Honoring Your Loved Ones

Almost all families will have some type of service or ceremony to honor their loved one and provide an opportunity for family and friends to say goodbye. The recognition from the community and the emotional support from well wishers help the family cope with the loss of their loved one. These events are an important part of the mourning process.

Services and Ceremonies

There are different options for honoring and celebrating the life of your loved one, any or all of which can take place. Each event should be personal and reflect your loved one’s personality and beliefs. Even the location of the celebrations can be personal.

Viewings and Visitations

A visitation is an informal gathering of family, friends, and well-wishers to offer sympathy, share grief, and pay last respects to your loved one. They are frequently referred to as a Wake, but a wake is actually a more formal process for paying respects that may take place in your loved one’s home.

  • It usually takes place in a funeral home, but can also be in a place of worship or your loved one’s home. Home visitations/viewings are legal in all states.
  • Your loved one will be present, usually in their casket, but it may be their ashes in an urn.
  • It is called a Viewing if the casket is open to allow visitors to see your loved one.
  • You will need to choose clothing and styling for your loved one and maybe some personal item to be with them in their casket and bury them with.
  • Consider whether or not to add personal touches, such as a memory board, slideshow, video, or other personal memorabilia for the viewing.
  • You should contact a florist to supply flower arrangements for the viewing. You could leave it up to the funeral home, but they will charge a fee for doing so. You may opt for contributions to charities in lieu of flowers.


A funeral is a formal ceremony, usually faith or cultural based, that takes place with your loved one’s body before it is buried or cremated. They are occasionally held with just their ashes.

The funeral may be anything from an intimate ceremony in a funeral home chapel or your loved one’s home to a large gathering in a church, synagogue, mosque, or other faith-specific location open to anyone who knew your loved one.

Your loved one’s funeral may be accompanied by mass or other religious service.

Here are some of the many details to think about when planning your loved one’s funeral:

  • Contacting the cleric, religious figure, or funeral celebrant who will conduct the funeral or memorial service.
  • Transporting the casket to and from the funeral to the burial site or crematorium. The funeral home will usually arrange this.
  • Asking if any family or friends want to do readings, such as poems, prayers, religious passages, or scripture.
  • Arranging for a friend or family member of your loved one to write and deliver a eulogy.
  • Selecting music for the ceremony and finding people to play music or sing during the ceremony.
  • Arranging for pallbearers, if the final disposition involves a graveside service.
  • Whether you want someone to webcast the funeral or record a memorial video.
  • Someone to create or design the funeral or memorial service program.
  • Contacting a florist to supply flower arrangements for the service.
  • Finding a cook or caterer to prepare meals for a funeral reception or gathering after the ceremony.

Graveside or Committal Ceremony

The graveside ceremony is usually brief, takes place at your loved one’s gravesite or place of entombment and typically involves only immediate family or close friends.

  • It may involve a prayer service led by a cleric or religious leader.
  • It usually follows a funeral and/or visitation/viewing.
  • It may also be a direct burial and the only service for your loved one.

Memorial Service

A memorial service is a formal or informal ceremony that typically takes place after your loved one’s burial, interment, or cremation.

  • Since your loved one’s body is not necessary, a memorial service can be held any time or even multiple times after their death.
    • A formal service is usually held in a faith-specific location and will be similar to a funeral in content.
    • An informal service can take place anywhere, even a special or favorite place, such as a beach, park, or mountain.
  • It can be held soon after their death and be the opportunity for the final goodbye or after the feelings of grief have lessened when it can be more of a Celebration of Life where your loved one is remembered and their memory honored.
  • If your loved one was cremated, their urn may be present.
  • Many families will choose a private funeral and have a memorial service for any others that want to honor or celebrate them.

Direct Burial or Cremation

Families that prefer not to have a visitation/viewing and funeral service can opt for a direct burial or cremation shortly after their loved one’s death.

A funeral home, mortuary, or crematory will be involved to prepare your loved one’s body.

  • For a burial you will need to purchase a casket to place their body in. Since there will be no viewing, a less attractive and less expensive casket may be preferred.
  • For a cremation you will need an urn to place their ashes in.
  • The brief encounter with the funeral home or crematorium and any items and services needed for the service are frequently the major costs.

If this is the only ceremony for your loved one, you may want an elaborate service at the gravesite, place of interment, or crematorium chapel, that may involve clergy or other religious figures.

  • This elaborate ceremony will involve many of the considerations you would have with a funeral, such as readings, music, eulogy, flowers, programs, pallbearers, etc.
  • If it is a burial or interment, the funeral home or mortuary could make some of the arrangements, like transporting the casket, burial vessels, and making other arrangements with the cemetery, but you are usually responsible for the remainder of the planning. 
  • You may need to arrange for seating and possibly a sound system.
  • If it is a cremation, the facilities will usually have a chapel for this purpose.
  • You will need to notify the attendees.

You may have a memorial service at a later date.

Event Planning

There are a number of steps to take when scheduling services and ceremonies. If you have not already done so these begin with these steps:

  • Talk to all of those involved;
  • Research, check out, and choose the facilities;
  • Determine the location of the burial site;
  • Order a casket and/or urn;
  • Ask for help from family or friends to get any items needed for the funeral or viewing; and/or
  • Arrange care for very young children or pets during the ceremonies.

When making any plans it will be important to consider any requests or preferences your loved one made known.

  • You may know of their wishes from family discussions.
  • There may be written instructions in their will or advance directives.
    • More than half of the states do not require these instructions to be followed.
    • This is most likely to happen when cremation is your loved one’s choice.
  • Their preferences may be found in a Disposition of Remains Form, which is allowed in many states. This form can be used to specifically list your loved one’s preferences for after they die and who is authorized to approve your cremation.
  • The task of deciding what to do may sometimes fall on you.
    • Without specific instructions, you can either make a decision based on what you think they wanted or what you would prefer.
    • If you disagree with what your loved one has chosen and your state does not require you to honor it, you can elect to do what you would prefer.

There will also be personal tasks, such as deciding what you and/or your children will wear or collecting some of your loved one’s photographs or other possessions for any services.

Other than that, there are other important considerations:

  • Determine what you can afford and stick to your budget.
  • Practical concerns include availability, timing, convenience, and practicality.
  • Pay attention to family needs when making any plans or arrangements.
  • Adhere to religious or cultural practices when they are important to you and your family.
  • Check the capacity of each venue before you decide on who may attend.
  • If the location of your loved one’s death was far from home, you will need to make arrangements to transport them.
    • You will usually be able to find a funeral director in the place your loved one died who will work with a funeral director near your home to make transportation arrangements.
    • If you are planning a cremation followed by a memorial service at a later time, you could opt to have your loved one cremated closer to where they died and have the cremated remains shipped home.
  • Check all state and local laws before making any final decisions. 

A website, such as Planning a Funeral, can help organize the details. The National Home Funeral Alliance can provide help if you want to have their funeral in your home.

Getting Started

Once you have chosen a venue for each event, you should then talk with those who will determine the schedules, such as the funeral director and clergy. The timing of the viewing and funeral or memorial service will usually be based on availability and mostly out of your control.

Consult with all others who will be involved in any of the ceremonies and services and what role they will have. Many of them will involve family and friends.

Prepare for your meeting with the funeral director who will have the most details to go over and decisions for you to make.

In some cases, arrangements may have already been made. If not, make them according to what your loved one would want and what you can realistically afford.

You may be vulnerable at this time and you may need to take steps to avoid being taken advantage of.

  • Preparing yourself involves learning everything you can about your choices, including laws about caskets, embalming, and burials. 
    • Make these choices as early as possible to avoid being tempted by services or items that you neither want or need.
    • Don’t go for a package unless it is obviously less expensive than the total of everything you need.
    • Ask for an itemized breakdown of every line item for funeral home costs for comparison, which is your right.
  • Don’t fall victim to emotional appeals for add-ons or packages that allegedly show more respect for your loved one or make them more comfortable.
  • Bring others with you to support you, help you make good decisions, and help remember the plans.
  • As guaranteed by the Federal Funeral Rule, ask for full disclosure on estimated costs for these expenses. This includes the mandatory basic-services fee for the time and overhead of the funeral director and staff, and itemized charges for all items and additional services.
  • Consider moving on to another facility if you feel at all pressured or made to question your decisions.

The most important decisions are if your loved one’s body will be embalmed and the choice of casket or, if you opt for cremation, an urn. 

  • In the case of embalming and caskets, there may be rules or laws to follow.
  • In some respects, these may be financial decisions


Embalming is a process where blood is drained from your loved one’s body and replaced with fluids that delay decomposition. It is done by the funeral home or mortuary and cannot be done without your permission.

  • Although it is still frequently done, it may not be necessary if the visitation and funeral take place within 3 days and you are having a private ceremony. Refrigeration serves the same purpose in these situations, although it is not allowed in some states.
  • Many states have unique rules about embalming, but there are a limited number of circumstances where embalming is legally required, such as death from certain infectious diseases, transferring the body to another state, an autopsy is being done, or a delay from death to burial.
    • The Funeral Rule requires funeral homes to inform you in writing if some arrangements, such as a funeral or visitation with public viewing, make embalming a practical necessity. Make sure they can explain why.
    • They must also inform you in writing of the laws in your state.
      • Many states have their own rules for the time between death and burial or cremation. It could be anywhere from 24 hours to a week.
    • Make sure you check these laws concerning embalming if you are told it’s required.

Choosing a Casket

The intended purposes of a casket are to provide a setting for people to see your loved one, a dignified way to move their body before burial or cremation, and a vessel to bury or cremate them in.

  • A casket often accounts for much of the cost after your loved ones death.
    • They can range from a simple $500 box to $20,000 or more.
    • Since you can choose any number of caskets to serve these functions, it usually comes down to the fact that it is the appearance you are paying for.
  • Burial caskets are not intended to preserve your loved one’s body.
    • Despite this, someone may try to convince you otherwise and try to sell you a casket with gaskets or other modifications to keep out moisture and dirt.
    • Your state may not have a law requiring a casket for burial.
  • Cremation caskets are ultimately meant to be destroyed during the process of cremation.
    • They should be made of easily burnable material.
    • Your state may not have a law requiring a casket for cremation, although many funeral homes may require one. Crematoria are less likely to require one.

Federal law requires funeral homes to accept a casket that you may have purchased from another source, such as an online retailer. Some states may allow you or someone else to build your casket.

Choosing an Urn

An urn is a container that holds cremated remains. Cremation is the destruction of their body by heat/flame to reduce it to bone fragments and ashes, which are then ground down into a fine powder. Alkaline Hydrolysis is an alternative that reduces the body to an inert liquid and bone fragments.

Like caskets, urns come in many different materials and decorations. Typically the type of urn will depend on what you plan to do with the ashes. You could initially use the crematory-provided container to hold the ashes while you make up your mind, although it may be cardboard.

  • If you or someone else plans to keep or inter your loved one’s ashes there are a few options:
    • To keep all their ashes, you would probably opt for a decorative and durable urn large enough to hold them all.
    • To share their ashes among multiple people, you could opt for a smaller decorative and durable keepsake urns that will contain a portion of their ashes.
    • To keep the remains of two people, usually a husband and wife, you would probably opt for a larger decorative and durable companion urn large enough to hold both of them. These urns can have either two interior chambers so that the ashes can be next to each other or lack a divider to allow the ashes to mix.
  • You may opt for a less decorative urn if you plan to bury their ashes.
  • You may opt for a non-decorative and less durable scattering urn to hold their ashes before they are scattered on land or sea.
    • Some are shaped like vials that can hold a portion of the remains so that as many people as are in attendance may scatter some of the remains.
    • Some are biodegradable containers or pouches that can be dropped into the ocean or buried in the ground to decompose naturally.

These sites give you your options for a burial casket, cremation casket, or funeral urn.

Finally, order printed materials and flowers.

  • If you want programs, prayer cards, flowers or other items at the service, order them a few days in advance.
  • You can often order them directly through the funeral home, which will minimize coordination on your part, but you’ll often be able to find a better deal by shopping around.

Be sure you record everything, since concentration and memory may be affected by your grief and stress level.

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