In ministry, I’ve ended up either speaking at or attending many funerals. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many. In working with families, I inevitably walk them through several bits of experiential advice to help them plan and prepare. So that I could have a more ready reference of some of these ideas, I am putting them together in this post.
I’m going to write here as if I’m speaking to a family who is preparing to memorialize a lost loved one, and in the unfortunate circumstance that you ever need this sort of advice, I hope this post might be useful to you.
It’s ok to be sad.
Many families I talk to act as if they are allergic to the word “funeral.” They will tell me, “No, no no…we’re not having a “funeral”! It’s going to be a “celebration of life.” They wouldn’t want us to be sad! We want to focus on the positive.” On the one hand, I get it. You love this person dearly, and much of what you associate with them are memories that you love and treasure. But let me also be honest with you:
The day this memorial service occurs is going to be one of the hardest days of your life. You’ll value the friends and family who come to comfort you and share hugs and stories. It will help you with the burden you’re feeling. But there’s no way around it: you’ve experienced a heavy loss, and this event memorializes that loss.
You can call this even whatever you want to, but there’s no scenario where this is going to feel like an exclusively joyous occasion for you. And you know what? It’s totally ok for you to be sad. By times of sadness, mourning, and shedding tears, you have in no way diminished this person you’re wanting to honor. In fact, quite the opposite. Your sadness is a way of showing just how much you loved them and will miss them. Your tears speak the truth that “this person matters to me.”
In losing this person, you’re losing a part of yourself. How could you not be sad? I’m glad to call this event a “funeral,” a “memorial service,” a “celebration of life,” or whatever you want. But please give yourself permission to be sad, and understand that this is both an acceptable and healthy thing to do. Grief is a process. Allow yourself to participate in this process.
A Well-Rounded Service
In most services like this, there are a few elements that should be present if possible to create a well-rounded feel. These can all be represented by a single speaker, but often work well when involving several speakers as well. The elements are:
- The Big Picture.
Most often this would involve reading the obituary. What were the person’s dates of birth and death? What about other significant people and events in his/her life that are worth noting? What were major transitions that impacted his/her identity?
- A Personal/Family Perspective.
A spouse, children, and grandchildren will have a special perspective on a person, often different than anyone else has. What was this person like in these roles? What will be missed about them? What are a few favorite stories that encapsulate what they were like?
- A Professional/Outside Perspective.
If this person had a career or extensive connections to an outside group or affiliation, it is worth speaking about them from this angle. Those who weren’t family but knew the person well, how would they describe what he/she was like? What were key ways in which the person contributed to the world around them? What were they like as a co-worker or boss?
- A Faith Perspective.
This is especially important when memorializing people of faith. But even for a person of no faith, it can be healing for the family to hear some thoughts about what we might learn of God and God’s love from the way this person lived and showed kindness. In general, I would refer to this move as “trying to connect this person’s story to the bigger Gospel story.” It reminds us where we come from, but it also reminds us that the story of Jesus is bigger than any one of us, and also continues beyond us. What was this person’s part in this story during their time on earth?
In order to incorporate these elements, if I am going to be the only speaker, I will sit with a family and ask about all of these aspects so I know what I can share. If the family desires to involve more than one speaker, they should try to limit speakers to just 1-2 from each category at the most. Also, let each of the speakers know why it is you want them to speak, and which of these directions you are hoping they will lean. It helps the other speakers know how to prepare when everyone knows their part.
Here are a few chunks of general advice.
- Designate a key family member for communications.
The family will often be overwhelmed with decisions being made on top of processing what has happened, and it is not uncommon for them to forget to communicate. It may actually hurt attendance if the funeral happens quickly, but word is slow getting out about when and where. It is worth getting an organized, assertive family member (if you have one) that you all formally designate as “the person to call” with questions about where things are in the planning. Let them know they are the one to coordinate with local newspapers, the funeral home, connected churches, etc. so that communication gets to the people it needs to.
- The service should not last more than around 45 minutes to 1 hour. People simply don’t have the bladder capacity to sit much longer than this. A 3-hour funeral doesn’t intrinsically honor anyone more than a 1-hour funeral. The biggest issue at hand is that the person is gone, and no matter how much you include in a service, this fact won’t change. People are likely taking time off of work to attend. Respect their time as appreciation for their respect for your family in a time of loss.
- It’s great to make this service feel personalized.
Is there something about this person that everyone connects to? Go ahead and embrace it. Funerals are mostly about helping the family heal. The memorialized person has moved on. Is there a favorite hobby or association the deceased had that you can incorporate? Go for it. Make it feel to you like something they would have liked. Do you have a family member with a special talent for singing or a gift for poetry? Let them display their gifts to honor the person.
- Did the person have a favorite Bible with his/her thoughts and highlights? Share it with the minister.
Many of my favorite insights over the years have come from being able to thumb through a person’s highlighted Bible. What passages were important to them? What sections did they spend a lot of time with? When the minister visits, allow him to thumb through and look. This is an incredibly comforting experience for the family, for the deceased person’s faith to be able to shine through what Scriptures they themselves had valued. Any time I have access to something like this, it is always formative for what message I share.
- If the person is a veteran or a member of a cultural group that has the option of a special ritual to be included in the service, it’s almost always a good thing to include it.
Make that decision as a family. But every time I’ve seen a family have the option of something and decide not to, the immediate conversation after the service always centers around “should have.” This special element is a way of reinforcing the multifaceted value of this person’s life, and acknowledging the ways in which they deserve special honor.
- If you desire to have an open mic, select key people you wish to speak as part of it.
I have seen open mic time at funerals go poorly more often than I’ve seen it go well. Either no one gets up to talk, which feels like a let down, or someone gets up to talk without the refinement to do the job well, and it ends up feeling like a drain rather than an honor. Then again, often people do share beautiful thoughts. The best way to ensure this goes well is to lean into the previous section of my post, and to go ahead and pre-select someone from family, work, and church and ask them, “At the open mic time, we would like you to say a few words from your perspective.” That way the family knows that at least some of what gets said is aligned with their wishes. It is often the case that having 2-3 pre-selected, prepared people creates an expectation of quality for all others who decide to share. At the same time, keep in mind that if this goes long, people’s inability to sit for too long will eventually impede their ability to value what’s being said. Go ahead and put a time limit on it so the presiding person knows when to interrupt and keep things moving.
- If you’re speaking, write down your thoughts and bring notes to the mic with you.
There seems to be for some people a sense that, “If I write this down and speak from my notes, I’m not speaking ‘from the heart.'” Most people don’t have a gift for extemporaneous speaking. You are not honoring the person any less by writing your thoughts down in advance. In fact, you will likely say what you have to say with better clarity. Even if you decide to speak extemporaneously, have the notes in hand in case you get choked up (many do) or lose your train of thought. Many find it easier to “make it through” when they can read, because it’s pretty hard to speak “from the heart” when your heart is hurting so much. The deceased is honored by your preparation.
- Financially compensate key people who help.
Your minister is unlikely to ask for compensation, but it is a courtesy, and if I’m honest, a bit of an expectation. It requires work to put together a service, as well as to coordinate with the family and to run the service itself. If the service requires travel, you should absolutely cover all of the minister’s travel expenses and lodging. In terms of an amount, for the average funeral that is in town, most people have given me between $100-$250. (A few have given me nothing, and that’s ok, too. It’s not why I’m helping.) Some funeral homes include this in the funeral costs as an “honorarium” and give the minister a check on your behalf, which makes this easy. (The standard honorarium seems to be about $200.) Be sure to ask, and if the funeral home gives an honorarium to the minister, there is no need to compensate further. If the service is at a church rather than at a funeral home, also consider the extra workload required of the staff and volunteers to run the service. Even a few boxed lunches or a gift card as a “thank you” to other staff who had to rearrange schedules, help run a/v, or set up/clean up goes a long way. Church staff generally don’t even receive basic benefits like health insurance or retirement contribution matching, and these little gifts are often the only thing they’ll ever get that resembles a bonus. If you feel appreciative, this is a way to say “thank you” that will mean a lot to them, and is probably dearly needed.
I’ve covered several ideas above, but here are some other elements you can consider including.
- Picture slideshow. These are a great way to start things off. Include if you can: baby photos, childhood, courting/marriage, pics with children and grandchildren, and pics of favored hobbies.
- Music/poetry performance. Especially if it is by a family member.
- Scripture reading. Great way to include more people who want to “say something” but struggle with public speaking.
If you are working on Scriptures to include, here are a few options.
- Ecclesiastes 3:1-13. A time for everything.
- Psalm 23. The Lord is my Shepherd.
- Psalm 90. It is wise to number our days.
- Daniel 12:2-4. The judgment of the righteous.
- Matthew 6:9-15. The Lord’s prayer.
- John 11:20-27. I am the resurrection and the life.
- John 14:1-4. Let not your hearts be troubled.
- Romans 8:31-39. What shall separate us from the love of God?
- I Corinthians 15:50-58. Where, O death is your sting?
- 2 Corinthians 1:3-7. The God of all comfort.
- I Thessalonians 4:13-18. Do not be uninformed about those who fall asleep.
- Revelation 21:1-7. The new Heavens and the new Earth.
- Revelation 22:14-17. The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come!”
A Typical Order
If you are part of a liturgical tradition, there are likely expectations in place for how a service might go. In my own Protestant tradition, we have much flexibility. Here’s a sample order for you to consider:
- Picture/Music Slideshow
- Greeting from the Minister
- Reading of the Obituary
- Scripture Reading
- Word from a family member
- Special performance of song or reading of poetry
- Word from a friend/coworker
- Word from the minister
- Final Instructions (if there is a follow-up graveside service or gathering prepared) and Dismissal
The Value of Faith and Integrity
If you are reading this as a person thinking about your own passing one day, I’ll say this: You’ll never give any gift to your family greater than the peace that comes from knowing you were a person whose life was right with the Lord. In death, nothing else matters. Am I meeting God as a stranger I avoided, or as a dear friend I’ve spent my whole life yearning to see face to face? When you live with integrity and you let your faith guide your life and decisions, your family can have a peace that far exceeds anything else you could leave them. Don’t leave anything to assumption about the value you place on your relationship with God. Make it impossible to miss. Believe me, they’re watching and learning from you.
“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”Psalm 116:15 (ESV)
This is really good, Mark. Thanks!