Funeral roles and responsibilities

5 min read

Honoring friends and family with funeral roles

  • At a traditional funeral, the officiant will usually be the one to deliver a eulogy, while others can give readings or tributes.

  • Pallbearers are another important role that can be given to those who were particularly close with your loved one.

  • Many religious traditions have their own roles that you can honor family and friends with.

  • Less traditional ceremonies can be structured how you wish and have more opportunities for loved ones to participate.

  • You can also have people be involved in a reception or other post-ceremony celebration.

These days, funerals, memorials, and celebrations of life can be planned any way you want them to look and feel. You have a variety of options, which is good—it lets you say your final goodbyes in the style most appropriate for your loved one. But the array of choices can also be overwhelming while you’re still in the early stages of grief

On top of the stress of arranging the event, you may also have friends and family approaching you wanting to take part in the ceremony as a way to express their grief and memorialize the person you all loved. To help you decide who should do what, it can be helpful to understand the various roles in a funeral and what options you have to include people in the ceremony. 

While you plan, keep in mind that this ceremony can and should be tailored to the desires and beliefs of your loved one. That might mean a very traditional funeral involving their preferred house of worship, or it may be a backyard remembrance barbecue.

Traditional funeral roles

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, you will need someone to lead the ceremony, known as the officiant. This is usually a religious leader or someone else with experience leading funerals. 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. 

Even in more traditional ceremonies, there is often room for loved ones to provide a poem, song, prayer, or other tribute to the person. It may also be possible to include more than one memorial speech if there’s time. 

If there will be a casket present at the funeral, another way to involve friends and family is to select them as pallbearers, the people who carry the casket to and from the ceremony.

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. 

Less traditional funerals and memorials

Funerals have evolved in more recent times, largely stemming from a desire for secular ceremonies. Even though you may not have a religious leader officiating at a less traditional service, it’s still a good idea to have someone as the master of ceremonies, to manage the flow and welcome the guests. 

Most non-traditional funerals include a eulogy or a memorial speech given by someone close to the person who has passed, as well as any songs, poems, prayers, or offerings that evoke their memory or that were special to them in their life. There can be more than one speech given, and not every speech needs to be a formal eulogy—but do be mindful of time. 

It can be a cathartic experience to hear how your loved one touched people’s lives in ways you might not have known about.

In these less-structured ceremonies, you can also consider opening the floor up to testimonies from guests. This is a great way to include others who want a chance to memorialize the person, and it can be a cathartic experience for you and your family to hear how your loved one touched people’s lives in ways you might not have known about. How you do this is up to you; you might consider asking people beforehand or just requesting in the moment that people volunteer to share their thoughts.

Memorials can also include picture collages, music playlists, video tributes, and other contributions from friends and family, which can be another way to include them in the ceremony. 

Once you have a complete list of the ways people want to participate in the memorial, you can draw up an order of events and pass that onto your master of ceremonies to follow on the day of the occasion. 

Other ways to contribute

These days, it’s common to hold a reception or other celebration either as the main ceremony or after it. If you have friends and family who want to contribute in a less formal way, this can be a space for them to make toasts, deliver reflection speeches, or even just provide food and drinks. 

People may have surprising and unique ideas that are extremely specific to the departed’s life and interests. Someone could suggest curating plants the person loved for the reception. Or that you theme the event around a person’s favorite literary heroes. In these ways, a celebration of life is just that—looking back on the life your loved one lived and honoring what brought them joy as a way to say goodbye.

Even though you might be overwhelmed by the number of people who ask to be involved, know that they simply want to express their love for the person you’re both grieving for. Take the time to get to know their relationship with your loved one and find a way to honor that bond that fits into your plan for the funeral or memorial. Just as there are many different roles that people play in our lives when we are still here, there is truly no limit to the roles they can play when we gather to say goodbye ●