You probably don’t sit around and think about your eventual funeral if you’re like most people. However, we’d like to challenge you to think about the unthinkable. Consider each different type of funeral or memorial service you’d like to have, whether you want a celebration of life or a direct cremation without an accompanying funeral.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Are the Main Types of Funerals and Memorial Services?
- Frequently Asked Questions: Types of Funerals
If you want to have a service at the end of your life, consider some of the following options. Here are nine of the most common types of funerals.
What Are the Main Types of Funerals and Memorial Services?
Across the world and throughout the centuries, societies have had their own rituals to signify that a life has ended. While modern funerals may not look anything like the ceremonies from centuries ago, there’s also a lot of diversity in modern services.
Here are some of the main types of end-of-life services in America. Of course, they can vary significantly based on the region where they take place, the family’s religious beliefs, the method of disposition, and the socioeconomic group of the deceased.
What kind of service do you envision when you hear the phrase “traditional funeral?” Do you think of a Catholic Mass with an accompanying graveside service? A religious ceremony at your place of worship, where people gather to sing hymns and offer prayers? Or do you think of a group of people gathered in a funeral home without religious undertones? All of these scenarios would be considered a “traditional funeral” by most people.
Funerals can act as standalone services or they can be accompanied by visitations and/or graveside services. They can be religious or secular, and they can take place indoors or outdoors. You can have a traditional funeral for a person buried in a cemetery or you can have a traditional service for someone who is cremated.
The most common characteristics of a traditional funeral include a solemn atmosphere, a gathering of mourners, music, and religious or secular readings.
If you have a specific wish regarding your funeral, make sure you share it with your family members.
2. Memorial service
Most of the time, a memorial service takes place without a body or cremains present. It may also occur well after the death of the individual. In fact, the absence of the body or cremains may be the defining characteristic that best describes a memorial service. The body may be missing because it’s the family’s choice. It may also be absent from the service because of problems with the weather or travel.
A memorial service may be held in addition to another more intimate service for family and close friends. For example, when celebrities die, memorial services may be held so fans can express their grief.
Like a traditional funeral, memorial services can be religious or secular in tone. They can be held at a place of worship, a community venue, or a funeral home.
Every once in a while, the phrase “memorial service” will be used to describe a traditional funeral. That phrase may be preferred as a less harsh alternative to the word “funeral.”
3. Celebration of life
Celebrations of life are growing in popularity. There are no rules regarding when this phrase should be used — it’s sometimes used to describe a service that’s more celebratory than a traditional funeral.
Of course, the service is not meant to celebrate that the person is dead. Instead, it may be used to share happy stories regarding the person’s life or to celebrate that he or she is now in heaven.
Celebrations of life can be formal or informal and religious or secular. They can be held immediately following death or months after the fact. Celebrations of life can be held as a standalone service or can be a huge extravaganza following a more serious ceremony.
Some celebrations may even be held at restaurants, bars, or other entertainment venues.
4. Graveside or Committal Service
You may opt to have a graveside or committal service. These take place at a cemetery and can act as standalone services or follow a traditional funeral.
Graveside services are usually formal in nature. Typically, a minister or officiant leads the ceremony, and the attendees listen to readings, offer prayers, and sing hymns — even though the service may also be secular.
Graveside services are usually held outside and in view of the general public, they are generally shorter than a traditional funeral.
If the body or cremains are entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium niche, this service may be called an entombment ceremony.
5. Scattering ceremony
Cremations are gaining in popularity. This means that more people are having scattering ceremonies.
A scattering ceremony occurs when the deceased’s cremains are released back to nature. Since they are held outside, these services are rather short in length.
Scattering ceremonies can occur near bodies of water, on private land, or in public parks (as long as permission is acquired.) They can be religious or secular ceremonies. Because of their length and location, they are often informal.
Many times, a scattering ceremony is accompanied by a traditional funeral. Sometimes the scattering takes place weeks, months, or years after the death of the individual.
Some scattering ceremonies have been accompanied by a release of helium balloons in the past but this is generally frowned upon as not being environmentally friendly. Instead, you may consider purchasing a large selection of monarch butterflies to release into the atmosphere.
Visitations almost always occur in conjunction with a traditional funeral, even though there are times when they act as a standalone event.
Visitations usually provide a place for mourners to say their last goodbyes to the departed. Sometimes these gatherings are referred to as “viewings.” They also function to allow those attending to express condolences to the family members present.
If the service is labeled as a “viewing,” this would imply that the body will be present to display.
During a visitation, sometimes the family will arrange for photos or other memorabilia to be displayed. At times, a light meal or refreshments may be available, depending upon the duration of the event.
You may have heard of the practice of sitting with the dead throughout the night. This practice was commonly referred to as a wake or vigil. In the past, this was done at the home of the deceased. Currently, they are usually held at funeral homes or places of worship.
A wake or vigil is usually religious — usually Catholic or Orthodox. They are similar to visitations, except they are sometimes interrupted for prayers, recitations, or readings.
8. Green funerals
A green or environmentally friendly funeral is not a specific type of service, but we will go ahead and put it on our list since it is gaining in popularity.
There are several different ideas on what types of “burials” are the most environmentally friendly. Examine the most current research to see if it is better to be buried in a biodegradable container or cremated and scattered.
9. A combination of several types of services
As we mentioned earlier, some of these services are held in combination with other services.
For example, you may choose to have a visitation (or wake) during the evening. This would allow those with daytime commitments the opportunity to attend a service to express condolences. This could be followed by a traditional funeral the next morning, with a graveside service immediately following.
Some people choose to have multiple types of service on the same day. For example, you may have a visitation that lasts several hours. Following the visitation that same afternoon, you may choose to have the funeral service at the same place.
You may choose only to have a visitation or only a short ceremony at the cemetery. Perhaps you want a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral with an accompanying parade.
Frequently Asked Questions: Types of Funerals
While we have tried to give a clear, concise list of the most common types of funerals in the U.S., we may have muddied the waters. After all, the possibilities are endless, and many are opting to create genuinely personalized goodbyes for their loved ones.
The recent pandemic altered how we view funerals as well. As a result, online funerals gained in popularity. Now that many funeral homes across the country have figured out how to livestream services, people may not be as likely to travel to attend a service.
Here are some other insights we have discovered as we have researched funeral trends.
What’s considered a traditional funeral in the US?
According to most funeral home websites, a traditional funeral begins with a visitation (viewing or wake). This is followed by a funeral and graveside service. Family and friends sometimes gather after the graveside service for a repast or meal. Most (but not all) traditional funerals have a religious element to them.
Some families opt to have all the services on the same day. Others choose to have an open-casket visitation and funeral followed by cremation. These are slight variations of what is considered a traditional funeral in the U.S.
What’s considered an alternative or new funeral?
Alternative funerals are typically personalized services that celebrate the life of the deceased. They can be religious or secular.
A funeral may be considered “alternative” if held in a location other than a funeral home or building designed for religious services. A funeral may also be considered “alternative” if there is not a formal order of service.
Still, others consider the method of disposition when labeling a funeral as “alternative” or “new.” You might think that green burials are “new,” but they are (in fact) the oldest form of funerals. Some would view new disposition techniques, such as alkaline hydrolysis, as an “alternative” type of funeral.
Most would say that “new” funerals are those that are less formal. People may wear more casual clothes and be given the opportunity to share memories of the deceased.
How do you know what type of funeral to choose for you or a loved one?
When you planned your wedding, how did you know what type of service you wanted? You probably thought about all of the weddings you had attended in the past and thought about what you liked or didn’t like about the other events.
You can do the same thing when it comes time to plan a funeral. Think about what you liked or didn’t like about other events to determine what type of funeral you would like for yourself. Of course, none of your desires will come to fruition if you don’t create a funeral plan to share with your loved ones.
If your loved one died without an end-of-life plan, think about the funerals they may have planned for their own family members. This may give you a clue as to the type of funeral they would have expected for themselves. Since funerals are primarily for the living, you could also ask those closest to the deceased about what kind of service would give them the most comfort.
What Do You Want for Your End-of-Life Service?
When you think about it, you have to make a lot of decisions.
Even if you decide that you prefer traditional funerals to celebrations of life, would you rather be buried or cremated? If you choose to be buried, what type of casket do you want, and where would you like it placed? What do you want to be engraved on your headstone? If you choose to be cremated, do you want to have a scattering ceremony? If so, where?
Besides these more significant decisions, you also need to make smaller decisions as well. Consider the music you would like to have played and the flowers you would choose for your display.
Share those plans with those closest to you. They may not want to talk about your funeral plans now, but they will appreciate it when the time comes to plan your services.
Post-planning tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, we have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.