How to Conduct a Meaningful Funeral Service

Jul 05, 2021
Black and white photo of a coffin in a hearse decorated with flowers

The loss and send-off of a loved one is one of the most difficult stages of life, but can also be one of the most remarkable and memorable.

Death is inevitable, and an everyday part of life. However, it can feel unnatural and uncomfortable to those who are left behind. When families and friends suffer emotional stress due to the death of a loved one, it’s crucial that their final experience of the deceased is meaningful and personal.

Your work as an independent funeral celebrant is to officiate the funeral and help the bereaved family through this difficult time. But what does this look like in reality?

A Brief Overview Of How We Grieve

Dozens if not hundreds of theories exist surrounding how and why we grieve. It is one of life’s great mysteries.

While you may have heard of the traditional models (e.g. The 5 stages of grief), there are more modern takes on the grief phenomena that could interest you and inform your celebrancy practice.

Adaptive grief is one such modern model. Adaptive grief was proposed by grief researchers Terry Martin and Kenneth Doka, and reflects the complex nature of grief and its many variables. Variables include personality types, resilience levels and culture - aspects sometimes overlooked in the more basic grief models. Martin and Doka proposed three primary patterns of grieving.

  1. Instrumental mourning. This refers to people who prefer to express grief in physical or cognitive ways, such as immersing themselves in tasks, rather than showing a great deal of emotion.
  2. Intuitive mourning. These people experience powerful emotions that they are comfortable sharing with others, such as crying or getting angry.
  3. Dissonant mourning. This refers to the suppression of grieving, or the internalising of feelings and hiding them from others.

When you work with a family, you may notice that there is a range of behaviours across family members. Some may be very expressive and emotional, others may appear ‘cold’ or distant. As a celebrant, it helps to recognise the different grief processes so that you can adjust yourself to the needs and wants of others.

This is only one grief model that might interest you. You can find a mountain of others here.

The Ceremony

The ceremony service is the final rite in honour of the deceased. It also offers a platform to initiate the healing process for family and friends. The funeral service should:

Provide an opportunity to celebrate distinct qualities of the deceased and their achievements in life
Reflect on the deceased's values, worldview and culture
Offer a platform for family and friends to mourn the deceased and comfort each other

Some ways to keep the funeral personal, meaningful and even joyful are as follows:

A eulogy is standard practice at funerals and gives everyone a fantastic overview of the life of the deceased. As a celebrant, get to know the deceased intimately by meeting with close relatives, asking open questions and building a picture of their life. That’s not the only reading you can include. Friends and family can also read poems, prose, quotes, or a custom speech at the funeral. Sometimes it can be a good idea to leave a little extra time for anyone who, on the day, decides to stand up and talk.

Music evokes. It can be used to reflect and feel sad, or lift and feel joyful. You can look at a list of some of the most popular funeral music by clicking here, or put some of your own ideas towards the family if they get a little stuck. They may of course have plenty of their own ideas, and as a celebrant it is up to you to incorporate those ideas into a fitting service. In some cases, guests may even want to sing their own song or invite the congregation to join in with a familiar piece of music.

Keepsakes are ordinarily associated with weddings rather than funerals. But giving guests a chance to physically take something meaningful from the ceremony can be a lovely way to remember the deceased. It can also help grieving families, because they can feel assured anyone with a keepsake will remember that day forever. Beautiful but simple keepsakes could include small glass ornaments, dried flowers, a candle holder, a bracelet charm or a postcard.

Disposal of The Body
Whether you are overseeing a cremation or burial, the disposal of the body can be one of the most traumatic but also powerful moments of the ceremony. It is the final act before the deceased is gone forever. The family should think about how they’d like this to look, and the tone they’d prefer. There is no right or wrong way of doing this. For example, one family we are familiar with wanted a more comical tone to reflect the deceased’s fun loving nature - they chose to bury him to the song ‘Going Underground’ by Vevo. However, in other cases, the tone will be dramatically different, especially for sudden, unexpected deaths or the death of a child. It is best to be totally open and frank with the family about this moment - as hard as it might be for them to talk about.

Afterthoughts / Food and Drinks
Food and beverages can be served after the funeral. This is a time to share thoughts and memories about the deceased and get to know other people at the event. As a celebrant, you can also use this opportunity to get to know other guests and (discreetly) hand out your professional business card to those who may want to use your services in the future.

We want to help you

Whether you are a new or existing celebrant, we would love to continue to support you on your journey. You can share ideas and thoughts about funeral services you have conducted (or are about to conduct) in our Facebook group.
Got questions? Drop us an email at [email protected]