PLANNING The SERVICES (calling hours/wake/funeral/memorial service)
A funeral or memorial service is one of the most tangible ways to share your grief with others and it is a vital, socially sanctioned ritual for acknowledging your loss...[and] also celebrates the life of your loved one.
~ Ashley Davis Bush, Transcending Loss
My husband died suddenly. I realized that the bad news would probably spread like wildfire, as Doug was well known and loved. I also realized that it was likely that there would be three questions asked by most friends and family.
- What (the f**k) happened?
- When are the services?
- What can I do? (One of the main things was help answering the phone and taking messages those first few days. I eventually made a list of what I needed, and wrote down suggested do's and don'ts for dealing with the bereaved. Read more.)
The fact is that, at some point, we will die. If we love someone and live long enough, we will also have to experience the death of loved ones.
For sudden death, we are forced to make many decisions quickly under great duress. Even when death is expected, there are many choices to be made.
I must tell you though that none of this is easy. However, if you can make plans in advance, it will ease the burden later. It avoids having to do it in a hurry during one of the most difficult times of your life, without knowing what your loved one would have wanted.
In answer to the first question I gave a brief explanation to anyone who asked, offering as much detail to anyone who was interested in more. I also included what we knew at the time in the obituary. There were a couple of reasons for this:
- We were all searching to make some sense of events. Everyone - including the physician Doug saw for a complete physical the day before he died - thought he was the picture of health. We were in shock.
- Others might be at risk of the same thing (a malignant arrhythmia, possibly associated with the high blood pressure medication Benicar.) If one person's life could be saved as a result of Doug's loss, it would make a difference.
- When people don't know the facts, they tend to go with assumptions or inventions. E.g., Heart attack (which is different from an arrhythmia). Accident. Suicide.
- I recorded the complete chain of events for those who wanted the details, but also for my own benefit - in an attempt to stop myself from ruminating endlessly about it - to try to get it out of my head. (See The End)
WHEN ARE THE SERVICES?
People who want to be there will need to make plans. Some will have to make arrangements to travel or take time off from work. They also make be seeking some certainty in such a disorienting time. So, within hours of learning of Doug's death, I chose a tentative date for the wake and memorial service.
Some people have no service - they just can't deal with it. This can leave people with no sense of closure.
Here are some of the things you will need to do, and some suggestions for making the service special.
- Choose a funeral home quickly. They will need to take care of the body. A good funeral director will be able to guide you through the challenging process and arrangements - choosing between burial and cremation, putting the obituary in the papers, getting copies of death certificates, etc. They will coordinate with hospice, hospitals/nursing homes (if that is where the person died), organ and tissue donation. service.
- I asked a good friend and neighbor who is active in our local church for a recommendation. Thank goodness she pointed me to Gilman & Valade Funeral & Cremation Service. They were absolutely incredible. Caring, thoughtful, organized, and helpful. They partnered with me to make Doug's services as special as he was.
- Consider their facilities (to accommodate people who come to pay their respects), reputation, and convenience. You will probably have to go back and forth several times, and others will need to travel there.
- Decide on whether there will be "calling hours" or a wake. Some people may not be able to or may choose not to attend a memorial service, but still want to pay their respects. A wake can be open or closed casket, ashes, or no remains.
- I was not comfortable with an open casket, as I wanted people to remember Doug alive.
- At the wake, I had easels put up with photos of Doug in life. One of his best friends made a video with hundreds of climbing pictures that played on a TV while people were waiting in line.
- I also had a display with some of the things that defined him and his passions - his softball glove, running sneakers, climbing equipment, his favorite old ratty work coat, etc.
- In addition to the standard book that guests sign, we had a pile of index cards/notes and a box. We asked people to write down their thoughts/favorite memories of Doug. I read these afterwards when things calmed down (since I remember very little of what people said in the receiving line.) They were a wonderful keepsake.
- The funeral director also made up pre-addressed envelopes for the designated charities, to make it easier for people who wanted to make a donation.
- In lieu of a mass card (since we are not religious) they made up special cards with a wonderful photo of Doug climbing. On the back, they printed Robert's Test's poem, To Remember Me, about organ donation. (Doug was a donor.) I thought people might keep it in their wallets. The funeral director made laminated ones for family and close friends. It was also nice to enclose these with thank you notes for people who could not attend the services.
- Choose a location for a memorial service. This could be a church (even if you don't regularly attend, they may accommodate you in a time of need) or a hall. It should be large enough and comfortable enough, with adequate seating, parking and facilities.
- Decide whether you will have a reception afterwards. People from out of town may be hungry afterwards and not know where to go. Offering food (either hors d'oevres or a buffet) is a gesture of gratitude.
- Afterwards, you may want to have close family and out of town guests to someone's house. You will need food and drink.
- Decide on a budget. That may seem crass, but you may end up spending thousands or tens of thousands of dollars on services. It is an emotional time. You do not want to end up being financially strapped later. Spend no more than you can afford.
- Write the obituary. Some publications have requirements in terms of content and length - others do not. Some (like local weeklies) will publish obituaries for free, others charge by the line. A memoriam can also be put in other publications - in Doug's case, one went in to the American Alpine Journal. I would recommend having someone close review it to catch mistakes or make suggested changes. I wrote Doug's, and his father and best friend helped me finalize it.
- At a minimum, it should include the person's name, their age, the town they lived in, and details about the services if they are open. It is also nice to include:
- names of immediate relatives (you will have to draw the line somewhere)
- where the person worked, went to school, etc.
- most importantly - what made the person special. Perhaps a funny story. What they were like. What they loved. An obituary does not have to just be a dry accounting of facts.
- Include a photo. Ideally one that is fairly recent, happy, clear, and shows the person in good health. I saw a photo in one obituary that looked like it was taken in the casket. It made me terribly sad. For me, it was hard to pick among the hundreds of photos I had - and also hard to find one where Doug was not making a funny face :-)
- the cause of death (this avoids a lot of difficult questions)
- Plan the Service.
- Music. We were lucky enough to have wonderful friends who sang, played piano and violin.
- Readings. For the religious, this could be passages from the bible, or a favorite or special poem or quote. (See examples and my favorites.)
- Flowers. I chose wildflowers since Doug loved the outdoors. Our neighbors picked them from our meadows and yards.
- Participants - do you want to allow people to say a few words? I think it makes the service much more personal. I chose people from each phase of Doug's life to speak at his service - high school, climbing, running, work and family. It was wonderful and meaningful, funny, sad and memorable. Some wrote some notes up (so they wouldn't forget what they wanted to say.) I listed their names on the program. You can also open it up to people in attendance, but many may be reluctant to speak up in a gathering.
- Decide what to do with the remains. Doug and I were big believers in organ and tissue donation. Bodies can be donated to science. Burial and cremation are other options. It took me a while to figure out what to do with Doug's ashes - read more.