Planning a funeral service yourself
When my Nana died a few weeks ago we had a small intimate family funeral service for her.
And I ran the service, beginning to end.
I’ve done a whole bunch of funeral speeches before but this is my first time running a complete service.
Trying to write a funeral service while a)looking after a baby, b)working on my business, and c)being really sleep-deprived (we started waking up about a million times a night that very week) was, strangely enough, quite challenging. So I thought I’d write the post that would have helped me the most…because it may just help someone else.
Most people simply have no idea the freedom you have around funerals. We can blame the funeral industry and a largely unaware public, which means in the aftermath and overwhelm of death we tend not to ask any questions around funerals, understandably, and just do what the funeral director suggests/advises. And outside that time we avoid the topic so never get the chance to ask the questions that would allow us to know our options and make different decisions. That’s one of the reasons it’s so important to take the time to do some funeral planning on your own, or discuss funeral wishes with family in advance.
The benefits of doing your own service is that it is vastly more personal and intimate and you have so many more choices and options. The service can be run by someone/s who actually knew your person who died, rather than a total stranger who, in many cases, is slotting their name and a few details into a cookie-cutter service template. Not to mention it is a ton cheaper too.
If you’ve already had a funeral and wish you’d done your own service instead? There is not a thing in the world stopping you from doing the service again, the way you want it to be. If there is no-one suitable who’d be happy to get up and speak and run the ceremony then you can always hire a celebrant.
We went with a simple cremation for Nana through a funeral director, no embalming (we are often told it’s ‘necessary’ – it seldom is), and a small family ceremony of about 15 people with no funeral directors or celebrants involved, when and where and how we wanted. If you wish to do something similar here are some of the basics to figure out. (I’m going to write about coffin-less ceremonies with just the ashes. Of course you can still have your own ceremony with a coffin but there are other considerations involved of course.)
You may wish to be in a religious setting like a church…but if not you can really hold a ceremony wherever you like. Anywhere where you can have a group, it’s quiet enough, and you have ample privacy. Think of the way you can hold a wedding anywhere. Well you can do the same with a funeral.
We picked a part of the local botanical gardens. It was a sort of hidden area by a pond that meant that anyone who came round the corner to where we were would immediately see our group, me speaking and standing next to a little table with a table with a photo of Nana and the urn with her ashes, clearly at some kind of private event…and they’d wander away.
We were near a nice cafe where our group had lunch afterwards together at a big table. Much nicer and more intimate than the norm of standing around in a room eating finger sandwiches.
Writing the funeral service
Right, so the important part. The big part. The part you really need to know about.
Writing the actual funeral service.
The funeral service doesn’t actually need to follow a specific format, or run for a particular time, or involve any readings at all. You can really do what you like with it. I included timings not as a guide to stick to – I didn’t plan certain times – but just as an example.
Here is how I did it. Use it as a guideline…or take the parts you like…or just make the whole thing up yourself. Up to you!
Because there were a couple of real oldies, and my aunty was a bit concerned about how they’d feel about the whole non-conventional cremated-before-ceremony-and-not-in-a-church bit, I decided to go with a fairly traditional format and include two readings, not just for the sake of having them but as these two had particular, relevant meaning to us and to my nana.
The service was about 30 minutes and this is how I put it together:
1. Welcome (2 mins)
Welcome everyone, introduce yourself, let them know anything important -e.g to let you know if you need to speak up, or an area where they can sit if everyone is standing, etc , thank them all for coming, with special mention for anyone who has made a big effort to travel there.
2. Why we are here, and what you’ll cover in this service (2 mins)
Explain what this service actually is – a mourning of their death? Celebration of life? Way to honour them and the life they lived? All of the above?
Outline how the service will run, if you wish. I explained what the parts of the service would be and what we would do afterwards.
3. Their background/history (10 mins)
It’s often nice to hear the succinct life story of the person – their background. Explain their background and life (obviously only the parts that are relevant/interesting to share)
4.Reading (3 mins)
I read the poem ‘Desiderata’. My nana always had this poem hung at home and would often tell people to go and read it. It was meaningful for her and reminded us a lot of how she was, so I read it here.
5. About them – who they were (10 mins)
Earlier we covered their history. This part is for talking about them – their personality, what type of person they were, how you remember them. I’m known for being brutally honest here, including the good, the bad, and the ugly. We don’t honour anyone by talking about a photoshopped version of them instead of the real thing. Be honest – talk about who they really were.
Also, in your funeral service planning, check in with others if there are any memories they’d like you to share for them. A lot of people would love to share something at a funeral but don’t like to speak/stand up so miss the opportunity. Also if you are representing others e.g your siblings, or the other grandkids, collect some memories from them too to share.
6. Open floor for anyone who’d like to share anything (10 mins – but I would have let it run till it was done)
Create some space for people to contribute/share their memories. In a small intimate family funeral this can be lovely and informal and open. At my nana’s funeral stories bounced back and forward between our small group where we stood, the way they would at any family get together, and one elderly family member had written something out that someone else read out for them
7. Reading (3 mins)
As children, me and my cousins all remember Nana saying the Lord’s prayer with us before bed. So I had the group all say the Lord’s prayer together.
8. A minute silence
It’s nice to have this. Just a chance for everyone to contemplate/connect to/send love to them.
9. Special thanks, if necessary
I included this as, though they weren’t present, I wanted to acknowledge and thank all the staff of the amazing care homes where Nana had lived happily for her last 15 or so years.
10. Final farewell (2 mins)
Make a last thank you/we love you/farewell message to your person who died. Whatever last message you’d like to share with them on behalf of everyone.
I hope this has helped you.
PS if you’re looking for some ideas around content – what to talk about, and how the heck to actually stand up and do it, I’ve written a couple of posts here and here, and written an e-book on the topic too you might like to check out.