Advice From Funeral Celebrants


veg gardenWhen there is a choice of cremation, how do people celebrate the life of their loved one? What type of funeral or memorial is appropriate?

How do you plan a cremation ceremony? Thinking about putting a cremation ceremony together to celebrate and remember the life of someone you love is a final act of love – and a big job.

You can do it yourself, or work with a trained Funeral Celebrant. You can follow tradition and have a funeral home and religious person help you. You can create a cremation ceremony that is unique and non-traditional, or has a combination of traditional and non-traditional elements.

The most important thing is to do it. Hold a ceremony to honor your loved one’s life. Make it special and meaningful – for you and your loved one, and for all the people who make up your community.

Ceremony matters a lot. And there’s more to it than meets the eye. Good ceremony creates a place for deeper and healthier connections with community – something that is critical when there is a death. Someone important is gone and we need to grieve and remember, to come together and honor them.

Many times grieving people want to do it all themselves. Usually, a more helpful approach is to work with a trained celebrant to brainstorm, create flow, and find themes and words that tell the story well, all in about an hour. Then, you or a family member could deliver the ceremony – or continue with the celebrant’s professional service.

In Top 10 Options for Cremated Remains, you can figure out what would be the best choice – and place – for you to put the ashes. You can scatter the ashes, put them in a biodegradable water urn, bury them, and more. Again, there are all kinds of options!

Let’s take two examples. ‘Mattie’ is a 100 year-old great grandmother who died in an assisted living center after years of living with Alzheimer’s. And a very different type of ceremony would be created for ‘Jason’, a 23 year-old killed instantly in a motorcycle crash.

Find a theme. Once you find the common thread that ran through her or his life, you can design everything in the cremation ceremony around this theme. It should be done with a careful touch (not overdone), and then it will have a sense of cohesion and realness.

Mattie was a gardener and a bird lover. She always carried bits of bread in her apron pocket and the squirrels and birds came running when she tended to her flowers. She had four children and could be strict, even demanding with them. With her grandchildren she relaxed and spent time teaching them to ‘put up’ her tomatoes in canning jars. Her great grandchildren remember her as an elderly lady who spent her time looking out the window at her bird feeders. The family is environmental and wants something that will continue to honor Mattie in a green funeral way, which is sustainable and biodegradable.

cardinal bird eating seeds

A garden cremation ceremony. For Mattie’s ash scattering, you could create a garden, even a small area in a family member’s yard. The attendees work together to make the soil strong and healthy with a combination of mulch, compost, and Mattie! Plant some of her favorite herbs or a tree. Have a plaque or bench made to show that it is in her memory, which could be as simple as paving stones made by the children, with their handprints on them (and even a bit of Mattie in the mix). And of course, install a bird feeder. Whenever you see the birds and butterflies, you remember her. The act of weeding and planting each spring is a reminder that life continues in cycles, and Mattie is a part of that cycle.

As a funeral celebrant, after helping the family identify the theme (cycles of life, tending the garden), location, and tone of the service, I would interview people, find poems and sayings that speak to her life, write the eulogy (story of her life), sort out who is going to speak, and consider music and special symbols (like candles or a special plant). In Mattie’s garden ceremony, I would put elements of the cremation ceremony at the beginning, including the very important mixing the ashes with the soil. And I would consecrate the garden at the end when the bird feeder is filled and we are finished.

A cremation ceremony fund raising party. Jason was a young man who loved to laugh and dance, play hard, and ride fast. He had a heart tattoo with ‘Mom’ in the center, because she was the center of his life. He was a free spirit and a happy guy, who died suddenly and without pain. His parents donated his heart and other organs at the hospital. His family is devastated, his dog Zorro seems lost without him, and so do his girlfriend and his friends. He has left a huge hole in people’s hearts.

For Jason’s family, ceremony seems strange and they don’t feel comfortable in a church. But this is not a reason to avoid a gathering – it’s a reason to have a great big rockin’ party to celebrate his life. A party – with the structure and respect of a ceremony to kick it off.
A theme for Jason’s celebration of life could be ‘at the heart of it all.’ It could even become an annual fund raiser to raise money for the local dog shelter or organization that helps dogs of deceased people, in Jason and Zorro’s name. It could be held with music and dancing, a live band, and lots of motorcycles parked outside. The urn could even be in a motorcycle or heart cremation urn. There could also be personalized cremation jewelry made for those friends most affected by his death, in the shape of a heart.

If I were helping Jason’s family, I would begin the event with a ceremony to honor his life with story, and with memories from loved ones. I would have Zorro by my side if possible. And I would encourage his family to acknowledge his ‘Big Heart’ using lots of symbols. Then the event could begin.

Find a Funeral Celebrant. It’s important that you find ‘your sort of person’ to work with you on part or all of your cremation ceremony. The Celebrant Foundation has trained hundreds of certified Life-Cycle Celebrants. In-Sight Books has trained celebrants listed from eight countries, including New Zealand and Australia. For funeral celebrants in the UK, you could start with this search. All of these organizations will help you find someone to work with pieces or with the full cremation ceremony. Kateyanne Unullisi is a certified Life-Cycle Celebrant specializing in funeral and memorial ceremony. She also guides families through death transitions and helps them plan family-directed home funerals. Visit her website, Her google profile.