Contact Us
Learning Center

Connect to the information you need in order to make end-of-life choices.

Stay Informed

A guide to reliable, educational sources where you can get the facts on a range of funeral-related topics.

Why Have a Funeral?

Most of us have never confronted that question. Funerals seem to be a necessary evil we endure when someone in the family dies. Now you are called upon to make decisions about the kind of funeral you want for a loved one. The term “funeral” may evoke some negative feelings. Some people associate funerals with very traditional or generic experiences they have had in the past and the first thought is, “I do not want to have that for my loved one.” Whether you call it a funeral, a tribute, a celebration of life or a gathering – the intent is to plan a time of remembrance, a time to honor the life and legacy of the person and to share the expressions of love, sadness and memories with others.

When bad things happen to us the first thing we want and need to do is establish the significance of the event. Friends of Jacqueline Kennedy were shocked when, almost immediately after the President’s assassination, she compulsively asked people, “Do you want to hear about it?” and rattled off each frame of that terrible sequence in her soft, shaken voice. She had to share the experience. That is establishing significance and it is human nature.

We see the same reaction when someone has surgery or has recovered from an illness. There is an almost insatiable need to talk about the surgery or illness. We need to talk in order to work through the significance the event has had on our lives.

When someone we love has died, the ceremonies and the funeral process establish the significance of the person and the significance their lives have had in our lives. If we can establish significance, we can move on; if we can’t, then grief and grieving become a much more difficult and delayed process.

Should We View the Body?

Viewing can give reality and be the first step of a healthy grief experience. This may seem like a terrible ordeal to put a grieving person through, but it is hard to find reality without it. It may seem difficult, but in most cases it has a healing and comforting effect on us. Our last view of a loved one alive is often not the one we want to carry the rest of our lives. This is especially true after a death following an illness. Often it is assumed that if cremation is to be used, then there cannot be any viewing of the loved one. There is no basis for this assumption at all. Cremation does not change anything except the final disposition of the body of a loved one. Any wish a family might have can be done in a cremation service just as it can in a burial. To prepare the body for viewing before cremation is no different than preparing the body before burial and both have the same therapeutic effect on the family.

Of course, there are reasons not to have the body viewed. Some religious faiths forbid viewing. Some people have a problem viewing the bodies of others who have died and have no desire for theirs to be seen. Most of the time they will say it is all right for the family to view, but they do not want to have an open casket at the funeral. There is no problem with this at all. Viewing is a personal choice and whether or not the casket is open is always left to the family’s discretion.

What about Cremation?

Cremation is the method of choice for a growing number of families in the United States and Canada. It can be a very meaningful form of caring for the body of a loved one. Cremation should be looked upon as simply an alternative to burial. I personally react when someone says, “We are just going to have him cremated.” This suggests that cremation is somehow a second rate or easier form of disposition and that it is done to avoid hassle or to save time. Cremation is not an inferior alternative in any way. The family who chooses this form of care for a loved one should never feel any sense of not doing the best or caring as much for a loved one.

What about Children?

Because most of us are not all that comfortable with our own mortality, we tend to protect children from any contact with death. It is natural to want to shield them from having to face such things until they are older. We seem to fear some kind of permanent scarring if they are exposed to any grief. Grief is a process of expressing feelings that leads to healing. Children need to grieve. They do so in their own time and in their own way, but they need the right to work through grieving experiences and find healing.

Too often our efforts at protection leave it all to the child’s imagination. Those things left to imagination can become much more intense and more frightening to the child. Too often the child decides this happened because of something they did or said. “David died because I wet the bed,” or “I said I wish they would die and they did.” Involving the children and letting them talk out their feelings is the best way to avoid this kind of blaming. Of course, care should be taken when involving children. Take them to the funeral home at more private times. Be sure to answer any questions they have as honestly as possible. Show them what they want to see. Children are very smart and resilient. They know what they need and, if given the chance, they will find a way to express it.

What Type of Service Fits Our Family?

So many of the funerals we have attended have followed the same order or ritual that we probably do not know that other types of services are possible and often desired. We almost think there is some rule that says a funeral must be done in one certain way.

A funeral should fit the person and the family. There is no way to make a funeral too personal. There is no way to say too much about the one whom we gather to remember and honor. Therefore the type of service should be determined by the type of person we honor. We should have total freedom to choose.

Traditional Ceremonies

The traditional ceremony can be a healing experience, and many families will find this is what will fit them best. If the loved one appreciated the rituals and ceremonies of a particular faith, then certainly the funeral should reflect that.

Contemporary Ceremonies

There is a growing trend toward more contemporary services. These can range from using contemporary music to services that are very unique. You are not bound by location. The choice may be made to have the service in a church, at the funeral home, at a cemetery chapel, on a beach, at a golf club or any location that was significant to the person or the family. Your funeral director may have information about alternate locations and what arrangements are necessary to schedule a service.

Graveside Ceremonies

Whether the choice is made to have the complete service at the graveside, or accompanying the casket or urn to be buried after a service at a chapel or church, this time is also an opportunity for sacred moments and ceremonies. You can choose music to be played, ask your funeral director or Celebrant for a ceremony of final farewell, have a scripture read, say a prayer, or hand out flowers or other items of memory to each person who attends. This may also be the time when military honors are given, if appropriate; your funeral director will coordinate this service with the military honor guard. Remember that you are hallowing the ground of the place where your loved one will continue to live on in your thoughts and memories and making that place a special one that you may choose to visit again and again.

The funeral is held to honor your loved one and comfort your family. Do it your way. Feel free to ask your funeral director about any ideas you might have. They are highly trained professionals who are there to help you and your family plan the funeral that best suits your needs.

How Can We Make the Service Personal?

The major complaint lodged against funerals, and one of the reasons people choose not to have a funeral, is the lack of personalization. Far too often, all funerals seem to be the same. If the goal is to establish significance, then making each funeral personal becomes a necessity. A funeral should be unique to the person being honored. This can be accomplished in many ways, and can be accomplished without the family having to burden themselves with time-consuming thinking and activity when they are already overwhelmed. Personalization involves: Choice of Speakers, Funerals with Clergy

Often, a clergy person is called to officiate at the funeral. Usually the family has some attachment to a church or knows a clergy person to call. Many families find the words of comfort found in their faith to be an invaluable help in this time of need.

It may be meaningful to have additional participants in the service. A close friend telling wonderful stories seem to give a special and personal picture of the life like nothing else can.

Funerals with Celebrants

A funeral does not have to be a religious experience. The church does not have exclusive claim to the ceremonies of remembrance we need to incorporate to make the service a healing moment. If your family or loved one was not a member of a church or was someone who defined themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” then it is most appropriate to have a funeral without the services of a clergy person. There are now Certified Funeral Celebrants in many parts of the country available to families. Celebrants are specifically trained individuals who provide a beautiful, personalized and unique service that fits the life and beliefs of the deceased and the family. A Celebrant meets with the family to hear the stories of the loved one and helps begin the process of preserving those memories. Your celebrant will assure that every element of the service is designed to honor your loved one and can coordinate incorporating other speakers, music, ceremonies, honors, video tributes into a well-done, professionally planned service. A great many funeral homes now have access to the services of a Certified Celebrant, either on their staff or independent practitioners in their area. If you want more information about Celebrants, visit with your funeral director, or you can go to Music

For many people, music is the most important and meaningful part of any service. Most of us have songs that are very special to us. These can be songs we love to hear, or lyrics that were part of our life journey, or songs that meant a great deal to a marriage or friendship. If at all possible, these songs should be sung or played at the funeral. Some churches have rules concerning the music that can be used in the church, but funeral homes have no such rules and usually can find the songs requested.

The music can be performed live with a singer or many people choose to use CDs by the original artist and even put together a medley of favorite songs.

There are no rules about the number of songs to be used in a service. The only limit is time. The best gauge to consider is that most songs are approximately four minutes in length. So, if four songs are chosen, then the service is already sixteen minutes long without a word being said. If several songs are important to the family or the loved one, then you might consider using some of the favorite songs for prelude, a video tribute, postlude or a graveside ceremony.


Families are often now encouraged to bring pictures for display at the funeral. The gathering and choosing of the pictures is a great time for family reminiscing and sharing the worth of the person. Arranging the display can be an act of love that has a great deal of meaning for those who perform the task. A picture display can be easily arranged by simply telling the funeral director of your wishes. Designate one person to be in charge of the picture project. That person should enlist as many others as possible, but it helps to have one person in charge.

Most funeral homes now offer a video tribute with scanned pictures and music. This makes a wonderful tribute that can be shown at visitation or during the funeral. Ask your funeral director if that is an option. Receptions

Some families now have receptions before or after the service. These need not be long or elaborate. Tea and coffee, cookies or finger foods can be enough. Some families have a repast at a restaurant, club, church or lodge hall. This provides a wonderful time for the friends to tell the family how much the person meant to them. And, once more, the need of the funeral providing a time to establish and share the significance of the person who has died is met.

What Choices Do We Need to Make?

Most of the choices you need to make are already determined by the type of funeral you have planned. There are some options that still need addressing.


If there is a viewing, the family must decide on the clothing for the loved one. Most of the time the choice is the man’s best suit or one of the woman’s favorite dresses. There are no rules and nothing that is “appropriate” in clothes. I have seen people in overalls, black leather jackets, or their favorite sports team gear. That best expressed who they were, and that is how the family wanted to remember them. The funeral director is a great source of advice in the matter of clothing. You will need to provide a set of undergarments, a pair of socks and the clothing. Shoes are not needed, but often families want shoes or boots placed beside their loved one.


The family will need to collect the dates and information for an obituary. This will vary from city to city. Some newspapers allows the family to write their own obituaries, while others ask for just the bare facts and obituaries are written by their staff, or the funeral director assists in preparing the obituary. Your funeral director will know the local customs.

An obituary consists of all the pertinent dates such as birth, death, marriage, when the person moved to the area. It also should list any affiliations such as church, civic clubs and social groups. It is appropriate to tell the occupation of the person, and certainly you should list activities that define the life of your loved one. If they were active in a church or a charity, or if they volunteered for some cause, this should be included.

The funeral director will take your information, add the details to the service and a picture, if desired, and submit the obituary to the newspaper. O

ften the family must face delicate issues in preparing obituaries. Such things as former mates, partners who are not married and all the other possibilities that exist in our society. My opinion is that the best way to handle these situations is to be as up-front as possible without being obtrusive. If a person is living with someone, then list that person as a special friend, partner or significant other. If there are former mates involved, list them as the mother or father of the surviving children. Trying to avoid saying what everyone already knows leaves one looking foolish. Society does not look upon these issues in the same way it once did and we should feel free to be honest about the person’s life.


It is a great honor to be chosen as a pallbearer for a friend or loved one. Your family may choose at least six people – friends or family – to fulfill this task. Check with your funeral home to see if the casket will be carried or transported on rollers. This will determine if you need to choose individuals who are physically capable of lifting or if they will simply be following the procession.

Families sometimes name honorary pallbearers for cremation services. This, too, is a way to honor family and friends in a ceremonial acknowledgement.

Having friends or family members taking part in the tribute by sharing a story, performing a song, or lighting candles as part of a closing ceremony, all add great meaning and will be a cherished part of the memory of the service.


There are a wide variety of options available in caskets and vaults.

If your loved one is going to be viewed in a private family time or at the funeral service before cremation, you can utilize a casket that will be used only for the time of viewing. Some firms are now offering private viewings prior to cremation in a room with the loved one in a bed, giving a more natural and comfortable setting for the final good-byes.

The choice of a vault is determined by the regulations of the particular cemetery. Most require at least a concrete box in order to minimize the earth covering a gravesite from caving in over time. Again, there is a wide variety of styles and designs for vaults. Your funeral director and/or cemetarian can advise you on the requirements for vaults and the options available for a particular cemetery.


Funeral directors have a wide variety of urns to fit the family’s need. These range from the more decorative urns designed to remain in the home, to those designed specifically for burial. There are beautiful artistic designs in wood, glass, cloisonné, bronze or marble, as well as simple and elegant boxes. With more emphasis on the environment, there are also biodegradable urns or urns that will dissolve in water. The only requirement for an urn is to have a capacity to hold 200 cubic inches.

Often, if an urn selection has not been made, the cremated remains will be returned to the family in an alternative container which may be a plastic or wooden box. If you plan to have your loved one’s ashes present at the service or displayed at home, you should visit with your funeral director about selecting an urn that will be appropriate for your plans. Some cemeteries require an urn vault if the cremated remains are to be buried. If the plans are to bury the urn, check with your funeral director for the requirements for the cemetery you are using.

Final Rest

Many families have made arrangements for burial spaces long before there is a need. Some of us are faced with these decisions at the time of death. The decision is not as simple as it once was. There was a time when families were not as scattered as we are now. We knew were home was, and that is where all the family would be buried. Often we now must choose between home towns where family members no longer live or towns near family where no one knows the person. There are no easy answers. The funeral director will prove to be a wonderful resource in this choice. He or she knows the cemeteries and the procedures and will help the family with this decision.

Final Rest for Cremation

There has been a change in thinking about the final resting place for the ashes. Scattering the ashes in some favorite place or from an airplane is no longer as popular as it once was. Families probably need to think this through very carefully before they take this action. Once it is done, there is no turning back. It sounds almost romantic, but families need to understand that the reality is not quite what they expected. The remains are not just ash. There is some solid matter left after cremation and if families do not know what to expect, they can find this quite disturbing. If the ashes are to be scattered, then a family should consider keeping some of the ashes. Many families choose to bury the ashes in the plot already occupied by other family members. Some place the ashes in a columbarium. Some families keep the ashes with them at home. There are now sharing urns which, are small urns into which a portion of the ashes can be stored so each family member can have one.

A Time to Remember

Whatever decisions are made about the service and final disposition, the most important thing to keep in mind is that this is a unique and significant event that your family will never have a chance to repeat for this loved one. Therefore, at every step of the planning, the overriding question should be, “How can we honor this life in a ceremonial and meaningful way?” If that means a full traditional service and burial or a private ceremony for a scattering at a lake, it is vital that everyone takes the time to consider how to make it a special and sacred moment of remembrance and good-bye. There is nothing that begins a healthy grief journey better than the memories of a gathering of friends and family for a fitting tribute.

Source: Doug Manning, 
(with permission)