Designing a Funeral Service

This information was mainly extracted from a video by Sarah Kerr from the Centre for Sacred Death Care.

A funeral service is a focused intentional ritual that facilitates healing. When done well, it serves the person who has died, the close family and friends, and the larger community. This requires a structure able to hold the depth of grief and love, as well as a flow of energy that builds and transforms.

For the close family and friends, the funeral becomes a rite of passage. It helps them make the adjustment from one way of being in the world to another. They take on a new identity; widow, bereaved parent, orphan. Ideally, between the time of death and the service, there will be more intimate spaces such as tending to the body, building the casket, or telling stories, where they can begin to move through the numbness and rawness, preparing them for this more public event.

For the community, the funeral is a collective grief ritual. Friends, colleagues, and acquaintances come together to support the family and close friends, and mourn the loss. This is a village making event.

When the death is sudden and unexpected, the shock is often too great for any early ritual to have a healing effect. Although it’s important to have some ceremony following the death, gathering after six months and then again after a year, when people can breathe again, can facilitate healing.

Although there is no right and wrong way to have a funeral service, Sarah suggests considering the following.

Although it may be inconvenient, holding a funeral within a week of the death, while people are still in that tender, liminal space, can be more meaningful than postponing it to a later, more convenient date. Death is about surrendering to something larger. By letting it upset our normal life, we are saying it matters. It’s okay for a funeral to be somber. Although laughter and celebration are welcome, it’s fine for sadness to be central.

When making choices such as location, music, and food, think about what is meaningful to the deceased. It’s the symbolism that matters more than the things; have them reflect the person who has died.

When thinking about who to invite, there may be value in opening the service to the community. It can be a beautiful surprise to see who shows up, and be told how someone’s life has been impacted.

Most of us don’t have traditional spiritual practices around death, and we need to create our own. Try to find someone who will coordinate the practical things that need to be done, be available to answer questions, and take charge.

Sarah encourages the ceremony to be officiated by a celebrant outside of the family. This person would hold the space and bring in the language that is needed to make meaning, allowing the intimate circle of family and friends to drop into the experience, feel it, and let it move through them, so they can get to the other side.

Have the family arrive at the service or burial together, in a processional way. Chairs for them could be set up at the front. They are entering with one identity, and will leave behind a part of who they were. At the close, they can also lead the procession away from the space.

Having an open microphone may not be a good idea, as it may be difficult for the officiant to limit the number of speakers and the length of their offerings. Sarah suggested using name tags which include a short phrase about how each person knew the deceased. Receiving lines can be a straightforward way for the grieving family to greet each one present and feel their support. Arrange for photographs to be taken for the family to appreciate at a later date, when they are more able to absorb the experience.

Songs and music can bring people together in a beautiful way, and having a sing-a-long could be considered. Music can be shared as the family enters, when they leave, and if there is a burial, while the casket is being lowered.

There is value in starting formally, with words such as “We are gathered here today to celebrate the life and mourn the death of …, and give their birth date, the date of death, and the names of family members. The eulogy, outlining the life of the deceased, can be quite long; ensure everyone can hear the speaker. A slideshow with 30 to 40 pictures, arranged in chronological order, could add warmth. Think about who might give a tribute to the person who died; perhaps have three people speak for no more than three minutes each.

To be effective, the ritual needs to contain some aspect of letting go. In a burial ceremony, the lowering of the casket into the grave and covering it with earth are significant. Slow these down, so the inner experience can keep up with what is happening on the outside.

As the ritual comes to a close, have words to end it well. The family can lead the procession out, with song. Afterward, it is important to share food together, symbolizing a return to the act of living, as changed people.

There are many ways to do a funeral service well. May it reflect the person who has died, provide expression for grief and love, be a rite of passage, and build community.