Planning a memorial service can be difficult as family and friends try to put together a ceremony that honors a life lost and creates a space for grieving survivors. That’s why memorial planning, like elder care and medical decisions, is more and more something people participate in while they’re still alive.
Determining which kind of remembrance a person wants is the first step in planning. A funeral is typically a ceremony held with the deceased person’s remains in attendance, while a memorial is typically held without the body present and can occur weeks or months after the death. (Related: Funeral costs and considerations)
You can have one or the other, or even both, in remembrance of a person. If you’ve settled on a memorial, the next step is figuring out what it should include and what it should look like.
“Sometimes people with a terminal illness will tell you directly what they might want, but a lot of people don’t want to acknowledge that they are facing death at all, let alone help plan a memorial,” said Randy Anderson of Radney Funeral Home in Alexander City, Alabama.
He said that recently a woman who was dying of cancer came into his office with a few family members and planned out everything for her service, which in this case was a funeral. But that kind of in-person planning isn’t very common, he noted.
Many people will detail in a will or other legal document whether they want to be buried or cremated, and whether they want a funeral or memorial services; but not everyone provides that information. Even those who are clear that they want a memorial rarely state specifically what it should entail.
When a person dies suddenly or is too ill to communicate, taking the time to remember the things that the person loved or that you shared together is one way to piece it all together. But if you’re fortunate enough to still be able to communicate with the ill person, consider opening up a conversation to find out how the person would like to be honored. (Related: End of life planning)
Picking a style, deciding on a venue, choosing the participants, finalizing the date, inviting the guests and arranging the details are all crucial steps, as outlined in the nonprofit Funeral Consumers Alliance worksheet . Another good worksheet for planning can be found on the website of the nonprofit Caring.org . Memorials can be as informal as a barbecue in the backyard or as formal as a wedding with ushers, caterers and a reception line, the FCA noted.
How to bring up memorials and funerals
Taking a soft approach in bringing up the conversation with a person is often the best way to go, Anderson said, such as asking questions about a person’s preference here and there in the midst of other conversations. Find out what kinds of music the person likes, whether the person has a favorite song, movie, hobby, food or color. Find out what the person is particularly passionate about and see if it can be incorporated into a memorial.
For example, a recent client he worked with was known in the family to be a great cook so some of her favorite dishes were prepared and served at the memorial. Another person collected antique autos, which were then used in the funeral procession and later displayed for people to examine and learn more about. Someone who loved gardening had gardening tools and plants displayed at the memorial.
If asking the ill person questions is also too hard, consider starting the dialogue by sharing stories, which can be an easier and gentler way to introduce the preplanning process, said Jessica Koth, public relations manager with the nonprofit National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) in Brookfield, Wisconsin. She said in an email exchange that sometimes working with a memorial counselor or even going through a workbook together can help.
The nonprofit Funeral and Memorial Information Council (FAMIC), of which NFDA is a member, has a website based around their “Have the Talk of a Lifetime” Initiative, which gives families ideas of how to open up the conversation.
“The anticipation is far worse than the actual conversation,” said Josh Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA). “Five minutes into a frank discussion about remembrances, most people find that the fear is gone and it’s actually a relief to be able to talk about something so important with the circle of people closest to them.”
Most want to be part of the decision
If the thought of initiating this kind of conversation makes you uncomfortable, consider whether you would want to play a role in how you are remembered. If the answer is yes, your terminally ill or aging friend or family member may feel the same way.
In fact, many people are already bringing up the conversation themselves, according to research.
A study FAMIC commissioned in 2015, conducted by Harris Poll, showed that 46 percent of adults over the age of 40 have had conversations with friends or family about how they would like to be remembered; regardless of whether they had or hadn’t had such a conversation, roughly 89 percent of those surveyed said that they felt family and friends knew what was important to them in life.1
Harris Poll conducted the online study on behalf of FAMIC in Spring 2015, in which 1,238 adults age 40 and older and 305 adults age 20-39 were asked their opinions on preplanning and other matters related to memorials.
Roughly 89 percent of those surveyed said that they would like to have a preplanning conversation about their wishes prior to their death; 69 percent said that they would like to preplan their own arrangements, but only 17 percent had actually done so.
So rather than wait for the topic to be brought up, consider bringing it up yourself. In initiating a preplanning conversation, or in participating in one arranged by friends or family, consider what is most important to you, but also what might be feasible for your friends and family to carry out.
“Sixty percent of those who have pre-arranged their services have prepaid for some or all of them,” FAMIC noted in its discussion of the results. “The main reason for doing so (74 percent) was so survivors wouldn’t have to worry about them or pay for the services, potentially eliminating stress for their friends/family after they are gone.”
Sometimes a person’s last wishes, in terms of a funeral or memorial, can be too elaborate or too financially draining for a survivor to undertake, leaving the person with feelings of guilt or failure, should they be unable to come through for the loved one, said Slocum. So in expressing your wishes for how you’d like to be remembered, also consider the people who will survive you.
“No matter what we want today, we are not going to be there to experience it,” Slocum said. “So the question should not only be ‘how do I want to be remembered?’ but ‘how do they want to remember me and what is most feasible for them?’”
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1 Funeral and Memorial Information Council, “The Role of Memorialization in Healthy Healing Following the Death of a Loved One,” 2016.