Can I plan my own farewell ceremony? Where would I begin?
Originally prepared by Janice Crawford
Related article: Make things easier for those left behind
There are two main parts to planning a funeral.
1. The Ceremony
2. The disposal of your body.
Certainly you can plan your own ceremony, after all it is in part a celebration of your life.
Firstly though, let me say it is advisable to tell your family of your intention. You may find that your loved ones would like to be involved in your plans or at the very least they need to feel that they have not been left out of the opportunity to be involved in your decisions.
You need also let the executor of your will, or the person who holds your Power of Attorney know where your instructions are to be found.
So, where do you start?
"Let your fingers do the walking". There is an enormous and increasing amount of information available on the internet about death and dying, about different ways of disposal of our bodies. This section of the TCN website is a starting point with articles pointing to other websites for more detailed information.
When ready, you may choose the Funeral Home you wish to take care of the arrangements. You may even go to some funerals and see if you like the way they are conducted. Check the local paper and gain the celebrant's permission via the Funeral Director.
Then make an appointment and speak to one of their Funeral Arrangers.
Cost may be a big issue for you so ask many questions and keep note of the answers. You need to note in your instructions how the costs are to be paid.
Memorial Versus Funeral
I am often asked to explain the difference between a funeral and a memorial service. At a funeral the body of the deceased is present and this is not the case at a memorial service. However, the ashes of the deceased can be present, sometimes in a beautiful urn. Those present at a Memorial Service are often much more relaxed at a memorial service and the choices for location are much wider.
I was asked recently to officiate at a Memorial Service to be held in a delightful park on the banks of the Brisbane River. It was early morning, the lady’s ashes were in an urn, beside a lovely framed picture (of her), set upon a table dressed with a perfect white tablecloth and an arrangement of white flowers. The perfume from the flowers carried on the river breeze. We stood, played some beautiful classical music, I spoke, reading a brief eulogy, a family member read a tribute – we bowed our heads for a few minutes of silence … and said goodbye.
You can decide where your ceremony is to be held. Do you wish for a church and a religious service? You should note your preferences in this area. Would you prefer one of the many chapels that are available. Some are part of the facilities the Funeral Home provides or some are included in the Cemetery or Crematorium facilities. There are also privately owned chapels or community halls available for hire.
Funerals can be held at private homes. Access can be a big consideration here. If your home is three stories high, with only stairways and you are thinking that the top deck has nice views and would be a great location – there would be big problems if the Funeral directors cannot get your casket up the stairs.
Outdoor funerals are an option but bad weather can cause problems and funerals in public parks often need to be cleared with local councils.
Coffins and Caskets:
Coffins and Caskets can be truly magnificent but it’s probably not wise to choose an elaborate timber casket for a Cremation. Coffins are available in white, lilac, shiny black (one of my favourites) in fact, you can have any colour you wish, but some special colours take a few more days to prepare.
Traditional burial method and cremations are one option to consider. Newer burial methods, such as composting and using water/ freezing instead of fire, are available as are newer ways to dispose of ashes.
I greatly admire the skill and creativity that goes into a magnificent display of flowers – even a very simple arrangement can look stunning. If you have favourite flowers you need to note that in your arrangements. You may even request ‘no flowers’ or perhaps just single stem roses or gerberas. (Imagine a perfect white Arum lily on an ebony black coffin).
You may like to leave instructions as to what you would like to happen to the flowers after the ceremony – Funeral Directors are often asked by the family to gift the flowers to a retirement village or similar, so the flowers can be admired and appreciated by many others.
You may have met a minister, pastor or priest who you would like to perform the ceremony but keep in mind that these people are not always available . They often lead very busy lives looking after their parishioners, so try to keep flexible here. The same applies if you would like a civil celebrant to perform your ceremony. However, if you are prepared to arrange payment for the ceremony to be delayed to have the celebrant of your choice, make that clear in your instructions too.
Independent civil celebrants are usually happy to meet with you and make suggestions in regard to aspects of a civil ceremony.
Also, many civil celebrants are quite happy to include some religious or spiritual content so civil ceremonies can as they say, include the ‘best of both worlds’.
Do you like music? Then you should choose the music to be played at your service. It doesn’t have to be sombre, goodbye music. It can be your favourite songs - do you love Abba, the Beatles or the Ten Tenors?
In most civil ceremonies three songs are played. An opening song, a song to reflect and remember the deceased’s life (usually played after the eulogy and tributes) and a song to close the ceremony and exit the premises.
But you may like to choose extra pieces to be played instead of speakers or even at your wake.
I love to have my families lighting Candles of Remembrance during the early stages of the ceremony – it is a wonderful way for loved ones to be involved in the ceremony without having to speak. The candle(s) can then be kept as a personal memento.
The heart of a funeral ceremony is the Eulogy and Tributes. This is your loved ones' opportunity to add to ceremony. You need however to write down the details of your life, note date and place of birth, parents names, siblings, schooling and work details, partners/marriages, religious beliefs, places of residence, travel, hobbies, interests, sporting achievements, memberships, pets and significant events.
You may even like to write a letter to your loved ones to be read out at the Service. Maybe even videotape yourself with your last messages to family and friends.
You can if you wish nominate who can, or can not speak at your ceremony, but perhaps this is a decision you could leave to your family and friends.
It is lovely for your family to have a nice photograph of you on display at the ceremony – you may even like to organize to have a professional portrait taken - something I feel we all should do at regular intervals anyway.
Orders of Service
That photograph could also be used on the front cover of a service sheet, often called Order of Service Booklet. Funeral Directors will often be able to recommend someone who provides this service. It includes all aspects of the ceremony, sometimes words of songs or hymns, and often poetry used in the service
Visual Tributes in the form of a DVD Presentation are now very common in Funeral Ceremonies. A collection of images from your life – set to a special piece of music – is a real ‘cameo’ feature and a highlight of the ceremony. Families sometimes create their own, but most Funeral Directors/ Arrangers will have people they can recommend to produce these DVDs.
A display of personal items can also be a special feature at the ceremony. Perhaps you make gorgeous quilts, or paint pictures or do wonderful woodwork which would be nice to display. Your favourite fishing rod, hat or jewellery collection could also be put on show.
Balloon and Dove Releases … or even bubbles!
The release of Balloons or Peace Doves may be a wonderful way for mourners to begin the process of healing. I must say though, that the environmental aspect of a balloon release is of concern to me as balloons do eventually come down to earth and could cause problems for fish or animals. Sadly, there is no such thing yet as an environmentally friendly balloon. The release of Peace Doves however does make for a heart-lifting gesture for everyone in attendance and the birds do eventually return to their home. However, there can be management difficulties with birds too.
“Bubbles! I hear you say, how can you blow bubbles at a funeral?” Easy, because the act of blowing really helps to ease the tightness felt in the chest when one is tearful and upset. But, just picture the sun sparking on the bubbles as they lift their way to heaven taking with them the love of family and friends … and best of all, they are environmentally friendly!
You can make arrangements for the mourners at your service to be invited to share refreshments after the ceremony as many chapels have catering facilities located close by.
You may like to ask that your family & friends wear bright colours. From the celebrant’s viewpoint it is delightful to look out on a sea of colour instead of the usual sombre colours. I recently performed a service for a man who always wore Hawaiian shirts so every guy, and some ladies, wore Hawaiian shirts – it brought a wonderful lightheartedness to the ceremony along with the choice of bright music.
A few years ago I performed a cremation service for a lady who – although she did not dance herself – loved ballroom dancing, so the family organized for music to play as two young ballroom dancers danced down the aisle of the chapel, up to the coffin, did a few twirls and then slowly danced back down the aisle – there was not a dry eye in the place. I have had similar situations with Morris Dancers, Folk Dancers and Irish dancers (along with very powerful music).
A white coffin was chosen for a young person whose ceremony I performed and we had Magic Markers available for anyone who wanted to write their personal farewell message on the coffin.
Grave sites and Interment of Ashes
One of the most difficult decisions to be made by families is the location of grave sites or what to do with a loved one’s ashes so if you have specific directives, once again, it is best to note these in your instructions.
Prepared by Janice Crawford