Most people are familiar with what is known as the ‘Traditional Burial’, which continues to be the preferred choice among families. The traditional funeral service is generally structured around the following elements:
Many funeral services include a period of visitation or a wake, with the deceased in an open or closed casket and often resting in one of the reposing rooms at the funeral home. It is during this time that relatives and friends gather with the immediate family, in the presence of the deceased, to extend sympathy and comfort. Most families choose to view the remains of their loved one, if it is all possible. The family should view the deceased for the first time in privacy. Generally, a family will be advised to come to the funeral home approximately a half-hour before public visitation. At this time, the funeral director will meet family members and escort them to the room in which the casket has been placed.
After leading the family to the visitation room, the funeral director will respond to any last-minute changes the family might wish to make. After tending to the family’s needs, funeral directors leave the family members alone in the visitation room so they can have a private moment with their loved one. The public is not permitted to enter until the family members have advised the funeral director that they are ready to commence visitation.
During visitation, the funeral director will be available but would generally go unnoticed. The funeral director periodically brings in floral arrangements and ensures that these arrangements are appropriately placed with the least possible interruption. Otherwise, the funeral director’s job at this stage is to respond to a family’s needs.
The maximum period of visitation at most funeral homes is twelve hours per day, beginning at 10 a.m. and ending at 10 p.m. Visitation may start any time within this period. Mourners may also be encouraged to visit during a specific block of time, such as from 2 to 4 p.m. or 7 to 9 p.m., when members of the family are there to meet relatives and friends.
A funeral service is a ceremony during which relatives, friends and associates pay respect to the deceased and comfort the survivors. Regardless of religious affiliations, it is customary to hold a funeral service as means of giving testimony to a life that was lived. For those who are religious, the service is a spiritual occasion, usually in a church or funeral home chapel with clergy officiating. Others may choose a “humanistic” or secular service.
The scheduling of a religious service will depend upon the schedule of officiating clergy. The funeral director will look into such schedules shortly after the arrangement meeting. In general, Roman Catholic services are held in the morning, while other denominations will hold services at any time of the day. The service is often designed by the family in consultation with the clergy, funeral director and members of fraternal, military or other organizations previously affiliated with the deceased. The career or profession of the deceased may also be a part of the service. For instance, if the deceased had been a member of the police or fire departments, fellow members usually attend the service in full uniform, while some may serve as pallbearers or honor guard.
The type of hymns, songs and music selected for the service is another way in which a family may pay tribute to a loved one. It is not uncommon to see youth or adult choirs, bands, guest soloists or musicians in attendance. Music can be a very special component in this service of thanksgiving and celebration. Some families may also elect to have a personalized bulletin printed and distributed at the church or chapel outlining the order of service along with hymns, poems or any other script that had special meaning to the deceased.
To prepare for the funeral service, the funeral director will arrive at the church or chapel 30 to 45 minutes before it is scheduled to start. Preparations may include the placement of flowers at the alter, coordination of the pallbearers and others participating in the service, and greeting family members and friends. Most important, the funeral director is there to answer questions and tend to last-minute details, thus supporting the grieving family.
The final segment of the funeral is the committal service conducted at graveside or the crematorium. It may be either public or private.
In the case of a traditional funeral with earth burial, the committal service will take place directly following the service at the church or chapel. The easiest, most orderly way to get from the place of the service to the cemetery is by procession. Therefore, the funeral procession remains an integral part of the funeral.
Immediate family members, other relatives, close friends and, where applicable, representatives from organizations in which the deceased was affiliated proceed to the cemetery, led by the funeral director and the clergy. To maintain its integrity and dignity, the route of the funeral procession is planned by the funeral director. On occasion, it may include the residence, place of business or another special place in the life of the deceased.
Earlier on the day of the service, the gravesite is prepared. Preparation usually consists of the placement of a protective grave liner or burial vault, grass matting, a lowering device and a canopy. Upon arrival at gravesite, the funeral director, clergy, family and friends will gather around the final resting place of the deceased as the pallbearers place the casket on the lowering device. Prior to the service, the family will have chosen between lowering the casket into the grave, partially lowering it so the top of the casket is at ground level or not lowering it until the family leaves the cemetery. There are varying opinions about this practice, and it would certainly be prudent to speak to both the funeral director and clergy before making a choice. However, partial lowering has become the accepted practice.
Once the casket and mourners are in position, the clergy will commence a short committal service. Beginning with prayers, the clergy will then formally commit the deceased to the earth. During the committal service for a Roman Catholic, the priest will sprinkle holy water on the casket and ground, symbolizing the consecration of the grave. In this case, the casket is not lowered until this is done. For other denominations, the funeral director may sprinkle sand over the casket as a symbol of the phrase “ashes to ashes and dust to dust”. The casket may be lowered or remain stationary during the sprinkling of the sand. Following the clergy’s remarks, representatives of other organizations or groups are given the opportunity to pay tribute to the deceased. Each have their own rites and rituals, which are performed with dignity and out of respect for the deceased.
After the committal service, the funeral director will see to the needs of the family and then drive the clergy back to the church. It is only after all mourners have departed that the graveside equipment is removed and the grave closed.
When cremation is chosen, some denominations prefer to have what is known as a “committal to the flame”. In this case, the clergy will be present at the crematory just prior to the placement of the deceased in the crematorium by the funeral director. A short service is conducted, followed by cremation. Family members may or may not choose to attend. Following cremation, if the cremated remains are to be interred, the interment will also be preceded by a committal service similar to that mentioned above.
In his book The Funeral and the Mourners, Paul E. Irion writes: ” The committal service provides, as nothing else does so graphically, a symbolic demonstration that the kind of relationship which has existed between mourners and the deceased is now at an end.”
Memorialization has become an established custom through the centuries. It involves the placement of some sort of permanent market or inscription at the place of burial or in some other special place, such as a church.
A memorial celebrates a life, which has been lived. It can take many forms. In a cemetery, the most common memorials are upright monuments or headstones of granite or marble, or flat markers of bronze set flush with the ground. Each contains the name of the deceased and, in many cases, the dates of birth and death. Some headstones and markers may be manufactured in a particular shape, such as a heart, or include a short verse, phrase, picture or symbol providing the visitor with a small clue about the deceased and how survivors felt about him or her. The sizes of memorials are regulated in most urban cemeteries with some restrictions found in rural locations.
Some families choose companion headstones or markers with sufficient space to record the names and particulars of each spouse. Others use inscriptions on mausoleum walls. For those families who choose cremation, memorialization may consist of an inscription of a loved one’s name on the walls or niches of columbaria or structures that hold the urns of cremated remains.
The way in which we pay tribute to the life of a person is not restricted solely to cemeteries. In churches, we find many wonderful examples of memorials dedicated to those who have gone before us. For example, most of the older, historic churches have bronze, wooden or granite plaques containing the names of those persons who made the “supreme sacrifice” in both World Wars and other conflicts.
Churches are filled with stained glass windows that have been placed there by parishioners in memory of their loved ones. Bulletins, prayer books, bibles and flowers are other items that are often given to the church in someone’s memory.
In fact, many churches have been built or have completed major projects because of people’s desire to memorialize or remember. Donations to a memorial building or organ fund are commonplace in the church community. Memorial endowment funds or funds whose principal must be maintained with only the investment income used have also been established by churches thanks to the generosity of parishioners in whose memory monies have been left or given.
To the funeral director, the funeral service is the supreme act of memorialization. It is a time to remember, celebrate or pay tribute to the life of the deceased. Many of the services provided by the funeral home are designed to help family memorialize their loved one. In the early stages of the funeral arrangement meeting, the funeral director will ask a number of questions to complete essential documentation. However, some are asked simply to get to know more about the deceased. People love to relate favorite stories to talk about those persons they love. That’s memorialization, too.
As another form of memorialization, any tangible items that were important to the deceased can be displayed during visitation or other times during the funeral service. Items such as medals, photographs, paintings, plaques, poems and cards are often displayed. Many funeral homes have additional furnishings available, such as pedestals, pillows, easels and tables on which to display these items for the family. Some families choose to place special items in the casket or urn with the deceased. Each item reflects the family’s desire to memorialize their loved one.
Another area commonly used by families to memorialize is the funeral notice. In some cases, these notices serve as final words of farewell and are often the way survivors pay tribute. Newspapers will also print obituaries or a brief account of the life of the deceased.
Memorialization can take many forms. The choices are limited only by the imagination.