4 things to know when planning a funeral

4 min read

Saying a meaningful goodbye is one of the most important ways to grieve for someone you love. Typically, this happens at a funeral or a memorial service, where you can join with family, friends, and neighbors to mourn together and celebrate their life.

Because of the comfort and community that a funeral offers, you may be struggling to make the “right” choices in creating a fitting tribute. These decisions may be hard, particularly in this emotionally difficult time.

Will the service be religious? Who will offer eulogies? Will there be music? How formal or informal do you want it to be? Where will it take place? As these questions come up, just focus on dealing with them one by one, and have some faith in your own abilities, as someone who knew your loved one intimately.

It’s also a good idea to ask relatives and friends of your loved one to share the responsibility, and lessen the stress, of putting together a service that feels right. For some people, this may mean including humorous reflections on your loved one's life. Others may prefer a more sedate approach.

Think about your loved one and their personality. Consider what they would have wanted for their funeral and keep that in mind throughout your planning—with these four areas of focus.

What kind of funeral to have

If your loved one’s faith was important to them, you will likely want a service held in a house of worship or an affiliated funeral home. How much of the service is explicitly religious is up to you and what your loved one might have wanted. Some services may include a few prayers or recitation of bible verses like the popular 23rd Psalm. Other services, like Catholic funerals, will include a full mass led by a priest in a church. 

Some families choose to omit religion from funeral services altogether. Again, make sure this is in keeping with the desires and lifestyle of your loved one, whose wishes should help guide you in every step of planning this service. 

If you are not going to have a clergyperson officiate, you might ask a friend or relative of your loved one. They might give the service a more intimate, informal tenor, especially if they can tell funny stories about your loved one to ease the tension that inevitably arises when confronting mortality. Humor can often add warmth and humanity to a somber occasion without compromising propriety.

The most important quality in an officiant is how skillfully they can run the entire service. Can they smooth over transitions between speakers and elements of the ceremony? No matter who it is, the officiant will have a big hand in setting the service’s tone, so make sure they are comfortable speaking in public in front of a group of people who may be in dire need of compassion and comfort. 

Whether to have a religious service

When you’re planning a funeral or a memorial service through a religious organization or a funeral home, you might be required to adhere to a structure they have set up for such events.

Typically, a religious leader or someone else with experience leading funerals will serve as the officiant. In some traditions, the officiant will also be the one to read (and even write) the eulogy. In others this role can be left to a close family member, if they feel up to the task. 

Various religious traditions have other roles for the family to take part in. For example, in Jewish traditions a family member can be named the shomer/shomeret, the person who watches over the body. At Muslim funerals, each mourner present is expected to place three handfuls of soil into the grave. 

Who should give a eulogy

Some people choose to have just a single eulogy at the funeral, while others may have multiple short speeches. While the former is more traditional, inviting many people to speak offers a unique opportunity to give attendees a multidimensional picture of your loved one. In either case, they will tell the complex, unique, wonderful story of who the person was and help determine how they will be remembered.

The eulogy will tell the complex, unique, wonderful story of who the person was and help determine how they will be remembered.

Beyond giving speakers the opportunity to share sincere, kind words, eulogies offer them the chance to help paint a rich picture of the varied experiences and trials your loved one went through and that made them who they were. Given that, you will want to ask people to speak who can offer telling anecdotes and who have a knack for storytelling.

If there will be multiple speeches, ask people who hail from different eras in your loved one’s life. Make sure when you invite them to deliver a speech, that you give them a sense of how brief or long they should speak for and which era or aspect of their life they should talk about.

Which readings and songs to choose

It is OK, of course, to forgo eulogies altogether. Remember, there are no set rules about funeral services. Many people choose to keep the proceedings less personal and ask attendees simply to address the assembled by taking part in a series of readings. 

These might be poems or passages from books that were dear to your loved one or their family. Some people leave specific instructions about what they want recited at their own funeral. You might intersperse such passages with communal singing of hymns or non-religious songs, to help mourners find a measure of solace in music. 

No matter if there are poems, prayers, or jokes, if it is a large event or an intimate ceremony, if it is led by a religious leader or a witty friend, always remember the shared, ultimate objective: to bring a community of people together to pay tribute to your loved one and to say goodbye in a meaningful, memorable way.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.