Where families can go for answers.

Print and share this planning guide with family, friends and your funeral director as you finalize your plans.

> Consumer Guides & Resources > FAQs to Planning a Meaningful Funeral

FAQs to Planning a Meaningful Funeral

As you and your family begin the funeral planning process, a number of questions will surface that you will need further insight on in order to make an informed choice. Below please find a number of frequently asked questions and clarifications on misconceptions of funerals that may help you as you plan a meaningful funeral to honor the unique life of your loved one.

Why do I need to plan a funeral for my loved one?

One of the most important reasons for planning a meaningful funeral is that it helps you and your family focus your thoughts and feelings on something positive. The funeral encourages you to think about the person who died and explore the meaning of their life and the ways in which they touched the lives of others.

The remembering, reflecting and choices that take place in the planning and carrying out of the funeral service are often an important part of the process of grief and mourning. And ultimately, this process of contemplation and discovery creates a memorable and moving funeral experience for all who attend.

What makes a funeral meaningful?

Meaningful funerals are made up of different parts (music, readings, visitation/reception, eulogy/remembrance memories, symbols, procession, committal service and gathering ) that, when combined, make for an incredibly meaningful experience for you, your family and friends. Even among different faiths and cultures, funeral ceremonies throughout North America often include many of the same elements. Your faith or culture may have its own variations on the elements below, and you should be encouraged to follow them as you see fit.

Who should I turn to for help to plan a meaningful funeral?

The funeral home and its staff play a critical role in the planning and carrying out of a meaningful funeral. They are the people with the training and expertise you will rely on in the days leading up to the funeral. Their advice, compassion, attention to detail and willingness to personalize the ceremony will greatly influence your funeral experience.

What kind of funeral service should I have?

You can choose from a variety of funeral service types and formats. Some people think that funerals must conform to traditional ways, but there is no one right way to have a funeral. Just as grief has many dimensions and is experienced in different ways by different people, funerals are also unique. A funeral should simply be fitting for the person who died and the family and friends who survive him. This is an opportunity to be creative and to share an honest expression of your most heartfelt values. There are no rigid rules that need to be followed, but there are guidelines that can help you if you are unsure how you might proceed.

Traditional Funeral Service
A service is held in the presence of the body, with either an open or closed casket. A member of the clergy usually officiates, and the service is held within two or three days of the death. A visitation period often precedes the funeral. The service is usually held in a church or funeral home chapel. There is usually a religious message to the ceremony. The specific denomination’s (Protestant, Catholic, etc.) book of worship determines the elements of ritual used. The ceremony itself often consists of scripture readings, prayers, a eulogy, sometimes a sermon, usually interspersed with music and hymns. After the funeral, there may be a procession to the gravesite or crematory chapel, where a brief committal service concludes the ceremony. When planning a funeral, the family decides whether the service will be public or private.

Memorial Service
A memorial service is held without the body present (though the cremated remains may be present in an urn). Disposition of the body may take place either before or after the service. Some memorial services are not held until weeks or months after the death. The services may be religious or non-religious. There are many different types of memorial services, and they may be held in funeral homes, churches, private homes, community rooms or outdoors.

A memorial service may be held instead of a funeral, or in addition to it. For example, you might have a funeral in the town where a person lived most of her life and ultimately died, and a memorial service at a later time in the community where she was raised. As with a more traditional funeral service, the final form of disposition of the body may be either earth burial or cremation.

Affirmation or Celebration of Life Service
More and more today, terms like affirmation or celebration of life are being used to describe funeral services. Such services vary widely in content and format, but they tend to be more personalized and more upbeat. The body may or may not be present. They can be religious or non-religious and they can be held almost anywhere. The only rule seems to be that no rules apply!

Humanist Service
Humanists embrace a secular view of life. Generally they do not believe in God but instead focus on man’s joyful, yet flawed (and brief) existence here on Earth. The humanist funeral service is non-religious, but still seeks to acknowledge the life and death of the person who died. It also seeks to comfort survivors and help them support one another. As with all other general service types, the humanist funeral service tends to include readings, music and memory sharing. The readings and music emphasize life here on earth and do not imply there is life beyond the grave.

Committal Service
The committal (or commitment) service is held at the gravesite before the body or urn is buried, or in the chapel of a crematory prior to cremation. The committal is usually in addition to a funeral or memorial service and is the occasion at which those in attendance say their last goodbyes. In cases of body burial, the committal service is usually held immediately following the funeral service. In cases when cremation follows the funeral service, the final committal may take place several days later at the cemetery, columbarium or scattering site. The committal service is often brief.

However, if this is the only service to be held (in this case it is often referred to as graveside services), this service may be more lengthy and include additional ceremonial elements. For example, memories may be expressed (through a eulogy or less formal sharing of memories), music may be played, and readings such as poetry may be included. As an action of final goodbye, some people may want to place a flower or handful of dirt on the casket. Some family members may want to stay and help fill in the grave, while others may prefer not. Children often find committal services helpful in that they are able to see where the body goes. Should your family make use of cremation, it can still be helpful to create some form of a committed ceremony around the cremated remains, whether you bury them, place them in a niche in a columbarium, scatter them or take them home.

Home Funeral Service
While this idea is relatively new, it is gaining attention. People are starting to choose to have funerals for their loved ones within their homes, sometimes for economic or environmental reasons. It also provides a more hands-on, unique way to create a funeral. A home funeral guide can be hired to help coordinate the ceremony. While where you can bury a body is limited from state to state (a few do allow burial on private land), there are few restrictions to having a home ceremony. To learn more, visit the following websites: www.homefuneral.info, www.homefuneraldirectory.com, www.homefuneralalliance.org.

How do I ensure the funeral is personalized?

The funeral service you plan should be as special as the life you will be remembering. Here are a few ideas:

  • Write a personalized obituary.
  • Create a column in the guest book for people to jot down a memory after they sign their name.
  • Display personal items and hobby items on a table at the visitation.
  • Show a DVD or slide show of the person’s life during the funeral.
  • Select flowers that were meaningful to the person who died.
  • Use a lot of music, especially if music was meaningful to the person who died or means something to your family.
  • At the funeral, invite people to write down a memory of the person who died. Appoint someone to gather and read the memories aloud.
  • Create a personalized grave marker.

What will happen to the body?

Your family must choose not only the type of funeral service to hold but also what will happen to the body and where it will be laid to rest.

Embalming is how the funeral home temporarily preserves the body of the person who died so it can be viewed by the family. Embalming also allows a number of days to elapse before burial and cremation, thus giving family and friends time to prepare and gather for the funeral.

The body of the person who died is the most important symbol to include in the funeral service. Whether present in an open or unopened casket, the body serves as the emotional focus for mourners and helps them acknowledge and embrace their pain. When a body or cremated remains are buried or scattered, there is a “place” for families to go when they want to feel close to their loved one.

Families who have spent time with the body have said it has helped them come to terms with the death and begin to transition from life before the death to life after the death. Although it can be emotionally painful, time spent with the body is often helpful to many people.

If my loved one is being cremated, what happens during cremation?

Cremation is another form of disposition or handling a body after death. However, many people don’t know what happens during cremation.

Cremation takes place in a carefully maintained facility known as a crematory or crematorium. The funeral home may or may not have its own crematory on site, but your funeral director can take care of all arrangements either way.

Within the crematory is a special cremation chamber. The body is placed in a cremation container or casket and positioned inside the cremation chamber. Once the container or casket is in the cremation chamber, the door is tightly sealed. The operator then turns on gas jets, which create intense heat that reduces the body to bone fragments. This process takes approximately 2-3 hours.

After the cremation, the remains are collected and processed to the consistency of sand or a finer ash. The white or grayish remains, often called cremated remains at this stage, are then sealed in a transparent plastic bag along with an identification tag. The bag weighs about 5 lbs. and will often be returned to the family in a selected urn, which can then be buried, placed in a niche inside a columbarium, taken home or transported for scattering. Additionally, the cremated remains can be separated and placed into multiple urns, keepsakes or even jewelry specifically designed as a final resting place.

Cremation is a respectful, dignified process chosen by many families. However, some faiths discourage or prohibit cremation. If you plan to hold a religious funeral ceremony or have the remains buried in a church cemetery, check in advance to make sure there are no issues.

Should I involve our children in the funeral?

Most of the rituals in our society focus on children. Unfortunately, the funeral ritual, whose purpose is to help mourners begin to heal, is often not seen as a ritual for kids. Too often, children are not included in the funeral because adults want to protect them.

Funerals are painful, but children have the same rights and privileges to participate in them as adults do.

Here are ways to appropriately include children:

  • Help explain the funeral to them – Tell children what will happen before, during and after the ceremony. Give as many specifics as they seem interested in hearing.
  • If the body will be viewed either at a visitation or at the funeral itself, let the child know this in advance. Explain what the casket and body will look like. If the body is to be cremated, explain what cremation means and what will happen to the cremated remains.
  • Find age-appropriate ways for children to take part in the funeral – grieving children feel included when they can share a favorite memory or read a special poem as part of the funeral. Shyer children can participate by lighting a candle or placing something special in the casket (a memento, a drawing, a letter or a photo).
  • Understand that children often need to accept their grief in doses, and that outward signs of grief may come and go. It is not unusual, for example, for children to want to roughhouse with their cousins during the visitation or play video games right after the funeral. Respect the child’s need to be a child during this extraordinarily difficult time.