When others plan a public gathering to honor and remember someone who has died, it is always an important way for friends and family to share the life of a loved one.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Step 1: Plan in Advance
- Step 2: Co-Create a Sacred Space
- Step 3: A Bulletin
- Step 4: Make a Script
- Step 5: Rehearse
- Step 6: Check Out the Space
- Step 7: Confirm Speakers
- Step 8: Check the Timing and Place of the Body or Remains
- Step 9: Show up Early
- Step 10: Be Available
- Step 11: Help During Service
- Step 12: Stay After the Service
Someone who volunteers to plan and “officiate” or lead a service takes on the responsibility of creating a sacred space to comfort friends and family of the deceased. People who are attending such a gathering are coming to be in community together and be comforted.
As someone who has created and led dozens of funerals as a hospice chaplain, I’ve created these 12 steps that I follow when I say “yes” to leading a funeral.
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Step 1: Plan in Advance
As the hospice chaplain, I haven’t always known the intimate details of a life well-lived, or the important “meaning-making” of lives. Whenever I’ve been asked to lead a funeral, I always ask people who do know those intimate details of a life to co-create a funeral with me.
These may be family members, or friends, sometimes on occasion both, and it can be lovely to have several folks who have different perspectives on the life that is to be memorialized.
Try and have a point of contact in this group or schedule a time a week ahead of the scheduled service with the person who asked you. For some people who you invite to be part of this inner circle, it can be a place of healing, and tending to those who are grieving.
Step 2: Co-Create a Sacred Space
Set aside a couple of hours with the folks who are co-creating the service with you. Whether you meet at someone’s home or in a coffee shop, bring a pen and paper, and prepare to listen and ask clarifying questions.
Bring a “roadmap of ideas” with you to talk over, that will ultimately become the order of the service. These could include the following: A Welcome, Words to Make Meaning, Music, Silence, Words of Remembrance, Prayers, and a way to close the service.
One of the most meaningful services I have ever attended was a funeral for the mother of a friend who had died. She had planned her own service with her favorite poems and music, spoken and performed by favorite friends, and nothing else. It told her story of what mattered most in her world and was “meaning making” in so many loving ways.
For those who may be unaware of the “roadmap of ideas,” here’s an in-depth guide:
- Welcome – People are called to be in community together on days like these, to remember and honor someone who has died. Greeting people with hospitality sets the tone of welcome to those who have gathered.
- Words to Make Meaning – These could be letters that have been written, scripture, poetry, music lyrics, sacred text. These would be read out loud.
- Music – Favorite music is incredibly meaning making and comforting, especially tied into storytelling and why special music mattered to someone. Whether it’s a song played live, or played from a recording, music helps tell the story of someone beloved. Another option is to sing together a favorite song of the one who died, so bring copies of the lyrics!
- Silence – Silence can to a lovely way to pause in a service, to remember the one being memorialized, and for the people who are there to be comforted.
- Words of Remembrance – This is sometimes called a eulogy, where someone has been chosen to speak on behalf of the one who has died. It can be a friend, a work colleague, a family member, or even the one who is leading the service. At services I’ve attended, I have heard people recite an obituary. A eulogy is usually a time for life reflection.
- Prayers (or not) – Some people like the idea of invoking the name of God or the Divine, in whatever faith or religion, praying for the one who has died, and praying for the ones who are grieving. Totally optional.
- Conclusion – Conclude with a blessing to those who are gathered, with a piece of poetry, by singing a song, or saying thank you for attending. If there is a gathering afterward with food, remind those of the location of the meal and that all are welcome.
Step 3: A Bulletin
A service bulletin can be considered by some to be a relic of the past. However, it is also something to hand out as a takeaway, printed with the order of the service, the obituary (if there is one), and maybe a photo. This kind of bulletin can be helpful and important to some people. Others may be wanting to be in the moment without any handouts.
Recently, I attended a funeral where the family made and printed bookmarks to distribute to folks who gathered at the funeral, as well as handed out packets of seeds to plant next spring for their very own memorial garden honoring the one who died.
Step 4: Make a Script
Make a script of the roadmap of ideas a few days out from the day of the service. Write down the order of the service and the list of speakers. Make sure to print it out and put it in a folder to bring with you. It’s also helpful to have a little table or a podium to speak from.
Depending on the gathering, most people who attend funerals expect the service to last no more than an hour, and then usually a reception of sorts follows.
Step 5: Rehearse
Rehearse what you are going to say. Be comfortable with words that may not easily roll off your tongue. Familiarize yourself with the structure of the service.
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Step 6: Check Out the Space
Funeral services or memorial services can be held anywhere. They can be outside or inside, at the funeral home, or in a church, in a park (some permission may be needed), in someone’s home or the backyard, or on a beach (some permission may be needed).
Also, consider if the body will be in a casket, or the cremated remains will be present, or as in a true memorial service, the remains are not present.
Frequently, at the front or in the center of the gathering space, families and friends decorate a table with a photo, maybe a candle is lit, or a bouquet of the beloved’s favorite flowers is present.
Is there going to be live music? If so, where are the musicians going to be? Using recorded music? Who has it and how will it be played? If this has been a recent death and the funeral home is still involved, check-in with the funeral director about any details you may be missing.
Sometimes people who have the cremated remains of their loved one, schedule a service weeks or months after the death. There are lots of choices to be made about when a service is scheduled.
Also, make it a point to talk with the family about how they want to enter and depart the sacred space that you’re creating. Some families and friends will mingle with others before the service, others would like to have a greeting line afterward. Some families want to formally enter the space with you, the leader, but others will also want to depart the space during the final words. There is lots of freedom to decide, but make sure that you’ve talked about how they want to move around in the space.
Step 7: Confirm Speakers
Confirm with others who will be speaking. This can happen in the days before, but introducing yourself to others who are speaking helps everyone who may have questions about the location, or the space, or the time, or even what to bring. It is a big help to confirm that they have the poem or sacred text in their possession.
Conversely, they may need you to help supply them with the words. Review with the folks who are speaking remembrances about the need to be sensitive to going too long, or if that doesn’t matter... it doesn’t matter.
I’ve been to funerals where an “open mic” becomes available, and people can talk a lot. If that is not an issue for your community, then absolutely pass the mic, or speak out in the circle!
Step 8: Check the Timing and Place of the Body or Remains
Confirm with the funeral home or whoever is in possession of the cremated remains, if necessary.
Sometimes the family will have already picked up the cremated remains, but if you are memorializing someone in a casket, the funeral home will need to transport the body to the funeral location.
Step 9: Show Up Early
Greet family and close friends. Check the microphone, if there is one. Place your script on the podium or wherever you will be speaking. Offer support to the family.
I usually bring small packets of tissues, breath mints for folks who may want one, and a bottle of water for me.
Step 10: Be Available
Be present. People are motivated to go to funerals for lots of different reasons. They may be a friend of someone in the family. They may be a work colleague. A neighbor. Someone who is the same quilting or knitting group, or hiking club, or gym.
There can be a wide range of emotions from people who attend a funeral. Some people who attend a funeral service may be grieving. People will cry. People may be so moved they may need to leave. People who are speaking from a script can become so emotional that they can’t read their words. Step in to help them, too.
Step 11: Help During Service
If there is a graveside service, before or after a funeral service, you may be asked to help. This is blessing the ground in which the person who has died is getting buried, either in a casket, or an urn, and committing the body into the ground. Funerals can also be part of scattering the cremated remains of someone.
A funeral may be with a few present or quite a few gathered at a favorite trail, golf course, or even a lake, creek, or ocean.
Step 12: Stay After the Service
If there is a reception, attend and mingle. You have been the face of someone who led a sacred space, so let people say thank you, if they are so moved. Receptions are for a community to gather together to reconnect, and frequently they are mini-reunions where friends and family come together after not seeing each other for a long time.
Whether it’s a potluck of the deceased favorite foods, pies, and coffee, an ice cream bar, tea, and cookies, or a toast with Irish whiskey, gathering with food can be an important ritual for the community gathered.
I recently officiated a service at a church that had a group of volunteers exclusively to help a family with their reception that followed the service. The family brought all the food, and this group of volunteers laid it all out, made coffee, and then did the dishes and cleaned up after everyone left. It made the day much easier for the family of the one who had died.
Honor the Responsibility of Planning a Funeral
You have said “yes” to entering a sacred space for friends and family when you plan and lead a funeral service. It requires someone who can be honest, thoughtful, compassionate, and committed to serving a community of folks who have just had someone they care about die. It takes time to plan a funeral service, whether you are writing and leading the service by yourself, or with others.
It is a gift to grieving folks who will be coming to honor someone that you are there. If you need more help planning a funeral, read our guides on how to pick a good funeral home, how to pay for a funeral, and how to say thank you when it's over.