The best memorial services reflect our special memories of our loved ones.
Have you ever been to a really good funeral? No, that doesn’t have to be an oxymoron — a good funeral is a real thing, and it’s something we should all hope to achieve for ourselves and our loved ones.
A good funeral is one that, even though you may be heartbroken over the death, is also beautiful, meaningful, and uplifting. It’s the kind of funeral you remember, even years later, because it was the perfect tribute to someone very special.
I asked some of Legacy’s readers to tell me about the best funerals they’ve ever been to. I ended up hearing dozens of stories of vastly different funerals. Some were solemn and formal, while others were lighthearted and casual. Some were traditional and some were modern. Some took place at churches and funeral homes, while others were in unusual places, from the family yard to a boat to streaming online for far-flung family to join in.
There was one thing all the stories I heard had in common: Each one perfectly suited the person being remembered. This is something everyone can work on while planning a family member’s funeral (or while pre-planning your own funeral), and it’s something the funeral director can help you with as you work together to create a beautiful ceremony. You might even get a few ideas from the stories shared by our readers.
Personalize Your Remembrance
Maybe you’ve been to a “cookie-cutter funeral” — the kind that seems oddly familiar, because it’s just like the last one you attended. Of course there are certain readings, songs, and traditions that are common at funerals, and many of us find those traditions comforting. But that doesn’t mean everything else in the service has to be just like all the other funerals, too. Some of the best stories I heard were of funerals that were highly personalized to reflect the deceased’s character and favorite things:
“When my dad passed away unexpectedly last September, we had a wedding florist make the spray and centerpieces. They were gorgeous! Strong fall colors, field corn, antlers from a buck my dad had hunted on the farm, and the centerpieces had wood slabs we lasered special bible verses on. We did a burlap wreath of his favorite hats that now hangs in the mud room. We used many of his favorite things in decoration and everyone commented how it was ‘so him.’ Being surrounded by his hobbies and mementos was comforting in such a traumatic time. And Dad wore his favorite Charlie Brown Christmas tie. People who knew him well got a good chuckle out of that.”
“A friend of mine in high school passed away unexpectedly. He was so, so kind and bright, and had a great sense of humor, so his family asked that it not be a funeral of mourning but a celebration of his life and personality. Everyone wore bright clothing and brought colorful flowers, and at the end of the funeral, they let whoever come up and share stories about him. The whole thing was very casual and open, more like a group of friends and family just talking about this great person gone too soon. At the graveside service, they played the ukulele version of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and even though it had been raining just prior to everyone coming out, the sun was shining so bright. It was really like he was watching us celebrate him.”
Pick the Perfect Music
Choosing the perfect music for your loved one’s funeral is actually a lot easier than the idea of “perfect” might suggest. The perfect music is the music that makes you think of that person. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard that song at a funeral before. There are all kind of funeral songs, and if hymns or quiet harp music don’t seem quite right for the person you’re remembering, you don’t have to use them. Rock music, country, rap, jazz — they all have their place at a funeral, if they’re what bring your loved one to mind.
Some of the most memorable funerals are the ones where the music is exactly what the deceased loved:
“The entire congregation sang ‘You Are My Sunshine’ at my husband’s grandmother’s funeral. Each grandchild was given a red rose at the cemetery in honor of her.”
“At a friend’s grandfather’s funeral, we all sang Elvis’ ‘Love Me Tender’ to her grandmother. It was ‘their’ song. They passed out the lyrics and had the music in the background.”
The right music can also help turn tears of grief to smiles of happy remembrance, as one family discovered:
“We have a family habit of crying when we part ways, and found that if you sing the title song ‘Oklahoma’ you need to breathe deeply to get that first O out…hence you stop crying. So we decided at the end of Dad’s funeral we were going to play ‘Oklahoma.’ Normally this spot is saved for ‘Amazing Grace,’ which brings on more tears and the big, ugly cry face. Instead as we were walking out we saw smiling faces, and people with joined arms swaying back and forth to the song. Of course there were also quite a few questioning faces, but overall it ended the funeral on a high note, and we explained to those not in the know the meaning of the song.”
Remember a Veteran with Music
If you’re planning a funeral for a veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces, there will likely be special military honors performed by other veterans. But you can do even more than that to pay tribute to your loved one’s service to their country. Some families have chosen funeral music specifically to honor a veteran.
“I attended a funeral for a fallen soldier, and the ENTIRE congregation sang ‘Proud to be an American.’ I get goosebumps just thinking about it.”
“My dad passed away back in May 2017 and I had an opportunity to give his eulogy at the memorial service. He was a proud Marine and fought in the Korean War as a machine gunner. In closing, I told a story about a time when I was around 10 years old and I found a harmonica in his dresser drawer. He said if I could learn to play the Marine Corps Hymn, I could keep it. I spent the entire afternoon practicing and then proceeded to play it for him as best as possible. He smiled with a tear in his eye and gave it to me. After telling the story at his funeral, I read the lyrics and before returning to my seat, I pulled the harmonica out of my pocket and played the song. Most everyone at the service sang along and I ended with a salute to his urn. The entire room erupted in cheers and a few Oorah’s were shouted.”
Give Away Tangible Reminders of a Long Life
It’s not unusual to walk away from a Christmas party or bridal shower with a gift from the host — but a funeral? Indeed: Some of the most memorable funerals I heard about were ones where attendees received a small possession of the deceased’s to keep. This approach won’t work for everyone, but if your loved one collected some sort of small, inexpensive item and you don’t plan to keep that collection in the family, sending it home with funeral attendees is a beautiful way to create a lasting memory.
“I went to a memorial of a dear friend’s mother that was so unique and special! They are a family of teachers. It was in her home, and there was a ‘Christmas room,’ where each guest took home a Christmas ornament of hers so she could keep spreading Christmas cheer even after she was gone.”
“A friend’s mom passed away about 10 years ago. At the funeral, each service bulletin contained a random picture. Nothing high quality. Why? Gather ’round, children. Back in the days of film cameras, it was common to use the last frame or two of a roll of film on something random so you could go get the roll developed. After years of this practice, Miss Judy had hundreds of these. She started including pictures when she’d mail in her gas bill, or Christmas cards, or anything. I still have that photo because it was so personal and so funny.”
Preserve (or Create) a Meaningful Ritual
Most religions and cultures have traditional rituals that take place at every funeral. Some families have their own rituals that they make room for in addition to the religious or cultural ones they incorporate. A funeral is one of the most appropriate places for rituals, as they remind us of the circle of life. You can repeat one that’s been used before at family funerals — or you can create something new and meaningful.
“Before his unexpected death, my beloved younger brother expressed great concern for the fate of the 140-year-old brass bell in the dingy belfry of the beautiful small rural church where we had both been christened and confirmed. Dwindling membership will cause this church to close within the next two years. Brother Matt, co-caretaker of the church’s cemetery, hoped the bell could be mounted in the cemetery. He asked my engineer husband and me to climb the steep dusty ladder up into the belfry to assess the cost of moving the bell. Three weeks later he was gone. His ideas, his dreams, his energy, his love for that bell. At his funeral, in that church, I positioned myself so that I could quickly slip out a side aisle and just hold the bell rope while Matt’s best friend rang it sixty times, once for each year of his life.”
“My uncle’s funeral had people out the door of the funeral home standing in the snow. People were asked to share their memories of him and did. For hours. He was also active with the Native American community, where he lived after his daughter died in a car accident, and they accepted him as one of their own. They presented his wife with a bald eagle feather. When everyone was gathering at their house after the ceremony there was a lone eagle flying overhead.”
Don’t Be Afraid to Be Lighthearted
In the days when you’re still trying to process the death of a loved one while you plan their funeral and begin to grieve, it’s hard to even imagine smiling and laughing ever again. But fun and happy times may well play a big part in your memories together. It’s okay — often, even a great idea — to allow for some lighthearted touches in a funeral. If a memory makes you smile or laugh out loud despite your tears, that’s a beautiful testament to a life well lived.
“My step-great grandmother’s funeral service was very traditional (Ukrainian Orthodox Catholic) but the dinner that followed felt like a daytime wedding (minus the dancing). She wanted a party feel and it really was! People gave toasts, there was a lot of alcohol consumed and people laughed and cried, told stories and left feeling good.”
“When my grandpa died, he didn’t want a typical funeral. He said he didn’t want to be laid up at the front with people telling the family that he ‘looked good.’ He said, and I quote, ‘I don’t look good, I’ll be dead!’ So when he passed away, we had a gathering at my parents’ house in the front yard with Coke and McDonald’s apple pies (which were his favorite treat). We put up tables and everyone just hung out, telling their favorite stores about my grandpa. There was no crying or sad faces because everyone just shared how much they loved him and his humor. That was the best funeral.”
“Usually, the eulogy comes after the middle of the funeral service. In this case, it served to warm up the crowd. Before Mass started, all six grown children of the deceased stood up at the altar, facing the congregation. Together, they welcomed everyone — and let us know that there would be a few tears and a lot of laughs. Then they proceeded to read from notecards in hand: each took a turn with an anecdote about his/her mother. From oldest child to youngest, they each told one story… then started over. By the fourth round, the whole church had laughed and cried together, and the atmosphere was positive and close. We then proceeded with Mass. It was terrific! I already told my three children that is the way I would like for my funeral to roll.”
Pre-Plan Your Own Funeral
Like the person who told that last story, you can talk to your family about what kind of funeral you would like. That’s one great way to ensure that you’ll be remembered in a personal, meaningful way. An even more specific approach is to pre-plan your funeral with a funeral director. Pre-planning includes some big decision-making, like burial vs. cremation and where everything will take place, but it can get into fine details of just how the service will proceed, too. The next two stories demonstrate how incredibly meaningful a pre-planned funeral can be to the loved ones who will mourn you someday.
“A teacher I had had in elementary school died after a long battle with cancer. Before she died, she made a handwritten sign to be put up at her funeral that basically said, ‘Thanks for coming, grab a glass of wine, listen to the Yanni playing, and chat with friends. Have fun!’ It was such a good memorial to the upbeat person she had been.”
“My aunt passed away a few years back. She had been sick for a long time and planned the entire funeral day herself ahead of time. She picked out the music and the venue for the funeral lunch. For my cousin and me, she intentionally had the wait staff bring out — directly to us during the meal — two bowls of Stove Top stuffing, something we had long made together, just for us. It was so incredibly touching that in all of the things she had been doing, she thought specifically of us and how to make us most comfortable during the funeral.”
Start Talking About It
The more prepared you are, the better you can plan a beautiful, meaningful, and unique funeral. Talking about it with your family doesn’t have to be morbid — after all, you’ll be discussing the things you and they love most and how best to reflect them when you’re honoring a life. Start a conversation, maybe with something like “What music would you want played at your funeral?” Then see where the discussion goes from there. You just might come up with the seeds of an extraordinary funeral plan.