Designing a creative funeral service

Some preliminaries

Be very clear from the start what you are trying to do in this service. Our suggestion would be that you are providing a focus for people’s grief at the death of the person concerned. But you may have other ideas or needs. For instance it may be a chance to bring together “sides” of the family that have not been getting on very well. Or it may be to communicate to a wider audience some of the achievements the deceased kept modestly quiet about. Or you may want to give thanks for all s/he achieved in their chosen field. … All of those are perfectly valid, but they will each put a slightly different slant on how you will design the event. So spend time becoming clear about what you are trying to do and don’t be nervous about getting the ideas or input from other people who were close to the deceased.

Be conscious of who is likely to come to the event. There is always an element of uncertainty; sometimes people show up whom you would never have expected. (And of course people show up whom you do not know and perhaps will never know.) It’s a good idea to ask yourself if there are any special sensitivities among the people you predict are coming. Such sensitivities may be religious or political or social or local. (eg he supported Liverpool in a strongly Everton neighbourhood!)

Be clear how long you want the event to be. This is especially important if you are planning to ask friends or family members to pay a tribute or deliver a eulogy. Some people are very competent time keepers; others rabbit on for far longer than you had planned.

Recce the site carefully. Is there a decent sound system. Do you know how to control it? Is there room at the front for all the people who are going to take part? Are there steps that could pose problems for the elderly? Will there be glasses of water for the main speakers?

Liaise carefully with whoever is organising the printing , usually but not always the undertaker. Be clear about when they need the final copy, whether you will get a chance to proof-read it (insist so if you can: it can save embarrassing mistakes) and when you can expect delivery of the final product. (It is not unknown for the event to have to begin without the service sheet!)

Decide on whether you are going to allocate seating to significant guests, eg immediate family. This can demand a degree of diplomacy. Aunt Agatha may take the huff if she is not included, but if she is, Uncle Herbert may not like it. If you do allocate, brief someone who knows everyone involved to be on hand to guide people to their seats.

Designing the event: some things to bear in mind.

Are you planning to sing something? Everyone has their own preferences on that, but the key thing is to choose songs or hymns that a large majority will know. If that mans that the deceased’s favourite cannot be sung, too bad: better a second favourite sung confidently and enjoyably than a first favourite mumbled and trashed. And then there’s the accompaniment. Who is going to be responsible for that? If it’s a local -eg the parish organist - there should be no problem as long as they are given plenty of notice of your choice of music. If you plan to use a sound system,check and check again. Remember the tone and volume will sound different when the room/hall/church is full of people: getting the volume right can be tricky but is always important. Take local advice if it is available.

The nature of the music you play/perform can be a delicate issue. Some people can be offended if the choice is something modern, jazzy or louche - even though the deceased may have loved it and could almost be identified with it. Music that sounds great in a disco can grate in a Cathedral, And a soloist who can sing beautifully on a stage may not come off very well in a chapel.

Don’t be frightened of silence. It can be very powerful if it is introduced sensitively. One trope that often works well is to invite the mourners to recall their happiest moments wit the deceased and to dwell on that memory for two or three minutes. (You might then want them to share that memory with their neighbour.)

Readings, whether sacred or not, are often an important part of the event. Again, everything is in the choice of what is to be read. You will want to avoid cliches and the over-used, and you will want to find something that is wholly appropriate to the tastes of the deceased. If you get that right, it is surprising what you can “get away with” in terms of approval from the participating mourners.

Next to the choice of words comes the choice of readers. Sad to say, the quality of public reading has fallen and is still falling. You cannot assume that a professional person can read well in public. Most cannot - and a mumbled, tripped-over passage sounds almost disrespectful.. If at all possible, insist on readers arriving early and rehearsing in front of you (standing at the back of the venue.) And be tough with them. You owe that to the deceased. (I once told Conrad Black that he was a disgrace - without knowing who he was. I think it was a first for him!)

Eulogies. They have become almost de rigeur and can be very moving and special. They can also be painfully bad (or, almost as tiresome, repetitive as one eulogist tells the same stories as another.) Unfortunately, you will probably have very little control over who speaks and who does not. You can, however, set a time limit and insist on its importance; and you can divide the turf, so that one talks about the deceased's professional life and the other his sporting life (for example.) If you can do so without causing a family row, try to limit the number to two. People’s attention spans are short at the best of times; ultra-short at times of stress. You might think it a good idea to follow each with a minute or two of silence, to allow it to sink in. That can be surprisingly effective.

Be brave and think of an original twist. Try to avoid producing a clone of every other memorial service everyone has ever been to. You can, for instance, do something interesting with flowers. A Scottish tradition is to give everyone a flower as they enter the building and invite them to come and lay their flower on a silver platter, with a farewell message to the deceased. Or, if appropriate, you might invite the chief mourner (eg the spouse) to explain the significance of the choice of flowers for the main bouquet in the hall today. Or invite people to dance to the exit music: I have seen that done only once but it was a fine end to a memorable occasion - and people loved it..

Preparing the funeral service

. First, you need to be aware that many denominations have a formally prescribed funeral service. Most Ministers will see this as their default: they will use it unless you ask for something else.That said, most Ministers today are very flexible and will go a long way to accommodate your (reasonable) requests. Most will insist on at least one Biblical reading, often on an Easter theme,and obviously, they will want to include prayers for the family, for those who mourn and for the deceased, that they may rest in peace.

For the rest, you can choose other readings (poems are a popular choice), music or prayers that mean a lot to you and/or the deceased. If you do not intend to hold a Memorial service later, you may want to include a eulogy in the service. If it is a cremation, you will need to bear in mind that there are very tight limits on the time allotted to each funeral party, so any eulogy will need to be short, especially if the Minister wishes to say something as a homily (which many will feel is their duty on such an occasion.)

The same general point applies to the choice of music in a cremation. Many crematoria have a resident organist who will play whatever you request (if so advised by the Undertaker.) But there are severe time constraints of which you need to be aware.(If in doubt, consult the Undertaker.) There is usually much less time pressure in a church or chapel - or a woodland burial. Most funeral venues these days have decent sound systems so you can play any music you can supply. (But a word of warning: If you try to over-compensate for the sad and solemn mood that usually accompanies a funeral, it can sound tasteless and disrespectful. Just be aware of that.)