We live in a society that is uncomfortable with death, grief, and mourning. When it comes to funerals, memorials, and other ceremonies of remembrance, we don’t always know how to create them or what to do. In my ceremonial practice, I have served as Funeral Celebrant to a wide variety of families in their times of grief and loss. With a few exceptions the individuals and families I work with are not formally religious. They usually consider themselves spiritual but not religious. Which tells me, “We want something meaningful with no dogma.” They connect to what is personal, meaningful, and memorable. They want real, truthful, honest memorials that capture the essence of the person they loved. And they long for the memorial to be done well so that it is a stepping-stone that will help them grieve and mourn.
If you are planning a memorial service (aka Celebration of Life, funeral, burial, ash-scattering) you will likely find it difficult without support and guidance. I hope these Tips will help you manage the logistics of planning a wonderful Celebration of Life or memorial.
ONE: When? When is the right time to plan a Memorial?
Usually when someone we love passes away, many people feel a sense of urgency to hold a ceremony. But you can hold a ceremony whenever it suits you. Some families have a more immediate public memorial, with a more intimate family gathering at a later date, perhaps to scatter or inter cremated remains. Others wait several months because they want to plan and participate in a memorial ceremony when they are more present than in those early dark days.
TWO: Where? Find the right place.
The spaces at most Funeral Homes are pretty traditional. However there are cemeteries that have beautiful spaces designed to suit both large and small gatherings. Alternatively, what you might typically think of as a wedding venue can also work! I’ve even done memorials in restaurants, as well as cocktail style in a formal lounge. What about at a vineyard or wine tasting space?
THREE: Who? Who should lead, write, or create the ceremony?
Do you want a professional Funeral Celebrant to guide you? Or can Uncle Bob wing it perfectly fine? (Honestly, I do NOT recommend the latter. I’ve been to a few ‘Uncle Bob’ ceremonies and there was no emotional flow, no cohesiveness, and a whole lot of depth got missed.) My recommendation is to Google Funeral Celebrants in your area. These are people who are trained, and usually feel called, to do this work. You can decide on the degree of their involvement, but it is a wise idea to seek professional support.
FOUR: Food and Drink
Would you like to serve food to your guests? What about coffee tea or even wine? Buffet or hor d’oeuvre style receptions can flow really well. Think about choosing little appetizers or small bites of larger meals that your loved one enjoyed, e.g. bite-sized mac n’cheese balls.
Guests can be seated in chairs arranged ‘church style’, that is to say in rows with a centre aisle. Forward-facing seating allows guests to see the speakers but also to have some privacy to their emotions. For less formal memorials, guests can be seated at bar height chairs around small round tables, much as one would for a cocktail party. Be aware that standing can be hard when you have little strength or are crying.
Your Funeral Celebrant should speak with a voice that is trained for ceremonial speaking. They may not require a microphone. As for family/friends, even when they are used to public speaking, addressing a room full of people when one is grieving is extremely difficult. Please ensure your guest speakers have amplification! Additionally, make sure you provide a microphone of the sort that picks up sound from several inches away. Avoid microphones that require the speaker to speak so close it is as though they are consuming it. Very awkward!
You can play music to guide people in and get settled. It’s also lovely to play a favorite song or two during a video or photo series that runs during the ceremony. I recommend two songs. The first can be slower and more melancholy and the second should uplift. Think about having music during the reception. Choose songs that the person loved to listen to. Can’t say enough: Designate someone to make sure they know how to use the electronic system at your venue.
I am so moved by the videos my clients put together of loved ones. Many computer programs will create a slide show from photos that you’ve scanned or have digitalized. Photos can include the person at celebrations like weddings, the births of children, but also doing the most utterly ordinary of things. The day-to-day things are usually what we miss the most about someone we love. (See my recommendations on musical accompaniment in #6 above.) Videos seem to give people permission to smile and laugh through their tears.
NINE: Things to showcase
Putting together photo boards is a meaningful way to involve kids and teenagers. I also encourage families to bring items of daily life that belonged to their loved one, e.g. gardening gloves, a favorite hat, a referee whistle, watercolours and paintbrushes, craft objects, aprons, recipe cards… that’s a good one for a cook by the way: copy recipe cards and make them available for people to take away. You can even make some of cookies a baker was known for.
With great heart, Funeral Celebrant Michele Davidson