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Talking Palliative Care Part 6: Funeral Planning: How this dreaded task may actually provide some relief

Planning a funeral, especially if it’s your own, might be one of the most painful and challenging tasks that any of us will have to complete. The very idea can be overwhelming, anxiety causing and heartbreaking to even think about. That being said, so many people share that while they dreaded the idea of having to plan their own funeral, they often experienced a tremendous sense of peace and the feeling of having a huge weight lifted off their shoulders after completing this process. Since the period after the death of a loved one is incredibly distressing to families, pre-planning a funeral can relieve them of some of the stress and can also give you peace of mind that your wishes are being carried out.

Funerals are as varied as there are cultures and people in the world.  Everyone is unique, and your funeral should reflect you. Typically, a funeral has three parts:

  1. A service
  2. A reception, wake, or other social event
  3. Laying a loved one to rest

The first two parts are optional. Also, these three components don’t all have to take place at the same time. There are many options for you to consider.

While this is a rather long post, we’ve broken it down into five main sections:

  1. Planning a funeral service
  2. What to consider when planning a reception
  3. Cremation, burial or donation to science
  4. What’s in an obituary
  5. Support and resources for funeral planning

Part I: Planning a funeral service

The service is typically the part of a funeral that will may have more of a ceremonial component and may also include music, readings, poems, a eulogy, religious rituals, and videos or photos.  Things to consider are where you want your service to take place and whether you want it to be secular or religious, formal or informal. The choice is yours, and you can think of the favourite parts of your life and find ways to include them in the service.

Types of services

Types of services include a celebration of life, memorial service, funeral service, and service of committal.

A celebration of life looks back on your life, instead of mourning your death.  Participants focus on happy memories and stories that reveal your strengths, best qualities, relationships, interests, and achievements.  Your relative or friend could lead the service, as could a religious or cultural officiant.  This is the most informal of service types.

A memorial service, like a celebration of life, reflects your life and personal qualities, but it is more formal and may include religious or cultural components, as well as music, readings, poems, videos, pictures, and a eulogy.  It is often held some time after burial or cremation.

A funeral service is the most formal and traditional type of service.  It is conducted under the auspices of a religious or cultural community, and follows the format prescribed by this organization.

A service of committal takes place at the gravesite or crematorium, just before interment or cremation.  It’s a final chance to say goodbye, and can include prayers, readings, or music.

Whatever type of service you choose, it should reflect who you are and how you lived your life.

Service order

Here is one example of an order for a service:

  1. Entrance Music:  Music is something that reflects so much of who we are; the music can welcome and comfort guests and set the tone for the service.
  2. Welcome:  The officiant says a few words of welcome to open the service. The officiant may be a formal religious figure, someone affiliated with the funeral home or a friend or family member.
  3. Eulogy:  The eulogy (although there can be more than one) is a speech that provides attendees with an overview of your life, that speaks to the essence of who you are, what you accomplished, cherished and represented.  Making time to sit down and speak with the person or people that you wish to deliver your eulogy can be a special opportunity for you both to re-live some of the best times of your life and will help ensure that what’s most important to you is shared when those you love are remembering you.   
  4. Readings:  This may be a favourite poem, a passage from a favourite book, a prayer, a religious reading or anything else that is meaningful to you.  The readings could express how you feel about your loved ones or illustrate something important in your life. 
  5. Musical Interlude:  This portion of the program could be a hymn or song that everyone sings together (be sure to include the words in the program or project them on the wall.)  You could also include a live performance or recorded music to accompany a slideshow of photos and videos from your life.
  6. Closing Remarks:  The officiant says a few words to wrap up the service, and leaves the guests with a final thought, quote, or poem.
  7. Closing Music:  A final song can provide the opportunity for reflection and connection for those who are mourning you.

Part II:  What to consider when planning a reception

The most typical funeral reception takes place after the service at a church, funeral home, community hall or private residence.  This gives the opportunity for guests to talk and share memories in a less formal setting, usually over light food and drinks.

A wake is a celebration where your friends and relatives share food and drink, memories, prayers, readings, blessings, farewells, songs, tributes, and toasts.  It is based on an Irish tradition of family and close friends staying awake with the deceased overnight until the body is buried, in order to ward off evil spirits.  A wake can take place at home, at a funeral home, or in a rented hall.

A visitation, usually held at a funeral home a day or two before the funeral service, is an opportunity for your closest family members to welcome friends and relatives who come to pay their respects to the deceased.  The body is usually present in the room in a closed or open coffin or as ashes in an urn.

Caterers can help with a reception or wake and can often help provide guidance in terms of the amount of food and refreshments required. Or if you’re looking for an option that is less expensive, friends, family or members of a religious group can often help provide a variety of refreshments and light food.

Part III:  Cremation, burial or donating to science

Different cultures and religions have different customs for what to do with a loved ones’ body after their death. In some cultures, it is cremated or buried within a day of death, and then a service and reception are held later.  In other cultures, the body is present at the service, wake, and visitation and is buried or cremated later.

Burial, cremation or donation

With a burial, the body remains intact and is laid to rest in a grave or mausoleum. This is the most expensive of the options as it requires the purchase of a plot and casket at the very least.

There is a new movement getting started in North America for natural or “green” burials in specialty cemeteries.  The non-embalmed body is wrapped in a shroud or enclosed in a cardboard or biodegradable wooden or wicker casket made without glue, metal, or varnish.  After burial, when the soil has settled, the grave is overplanted with plants and trees.  The area returns to the wild naturally over time.  There is no individual grave marker, but common markers are erected along paths through the area.  For more information on this movement, visit the Natural Burial Association website or the Green Burial Society of Canada.

Cremation involves incineration of the body so that all that remains are ashes. These can be kept in an urn at your family’s home, buried in the ground, enclosed in a columbarium, or scattered in a memorable location.  Even with cremation a casket is still required, but they are often less elaborate and more cost effective than a burial casket. If there is a viewing at the visitation or service before cremation, then a fancier presentation casket may be rented.

The donation of a body for scientific purposes is something that can be arranged through most medical schools; your cancer centre may be able to provide additional information if they have an affiliated medical school if this is an option that would like to explore further.

Embalming

If the coffin is to be open for viewing and the burial will take place more than 10 days after death, you will need to have the body embalmed. Embalming slows down the decomposition process, can help eliminate odors, and prevents discoloration. Not everyone needs or wants to be embalmed as it is expensive ($600 or more) and isn’t a legal requirement.  If the body is cremated or buried in less than 10 days, embalming is not needed. Some people, however, think that embalming gives the body a more lifelike appearance and find that this gives them closure and comfort when viewing the body at a visitation or funeral service.

Transportation

A funeral home can transport the casket or coffin to the locations of the service, visitation, cremation or burial. In some cases, a funeral cortege or procession follows the hearse from the service to the cemetery.

Part IV:  What’s in an obituary

An obituary can be as long or short as you like. Some people prepare multiple versions of their obituary to be used in different places; a shorter one perhaps for the newspaper and a longer one for the memorial programs or funeral home website.

There are five topics that the obituary traditionally covers:

  1. Announcement with information about the passing:  This should include the full name, age, city of residence as well as the date and place of passing.
  2. Biography:  This is an opportunity to share what’s most important to you, the impact you had on your family, community and the world. Also included are often the date and place of birth, parent’s names including mother’s maiden name, date and place of marriage, partner, education, work, and military service.  You can also include professional, charitable, and religious organization memberships; hobbies; honours and distinctions; and special achievements. 
  3. Family:  This section lists surviving family members and those loved ones who have already passed away. Generally included are the names of the spouse, children, grandchildren, parents, and siblings. 
  4. Service times:  Provide the time, full date and place of the service, burial or interment, and visitation.
  5. Closing:  This is the place to mention memorial funds established, suggest donations to charities, thank people or organizations who provided support, and close with a quotation, poem, or a few words that sum up your life.

Part V:  Support and resources for funeral planning

When planning a funeral, this may be something that you wish to do on your own or you may wish to involve your loved ones. Having family and friends involved will help them understand your wishes that they can carry them out.  They can also contribute stories, photos, videos, music, readings, and poems.

Religious leaders can give advice on the components of a funeral service in their faith and can officiate.  They can also suggest scripture readings, music, and prayers, and may know organists or other musicians who can provide music.

If you’re planning on using the services of a funeral home, they will often make arrangements to meet with you, either in your home or at the funeral home to discuss your wishes and provide you with additional information. The funeral home is necessary for completing the death certificate. If you wish, for a fee, the funeral home can assist with all aspects of funeral planning.

Memorial societies are non-profit organizations that have a mission to “help their members plan funerals that are simple, dignified, graceful, and affordable.” For a nominal fee, they can provide advice and lists of providers who offer discounts to their members.  Here is a list of memorial societies in Canada:

The Funeral Cooperative of Ottawa has a Funeral Planning Guide, which is a checklist of services you may wish to have. 

If you would like to further explore ideas and considerations around funeral planning, the Canadian Virtual Hospice provides additional information and considerations around end-of-life decision making.  

A funeral is a chance to honour a life, remember a loved one, and acknowledge the incredible impact that one person can have.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash