to leave us as we say goodbye and move on. So, I hope the following pointers help you in this most confronting of tasks, organizing a funeral.
When a relative dies and we must handle the arrangements, we can very easily feel helpless. Yet, the organization of a funeral is actually quite simple. By contacting a funeral home, an arranger will take the matter completely in hand. All the elements from legal documents, funeral notices, casket, service and burial or cremation will be smoothly organized. We have usually attended a funeral recently or know someone who has and so, through experience or recommendation it is easy to find a reputable funeral company. Always check whether the deceased was in a funeral fund before arranging the service. Remember, much of the cost of a funeral is in the extras. For example, the cost of a casket can vary enormously.
The Minister or Celebrant
Where the family has no direct contact with a local church, it is best to allow the funeral home to book the minister. Most people like some religious content in the service, but they don't like it to be preachy or parsonic. The vast majority of people believe in God, but they are not overtly religious and so a service that recognizes the presence of the Lord, that is dignified and reflective and affirms the life of the deceased, is the shape to aim at. The funeral director knows the local ministers, priests and celebrants and can recommend the right person for the service.
A favorite piece of music can be played at the "Reflection", just before the committal, either religious, such as "Amazing Grace", "Nearer my God to thee", etc. or popular. eg. "The Last Farewell", "Unforgettable", "It's a beautiful world", "A time to say good-by", "Yesterday", "Wind beneath my wings", "Imagine", "To where you are" and "You raise me up", Josh Groban, "Goodbye" Lionel Ritchie... For a Vietnam vet.: "I was only 19", Red Gum; "Brother in arms", Dire Straits. For a young person: "Fall", Single Gun Theory, "Teardrop", Massive Attack, "Into My Arms", Nick Cave, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", U2, "Wish You Were Here", Pink Floyd..... An instrumental is not very effective. Most Funeral Homes have a large library of suitable music. If a tape is used, make sure it is properly queued to the beginning of the song. Music for before and after the service can also be selected by the family. The person in charge of the CD's should make sure they are in the box and are not left in the CD player at home. Stick a note on each box indicating the track to be played and where in the service it will be played, eg. "In, track 8."
The following is a sample outline of a eulogy:
Born: where, when, to whom, family
Grew up: how and where.
Early work years: profession, where
Marriage: when, where, to whom, children, grandchildren.....
Married years: where, significant events
Interests: sports, craft......
Special care needs to be taken where the deceased is a child. Where the family is blended, all members should be mentioned even where there may be tensions. Time the eulogy from between 5 to 7 minutes. Personal tributes following the eulogy should be limited to a few sentences. It is often a good idea to have younger members of the family write a few sentences about the deceased and for the person delivering the eulogy to read them. Emotional comments are best left to the end of the eulogy.
Most funeral home chapels these days are set up for a digital PowerPoint presentation. For those who are computer-smart it is easy to gather a selection of family snapshots, scan them, arrange a sideshow and burn to a CD. This presentation can then be used to illustrate the eulogy, or be incorporated as a separate element of the service with music and commentary. Check compatibility..... To be sure of compatibility, produce a DVD slide show.
Placing of Symbols
When the body is placed in the church or chapel and received, "we receive the body of our dear sister/brother ...........", symbols may be placed on or beside the coffin:
i] A candle can add meaning to a service. This should be lit at the beginning of the service by a family member and snuffed out at the end of the service. The candle is kept by the family. A stubby candle to sit on the coffin itself works well, but in a church it is best to use a candle stand.
ii] Water. Sprinkled on the coffin by the minister.
iii] The Bible. Placed near the coffin.
iv] A Cross. Placed on the coffin.
v] Memorabilia - a photo, implements of trade, regalia, personal items...... Placed on or near the coffin by family members.
vi] The national flag. For members, or former members of the armed services.
vii] Small individual flowers - These are often placed, as a personal tribute to the deceased person, on the coffin just before the committal, or in the case of a burial, just after the coffin is lowered into the grave. A handwritten note may be attached to the flower. At a chapel or crematorium, a carefully selected track of music is often played while the congregation moves forward to place their flower. This item in the service is known as "The Reflection."
Symbols of the soul's release
The release of gas-filled balloons at the conclusion of a burial service is a symbol often used for the death of a young person where young people will attend the service. In the case of an older person, the release of a dove (homing pigeon) at the end of the service can be a very special symbol. Most funeral homes can provide this service.
Personal items placed in the coffin
Items that are to go with the deceased must be placed in the coffin before it is sealed. This can only be done by the undertakers at the funeral home, unless there is a viewing, in which case family members may place items into the coffin at the time of the viewing. There are certain requirements regarding cremations so check with the undertakers before placing non combustibles in the coffin. Usually only combustibles can placed in the coffin with a cremation.
At the crematorium or funeral chapel, it is best to lower the coffin or close the curtains in the presence of the congregation to reinforce "closure" and so free those in grief to move on. Allow the deceased person to do the leaving, rather than leave the deceased alone in the chapel. Yes, this is the hardest part of the service, but it is very important to get it right. A person who leaves the chapel without closure can find themselves quite distressed for years to come.
Photographs / Video
Do not be afraid to photograph the arrival of the hearse, the burial and the gathered family. Ask a relative to perform this task, but of course to do so with dignity. Many chapels now have the facilities to video the service. The funeral director can organize this for you. Where these facilities do not exist a family member could video the salient parts of the service.
If a family member has access to a computer it is very easy to produce a service sheet in folded A4 format printed both sides (4 page A5). Front Page: Include: page title, "A Service of Thanksgiving", or "Memorial Tribute" etc... ; name of the deceased; dates of birth and death; photograph in the middle of the page; date of service; text, eg. "At rest". Consider using a photograph of the person representing a powerful period in their life. Photographs of a debilitated person is unwise, as this is not how the person will be remembered. Middle Pages 2 & 3: The Service. See below for the full text of a sample service which will fit on two pages in 10 point type and take about 7 minutes to read (ie. to suit a 30 minute service). Where hymns are included it will be necessary to reduce the printed text to a service outline only - just print the element headings and possibly the Lord's Prayer in full. Printing the text of the service out in full is normally unnecessary, so where there are no hymns, print a service outline with the Lord's Prayer in full, on page 3. On page 4 and 5 it is often a good idea to print the deceased's life story along with some photographs. A 10 point type will suffice. The story can be the text of the eulogy. Conclude at the bottom of the last page, page 4, with a thank you to all those who have attended for their love and support, along with an invite to the afters.
Given the charged atmosphere, it is best to aim at a service lasting no more than 30 minutes. Churches and funeral homes can handle longer, but crematoriums are usually on a tight schedule. Only for a full religious service in a church do you need to plan for 60 minutes. The minister/celebrant can adjust the service to fit a longer eulogy with personal words from some of the guests, but it is necessary for him/her to know in advance how long they will take. A returned soldier's tribute adds 5 minutes and a Masonic service adds 7 minutes. It is very difficult to include both in a 30 minute service.
Some people find it difficult to move on from a heart-wrenching loss. Don't be ashamed to seek professional help.
Cremation or burial?
This is really a matter of personal preference or custom. In the Christian faith there is no word from the Lord on the matter, since the resurrection of the dead is not in any way influenced by the method of a body's disposal. Consider how you would like to remember the deceased. Will you want to visit the site where they were laid to rest? If so, a burial may be for you, but remember, the cost is doubled. If your memories are in cards, photo's etc, then cremation may be best for you.
The Service: An outline service format for a religious celebrant
Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources
Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons