Once you have absorbed the initial shock of needing to plan a funeral, you will be surprised at how your cognitive system will 'kick in' and allow you to function. The list below will help you sort through what needs to be done to plan a funeral:
- Begin by enlisting the help of someone close to you (neighbor, family, friend, etc.) to assist in notifying everyone who needs to be informed. Get the telephone calls made as soon as possible, since people will need time to plan for travel and accommodations. Ask each person you call to notify at least two others. Designate a few 'go to' people to manage phone calls and updates. Have those people check in with you the next day to be sure the list is covered.
- If you do not have a funeral home lined up, ask friends for a referral and contact the Funeral Director as soon as possible. Since death usually occurs at a hospital, hospice, or other facility, you may also seek advice from a staff member there. The body of your loved one will be picked up by the funeral home and taken directly to the mortuary, assuming that there is a designated burial site. This is the single most important step in the process. If there is no cemetery plot, consult the Funeral Director for information about your options right away. Once you are aware that the end is near, it goes without saying that you should attempt to line up a funeral home or make whatever plans are necessary to fulfill your loved one's request. This may mean a cremation with the ashes scattered in another state. Just remember, you CAN handle whatever needs to be done, even if you have little support.
- Meet with a representative of the funeral home as soon as possible. This step will alleviate many of your fears and much of the anxiety that accompanies grief, loss, and shock. Take at least one friend or family member with you, since you may have difficulty making decisions and remembering things. (Pre-planned funerals are something to keep in mind for the future.) Expect to experience a high level of emotionality and related moods swings, but allow yourself to express these feelings, even in the middle of a conversation. The funeral home staff is accustomed to consoling families at this difficult time. They will make every effort to be sure your immediate needs are met as they help you go through the process. You will be asked to choose a picture and a verse for the small funeral booklet to be given out at the service. This part of the process is very reassuring and you should embrace the offers of help from others.
- The casket you choose is important. This decision is based on your budget, the wishes of your loved one, and local laws concerning burials, especially if death occurs in a colder area of the country during the winter when the ground is frozen. If cremation is an option, that will also be discussed. This is the time to ask all the questions you may have to be certain your concerns are addressed. Most funeral homes have 'packages' so that you can compare fees, etc. Consult with those you bring with you about these issues and do not be swayed by the emotions of the moment. If you decide upon just a basic casket, that is fine. If there is an open casket at the ceremony, you will be asked about special clothes you have picked out, jewelry to be removed just before the casket is closed, what is to be included inside the casket, such as small pillows, stuffed animals, keepsakes, etc. This will vary depending on personal preferences.
- You will have the option of choosing a priest or minister to lead the service or mass, and you will also need to decide which family members or friends will also speak. This can be a spontaneous part of the service, where people just come up to the podium and say a few words, often sharing significant memories. Be sure to allow some time if you decide to add this to the service, since others may want to share their stories. If the service is held at the church, you can request certain hymns to be sung or special music to be played. When the service takes place at the funeral home, the staff can guide you through the options and will also tell you about any gratuities for the musicians or clergy who are present. Have someone designated to take care of these payments for you, after the service is over.
- In most cases you do not need to worry about flowers because you will receive more than you can handle. If this is not the case, ferns and green plants are good fill-ins, and funeral homes and churches will have extra plants. There may be a charity to which you would like donations sent in lieu of flowers. If so, tell the Funeral Director about this at your first meeting, since he will put the notice in the newspaper for you. If you want to have a longer, formal obituary printed in the newspaper, you should call as soon as possible because obituaries are generally more expensive than you would imagine, and that may determine the length of what is printed.
- Remember to gather pictures and mementos of your loved one to set out at the viewing, which generally takes place the evening before the actual funeral or memorial service. Remember that there is room for variation and special family requests can be accommodated. You will also need a 'guest book' for signatures and personal notes. Be prepared to stand for long periods of time, as people file through the receiving line to pay their respects, but have a chair nearby in case you need it. It is a good idea to have as many family members as possible with you because seeing friends and acquaintances will stir up emotions and memories, and you will need a break or two. Have water nearby and plenty of tissues, because you will need them. Limit the amount of time of the viewing to three hours because you will be worn out and emotionally drained.
- Be sure to consult with the funeral home about transportation on the day of the funeral. They will explain how the body will be transported to the cemetery after the casket is closed, etc. You will need to assign pall bearers, and most men will be glad to oblige. Usually there are six and they should wear dark suits to the funeral, in keeping with the tone of the service and out of respect for the deceased. After the funeral service has concluded, the pall bearers will follow the direction of the funeral home staff, some of whom will be present at the service, even if it is at your own church or somewhere other than the funeral home. They will transport the flowers to the gravesite, etc. The Funeral Director will tell you about each step in the process. You may want to distribute the flowers after the burial.
- Keep in mind that you CAN handle whatever plans need to be made. Your strength will come from the desire to have an appropriate ceremony or service to honor the life of the person who has died. Making arrangements will help to keep your immediate focus on the funeral and not the emotional aftermath. Friends will want to prepare food for a reception after the funeral, so let them do that. If this is not the case for whatever reason, tea and cookies will do, but you will want a few close friends to be with you for the first twenty-four hours after the funeral, regardless. Emotional swings are the norm, so expect your moods to change quickly and sometimes drastically. It is all part of the grieving process, and others will step in whenever you need them. Try to get some rest and remember that "This, too, shall come to pass." The funeral is really for the family and friends and will lend some closure and a sense of peace to the adjustment you will have in the weeks and months that follow.