Helping Your Family Personalize the Funeral
By Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
If you are in the midst of planning a funeral, you may be feeling overwhelmed right now. Many details must be attended to. Many people must be contacted. Many decisions must be made. Your natural and necessary feelings of grief make these tasks even more difficult.
Still, I encourage you to slow down, take a deep breath and focus on what is really important-what is essential-about the funeral you are planning. What is essential is the life that was lived and the impact that life had on family and friends. To honor that unique life, the funeral must also be unique. Over and over families tell me that the best funerals are those that are personalized.
Consider the unique life of the person who died
As you begin to think about personalizing the funeral, turn your thoughts to your memories of the person who died. Think about his or her qualities and what he or she meant to others. Consider his or her passions, hobbies, pastimes, likes, dislikes.
You might try making a list of the following:
- Attributes or passions of the person who died
- Special memories to share
- Achievements of the person who died
- Important people to include somehow
Personalize the elements of ceremony
Once you've given thought to the unique life and personality of the person who died, it's time to incorporate those memories into the funeral plan. Be creative as you, together with your family, friends, funeral director and the person who will lead the service, brainstorm how to remember and honor this special person.
A good way to personalize the funeral is to personalize the common elements of funeral ceremonies:
- Committal service
- Gathering or reception
Each of these elements can be personalized in many ways. If you're having a visitation, for example, you could set up a display of photos, memorabilia, collections or artwork. You could do the same at the gathering following the ceremony. Choose music that was meaningful to the person who died or to your family. Select poetry and other readings that speak to the life of this unique person. Ask the people who were closest to the person who died to participate by playing music, giving readings, being pallbearers, making food for the gathering-whatever suits their own unique talents.
The eulogy is especially important
When personalized, the eulogy (pronounced EWE-luh-jee) is perhaps the most memorable and healing element of the funeral ceremony. Also called the remembrance, the eulogy is the speech during the funeral ceremony that talks about the life and character of the person who died. The eulogy acknowledges the unique life of the person who died and affirms the significance of that life for all who shared in it.
The eulogy can be delivered by a clergyperson, a family member or a friend of the person who died. Instead of a traditional eulogy delivered by one person, you may choose to ask several people to speak and share their memories. There is also a growing trend toward having people attending the funeral stand up and share a memory of the person who died.
More ideas for personalizing a funeral service
The funeral service you have should be as special as the life you will be remembering. Here are a few more ideas:
- Write a personalized obituary. Some newspapers allow you to express a little more than the usual who/what/why/where/when. Appoint a creative "word" person in the family to handle this task.
- Create a column in the guest book for people to jot down a memory after they sign their name.
- Display personal items or hobby paraphernalia on a table at the visitation, the ceremony and/or the gathering afterwards.
- Have more than one person deliver the eulogy. Ask several people to share memories and talk about different aspects of the person who died.
- Choose clothing for the person who died that reflects his or her life, interests, passions, etc. The clothing needn't be formal or somber!
- Create a personalized program for the ceremony. You can include photos, poems, anecdotes-whatever you'd like! Your funeral director can help you with this.
- Show a videotape or slide show of the person's life during the funeral. Pictures tell a thousand words!
- Ask children if they would like to write a letter or draw a picture for the person who died. Their "goodbyes" can then be placed in the casket alongside the body.
- Select flowers that were meaningful to the person who died. A simple arrangement of freshly-cut lilacs, for example, might be perfect.
- At the funeral, invite people to write down a memory of the person who died. Appoint someone to gather and read the memories aloud.
- Create a funeral that captures the personality of the person who died. If he was zany, don't be afraid to use humor. If she was affectionate, have everyone stand up and hug the person next to them during the ceremony.
- Display photos of the person who died at the visitation, the ceremony and/or the gathering. In fact, putting together a photo collage can be a very healing experience for the family in the days before the funeral.
- Use lots of music, especially if music was meaningful to the person who died or is to your family. Music can be played at the visitation, the committal service and the gathering as well as the funeral service itself!
- Create a personalized grave marker. Include a poem, a drawing or a short phrase that defines the person who died.
A final word
I hope you have been encouraged in your efforts to create a personalized funeral ceremony. While it may seem overwhelming right now, I promise you this: a well-planned, inclusive, personalized funeral will touch your family, the friends of the person who died and you yourself deeply. The funeral will help you begin to heal and will provide you with great comfort and satisfaction in the months and years to come.
Copyright 2007, Center for Loss and Life Transition
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Helping Create a Meaningful Eulogy
By Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
Planning a meaningful, personalized funeral is one of the most important tasks you will ever undertake. Think of the funeral as a gift to the person who died. It is your chance to think about and express the value of the life that was lived.
When personalized, the eulogy (pronounced EWE-luh-jee) is perhaps the most memorable and healing element of the funeral ceremony. This article will help you choose the right person to give the eulogy as well as offer tips for writing and presenting the eulogy.
What is the eulogy?
Also called the remembrance, the eulogy is the speech or presentation during the funeral ceremony that talks about the life and character of the person who died. The eulogy acknowledges the unique life of the person who died and affirms the significance of that life for all who shared in it. The eulogy typically lasts 15-20 minutes, although longer presentations may also be appropriate.
Who presents the eulogy?
The eulogy can be delivered by a clergyperson, a family member or a friend of the person who died. Instead of a traditional eulogy delivered by one person, you may choose to ask several people to speak and share their memories. There is also a growing trend toward having people attending the funeral stand up and share a memory of the person who died. This works well, especially at smaller or less formal gatherings.
What if the person presenting the eulogy didn't really know the person who died?
Keep in mind that the eulogy doesn't have to be delivered by the person leading the service. Only if your clergy person or another person facilitating the ceremony knows your family well and can speak personally about the person who died is this appropriate. If the clergyperson didn't know the person who died, it's much more meaningful to have a family member or friend give the eulogy. Or you might ask several people to speak.
If your family would feel comforted by a religious sermon during the ceremony, ask a clergyperson to give one. Just be sure to have someone else (or several people) deliver a personalized eulogy in addition to the sermon.
If you must choose someone who didn't know the person who died well, make an effort to share with him or her anecdotes and memories that are important to you. Ask yourself, "What stands out to me about this person's life?" "What are some special memories I'd like to share?" "What were some times I felt particularly close to this person?" "What were some admirable qualities about this person?"
What should be said during the eulogy?
We have already emphasized that the best eulogies are personalized. They include memories and anecdotes of the person's life. They also try to capture personality. If the person who died was kind, the eulogy would give examples of this kindness. If the person who died had a good sense of humor, the eulogy might relate funny stories or expressions.
The eulogy doesn't have to cover every aspect of the person's life, however. In fact, often the best eulogies are those that focus on the eulogy-giver's personal thoughts and memories. Do try to acknowledge those who were closest to the person who died as well as important achievements in the person's life, but don't feel obligated to create an exhaustive biography.
Also keep in mind that the word eulogy comes from the Greek eulogia, meaning praise or blessing. This is the time to give thanks for a person's life and to honor his or her memory. This is not the time to bring up painful or difficult memories but to emphasize the good we can find in all people.
Some tips for eulogy-givers
Writing and delivering a eulogy is a loving, important gesture that merits your time and attention. Though the task may seem daunting right now, you'll find that once you start jotting down ideas, your eulogy will come together naturally. Afterwards, many who attend the funeral will thank you for your contribution, and your eulogy will be cherished always by the family and friends of the person who died.
Here are some ideas to get you started.
Be brave. The thought of writing a speech and presenting it in public makes many people anxious. Set aside your fears for now. You can do this. Focus on the person who died and the gift you will be giving to all who knew and loved him or her.
Think. Before you start writing, go for a long walk or drive and think about the life of the person who died. This will help you collect your thoughts and focus on writing the eulogy.
Brainstorm. Spend half an hour (longer if you want) writing down all the thoughts, ideas and memories that come to you.
Ask others to share memories. A good way to include others in the ceremony is to ask them to share thoughts and memories, which you can then incorporate into the eulogy.
Look at photos. Flipping through photo albums may remind you of important qualities and memories of the person who died.
Write a draft. Once you've brainstormed and collected memories, it's time to write the first draft. Go somewhere quiet and write it all in one sitting, start to finish. Don't worry about getting it perfect for now-just get it down on paper.
Let it sit. If time allows, let your eulogy draft sit for a few hours or a day before revising.
Get a second opinion. Have someone else-preferably someone who was close to the person who died-read over your draft at this point. This person can make revision suggestions and help you avoid inadvertently saying something that might offend others.
Polish. Read over your first draft. Look for awkward phrases or stiff wording. Improve the transitions from paragraph to paragraph or thought to thought. Find adjectives and verbs that really capture the essence of the person who died.
Present your eulogy with love. Now you need to present your eulogy. You may feel nervous, but if you can keep your focus on the person who died instead of your own fears, you'll loosen up. If you break down as you're talking, that's OK. Everyone will understand. Just stop for a few seconds, collect yourself and continue.
Speak up. It's very important that you speak clearly and loudly so that everyone can hear you.
A Final Word
Again, the word eulogy means "praise or blessing." Your willingness to help create a personalized, meaningful eulogy is, in fact, a very real blessing.
Copyright 2007, Center for Loss and Life Transition
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Ten Freedoms for Creating a Meaningful Funeral
By Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
Meaningful funerals do not just happen. They are well-thought-out rituals that, at least for a day or two, demand your focus and your time. But the planning may feel less burdensome if you keep in mind that the energy you expend now to create a personalized, inclusive ceremony will help you, your family and other mourners embark on healthy, healing grief journeys.
The following list is intended to empower you to create a funeral that will be meaningful to you and your family and friends.
1. You have the right to make use of ritual.
The funeral ritual does more than acknowledge the death of someone loved. It helps provide you with the support of caring people. It is a way for you and others who loved the person who died to say, "We mourn this death and we need each other during this painful time." If others tell you that rituals such as these are silly or unnecessary, don't listen.
2. You have the freedom to plan a funeral that will meet the unique needs of your family.
While you may find comfort and meaning in traditional funeral ceremonies, you also have the right to create a ceremony that reflects the unique personality of your family and the person who died. Do not be afraid to add personal touches to even traditional funerals.
3. You have the freedom to ask friends and family members to be involved in the funeral.
For many, funerals are most meaningful when they involve a variety of people who loved the person who died. You might ask others to give a reading, deliver the eulogy, play music or even help plan the funeral.
4. You have the freedom to view the body before and during the funeral.
While viewing the body is not appropriate for all cultures and faiths, many people find it helps them acknowledge the reality of the death. It also provides a way to say goodbye to the person who died. There are many benefits to viewings and open casket ceremonies; don't let others tell you this practice is morbid or wrong.
5. You have the freedom to embrace your pain during the funeral.
The funeral may be one of the most painful but also the most cathartic moments of your life. Allow yourself to embrace your pain and to express it openly. Do not be ashamed to cry. Find listeners who will accept your feelings no matter what they are.
6. You have the freedom to plan a funeral that will reflect your spirituality.
If faith is a part of your life, the funeral is an ideal time for you to uphold and find comfort in that faith. Those with more secular spiritual orientations also have the freedom to plan a ceremony that meets their needs.
7. You have the freedom to search for meaning before, during and after the funeral.
When someone loved dies, you may find yourself questioning your faith and the very meaning of life and death. This is natural and in no way wrong. Don't let others dismiss your search for meaning with clichÃ©d responses such as, "It was God's will" or "Think of what you still have to be thankful for."
8. You have the freedom to make use of memory during the funeral.
Memories are one of the best legacies that exist after the death of someone loved. You will always remember. Ask your funeral officiant to include memories from many different people in the eulogy. Create a "memory board" or a "memory table." Ask those attending the funeral to share their most special memory of the person who died with you.
9. You have the freedom to be tolerant of your physical and emotional limits.
Especially in the days immediately following the death, your feelings of loss and sadness will probably leave you feeling fatigued. Respect what your body and mind are telling you. Get daily rest. Eat balanced meals.
10. You have the freedom to move toward your grief and heal.
While the funeral is an event, your grief is not. Reconciling your grief will not happen quickly. Be patient and tolerant with yourself and avoid people who are impatient and intolerant with you, before, during and after the funeral. Neither you nor those around you must forget that the death of someone loved changes your life forever.
Copyright 2007, Center for Loss and Life Transition
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Why Is the Funeral Ritual Important?
By Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
"When words are inadequate, have a ritual."
Rituals are symbolic activities that help us, together with our families and friends, express our deepest thoughts and feelings about life's most important events. Baptism celebrates the birth of a child and that child's acceptance into the church family. Birthday parties honor the passing of another year in the life of someone we love. Weddings publicly affirm the private love shared by two people.
The funeral ritual, too, is a public, traditional and symbolic means of expressing our beliefs, thoughts and feelings about the death of someone loved. Rich in history and rife with symbolism, the funeral ceremony helps us acknowledge the reality of the death, gives testimony to the life of the deceased, encourages the expression of grief in a way consistent with the culture's values, provides support to mourners, allows for the embracing of faith and beliefs about life and death, and offers continuity and hope for the living.
Unfortunately, our mourning-avoiding culture has to a large extent forgotten these crucial purposes of the meaningful funeral. As a death educator and grief counselor, I am deeply concerned that individuals, families and ultimately society as a whole will suffer if we do not reinvest ourselves in the funeral ritual. This article explores the grief-healing benefits of meaningful funerals-benefits we are losing to the deritualization trend.
I have discovered that a helpful way to teach about the purposes of authentic funeral ceremonies is to frame them up in the context of the "reconciliation needs of mourning"-my twist on what other author's have called the "tasks of mourning." The reconciliation needs of mourning are the six needs that I believe to be the most central to healing in grief. In other words, bereaved people who have these needs met, through their own grief work and through the love and compassion of those around them, are most often able to reconcile their grief and go on to find continued meaning in life and living.
How the authentic funeral helps meet the six reconciliation needs of mourning:
Mourning Need #1. Acknowledge the reality of the death.
When someone loved dies, we must openly acknowledge the reality and the finality of the death if we are to move forward with our grief. Typically, we embrace this reality in two phases. First we acknowledge the death with our minds; we are told that someone we loved has died and, intellectually at least, we understand the fact of the death. Over the course of the following days and weeks, and with the gentle understanding of those around us, we begin to acknowledge the reality of the death in our hearts.
Meaningful funeral ceremonies can serve as wonderful points of departure for "head understanding" of the death. Intellectually, funerals teach us that someone we loved is now dead, even though up until the funeral we may have denied this fact. When we contact the funeral home, set a time for the service, plan the ceremony, view the body, perhaps even choose clothing and jewelry for the body, we cannot avoid acknowledging that the person has died. When we see the casket being lowered into the ground, we are witness to death's finality.
Mourning Need #2. Move toward the pain of the loss.
As our acknowledgment of the death progresses from what I call "head understanding" to "heart understanding," we begin to embrace the pain of the loss-another need the bereaved must have met if they are to heal. Healthy grief means expressing our painful thoughts and feelings, and healthy funeral ceremonies allow us to do just that.
People tend to cry, even sob and wail, at funerals because funerals force us to concentrate on the fact of the death and our feelings, often excruciatingly painful, about that death. For at least an hour or two-longer for mourners who plan the ceremony or attend the visitation-those attending the funeral are not able to intellectualize or distance themselves from the pain of their grief. To their credit, funerals also provide us with an accepted venue for our painful feelings. They are perhaps the only time and place, in fact, during which we as a society condone such openly outward expression of our sadness.
Mourning Need #3. Remember the person who died.
To heal in grief, we must shift our relationship with the person who died from one of physical presence to one of memory. The authentic funeral encourages us to begin this shift, for it provides a natural time and place for us to think about the moments we shared-good and bad-with the person who died. Like no other time before or after the death, the funeral invites us to focus on our past relationship with that one, single person and to share those memories with others.
At traditional funerals, the eulogy attempts to highlight the major events in the life of the deceased and the characteristics that he or she most prominently displayed. This is helpful to mourners, for it tends to prompt more intimate, individualized memories. Later, after the ceremony itself, many mourners will informally share memories of the person who died. This, too, is meaningful. Throughout our grief journeys, the more we are able "tell the story"-of the death itself, of our memories of the person who died-the more likely we will be to reconcile our grief.
Moreover, the sharing of memories at the funeral affirms the worth we have placed on the person who died, legitimizing our pain. Often, too, the memories others choose to share with us at the funeral are memories that we have not heard before. This teaches us about the dead person's life apart from ours and allows us glimpses into that life that we may cherish forever.
Mourning Need #4. Develop a new self-identity.
Another primary reconciliation need of mourning is the development of a new self-identity. We are all social beings whose lives are given meaning in relation to the lives of those around us. I am not just Alan Wolfelt, but a son, a brother, a husband, a father, a friend. When someone close to me dies, my self-identity as defined in those ways changes.
The funeral helps us begin this difficult process of developing a new self-identity because it provides a social venue for public acknowledgment of our new roles. If you are a parent of a child and that child dies, the funeral marks the beginning of your life as a former parent (in the physical sense; you will always have that relationship through memory). Others attending the funeral are in effect saying, "We acknowledge your changed identity and we want you to know we still care about you." On the other hand, in situations where there is no funeral, the social group does not know how to relate to the person whose identity has changed and often that person is socially abandoned. In addition, having supportive friends and family around us at the time of the funeral helps us realize we literally still exist. This self-identity issue is illustrated by a comment the bereaved often make: "When he died, I felt like a part of me died, too."
Mourning Need #5. Search for meaning.
When someone loved dies, we naturally question the meaning of life and death. Why did this person die? Why now? Why this way? Why does it have to hurt so much? What happens after death? To heal in grief, we must explore these types of questions if we are to become reconciled to our grief. In fact, we must first ask these "why" questions to decide why we should go on living before we can ask ourselves how we will go on living. This does not mean we must find definitive answers, only that we need the opportunity to think (and feel) things through.
On a more fundamental level, the funeral reinforces one central fact of our existence: we will die. Like living, dying is a natural and unavoidable process. (We North Americans tend not to acknowledge this.) Thus the funeral helps us search for meaning in the life and death of the person who died as well as in our own lives and impending deaths. Each funeral we attend serves as a sort of dress rehearsal for our own.
Funerals are a way in which we as individuals and as a community convey our beliefs and values about life and death. The very fact of a funeral demonstrates that death is important to us. For the living to go on living as fully and as healthily as possible, this is as it should be.
Mourning Need #6. Receive ongoing support from others.
As we have said, funerals are a public means of expressing our beliefs and feelings about the death of someone loved. In fact, funerals are the public venue for offering support to others and being supported in grief, both at the time of the funeral and into the future. Funerals make a social statement that says, "Come support me." Whether they realize it or not, those who choose not to have a funeral are saying, "Don't come support me."
Funerals let us physically demonstrate our support, too. Sadly, ours is not a demonstrative society, but at funerals we are "allowed" to embrace, to touch, to comfort. Again, words are inadequate so we nonverbally demonstrate our support. This physical show of support is one of the most important healing aspects of meaningful funeral ceremonies.
Finally, and most simply, funerals serve as the central gathering place for mourners. When we care about someone who died or his family members, we attend the funeral if at all possible. Our physical presence is our most important show of support for the living. By attending the funeral we let everyone else there know that they are not alone in their grief.
Copyright 2007, Center for Loss and Life Transition