How to Create a Memorable Memorial

Why aren’t funeral planners as popular as wedding planners? I don’t mean a stereotypical dark-clothed, hushed voice, undertaker-type of funeral planner. I mean a festive life-celebrating joyful-type of funeral planner. When my aunt died, my cousins did a stellar job of honoring the staunch Padres fan, including a 7th inning stretch and singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the ceremony. To accomplish this you need to think outside the box, if you will forgive the pun.

We are a culture that likes to celebrate our uniqueness, and when is it more appropriate to do that than at your funeral? For once, you get to have center stage and do you really want somber hymns and the celebrant reading the obituary straight from the newspaper? Of course not! You want your favorite food, stories, music, etc., shared by your favorite people in a venue of your choosing.

To make your funeral or memorial service uniquely yours, there are free on-line guides to help you. One that seems pretty complete is thefuneralsite.com, which offers a thought- and conversation-provoking series of questions that will help your survivors enormously when it comes time for them to make arrangements on your behalf. You can even write your own obituary.

If you are in charge of planning someone else’s funeral or memorial, that is a heavy responsibility. You want to do right by the deceased. This is when the wedding planner mode should kick in. Who is the wedding planner ultimately responsible to please? The bride! And the funeral planner is ultimately charged with creating a fitting tribute to the deceased, not trying to please everyone else.

Like any good event planner, you are tasked with the following:
Time and venue for the affair.
Officiant.
Organization of ceremony.
Placement of guest of honor.
Selection of speakers.
Invitations/announcements.
Theme, decorating scheme.
Food and music.
Photographer/Videographer
Flowers/donations.
Guest book and guest accommodations.

Of course, a funeral or memorial service comes laden with its own emotional baggage, and chances are you are in mourning yourself, making this job more difficult. Please know that there is no way your loved one can be disappointed in you. They are smiling down on you lovingly and feeling really sorry for having left you this burden. That being said, it is time to make some decisions, all of which should reflect the spirit of the person you are celebrating.

Time and Venue: Where did your loved one like to hang out in life? Try to have the ceremony there. Churches, shooting ranges, parks…I have been to memorial services in all of them and they were all perfectly suited to the person being memorialized. If that is not possible, try to find a suitable substitute. For example, for a football fan perhaps a local field with bleachers would be an acceptable trade. Think creatively.

Officiant: Did your loved one have strong ties to a church or religious leader? Then approach his or her pastor/priest/shaman, etc. and find out if they are willing to officiate the service. Ask about prices, availability, and if they have restrictions on what venue is used. If the deceased did not have ties to a church, any one can officiate at a memorial service. It is always nice if it is someone who knew the deceased, as it makes it more personal. If you want a religious service but don’t have a connection with a pastor, contact the local ministerial association or the chaplain at the local hospital.

Organization of Ceremony: This is an umbrella term, but everything springs from this. Do you want something somber and formal, or free and light-hearted? Bible readings and hymns, or open mic and stories? Seated or standing? Meal at the venue or adjourn to somewhere else? Live music or recorded? What would suit your loved one best? Spend some time thinking about this, and once you reach a decision move forward with confidence in your decision. Like any big event, others may question your vision, but if you are being true to the deceased’s spirit, you cannot go wrong.

Placement of Guest of Honor: You really have several guests of honor…the deceased and the first-degree mourners. If it is a funeral, where do you want the casket? Open or closed? Your funeral director will help you with these arrangements.

If it is to be a memorial service/celebration of life, will you have the person’s ashes present? Where will the urn or cremation keepsakes be positioned?

Where do you want the living guests of honor to sit or stand? Please make any such arrangements clear to them ahead of time to avoid hurt feelings, confusion and drama at the time of the service. This can be the trickiest part of all in some families, so tread lightly and kindly.

Selection of Speakers: You will probably need to designate 2-3 people to speak about the deceased, just to get the ball rolling. I love hearing the funny/poignant stories that not everybody knows about someone I love. I have been to memorials where such story telling was not allowed, and to ones where no one was the leader, and both kinds are duds. When people are at a memorial it is just like a wedding…they are brought together by a shared love of the deceased, yet come from different parts of that person’s life and don’t know one another, so somebody needs to get be responsible to start sharing stories and invite others to do the same. And for goodness sake, please have people tell their names and how they know the deceased!!

Invitations/announcements: if it is a traditional service, a simple invite/announcement in the paper or at church/Facebook post/e-mail should suffice. But if there is a theme be sure you communicate it so no one is caught unaware. If they come in black and you are having a Mardi Gras party, feelings are going to be hurt.

Theme/decorating scheme: Key these to the venue and the spirit of the event. There is nothing wrong with asking people to wear a specific color or style of clothing, even if it is just a small item, reflecting the theme. Like if the person loved to sail, ask people to wear something with a nautical theme, even if it is just a scarf or pendant.

I love keepsakes you can send home with the attendees, such as flower seeds, special verses, photo books, etc. Many things you would buy for a wedding favor you could give at a memorial. For something truly unique, check out mybobrocks.com and see how you can have your loved one’s ashes made into beautiful glass stones people can take with them wherever they go.

And don’t forget the program! This is a nice keepsake for people to take home. Also, provide tissues.

Food and Music: The music should fit the theme/spirit of the event. Favorite hymns offer an insight into the deceased’s spiritual beliefs, but secular music can too. If audio equipment is to be used, designate someone to be in charge of operating it.

The food is a different story. If you are doing this at a church/synagogue, etc., they may have a group of people who provide the food for the reception after the service. In those circumstances you may not have much say about the food provided, and you may be expected to make a financial contribution to the church for this service. You may be able to bring in some of your own food, however. For some, the food is more of a testimony than the speeches! When my Italian mother-in-law passed, it was the food that united us in mourning the loss of her and her sisters, and provoked some wonderful stories the cousins were able to share. Those kinds of personal touches make the event memorable.

Photographer/Videographer: You might not think so at the time, but it is nice to have someone take photos or videos of the ceremony and the reception. As we get older it seems like funerals become de facto family reunions, and the only times we all see one another. Whether you hire a professional or just designate one of the attendees to perform this function, make sure someone is capturing this memory.

Flowers/Donations: The obituary should say whether you want flowers or donations, and what the charity of choice might be. Was there some cause or entity that the deceased was aligned with? If not, consult with other family members to see who they think might be a deserving cause. You should designate someone to be in charge of accepting the donations, creating a list for thank you notes, and getting the donations to the charity. This can be the same person who handles the guest book, since they will be operating as a greeter of sorts.

If flowers are received, decide ahead of time what you will be doing with them after the service. Will you be leaving them at the venue? Make sure that is okay with the people who operate the venue. If you want to distribute them among family and friends, decide how you will split them up ahead of time. If you want to take them to a hospital, hospice, nursing home, etc., contact the facility beforehand to see if they will accept them. Then designate someone to transport the arrangements to the facility.

Guest Book/Guest Accommodations: You can pick up a guestbook at a nice stationery store, anywhere you would order invitations, etc. Set up just to the side of the entrance, so you greet your guests but don’t cause a bottleneck. Have a basket available to receive cards. Have at least 2 nice pens on hand, in case one walks off.

Make suitable accommodations for attendees with mobility, hearing or other problems. If you anticipate someone with special needs will be in attendance, specify who will be responsible for attending to them and identify how they will be accommodated.

Planning someone else’s funeral/memorial is a big responsibility, but it is final loving gift to the person who died. Just like a wedding, it is the small personal touches that people will remember for a long time to come. Give yourself permission to create a ceremony as unique and special as the person being honored.

Kathy Presnell is the owner of Bobrocks, which makes beautiful glass cremation keepsakes. Visit us at www.mybobrocks.com.