ICFM Magazine, March 2005
It's easy to talk about the importance of offering families personalized, meaningful services, but following through is harder.
It takes good interviewing and listening skills, combined with a flair for translating what is learned into a ceremony the family will value.
Families today are increasingly looking for ways to personalize funeral and memorial ceremonies so they better reflect the person's life, no matter how simple or complicated it may have been.
There are many ways that officiants can and should personalize ceremonies, including speaking with family and friends before writing the ceremony and encouraging family participation in the ceremony itself.
At the heart of the ceremony, we should look to incorporate the hobbies, pastimes and passions of the individual we are remembering. This can be done in a tasteful way that reflects the person's true nature, and in turn, the things that he or she loved.
Gathering the information
As a funeral celebrant, you should collect information essential to creating ceremonies by conducting an unhurried interview with the family to ensure accuracy, warmth and meaning. During this interview, the family will share many details about the life of their departed loved one, from the school days and neighborhood friendships to career information and adult life.
By asking pointed yet caring questions, the funeral officiant can and should be able to paint a vivid picture. Once informed, you must then go about the creative process of writing the eulogy, carefully choosing appropriate readings and arranging for the music selected by the family.
Even when you have spent a lot of time preparing the eulogy, you should carefully review it with family members ahead of time to check for accuracy.
You are then ready to officiate at the ceremony, a duty to be performed with compassion, sincerity and care, whether it takes place at the funeral home, crematorium, cemetery or other location.
The three examples that follow are from my work with families. They show how stories and objects or symbols can be woven together to create personalized and authentic end-of-life ceremonies.
Remembering the lost babies and celebrating family
The couple struggled to have a family through the in vitro fertilization process; over several years they suffered the death of three babies, all stillborn. Five years later, they had a family, daughters 3 and 5 years old, but they had not forgotten the babies who would have been their daughters' older siblings.
They chose to honor the memory of those three brief but precious lives in a springtime ceremony. Family and friends gathered at their home and garden. The parents expressed the importance of family, their love of life and the joy their two young daughters have given them.
Throughout the ceremony, they used symbolism and homegrown rituals to honor the children who had not survived. One beautiful example: The family planted three evergreen trees in their garden, one in memory of each of their stillborn babies.
In a meaningful and deeply touching way, this family discovered that through ceremony they could pay homage to their family, present and past. They were able to honor the life experience of having children and of losing children, and were able to share the ceremony with the people in their lives they love the most.
Giving a father and best friend a fishing pole salute
When their father died, the two brothers in their 30s also lost their best friend. Throughout their lives, the three had been inseparable. Together they shared the best of times, deep-sea fishing, clearing brush by their oceanfront property, simply hanging out, playing guitar and, most of all, watching the glorious sunrises on the beach.
Every summer, the whole family, including grandchildren, enjoyed time together at their golden oasis by the sea. Early one morning, the eldest son was helping his father untangle the shore brush when his father suddenly fell ill. No one else was in sight. He held his father in his arms and shared the last few moments of his life. As the sun rose, his father passed away.
For their father's funeral ceremony, the two men wrote a song to honor his memory. Neither of them was much for talking; they were more comfortable sharing their loss with family and friends through their guitar music.
Prior to the viewing, the celebrant asked guests to bring their fishing poles and line them up in the funeral home near the casket. It resembled a military procession, with a fishing pole rather than a gun salute.
The ceremony was true and heartfelt. The two sons were able to communicate their feelings and the close relationship they had shared with their father in a sincere and meaningful way, and everyone who attended was able to participate in showing their love and respect for this beloved father and friend.
Remembering all the colors of a long life
A Dutch landscape artist, father, grandfather, husband and musician took his life at the age of 81. A little known fact is that worldwide, it is not uncommon for elderly people to take it upon themselves to end their lives at a time and place of their own choosing. Family members then have to come to grips with their death and find a way to grieve and honor their lives as well as respect their personal decisions about dying.
Although suicide is a difficult subject to talk about, and some clergy would rather not deal with these deaths, it is so very important for people whose loved ones have taken their lives to find a dignified way to pay proper tribute and respect to that life.
Denying a ceremony for someone who took their own life is damaging to their family and friends, both emotionally and psychologically. Bringing the family and loved ones together to share the grief and to understand the history and spirit of the person is vital for mental health and well being.
Through a carefully crafted ceremony that tells the story of the deceased—heritage, history, loves, hates, talents, relationships, accomplishments, foibles, failures and joys—we paint the picture of a real person.
We tell the story, heart and soul, and we share it with family and friends. An in-depth personal eulogy, or life tribute, becomes in itself "life affirming," a meaningful record for families and a legacy passed down to future generations.
For this artist's funeral ceremony, all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren painted something to be placed in his grave—a gift from younger generations to a previous one. The ceremony elaborated on the great Dutch heritage that thrives in the family of artistic expression through fine art painting. Every one of those 13 could draw or paint.
The ceremony acknowledged that this man who was a very talented artist also suffered during his life from various illnesses, went blind and, upon losing his dear wife of 50 years, who had died the year before, lost his will to live.
One of the artist's grandsons, who had been very much influenced by his grandfather, had become a fine artist himself. He also arranged, not long after the funeral, a meeting with a curator to view his grandfather’s work, now displayed in the National Museum of Art.
As these vignettes about lives remembered and honored illustrate, showing an appreciation for life helps us appreciate our own lives. There is no better way to honor our departed loved ones than to create a ceremony that truly reflects the person we loved.