Funerals do more than acknowledge the reality of death. They mark the transition from this life to the next, providing a channel for grief and support, as well as an opportunity to honor the legacy of our loved one. They can also be a heavy burden, coming as they do on the heels of a tragic loss. Preparations must be made quickly, while our emotions are still raw. Without a checklist for funeral planning, it is easy to lose track of details and become overwhelmed. However, with a clear view of the situation, we can create a ceremony that is both beautiful and transformative.
None of us know when our time will come. It may arrive suddenly or gradually. Regardless, it is important to plan ahead and discuss our final wishes. For obvious reasons, many families avoid the topic, leaving them unprepared and uncertain how to plan a ceremony in keeping with their loved one’s religious, spiritual, and personal preferences – a major source of stress and anxiety. Creating a funeral planning checklist in advance takes away this worry. It lets families celebrate their loved one’s memory, milestones, and traditions the way they wanted, drawing them closer to their memory as they say goodbye.
Writing the obituary should be the first item on your funeral planning checklist. An obituary is more than a notice someone has died. It is a way to honor their life, accomplishments, and contributions. It should include:
- The Date of Death. In the opening, list the day, month, and year the deceased passed away, as well as their age.
- A Brief Description. Alongside the date of death, include a one-line account of their life. (E.g., John Smith, business owner, husband, and father of three, passed away on…)
- Biographical Details. Next, include a summary of their life. Concentrate on major events such as their birth, education, military service, marriage, children, and career.
- Hobbies and Passions. Mention one or two of their interests as well. These offer a touching glimpse into their character.
- Surviving Family. A list of family who were close to the deceased. These do not have to be immediate family, but any relative who they had a meaningful relationship with. (E.g., John is survived by his wife, Jane, and their three daughters, Mary, Margaret, and Melissa, along with their husbands and children. He is also survived by his brother, Bill, and his nephew, Sam.)
- Funeral Announcement. End by listing the date, time, and location of the funeral. This alerts anyone in the community who may be interested in attending the memorial.
Most newspapers post obituaries online as well as in print. Do your best to make sure it is seen by as many people as you can. At the same time, be concise. Papers generally charge by the line or have word limits. Finally, before you publish, ask a friend to check for spelling errors and provide feedback. An outside perspective will help focus your writing.
Type of Service
While the obituary is being written, the family should discuss other items on their checklist for funeral planning. For example, what type of service feels most appropriate?
- Church. An ideal choice for people with a religious background. However, it must be remembered that churches, synagogues, and temples normally have events planned throughout the week. As such, they may have few options regarding dates and times, especially on weekends. They usually ask the ceremony to be conducted on a tighter schedule as well, to give them time to set up for other events.
- Funeral Home. Solemn and respectful, professional mortuaries work with families to design memorials for the deceased. Less constrained by time, they are a good option for people interested in holding a longer vigil.
- Graveside. Held at a cemetery or mausoleum, these ceremonies are conducted as the body is interred after a funeral. However, they can also be held as stand-alone events. Because of their setting, graveside services are typically shorter and simpler than other services.
- Military Service. All United States veterans are entitled to a military funeral. This includes the presence of at least two uniformed soldiers, the folding and presenting of the flag, and playing of taps. Military services can be arranged through funeral homes or by contacting the Department of Veterans Affairs.
- Green Burial. Allows the body to be naturally reabsorbed into the Earth. The body is not embalmed, to prevent chemicals from disturbing decomposition, and the casket is biodegradable, to minimize its environmental impact.
Funerals carry both emotional and financial costs. So before deciding, take a moment to consider whether a particular ceremony better fits your budget.
Funeral Planning Checklist: Creating a Meaningful Ceremony
Once the service has been settled on, families can turn to more personal details. These add greater depth to the service and encourage a cathartic release of emotion.
Buying a Casket
Purchasing a casket is one of the biggest financial decisions you will make planning a funeral. Costs can reach over ten thousand dollars and salesmen sometimes take advantage of fragile emotions in order to convince families to overspend. Under these circumstances, it is best to bring along a friend for support and advice. Before you go, it is also a good idea to set a price limit. Do not be shy about voicing reservations to the salesperson either. They understand it is a poignant decision. And if you feel overwhelmed at any time during the process, do not hesitate to excuse yourself. Everyone understands what you are going through. Step outside and, after you have taken a few minutes to clear your head, you will be able to make a better decision.
Choosing an Officiant
Traditionally, funerals are presided over by a priest, rabbi, or religious leader. They offer spiritual comfort and reflect on the meaning of life. If the deceased was a member of a congregation, then their regular priest or religious figure is undoubtedly the best choice. Otherwise, you can contact a local church or invite a professional celebrant who understands your cultural background and can speak to your beliefs.
However, people are increasingly turning to friends or family members to fill this role instead. Because they are familiar with the deceased, they are in an excellent position to preside over events.
Officiants act as a master-of-ceremonies. They welcome mourners, lead prayers, and direct the other people involved in the funeral (e.g., pallbearers, choir, speakers). Though the officiant is generally responsible for the eulogy, this duty can be given to someone else or split between several people. Multiple eulogies give mourners a truer appreciation of the deceased and their impact.
If you do decide to have multiple speakers, reach out early. Not everyone is comfortable speaking in public, especially after a loss. Also keep the length of the service in mind. If you are being held to a tight schedule, you might not be able to hear from more than one or two people.
Writing a Eulogy
If you are asked to speak, take time to prepare. Think back on your experiences with the deceased. Is there a story you always tell about them? A moment you cherished? A special quality they possessed? Write down as many as you can. Then review. Is there one that stands out above the rest? Or a theme that runs through them? Themes give speeches greater resonance. Family, faith, generosity, community, personal growth – topics like these help us reflect on the many ways people enrich our lives. Do not shy away from humor either. Telling a funny story or talking about a personal quirk provides a truer sense of our loved ones.
Once you know what you want to include in your speech, write down your remarks and rehearse them at least once. This gives you an idea of how it will sound and whether you want to make any changes. Do not forget to keep an eye on the time as well. Others will be eager to tell their stories, so make sure your speech does not run long. A good rule of thumb is 5-10 minutes.
People often get choked up during a eulogy. Emotions are high, so do not be embarrassed if you need to take a moment and collect yourself while you are talking.
Lastly, it is always a good idea to bring along a set of notecards. They will remind you what you want to say without obstructing your rapport with the audience. No one enjoys listening to someone recite words from a script. They like people who make eye contact and speak clearly. Notecards prompt you with a glance, making your presentation more natural.
Commemorating the Deceased
Funerals bring people together to express and affirm their emotions. Many of the items included in the ceremony play an important role in this, such as:
- Flowers. Represent our grief, love, and respect for the deceased. Traditionally, the colors represent different concepts: white for purity, red for grief, pink for love, purple for admiration, and yellow for friendship.
- Photos. Choose photos that reflect the major events of the deceased’s life – childhood, school, career, marriage, etc. If your setting has multimedia capabilities, you may want to create a slideshow. People need at least 3-5 seconds to get a good view of an image onscreen, which means you will need roughly 12 photos for every minute of the show.
- Memorabilia. Personal items are a great way to evoke memories of the deceased’s accomplishments, milestones, and personality. Look through their awards, medals, and treasured items for ideas.
- Music. You can select somber music, to reflect the mood, or something the deceased held dear, to reflect their personality.
- Memorial Cards. A small card with a picture of the deceased alongside a prayer, poem, or dedication. Often kept as mementos.
- Guest Book. Tells the family who attended and allows guests to express their feelings of love, loss, and support.
- Clothing. For the deceased. Pick something they would have worn to a formal service. However, if there was a particular outfit they were known for, that may be more appropriate.
Instead of bringing flowers, some families ask guests to donate to charity. If this is the case, be sure to mention it in the obituary, along with the organization where you would like them to send their money (e.g., American Cancer Association).
Open Casket vs. Closed Casket
An open casket funeral offers mourners a last glimpse of their loved one before burial. This helps bring home the reality of death, one of the first steps in the grieving process. Seeing their loved one resting peacefully also leaves them with a comforting image of the deceased.
However, under some circumstances, an open casket may not be appropriate. Religious taboos may forbid it. What’s more, if the deceased was disfigured by the cause of death, then seeing them in an open casket may be disturbing. Finally, if a large amount of time has passed between the death and the funeral, the body may not be suitable for viewing.
In most ceremonies, the funeral and burial occur at separate locations. If this is the case, you will need assistance transporting the casket to its final resting place. Besides obtaining a hearse, you may also want to contact companies who can block streets for the funeral procession.
If you decide to bury your loved one in a cemetery, you will be asked about a grave marker. These can be purchased either through the cemetery or a third party. Each cemetery has its own rules governing the size, shape, and type of gravestones they allow.
- Headstone. Also known as a tombstone, these are vertical tablets that stand upright at the head of the grave.
- Ledgers. A horizontal stone that covers the length and width of the gravesite. They may be used in addition to a headstone or in place of one.
- Slant Markers. An upright slab, roughly 18 inches tall, with a diagonal face cut into the rock for the inscription.
- Bevel Markers. These stones are like slant markers but sit closer to the ground.
- Flat Marker. Sometimes called a grass marker, this is a flat stone placed at the head of the grave, level with the ground.
The price of a monument depends on its size, color, and material, but expect to pay at least $1,000 – $3,000. There is an extra fee for the inscription.
A basic inscription includes the deceased’s name, date of birth, and date of death. Many families include an epitaph as well. This can be a poem, Bible verse, short description, or thoughtful message (e.g., Loving Husband. Gone But Not Forgotten). You can even have your loved one’s picture carved into the stone, though obviously the more elaborate the inscription, the higher the cost.
If the family decides to cremate the body, they have several options. They can hold a traditional funeral and have the cremation done afterwards. The ashes will be returned to the family after the process is complete, at which time they can either scatter them, inter them, or preserve them in an urn.
The family can also have their loved one cremated ahead of time. Afterwards, they can scatter them in a private ceremony or during a memorial service. The costs of cremation are generally less than the costs of burial, which may be a factor in the family’s final decision.
Receptions give mourners a chance to meet and talk informally. For many, this is an important part of the grieving process, especially if they were unable to speak at the funeral. It lets them express their sympathy, condolences, and thoughts about the deceased.
If you decide to hold a reception, give some thought to how it will look. Will you do the cooking? Will it be a potluck, or will it be catered? Is there enough room in your home? Would it be better to rent out a hall? Do you want to hold it immediately after the funeral or a few days later? Do you want to display pictures or mementos of the deceased? How will you announce it, in the obituary, at the funeral, or through invitations? Are your guests familiar with the location, or will they need directions?
Celebration of Life
In the past, funerals were quiet occasions, a time to think and ponder. But about 20 years ago, people began rethinking this approach. Instead of mourning the deceased, they decided to celebrate them. Rather than quiet, sedate events, they started creating ones that were loud and boisterous. People were encouraged to laugh, joke, and kid. The wonderful parts of the person’s life were pushed to the forefront, along with their unique idiosyncrasies.
At one celebration, our chaplain met a little girl who told him about the nickname she had given her grandma – “G Toni,” because she was hardcore, like a gangster. Even at 90, she was still going toe-to-toe with kids in the neighborhood whenever they got too loud. It reminded everyone what a no-nonsense lady she had been, someone who loved and protected her family.
How to Celebrate
Celebrations can be held after a funeral or instead of one. Because they tend to be casual, they are generally held at private homes rather than a church or mortuary. However, just because they are informal, does not mean they are unstructured. Including a few guided activities helps foster healing. For example, you can:
- Create a Memory Box. Everyone brings a memento of the deceased. They explain its meaning and then place it inside.
- Share a Toast. Ask everyone to share a story about the deceased, then salute their memory.
- Pray. If you are religious, have everyone hold hands and make an invocation. After you finish yours, ask others to speak up and add their own.
- Candle Lighting. Once it is dark, pass out candles. Light yours and say something about the deceased. Then use your candle to light the person’s next to you and ask them to do the same.
- Reflection Song. Play a song dear to the deceased. People can sing along or meditate on the person’s life while it plays.
- Balloon Release. Hand everyone a balloon. Have them write a message to the deceased on it and then release them into the air at the same time. Make sure the balloons are biodegradable.
- Butterfly Release. Bring everyone outside. Talk about the cycle of life and death before releasing the butterflies, which symbolize the deceased’s soul being released into the afterlife.
One great way to add resonance is to give it a theme. Base it around one of the deceased’s passions (e.g. fishing, baseball, bird-watching) in order to draw guests closer to the person they lost.
Scheduling the Service
Once you have completed your checklist for funeral planning, you will need time to implement it. The standard is at least two weeks, but no more than four. Beyond that, decomposition will make it impossible to display the body.
Saturdays are the most popular days for funerals. Sundays are the least. Given this, a good rule of thumb is to schedule the funeral two weekends after the person’s death. This gives people more opportunity to attend, especially if they live out of town.
Help with Your Funeral Planning Checklist
Working with a funeral home removes much of the burden of organizing a memorial. Their connections make it easy to manage the details on your checklist for funeral planning. Besides preparing the body, they purchase flowers, print programs, and secure transport, ensuring the body is where it needs to be for the ceremony, burial, or cremation. They can even advise families on the casket and order of service.
However, not all funeral homes provide an equal level of support. Before committing to one, ask about their experience with the type of event you are planning. Do they have a multimedia system? Can they support a PowerPoint presentation? Look at their facilities. Are they modern or traditional? Is there enough room for your guests? Are they able to book a larger hall, if needed? How open is their schedule?
Above all, the right funeral home should ask questions about what you are looking for. What are your ideas? Do you have a clear picture of the ceremony? Were there any wishes your loved one left behind? How can we honor their memory? They may even suggest a ceremony that other families have found comforting. Regardless of whether it fits your plan, it is a sign they are dedicated to putting together the right service for you.
Final Checklist for Funeral Planning
A checklist for funeral planning relieves some of the anxiety and uncertainty we feel following the death of a loved one. Before we have dealt with our grief, we are suddenly responsible for creating a ceremony that respects their legacy and helps find meaning in their loss. Separating the tasks makes them easier to accomplish and brings each one into sharper focus. Feeling less overwhelmed, you can concentrate on making each aspect more personal and reflective of your loved one.
Jason Graham has been a hospice chaplain with Parentis Health since 2016. He has served churches throughout Orange County as a teaching pastor, outreach pastor, and senior pastor. He counsels hospice patients and their families, offering spiritual comfort and guidance. During the end-of-life process, he works closely with patients, encouraging them to explore their spiritual and emotional needs, as well as providing comfort to their families.