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Meaningful Funerals

How to Personalize Music at a Funeral

By Educational, Explore Options, Meaningful Funerals, Planning Tools

The funeral is a time to honor and remember a loved one’s life, but how can you personalize the service to reflect that person’s personality, preferences, interests, and uniqueness? According to Dr. Alan Wolfelt, nationally respected grief counselor and author, there are 7 distinct elements to a funeral, and each one can be personalized. Today, let’s talk about how you can use music to personalize a loved one’s final tribute and create an event that is truly special and meaningful.

Older man playing a violin

 First, Why Does Personalization Matter?

I encourage you to slow down, take a deep breath and focus on what is really important—what is essential—about the funeral you are planning. What is essential is the life that was lived and the impact that life had on family and friends. To honor that unique life, the funeral must also be unique. Over and over, families tell me that the best funerals are those that are personalized.”  – Dr. Alan Wolfelt

In a world focused on efficiency and getting things done as quickly as possible, the funeral is a moment to slow down and be thoughtful. When we do things too quickly, they can sometimes feel impersonal and hollow. That’s why personalization is key!

A personalized service beautifully and lovingly honors life. It creates a sweet moment of remembrance, a time to say goodbye, a unique acknowledgement that a person’s life mattered in all the big and small ways. Now, let’s talk about music and its vital role in personalizing a funeral or memorial service!

Banjo laying on top of sheet music

How to Personalize Music at a Funeral

Music sets the tone of a funeral or memorial service and brings emotions to the forefront. In fact, one of the purposes of a funeral is to allow mourners to grieve together, and in many ways, music says what words cannot. We often shy away from our emotions, but don’t be afraid to invite people to express their grief. Consider using music as an avenue to bring out what people are thinking and feeling. Plus, you can add a deeply personal touch by selecting music that was dear to the person who has died.  

1. Choose songs that are meaningful, no matter their musical genre

Traditionally, hymns and other religious songs are often played at a funeral, but that doesn’t have to be the case. To add a personal touch, instead choose songs that are meaningful to you or to the loved one who has died. Did they love Fleetwood Mac? Play “Gypsy.” Did they always sing “You are My Sunshine” to the grandkids? Then, find your favorite version and play it. There’s no right or wrong genre of music for a funeral. There’s simply what is meaningful to you and your family.

2. Decide between live music or recorded music

For the grieving process, there’s no difference between going with live or recorded music, so it’s entirely up to your preference. Was your loved one part of a barbershop quartet? Ask their fellow quartet members to sing a number. Do you have a musically talented family member? Then you might consider asking them to perform live. Alternatively, you can create a digital playlist of songs that will play during the gathering or visitation. And if you want to do a mix of live and recorded music, go for it! The funeral director will help you coordinate all the fine details of the service.

Person holding a smartphone that displays a digital music playlist

3. Include songs that honor personal or religious beliefs

As you plan a funeral or memorial service, you should keep your loved one’s preferences at the front of your mind. If they were a religious person, consider including hymns or praise songs. If they were a veteran, perhaps play their military branch’s official song, such as “Anchors Aweigh” for the Navy or “The Army Goes Rolling Along” for the Army. Consider the organizations your loved one was involved with – are there any songs that would be a meaningful addition to the service?

4. Share clips of your loved one’s musical talents

If your loved one was musically talented themselves, consider finding a way to include their musical giftings at the service. Do you have recordings of them singing or playing an instrument? Incorporate that footage into a memorial tribute video. Alternatively, you can play any recordings during the service or visitation. Did they write lyrics or put together musical arrangements? Play those songs. If you aren’t sure how to include a loved one’s musical stylings at the service, speak with your funeral director. They can help you brainstorm ideas.

Woman in church choir singing a solo

Questions to Help You Brainstorm

If songs haven’t already started popping into your head, here are a few questions to help you brainstorm which songs to include at a service.

  • Did your loved one play any songs over and over again?
  • Did they have any favorite artists?
  • Were they known for singing any particular songs?
  • Did they have a favorite instrument?
  • Did they have a preferred music genre (classical, rock, Motown, etc.)?
  • Is there a song that always reminds you of them?

Hopefully, these questions will trigger some ideas for you and give you a good starting place for selecting music that will not only personalize the funeral but add special meaning as well. And again, if you are stumped, look to your funeral director. They are your advocate and guide throughout the funeral planning process. They can provide much-needed assistance when you just aren’t sure what to do next.

Music sheets folded into half circles

For additional inspiration, here are more articles on music that may help:

group of people placing white roses on a casket

The Simple Guide to Funeral Etiquette

By Educational, Meaningful Funerals No Comments

A funeral is an emotional time for a lost loved one’s family and friends. If you have been invited to attend a funeral, it is helpful to know proper funeral etiquette. Keep in mind that as culture has evolved, so have funerals and funeral etiquette. Traditional services are at times being replaced by more informal celebrations of life. So when no two services are identical, how do you know what etiquette is expected?

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1970s music on a casette tape

9 Songs from the 1970s for a Celebration of Life

By Meaningful Funerals, Music

Music is powerful – it can help us express our emotions and open us up to feelings we’re avoiding. That’s why choosing the right songs for a funeral can make such a big impact on the service. Picking personalized music can help create a healing experience for you and your family.

1970s music on a casette tape

Choosing your loved one’s favorite songs can be a great start, but you can also consider music from the decade they were born in – or a decade of music that they always enjoyed listening to. If you’re looking for music from the 1970s to incorporate into your loved one’s funeral or celebration of life, here are 9 songs you can try.

Bridge Over Troubled Water (Simon & Garfunkel, 1970)

When tears are in your eyes
I’ll dry them all
I’m on your side

When you lose a loved one, you may feel like you are alone. But funerals remind us that others are grieving the loss just like we are. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” highlights how we can find comfort in each other during difficult times. At a funeral or memorial service, this song could serve as a heartfelt reminder to help each other through the difficult days ahead.

Farewell My Friend (Dennis Wilson, 1977)

You take the high road
And I’ll take the low road
And we’ll meet again

Saying goodbye to someone you love is hard. In “Farewell My Friend,” Dennis Wilson captures the idea of saying farewell to someone you care about. But this song isn’t just about saying goodbye. It’s also about embracing hope for the future and believing that you will someday see your loved one again, which would make it a hopeful addition to a funeral or celebration of life.

Take Me Home, Country Roads (John Denver, 1971)

I hear her voice in the mornin’ hour, she calls me
The radio reminds me of my home far away

A song full of nostalgia and longing, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is a classic for a reason. These heartfelt lyrics speak about the desire to be with a loved one who is far away. At a funeral or memorial service, this song can capture the longing you feel to see that person you love, especially if they were someone you called “home.”

Lean On Me (Bill Withers, 1972)

Sometimes in our lives
We all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow

After the death of a loved one, you need the support of friends and family members. “Lean On Me” encourages us to lean on each other for support during difficult times. Plus, this song reminds us that there is hope to be found on the other side of grief and pain. Life will get better, and you can trust that there are times of hope and joy to come.

I Will Always Love You (Dolly Parton, 1974)

Bittersweet memories
That’s all I am taking with me

When you lose someone you love, they’re still a part of your life through your memories. This classic song beautifully captures how love continues even when someone is no longer a part of your life. While looking back on your time with your loved one may hurt right now, this song can remind you that you feel grief because you loved them so much.

Let It Be (The Beatles, 1970)

And when the night is cloudy
There is still a light that shines on me
Shine until tomorrow, let it be

A song about finding comfort during dark times, “Let It Be” reminds the grieving that there is hope on the other side of grief. While you may be tempted to run from your emotions, embracing your feelings and allowing yourself to feel sad or angry is an important part of the grieving process. In a way, this classic Beatles song can help everyone remember that it’s okay to let yourself feel those negative emotions.

Going Home (Annie Haslam, 1977)

Work all done, care laid by
Going to fear no more

A solemn song with surprisingly hopeful lyrics, “Going Home” speaks about reuniting with loved ones after death. While death can be a scary topic for many people, this song suggests that peace can be found in a life well-lived and that death provides a release from pain. If you’re looking for the hope of reuniting with your loved one, this song could make a great addition to a service or a memorial slideshow.

For a Dancer (Jackson Browne, 1974)

And somewhere between the time you arrive
And the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive
That you’ll never know

“For a Dancer” tells a beautiful story about the way people’s lives touch each other. Even though your loved one is gone physically, they live on in your memory and in the impact they made on their family and friends. This song is a reminder that you can find meaning in the positive impact you make in other people’s lives, which can give you hope for the future.

Bright Eyes (Art Garfunkel, 1978)

There’s a high wind in the trees
A cold sound in the air
And nobody ever knows when you go

After someone you love dies, you may ask yourself deep questions about life as you search for meaning. “Bright Eyes” captures the way you can feel lost after the death of a loved one. As you and your family mourn the loss, this song can be a reminder that it’s okay to ask questions and search for meaning.

Songs from other decades

Other musical options for a meaningful funeral

Two women and one man standing at a graveside service, one woman holding a white handkerchief

Why Your Presence at the Funeral Matters

By Grief/Loss, Meaningful Funerals

In our culture today, there’s a tendency to do whatever is necessary to avoid pain and unpleasant feelings. This is one reason why people want to avoid the funeral – it brings out emotions that don’t always feel good. But pain and difficult emotions are a natural part of the human experience. In order to have good mental health and positive well-being, we need to learn how to process difficult experiences.

Man and woman standing together next to a closed casket, woman's hand placed on casket as they pay their respects

Nationally recognized grief counselor and death educator Dr. Alan Wolfelt puts it this way:

The pain of grief will keep trying to get your attention until you unleash your courage to gently, and in small doses, open to its presence. The alternative—denying or suppressing your pain—is in fact more painful. If you do not honor your grief by acknowledging it, it will accumulate and fester. So, you must ask yourself, “How will I host this loss? What do I intend to do with this pain? Will I befriend it, or will I make it my enemy?” (To see Dr. Wolfelt’s full article, click here.)

Woman in black dress holding white lilies with left hand as she places right hand on casket

But why does your presence at the funeral matter? How will attending a funeral help you address any pain or complex emotions you may feel at a time of grief and loss? How will your presence provide support and encouragement to others? Good questions. Let’s discuss 7 ways attending the funeral or memorial service will help you (or your loved ones) on the grief journey.

Attending the funeral service gives you the opportunity to:

1. Honor and remember a person’s life

By attending the funeral or memorial service, you have a chance to acknowledge that a special person existed and their life was important. As human beings, we need to know that our lives matter, and the funeral provides an opportunity to affirm that. Even if you didn’t know the person well, you honor them and their surviving family members by paying your respects and participating in remembrance activities.

Woman in black dress placing purple flowers on a grave at the committal service

2. Say goodbye in your own way

While the funeral doesn’t make grief go away, it does help you grieve. Without a service, things don’t feel finished. Almost like something is missing. However, with a service, you have the chance to say goodbye in your own way and accept the reality of the death. Some may want to sit near the deceased for a while; for others, the act of attending the funeral is enough. We’re all different, but it’s important to say goodbye, especially for those who didn’t get to see the deceased before their passing.

3. Express your emotions

People expect to see emotions at a funeral service, which makes it a safe place to express yourself. You may be tempted to bottle up your emotions, but if possible, try to engage with your feelings. Let yourself experience what you feel and take note of your emotions. Someone you love has died, and that’s significant. Your emotions are normal, and it’s okay to express them.

Young woman who is sad

4. Offer condolences

Another reason why your presence matters is that it gives you a chance to offer your condolences. Whether you want to give the grieving family a hug or share an encouraging word, your presence can bring great comfort. Plus, by offering your condolences at the funeral, you make things simpler for the family. It’s easier to talk to 100 people at the funeral than to experience 100 different condolence encounters after the funeral.

5. Support the grieving family

Similar to giving your condolences, you can also offer practical support to the grieving family. This could mean that you drop off food for the family in the days following the service. You could sign up to be on “clean-up duty” at the gathering, give family members a ride, or help them pack up memorial items used to personalize the service. While the funeral home staff will take care of the major details, there are other ways you can step in to offer practical support to a grieving family.

Two women and one man standing at a graveside service, one woman holding a white handkerchief

 6. Reconnect with others

After a loss, you need good people surrounding you. Funerals bring family and friends together, so they provide an opportunity for people to reconnect. Though the funeral will bring tears, it will also bring laughter, joy, and connection. Families and friends who haven’t seen each other in a while can swap stories, share memories, and support each other. We’re not meant to live life alone, and we can lean on each other during times of grief and loss.

7. Realize you aren’t alone in your grief

Grief can feel lonely, but by attending the funeral, you see other people who are also grieving. You aren’t alone in what you’re feeling. The people around you at the funeral may not experience exactly what you are feeling, but they are processing emotions of their own. You can sit down together, talk with each other, unpack what you’re feeling, and provide much-needed love and support. You don’t have to grieve on your own – there are people who can stand with you.

Two white roses sitting on casket with clergy person in background holding an open book

Are there times when you shouldn’t attend the funeral?

In most cases, your presence will be welcome at the funeral or memorial service. But life isn’t always black and white; sometimes, it’s gray. Here are a few times when you should consider skipping the service or participating online:

  • Your attendance at the service would be disruptive, distracting, or upsetting to any member of the immediate family
  • The services are private and not open to the public
  • The services are out of town and you cannot get there
  • You cannot arrange for time off work
  • You are ill or physically unable to travel

White chrysanthemum resting in an open book

Additional grief resources

While attending the funeral is an important and necessary part of the grief journey, it’s not the end. For some, the deep emotions of grief last for a few weeks, and for others, they last for years. To help you (or a grieving loved one) in the days ahead, here are some additional grief resources.

Man in white shirt holding Catholic rosary beads

Understanding the Catholic Funeral Rite

By Meaningful Funerals

The Catholic funeral rite is a time-honored tradition that allows the Catholic community to gather in support of the bereaved and to commend dear departed loved ones into God’s loving and merciful hands. A Catholic funeral rite is divided into three parts, each with its own purpose: vigil, funeral liturgy, and rite of committal. By following the complete structure, the bereaved family is strengthened in faith, hope, and love through the funeral ritual.

Wooden Catholic rosary laying on top of open Bible with lit candles in background

Love: Vigil Service (Wake or Rosary)

The vigil is a prayer service usually held the evening before the funeral and may include a rosary. The Order of Christian Funerals (no. 56) states, “At the vigil, the Christian community keeps watch with the family in prayer to the God of mercy and finds strength in Christ’s presence.” This is a special time for the bereaved family to receive love and support from their Christian brothers and sisters and to share stories as they honor and remember a unique life.

At the vigil, much like a viewing or a wake, family and friends gather in the home of the deceased, in the funeral home, or in the Church to pray and remember the deceased and commend them to God. In prayer, they ask God to console them in their grief and give them strength to support one another. The vigil is the most appropriate time for family and friends to share stories, eulogies, and memories.

Woman sitting in pew, praying with hands clasped

Faith: Funeral Liturgy

The funeral liturgy is the central expression of faith for the Catholic community after the loss of a loved one. It may be celebrated at a Requiem Mass, or when Mass cannot be celebrated, a funeral liturgy outside Mass can be celebrated at the Church or in the funeral home. The funeral liturgy is an act of worship in which the family and friends of the deceased gather with the Church to give praise and thanks to God. Through prayer and petition, the focus is placed on Christ’s victory over sin and death as a loved one is commended into God’s tender mercy and compassion.

Woman standing at casket, giving final respects; line of people behind her waiting to give their own final respects

Hope: Rite of Committal (Burial or Interment)

The Rite of Committal is the conclusion of the funeral rite. The Church prefers that burial take place on consecrated ground. In committing the body to its resting place, the community expresses hope that the deceased awaits the glory of the resurrection. The Rite of Committal is an expression of the communion that exists between the Church on earth and the Church in heaven: the deceased passes with the farewell prayers of the community of believers into the welcoming company of those who need faith no longer, but see God face to face.

These three actions come together to create the Catholic Funeral Rite, which has brought comfort to Catholics for centuries. But if you are unfamiliar with the Catholic Rite, you may have additional questions. Let’s talk through a few of the most common ones.

Interior of a Catholic church with pews and altar

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Church’s stance on cremation?

While burial remains the more typical and preferred practice, it is no longer uncommon for Catholics to choose cremation. The Church teaches that the body should be cared for with great respect and dignity, both as God’s creation and as former temples of the Holy Spirit and as an expression of our hope in the risen life to come.

The Order of Christian Funerals offers three options with the cremated body:

  1. Have the cremation follow the funeral service, with a disposition of the cremated body through burial in a cemetery
  2. Gather for the committal of the cremated remains at the cemetery first, followed by a funeral liturgy at the church
  3. With direct or immediate cremation, a funeral liturgy at the church may follow with burial of the remains at an appropriate time

The practice of scattering the cremated body is not encouraged, nor is dividing the cremated body or keeping the urn at the home of a relative or friend, although burial at sea in an urn is acceptable.

Man in white shirt holding Catholic rosary beads

What happens at the vigil service?

The vigil often takes place at the Church, in the funeral home, or at the home of the family. Generally, a priest or deacon will preside, but a layperson may also preside. The primary purpose of the vigil is to provide mourners with an opportunity to pray, offer support and condolences to the family, and to hear or give tributes and eulogies.

What should I expect at a Requiem Mass?

A few things differentiate a Requiem Mass (Funeral Mass) from a regular Catholic Mass. These differences include:

  • The casket of the deceased will be received by the priest at the front door. He will sprinkle the casket with holy water and cover it with a pall. Then, he will lead the procession to place the casket on the catafalque (funerary platform).
  • The liturgy often includes passages from the Old Testament, read by the priest, family, or friends.
  • The priest often reads a psalm, a passage from the Gospels, and delivers a homily/eulogy.
  • Some, but not all, Catholic funerals include a Final Commendation, which is an additional eulogy after Holy Communion has been offered.
  • At the conclusion of the Requiem Mass, the casket is sprinkled with holy water once again before it is carried from the Church.

Priest spreading incense at a Catholic funeral

How long does a Requiem Mass last?

Anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour, depending on whether it is a full Mass or not.

What is the dress code and funeral etiquette for a Catholic funeral?

At a Catholic funeral, the mood will be formal and somber. It is appropriate to wear dark-colored clothing, such as black, charcoal, or gray. Wear something modest, though not casual. Jeans, hoodies, t-shirts, sportswear, and casual footwear are not recommended.

While prayers are being recited, you can stay seated with your head bowed. There will be parts of the Mass that require you to alternate between standing and kneeling. If you are unable to kneel, that’s fine, but try to at least stand.

If you are not Catholic, do not to take part in Holy Communion. You can follow the procession to receive a blessing from the priest, if you wish, but it is not required. For more funeral etiquette suggestions, click here.

Catholic Bible sitting on desk with rosary laid on top

Can I personalize a Catholic funeral?

Absolutely! In fact, personalization is encouraged as long it does not interfere with the Church rites that must be completed. You can speak with both a funeral director and the priest to determine if your personalization plans are appropriate.

Hopefully, you have a better understanding of the beauty and rich tradition behind the Catholic Funeral Rite. However, if you have more questions, speak to a trusted local funeral director. They can answer any additional questions that may be on your mind.

Record player

10 Songs from the 1960s for a Celebration of Life

By Meaningful Funerals, Music

Record player

One of the most important parts of a funeral is music. When we’re grieving, music helps us express our feelings in ways that words can’t and helps us feel the emotions we’ve been holding back. Additionally, the songs played at a funeral or celebration of life set the tone for the gathering and help create a healing and meaningful service.

While many people assume that songs played at a funeral must be quiet, sad, or traditional, that’s not necessarily true! When planning a funeral, you can choose personalized music. For example, select your loved one’s favorite song or melodies that are meaningful to your family. If your loved one grew up in the 1960s or just loved music from that era, check out these 1960s songs you could include in their funeral, memorial service, or celebration of life.

My Way (Frank Sinatra, 1969)

I’ve lived a life that’s full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way

Possibly the most famous Frank Sinatra song and one of the most popular funeral songs, “My Way” is a classic for a reason. Throughout this song, the slow, sweet rhythm perfectly matches Sinatra’s beautiful voice, creating a timeless melody. Because of the bold lyrics, “My Way” is the perfect song to include at a funeral or celebration of life to honor someone who always did things in their own unique way!

Stand By Me (Ben E. King, 1962)

I won’t cry, I won’t cry, no I won’t shed a tear
Just as long as you stand, stand by me

Losing a loved one is heartbreaking, which is why we need support during those difficult times. When we’re grieving a loss, “Stand By Me” can remind us that we can face anything with the people we love by our side. At the same time, this song is a lovely nod to the relationship we still have with the ones we have lost, which remains strong even as it transitions to a relationship of memory.

Spirit in the Sky (Norman Greenbaum, 1969)

When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that’s the best

One of the more upbeat songs on this list, the fun, quirky sound of “Spirit in the Sky” might seem out of place at many funerals. But the song speaks about Heaven and the hope of reuniting in the future. When you plan a celebration of life, this song could be a unique way to honor a loved one who was always upbeat and hopeful.

I’ll Remember You (Elvis Presley, 1966)

To your arms someday, I’ll return to stay
‘Til then I will remember too

We had to include at least one Elvis song on our list! This beautiful song speaks about never forgetting a loved one, even when they are gone. Throughout “I’ll Remember You,” Elvis’s soulful voice captures the deep longing for a lost loved one. Even more importantly, the beautiful lyrics make this the perfect tune to play at a funeral, memorial, or celebration of life. In addition, this song would work very well in a memorial video.

You’ll Never Walk Alone (Gerry & The Pacemakers, 1963)

Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone

If you watch a lot of soccer/football, this song may be familiar to you! “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is more than the anthem of the Liverpool Football Club – it’s also a beautiful call to hope during dark times. Whether your loved one was a football fan or not, this song can encourage your friends and family as you grieve together.

Who Knows Where the Time Goes? (Fairport Convention, 1969)

I have no fear of time
For who knows how my love grows?
And who knows where the time goes?

Part of grieving is mourning the loss of more time with our loved ones. “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” is a sweet song about the passage of time and the sorrow of a loved one leaving. Because of that, this song would be wonderful for a funeral or celebration of life, and it could also work very well as a background song for a slideshow of photos of your loved one.

If We Never Meet Again This Side Of Heaven (Johnny Cash, 1962)

If we never meet again this side of Heaven
As we struggle through this world and its strife
There’s another meeting place somewhere in Heaven

A thoughtful melody about reuniting in Heaven, “If We Never Meet Again This Side of Heaven” is a song of hope for the future. With this comforting song, we can find hope by remembering that we will someday see our loved ones again. “If We Never Meet Again This Side of Heaven” would make a great addition to any kind of service, especially for someone who was a Johnny Cash fan.

Turn! Turn! Turn! (The Byrds, 1965)

To everything turn, turn, turn
There is a season turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under Heaven

Based on the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, this classic song captures the idea that there is hope in our darkest moments. While the difficult season we are in may seem unending, we can remember that other seasons will come and that there is purpose in our pain. Because of the encouragement “Turn! Turn! Turn!” offers, listening to this song can give mourners hope that better times are coming.

In My Life (The Beatles, 1965)

There are places I’ll remember
All my life, though some have changed

A nostalgic song that reminisces about days gone by, “In My Life” is a pondering reflection about the love we still have for those who are no longer with us. Even after we lose a loved one, they still exist in our memories, which we can cherish forever. Listening to this song at a funeral or when you miss your loved one can remind you of your favorite moments with the ones you love.

Daddy Sang Bass (Johnny Cash, 1968)

One of these days and it won’t be long
I’ll rejoin them in a song
I’m gonna join the family circle at the throne

Losing family members can be one of the hardest trials we face as we grow older. “Daddy Sang Bass” is an upbeat song all about the comfort songs bring and the hope of reuniting with our loved ones in Heaven. While this song will work for almost any funeral, it would make a great addition to a funeral or celebration of life for a dad or a beloved father figure.

Hopefully, these songs have opened your eyes to a whole new way of selecting music for funerals. However, if the 1960s just aren’t the right genre for your funeral planning needs, please check out these other resources:

Songs from other decades

Other musical options for a meaningful funeral

Close-up on woman's hands as she holds a makeup brush and uses it to prepare eye shadow for use

Funerals, Cosmetology, and the Restorative Arts

By Explore Options, Meaningful Funerals

The loss of a loved one raises many questions, including what happens to a loved one’s body after it is transferred to the funeral home. You may be wondering how a body is prepared for the funeral and if you even need to have a viewing or an open casket service. Many families think that a viewing won’t be beneficial, but according to renowned author and grief expert Dr. Alan Wolfelt, the viewing can be one of the most healing aspects of a funeral.

Woman in black dress standing next to an open casket at a viewing, placing a red rose inside the casket

When planning a funeral, Dr. Wolfelt suggests:

When possible (and culturally appropriate), I always encourage families to spend time with the body of the person who died. Your family can have a private visitation only, or you can also have a public visitation, which gives community members the same chance to gather around the person who died. Over and over again families have told me that spending time with the body helped them come to terms with the death and begin to make the transition from life before the death to life after the death. Although it can be painful at first, time spent with the body is usually extremely healing in the long run.

To answer any lingering questions you may have, let’s discuss what happens behind the scenes during the preparation process. That way, you can choose the best possible option for your family and your journey toward healing.

What are the benefits of viewing the body?

To answer this question, let’s look to Dr. Wolfelt for guidance. Based on his years of experience walking alongside grieving families, he has found that a viewing can help mourners:

For those who don’t live near the deceased, it can be especially important to physically see them one last time. If you have loved ones who live far away, ask them if they want to see a deceased loved one physically before burial or cremation takes place. For some, that final moment together is critically important to the healing process.

Cosmetologist wearing makeup kit around her waist

Why do we need to prepare the body for viewing?

The purpose of a viewing is to allow friends and family members to pay their respects and say goodbye in person. In a recent survey on funeral preferences, 34% of people indicated it was important to physically see the deceased and a full 60% saw the practice as acceptable. But for the viewing to have the best possible impact, the body should be prepared ahead of time, ensuring the deceased person looks as much like themselves as possible. Depending on the family’s wishes, this preparation often includes embalming, cleaning and dressing of the body, and cosmetology.  

Who prepares the body?

More than likely, at least two people will prepare the body for viewing. The embalming process must be completed by a certified embalmer. If restorative arts are needed, which may be necessary with facial injuries, the embalmer will use wax, plaster, and other materials to restore the body as much as possible. Afterward, the body will be dressed in clothing selected by the family.

Finally, the mortuary cosmetologist will complete the preparation process by adding makeup, styling the hair, and even completing a manicure. A cosmetologist must be licensed to provide cosmetic services to the dead, and most cosmetology schools include courses on mortuary cosmetology. In the absence of a cosmetologist, the embalmer will take on the role and apply cosmetics to the deceased.

Close-up of makeup brushes, foundations, powders, and concealers

What’s the difference between cosmetology and restorative arts?

Both cosmetology and restorative arts produce a pleasing visual representation by recreating a lifelike appearance. However, “restorative arts” refers to the reconstruction of the body due to significant trauma, such as a car wreck. On the other hand, “cosmetology” refers to the hairstyle and makeup used to emulate the person’s appearance. This would include brightening the face, matching skin tone, styling the hair, caring for the nails, and so on. The two practices work hand in hand to ensure the deceased person’s essence is captured as closely as possible.

What does the family provide to help with the preparation process?

In order for a loved one to look as lifelike as possible, the embalmer and mortuary cosmetologist rely on the surviving family for help. The family will select clothing for the deceased, including any jewelry or special items. The family will also supply a reference photo that the cosmetologist can use to match the deceased’s makeup and hairstyle as closely as possible.

If there are any specific cosmetic requests, such as the use of a distinctive shade of lipstick or nail polish, the family can drop these items off at the funeral home. The cosmetologist will then use these items to add an even more personalized touch. Often, it’s the small details that make a loved one’s appearance feel that much more genuine to those who are mourning.

Man looking tenderly at a photo, looking at someone he loves

Won’t seeing the body negatively affect my good memories of my loved one?

In the vast majority of cases, seeing a loved one’s deceased body is not going to affect or take away the quality of your precious memories. For many, having time to sit quietly and privately with a loved one is the most meaningful part of the funeral. Yes, it’s going to be painful. It may feel uncomfortable. But to heal, it’s necessary to embrace the discomfort and the pain, so you can figure out how to move forward without that special person.

A quick note: There will always be cases where a viewing isn’t possible. You can rely on the funeral professional to give you an honest assessment. If a viewing isn’t possible, that’s okay. Work with the funeral director to identify other ways to honor your loved one’s memory and celebrate their life.

Is preparation of the body necessary for a private viewing?

The decision ultimately resides with the family. If the viewing is taking place soon after death, then neither technique may be necessary. However, if the viewing is delayed, it’s recommended that there be some form of preparation and preservation. Some states may have specific laws regarding the length of time a body can remain un-embalmed. The funeral director will know the specifics for your state.

Close-up on woman's hands as she holds a makeup brush and uses it to prepare eye shadow for use

With these questions answered, the next steps are up to you. Talk to your family members. Ask them whether they think a viewing is a good thing. It may not be something you need, but your mother, brother, or daughter may need it. Ultimately, the funeral is intended to help people reflect on life, celebrate loved ones, and take the first steps toward healing and reconciliation. For some, that may include a viewing where they can see a loved one’s beloved face one more time.

Four books in a stack on a table in front of several bookcases

10 Literary Readings for Any Type of Funeral

By Explore Options, Meaningful Funerals, Planning Tools

As you plan a healing and meaningful funeral for a loved one, it’s essential that you find ways to make it personal. According to Dr. Alan Wolfelt, nationally recognized grief counselor and best-selling author, there are 7 elements to include in a perfectly balanced funeral ceremony: music, readings, visitation/reception, eulogy, symbols, gathering, and actions. Today, we are going to focus on literary readings and how they can enhance and personalize a funeral or memorial service.

Funeral readings come in a variety of forms, lengths, and formats. Some are religious; others are not. The ultimate goals of funeral readings are to pay tribute to the deceased, encourage reflection, and provide comfort and hope to the grieving. While many readings are religious, they don’t have to be. There is a LOT of freedom to choose what feels right and best for your loved one’s services.

Let’s look at 10 literary readings that are perfect for any type of service.

Looking at books from above, arranged so that they create a heart

1. “She is Gone” by David Harkins

Written by English poet David Harkins in 1982, this short poem focuses on the gratitude we feel for those we love. Their presence, their legacy, their very lives – we will never be the same because they lived. Also, with a small alternation to “he”, you can use the poem for a male or female loved one.

You can shed tears that she is gone
Or you can smile because she has lived
You can close your eyes and pray that she will come back
Or you can open your eyes and see all that she has left
Your heart can be empty because you can’t see her
Or you can be full of the love that you shared
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday
Or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday
You can remember her and only that she is gone
Or you can cherish her memory and let it live on
You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back
Or you can do what she would want: smile, open your eyes, love and go on.

Young woman sitting down as she holds an open book and looks to the left

2. “Death is Nothing at All” by Henry Scott-Holland

While it was written by an English priest, the words are not overtly religious. Instead, Scott-Holland focuses on the universal human experience: the knowledge that a loved one may be gone, but in some nearly incomprehensible way, their spirit still lives on in us. We don’t need to forget who they were; they never really leave.

Death is nothing at all.
It does not count.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
Nothing has happened.

Everything remains exactly as it was.
I am I, and you are you,
and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged.
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.

Call me by the old familiar name.
Speak of me in the easy way which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.

Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was.
Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it.

Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same as it ever was.
There is absolute and unbroken continuity.
What is this death but a negligible accident?

Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
I am but waiting for you, for an interval,
somewhere very near,
just round the corner.

All is well.
Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost.
One brief moment and all will be as it was before.
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!

Open book laying on a pink blanket with white flowers resting on its pages

3. “Instructions” by Arnold Crompton

In its simple turn of phrase, “Instructions” conveys the reality that grief is a part of everyday life. The loss of a loved one becomes a part of our life story. Even as we talk, eat, climb mountains, wrestle with new ideas, and do the things of life, our loved one’s memory is right there with us through it all.

When I have moved beyond you in the adventure of life,
Gather in some pleasant place and there remember me
With spoken words, old and new.

Let a tear if you will, but let a smile come quickly
For I have loved the laughter of life.
Do not linger too long with your solemnities.

Go eat and talk, and when you can;
Follow a woodland trail, climb a high mountain,
Walk along the wild seashore,
Chew the thoughts of some book
Which challenges your soul.

Use your hands some bright day
To make a thing of beauty
Or to lift someone’s heavy load.

Though you mention not my name,
Though no thought of me crosses your mind,
I shall be with you,
For these have been the realities of my life for me.

And when you face some crisis with anguish.

When you walk alone with courage,
When you choose your path of right,
I shall be very close to you.

I have followed the valleys,
I have climbed the heights of life.

Older man holding an open red book, with his fingers prepared to turn the page

4. “Gone From My Sight” attributed to Henry Van Dyke

Using beautiful metaphor, the author softens the concept of death. The ship, representing the deceased, is stalwart, beautiful, and strong. And rather than leaving entirely, the person is welcomed to a new place by those excited to see her. Filled with hope, this reading offers comfort to those who are grieving.

I am standing upon the seashore. A ship, at my side,
spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts
for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck
of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.

Then, someone at my side says, “There, she is gone.”

Gone where?

Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast,
hull and spar as she was when she left my side.
And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.

Her diminished size is in me — not in her.

And, just at the moment when someone says, “There, she is gone,”
there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices
ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”

And that is dying…

A open book with two pages folded to create a heart in the middle

5. “Not How Did He Die, but How Did He Live?” by Merrit Malloy

In just a few words, this poem by Merrit Malloy hits on the true purpose of a funeral service. It is not to dwell on gain or fame, but to celebrate the true measure of a person. Did they do the things that matter? Did they make a positive difference, even to just one person? Though the words are short and sweet, they make you consider your own choices and how you want to live your life.

Not, how did he die, but how did he live?
Not, what did he gain, but what did he give?
These are the units to measure the worth
Of a man as a man, regardless of his birth.
Nor what was his church, nor what was his creed?
But had he befriended those really in need?
Was he ever ready, with words of good cheer,
To bring back a smile, to banish a tear?
Not what did the sketch in the newspaper say,
But how many were sorry when he passed away?

6. Irish Blessing

This well-known blessing is used for a variety of occasions because of its versatility. At a funeral, it can speak comfort to the mourner’s heart, sweetly offering hope for the future even as we wait to meet a lost loved one once more. Its uplifting tone invites people to wish each other well on the journey of life.

May the roads rise up to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
May the rains fall soft upon fields
And until we meet again
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.

Woman with brown hair sitting outside as she reads a book

7. “Let Me Go” by Christina Rossetti

With timeless prose, Christina Rosetti highlights a path we must all take: losing those we love, and even so, learning how to live again. With its compassionate tone, the words encourage mourners to grieve but to also remember. In the remembrance, there is hope, there is joy, and there is healing.

When I come to the end of the road
And the sun has set for me
I want no rites in a gloom filled room
Why cry for a soul set free?

Miss me a little, but not for long
And not with your head bowed low
Remember the love that once we shared
Miss me, but let me go.

For this is a journey we all must take
And each must go alone.
It’s all part of the master plan
A step on the road to home.

When you are lonely and sick at heart
Go to the friends we know.
Laugh at all the things we used to do
Miss me, but let me go.

8. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

A rather unconventional addition to the list, Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel published in 1953 by American author Ray Bradbury. Though the book has a rather contentious history, the message in this passage rings true. The value and importance of legacy cannot be overstated, and at a funeral, it’s right and good to celebrate lives touched and changed by a loved one’s presence.

Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so as long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away.

Young man dressed in black suit, sitting in a yellow chair as he reads and contemplates a book

9. “Roads Go Ever On” by J.R.R. Tolkien (excerpt from Lord of the Rings)

For decades, the Lord of the Rings has been a beloved classic for generations of readers. Nestled amidst its pages, this poem uses nature and soothing imagery to illustrate the journey of life. There are many ups and downs, and in the end, we must all face death. But death is just another stop; it is not the end.  Acknowledging the immortality of the soul brings comfort that a loved one is never truly gone.

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on,
Under cloud and under star.
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen,
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green,
And trees and hills they long have known.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone.
Let others follow, if they can!
Let them a journey new begin.
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

Still ’round the corner there may wait
A new road or secret gate;
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.

Four books in a stack on a table in front of several bookcases

10. “The Dash” by Linda Ellis

One of the most natural responses to death is to re-evaluate your own life. “Should I do more?” “I haven’t pursued that dream, but I’m going to do it.” And according to Dr. Wolfelt, one of the purposes of a funeral is to search for meaning. With poignancy and simplicity, this reading invites you to search for the meaning of your life and to change what needs changing to make the most of your “dash.”

I read of a man who stood to speak
at the funeral of a friend
He referred to the dates on the tombstone
from the beginning…to the end.

He noted that first came the date of birth
and spoke the following date with tears,
but he said what mattered most of all
was the dash between those years.

For that dash represents all the time
that they spent alive on earth.
And now only those who loved them
know what that little line is worth.

For it matters not, how much we own —
the cars…the house…the cash.
What matters is how we live and love
and how we spend our dash.

So, think about this long and hard.
Are there things you’d like to change?
For you never know how much time is left
that can still be rearranged.

If we could just slow down enough
to consider what’s true and real,
and always try to understand
the way other people feel.

And be less quick to anger
and show appreciation more,
and love the people in our lives
like we’ve never loved before.

If we treat each other with respect
and more often wear a smile,
remembering this special dash
might only last a little while.

So, when your eulogy is being read
with your life’s actions to rehash,
would you be proud of the things they say
about how you spent YOUR dash?

These literary readings are, of course, just the beginning of the possibilities. There are many other literary readings you might consider including at a personalized funeral or memorial service. If there are specific books, poems, or even lyrics, that were meaningful to your loved one, include those.

Woman sitting on floor with three open books lying beside her

For more ideas on readings you could include, read:

How do Readings Enhance the Funeral Experience?
Top 15 Bible Verses for a Celebration of Life Service
Top 10 Poems for a Funeral Ceremony

Also, if you want to remove the burden of funeral planning from your loved ones by choosing all the details in advance, check out these resources:

What is Advance Funeral Planning?
What to Expect at a Preplanning Appointment
10 Reasons to Plan Ahead
How to Get Started With Funeral Preplanning

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