When my grandmother died, I delivered the eulogy on behalf of our extended family. My dad recommended that I speak at the memorial service – not because I was the one who knew her best (grandpa, obviously) or the one who spent the most time with her (uncle David, who always managed to show up when she was getting cookies out of the oven). I wasn’t even her favorite grandchild (without question – that one goes to Willow, who beat us all by virtue of being the most adorable one-year-old ever produced by a Jacobson).
My dad recommended me because he knew that no one else would be in any shape to speak at the funeral – so deeply affected were they by overwhelming grief and sadness.
I felt unprepared and unworthy of the honor – I didn’t know grandma as well as my cousins who grew up down the street from her house, and I was concerned my memories of Christmases, birthdays and graduations long past would prove insufficient evidence of how remarkably and completely she loved each and every one of us.
So, I sat down with my cousins and asked if they had memories they wanted to share at the memorial service.
Together, we reminisced over the birthday cards grandma sent, the football games and band concerts she attended and the handmade gifts she found time to complete every year. We laughed as we remembered grandma’s inedible potato salad and our stockpile of sled dog stocking stuffers, proud relics from grandma’s years of volunteering in an Iditarod gift shop. And we cried when we realized that she wouldn’t be with us at Christmas that year to make the potato salad or stuff the stockings.
We remembered – and grieved – together.
The next day, when I stood at the front of the church for the memorial service, the eulogy no longer felt like my tribute. It truly belonged to all of us – a complete, if insufficient, sketch of a truly incredible woman.
Memorial services are a healthy, essential part of the grieving process – not only because they allow loved ones to gather and celebrate a life well lived, but also because they give families an invaluable opportunity to come together and experience their grief in community. Making sure that each family member feels welcome and included in the process is an essential part of the services you offer.
Beyond the eulogy, there are several ways family members can be actively involved in the service itself:
- Family musicians can play or sing something that was memorable to their loved one.
- Those who like to bake can provide snacks during the visitation or after the service.
- Tech-savvy family members can create meaningful memorial videos.
- Loved ones can help greet people at the door or usher them to their seats.
- Individuals with artistic talents can help design the programs.
- Writers can help with the obituary or write a short poem or reflection to share during the service.
These are all things you can do as a funeral professional (or hire a local expert to do), but if you’re looking for ways to involve more family members, there’s no reason you can’t let them help out in ways that will make them feel productive and useful.
Perhaps, like my cousins, some members of the family will feel ill equipped or uncomfortable being directly involved in the service – in fact, those who were closest to the deceased may receive the greatest benefit from simply observing the service and receiving condolences. That’s okay, too, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have nothing to contribute.
Earlier this week, I spoke with a funeral home owner who reflected that it is common for families to burst out laughing during his arrangement conferences. “Everyone has plenty of time to sit around and cry,” he observed. “If we can offer them just a few minutes of joy amid a truly painful situation, we’re doing our job.” His goal is to lessen the grief following the death of a loved one – something he does through laughter and light-hearted remembrance.
An arrangement conference is a great opportunity to involve the closest family members in the planning process without burdening them with tasks. Taking some time while everyone is gathered around the table to share stories and memories is an effective way to make sure each family member feels like their voices and preferences were heard.
The more you can involve family members in the planning process and later during the memorial service, the more satisfied they will be that you responded to their needs and offered exceptional service.