Funerals, memorial services, and life celebrations are highly personal events. They offer a chance to reflect on the deceased’s life, as well as their concerns with religion and spirituality, the family, the world, and their philosophies. Life celebrations, memorial services and funerals should offer the deceased’s loved ones a gentle avenue for entering the mourning process. Unfortunately, they are not always so satisfactory. When arrangements are left to the last minute, “cookie cutter” services are often the de facto result. With effective preplanning, you can be surer of a funeral or memorial service that best meets the emotional and spiritual needs of all considered. What are the logistical needs of a funeral, memorial service, or life celebration? What are the differences between funerals, memorial services, and life celebrations? What is a life celebration? Which type of service best fits your vision? This SevenPonds article will help you preplan this important step in the mourning process.
Things to Know:
- Today’s services are often an eclectic mix of religion, spirituality, and celebration.
- Funeral directors distinguish between "funerals," where the body is present, and "memorial services," where the body is absent.
- The service or celebration should be an expression of the deceased and his or her loved ones, in total accord with their wishes. As such, it is completely up to you what form your event will take.
- "Life celebration" is a more contemporary term for a certain kind of memorial service, totally free of format, where "celebrating," rather than "mourning," is the active intent.
- In an end-of-life celebration, a dying person can be celebrated before death has occurred, a welcome option that can allow for a loving and soothing atmosphere in which to say goodbye.
Why should we preplan a funeral, memorial service or life celebration?
In order to be remembered with a memorial service or funeral reflective of your tastes and interests, you should preplan some or all of the details with your family or closest friends. These plans may be made long before your death.
What types of services can be planned?
You can plan a funeral, where the body is present, or a memorial service or life celebration, where it is not. We at SevenPonds encourage our readers to consider green burial funerals or home funerals, should they be so inclined.
What do funerals, memorial services, and life celebrations have in common?
A defining difference between funerals and memorial services is the presence of the body. The body is present at a funeral, and the body is absent at a memorial service or life celebration, therefore affecting limitations on scheduling, treatment of the remains, and other considerations. The specific definitions of funerals, memorial services and life celebrations vary considerably by culture, religion, and place. They have meant different things at different times to different people. We at SevenPonds have noticed a trend in North America towards freer interpretations, where religion is less a necessarily defining factor, and decisions are as much at the whim of the family as they are the edicts of tradition. Alternatives such as cremation, green burial, and home funerals have further widened our options, and we encourage our readers to look into these more recently embraced grieving events.
- Traditional funerals are generally held in places of worship or funeral homes. Less traditional funerals, memorial services, and life celebrations can be held in places as diverse as a private home, hotel, public meeting space, mountaintop, beach, or park.
- Funerals and memorial services may be religious or nonreligious, spiritual or nondenominational.
- Memorial services and funerals can include elements of a traditional service, such as music, flowers, prayers, readings, eulogies, and sermons.
- Memorial services can also be highly nontraditional, secular affairs, with informal sharing of stories, displays of photos or memorabilia, and requests for charitable donations rather than flowers.
- You can hire a professional caterer, or family and friends can bring food.
- You can share stories about the person’s life.
- You can display important objects from the deceased’s life: personal photos, artwork, a handmade quilt, childhood memorabilia, awards received, a motorcycle, fishing poles, a musical instrument, or any other items of special meaning to the deceased or the survivors.
- You can play music, perhaps the deceased’s favorite songs; a hired band could encourage singing or dancing.
- The event may last an afternoon, a day, a weekend, or even longer.
What are funerals?
- Funerals are defined by grieving services for which the body is present. Bodies are displayed at the visitation, usually held the evening or morning before burial, so that the bereaved can pay their final respects.
- Funerals are typically held within several days following death.
- Funerals can be religious, nonreligious, or spiritual, based on the preferences of the family.
- You can still have a funeral if you choose cremation as opposed to burial but wish to view the body beforehand. Many cremation providers allow grievers to view the body before cremation, and they may have facilities for on-site services with the body present.
What are home funerals?
Home funerals are events in which the visitation is held in the home, with the body present and the house adorned as the hosts see fit. Oftentimes the deceased spent their last days in the home dying in their own bed. For a home funeral, friends or family prepare the body, complete some or all of the paperwork to attain death certificates and other after-death documents, and in some cases may also transport the body for cremation or burial. If you choose to conduct a home funeral, make sure you are in full accordance with your state and local laws, which vary considerably. See our article on Preplanning a Home Funeral for more information. Home funerals generally bypass the embalmment process, and as such, are perfect precursors to environmentally friendly green or natural burial.
What are memorial services?
- Memorial services are remembrance events held for a deceased person whose body is not present at the time.
- Memorial services are typically preferred when the deceased or loved ones chose cremation for after death servicing.
- Memorial services vary according to scheduling and are frequently held without the body present, as much as a month or more after death. Delayed services allow family and friends to plan effectively and to gather at a convenient time and place.
- Like funerals, memorial services may be religious or nonreligious, spiritual or nondenominational.
What are life celebrations?
- Life celebration is a more recent term for a certain kind of memorial service. There is little to specifically distinguish a life celebration from a memorial service, except that the emphasis is on celebrating the life, rather than grieving a loss.
- Life celebrations are fresh, unique affairs of laughter, tears, toasts, and music. The deceased’s favorite movie could be played in the background.
- Like memorial services, life celebrations are held without the body present.
- Like memorial services, life celebrations vary according to scheduling but are held without the body present. They can therefore be held days, weeks, or even months after death.
What is an end-of-life celebration?
In an end-of-life celebration, loved ones can gather to celebrate the life of a dying person before the final end has come. These can closely resemble memorial services, complete with laughters, tears, and music, and they can sometimes offer the dying person's loved ones an ideal chance to say goodbye and begin letting go. You may wish to consider this option in cases of a prolonged terminal illness, in which the last several months are expected to grow especially painful. Similar to life celebrations, end-of-life celebrations seek to emphasize the achievements of life rather than the disappointments of death, and there are many event planners around the country who are well-versed in crafting these kinds of events.
Planning a Service
Here is a list of steps we at SevenPonds have developed to help you preplan your event.
1. Decide on the type of service.
- Is a funeral, memorial service, or a life celebration more suitable?
- Would some combination of funeral and memorial or life celebration suit your needs? For example, you might decide on a funeral service with prayers and a eulogy, along with elements more typical to a life celebration, such as popular music and dancing.
- Will you have an end-of-life celebration before death even occurs?
2. Make a list of attendees.
- Compile a list of those you would like to invite. If you are preplanning well ahead of time, make sure to keep your list up to date with current phone numbers, mailing, and e-mail addresses.
- Decide how to notify the people on the list. Do you want to mail your announcements if time allows, or would you rather e-mail your announcements? Should your primary planner make personal phone invitations? Design a paper or electronic announcement early to make sure you get the details and correct tone. You can also have one designed.
- Consider group invitations. Do you wish to send group invitations to the members of an association, such as your book club, workplace, or yoga group?
3. Select a location for your funeral, memorial service, or life celebration.
As you will have to take into consideration logistical issues such as season, number of attendees, and length of time, select your location with care. It may help to use this location checklist:
Must the location be reserved? If so, how long in advance?
If outdoors, is the location practical for all seasons? If not, do you have an alternative in case of cold, wet, or extremely hot weather?
Is the location large enough to accommodate your event? Will there be enough parking for the attendees?
______ Special Considerations
Does the location accommodate those with special considerations? If you want the family pets in attendance, is the location pet friendly? Is it wheelchair accessible?
______ Scattering Ashes
If you plan to scatter your loved one’s ashes as part of the celebration, you will need a location in which scattering ashes is legal. Be aware that laws differ greatly by locality and type of land. Reference Cremation Solution’s webpage explaining this topic.
4. Identify one or more facilitators.
- Designated facilitators can implement your plans or speak and make introductions at the service or celebration.
- Designate one or more family members or friends, or you can hire a celebrant or a celebration planner, much as someone hires a wedding planner. Many wedding planners also coordinate life celebrations. Clergy members may be useful for memorial or secular services. Determine how you wish to divide up the tasks. For example, you may designate a relative to coordinate logistical considerations, and a friend to schedule speeches and introductions.
- One of your facilitators will probably need to speak and make introductions, so select someone with good public speaking skills.
5. Commit the details to writing.
Make sure you have easily located, detailed, and legible notes ensuring that your designated facilitator(s) can follow your wishes. To help you draft instructions, we have drawn up the following checklist:
The SevenPonds Who, What, Where, When, and Why Master List
Who are the memorial service or funeral facilitators?
- What considerations are already arranged?
- What will the facilitator(s) need to arrange?
Who will speak at your funeral or memorial service?
- Which family members or friends will you ask to speak?
- Will you provide them with any subject matter or length guidelines?
Who should be invited?
- Remember to keep your list of names, addresses, and e-mail addresses up to date.
- When and how should invitations be sent? Will you make any public announcements, such as an obituary?
- Do you want to include family pets or special objects in the ceremony?
What should be read?
- Do you want a traditional eulogy, or do you want everyone to read a poem or funny limerick? Do you want something in between?
Do you want music played at your funeral or memorial service? If so, what kind?
- Do you want traditional funeral music, your CD of favorite songs from the 80s, or some mix of the two?
- Do you want your favorite bluegrass band to play? Do you want a soloist on flute?
Do you want anything displayed or distributed at your funeral or memorial service?
- Do you want to display flowers, lights, or wreaths? Do you want gifts given to the survivors? Or, will you request that attendees make a donation to a pre-designated charity? Before you request flowers, SevenPonds encourages you to consider the Environmental & Social Impact of Flowers.
- Do you want anyone to participate in a particular way? Should each of your loved ones bring a significant object that connected them to your life?
- Do you want favorite photos, videos, artwork, books, or other items on display?
- Will you hire a caterer with a list of pre-selected items, or do you want friends and family to bring a dish?
- Do you want a method for remembering the memorial service or funeral for family or friends? If you want a photo album compiled or a video of the event recorded, clarify your wishes.
Where will the memorial service or funeral be held?
- Which location or locations have you chosen? If outdoors, have you planned for cases of rain, snow, or extremely warm weather?
- Have you made the necessary reservations?
- Do you need to designate funds to pay for a location?
Where will out-of-town guests stay?
- Will you make arrangements for certain people to stay in your home or with friends and relatives?
- Have you designated any funds to arrange hotel rooms, and if so, which hotels?
When will your memorial service or funeral be?
- If you are preplanning, you will not have a specific date, but you can specify an amount of time after death when you will hold your memorial service or life celebration.
- Would you prefer a funeral held shortly after death with the body present? Would you prefer a home funeral or a service held at the crematorium prior to cremation?
- Will you accommodate travel plans and airline ticket prices for certain invitees by holding your memorial service or life celebration several weeks after death?
- How much time does the facilitator need to make the necessary arrangements?
- What time of day do you want your memorial service or funeral held, and how long should it last?
Why are you having a memorial service or funeral?
- Although this may be clear to you, this may not be clear to the family or non-family facilitator(s) who will carry out the service or celebration.
- Consider the manner of your service or celebration. Will your memorial service focus on the existence of the spirit after death? Are you having a life celebration because you want to be remembered through joy rather than sorrow, or a funeral to celebrate your religious beliefs? Your facilitator(s) should understand the motivation behind your choices.
- Do you wish your life celebration to involve a record of your or your loved one’s life? Do you want family and friends to bring items you may not have already specified? Document your choices thoroughly.
- Do you want a video of your memorial service available for friends and family? Do you want an online commemoration? Again, your facilitator(s) should understand your desires.
For more information:
"It’s My Funeral and I’ll Serve Ice Cream if I Want To"
New York Times, July 20, 2006, by John Leland
Funeral Consumers Alliance
"Planning a Memorial Service"