Meaningful Funerals

Parents and two teenagers wearing black and carrying funeral roses

How to Personalize the 7 Elements of a Funeral

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If you are caring for a loved one in hospice, you may be wondering…how can I honor my loved one’s life and memory? How can I make the celebration of life memorable and unique? With these tips on how to personalize a funeral, you can create a memorable service that will honor your loved one’s life in a way that is personal, meaningful, and healing.

Parents and two teenagers wearing black and carrying funeral roses

Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a nationally respected grief author and educator, has identified 7 elements that create a meaningful and healing funeral or memorial service: music, readings, viewing/visitation, eulogy, symbols, gathering, and actions. When you personalize these elements, you can create a funeral experience that touches hearts and meaningfully celebrates someone loved.

The most important thing to remember is that personalization is key. The more personal a funeral or memorial service is, the more healing and meaningful it will be. Dr. Wolfelt says, “Focus on what is really important—what is essential—about the funeral you are planning.  What is essential is the life that was lived and the impact that life had on family and friends.  To honor that unique life, the funeral must also be unique. Over and over families tell me that the best funerals are those that are personalized.”

Let’s review the 7 elements and discuss ideas for personalizing each one.


First of all, music sets the tone of a funeral or memorial service and brings emotions to the forefront. In fact, one of the purposes of a funeral is to allow mourners to grieve together, and in many ways, music says what words cannot. We often shy away from our emotions, but don’t be afraid to invite people to express their grief. Consider using music as an avenue to bring out what people are thinking and feeling.

Person playing piano, focus on hands

How to Personalize:

  • Choose songs that were significant to your loved one, no matter their musical genre
  • Consider whether to have music performed live or if you prefer to use recordings
  • If you have musical family members, you might ask them to play/sing a song
  • For those who are religious, choose appropriate hymns or praise songs

For a few more ideas, please read Top 10 Hymns for a Funeral CeremonyTop 10 Songs for a Funeral CeremonyTop 12 Country Songs for a Celebration of Life Service, and Why Include Special Music in a Funeral Ceremony?


Second, readings add another facet to a meaningful service. They are another way to invite mourners to express their emotions while also honoring the unique spirit of the one who has died. Have you ever heard a poem, lyrics, or movie quote that really spoke to you? These can easily be used as a reading and can add a deeper dimension to the service.

Books lined up as if on a bookshelf

How to Personalize:

  • Use quotes from favorite books, plays, movies, or TV shows
  • For a person of faith, read passages from an appropriate holy book
  • Consider reading special poems or quotations
  • Read a letter you have written to your loved one
  • You could use your loved one’s own personal writing or incorporate catchphrases they are known for

For additional ideas, check out How Do Readings Enhance the Funeral Experience or Top 10 Poems for a Funeral Ceremony.


Third, the viewing or visitation is a time for family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors to gather and express support and sympathy. If you choose, a viewing creates an opportunity for mourners to see your loved one a final time and begin to acknowledge the reality of their death. For many, as part of the grieving process, it is important to physically see the body. The viewing offers this opportunity. However, a family can choose to simply have a visitation, which is a set aside time to gather and receive support from caring friends and family without the body present.

Woman standing next to casket, one hand touching top of casket and the other hand holding white lilies

The viewing and/or visitation offers a special time for personalization. Whether the body is present or not, this is a time to tell a story – your loved one’s story.

How to Personalize:

  • Display photos, mementos, or items associated with a hobby or interest (books, artwork, ceramics, model planes, etc.)
  • Invite guests to write down a memory on provided notecards (the family can enjoy them later)
  • Provide a keepsake token to take home (a book, a favorite recipe, etc.)
  • Create a memorial work of art, like a thumbprint tree
  • Bring a photo book or your loved one’s favorite book and ask people to write notes inside
  • Create a slideshow to play during the event


Fourth, the eulogy may be the single most important aspect of a funeral service. It’s important to carefully consider what you want to say. After all, the eulogy is the time to acknowledge and affirm the significance of the life lived. The eulogy, sometimes called the “remembrance” or the “homily,” can be delivered by a clergy person, a family member, or even by a series of people.

Young woman speaking into microphone

How to Personalize:

  • Share memories, quotes, or even a loved one’s favorite jokes
  • Tell a significant and meaningful story about the person who has died
  • Bring visual aids (like an item the person carried or was known to cherish)
  • Share something the person taught you and how they impacted your life and the lives of others

For more helpful ideas, please read What is a Eulogy and Crafting a Eulogy.


Fifth, symbols are an important aspect of a funeral because they convey love and comfort, facilitate expression, and offer a focus point for the bereaved. For instance, people often send flowers, make memorial donations, or bake casseroles to convey the love they feel and the support they offer.

Green urn sitting in a prominent location, surrounded by yellow and red flowers

For one grieving family, an appropriate symbol was the quilts their grandmother made. Before her death, she made a quilt for every child and grandchild, and at her final tribute, the quilts were displayed on the pews – a representation of her love and impact on her family. Common symbols are an appropriate religious symbol, flowers, dark clothing, and candles, but you can use whatever feels best to honor your loved one.

How to Personalize:

  • If appropriate, ask everyone to wear your loved one’s favorite color to the funeral
  • With traditional burial, the body and casket are the ultimate symbol or focal point
  • With cremation, a symbol might be an urn, a portrait, or some other appropriate item
  • If they were a person of faith, include religious symbols to offer comfort
  • If they were known for something (like quilts), turn those items into a symbol


Sixth, the gathering is an opportunity for friends and family to come together after the funeral service to share stories and to support each other. This event may occur at the funeral home, an event center, someone’s home, or even a local restaurant. The point of a gathering is to bring people together directly following the service to share stories, remember a loved one, and connect (or reconnect) with people.

In many ways, the gathering is another excellent place for personalization because you may have more time and a lot of space to work with.

Waiter preparing a reserved table for a gathering

How to Personalize:

  • Have the gathering at your lost loved one’s favorite restaurant
  • Choose a venue that meant something to the person who has died (for example, a church, local country club, beach, park, etc.)
  • Serve your loved one’s favorite foods
  • Display photos, cherished possessions, and mementos
  • Decorate with your loved one’s favorite colors
  • Include a set aside time when friends or family can publicly share special memories
  • Create a memorial work of art together or plant a memorial tree


And finally, by inviting others into action at the funeral service, you engage mourners and invite them to put their grief into motion. Simply put, mourning is the outward expression of our inward grief. To move others toward healing, it is important to invite them to act.

Pallbearers carrying light-colored casket with funeral spray with white roses on top

How to Personalize:

  • Participate in a release ceremony (biodegradable balloons or lanterns, doves, etc.)
  • Incorporate keepsake items
  • Invite mourners to write down memories on note cards
  • Ask family and friends to bring photos they have of your loved one to add to a group collage
  • Set a theme that invites attendees to wear your loved one’s favorite color or style of clothing (i.e. Hawaiian shirts, sports jerseys, etc.)
  • Light candles of remembrance
  • Ask people to take part in the service as eulogists, readers, singers, musicians, or pallbearers

Hopefully, these thoughts will spark ideas of your own. Ultimately, planning a funeral or memorial service that lovingly reflects your loved one’s life, passions, values, and beliefs creates an opportunity to specifically and meaningfully remember, honor, and celebrate their life.

As you consider how you can incorporate these 7 elements into a funeral or memorial service, remember that you aren’t on your own in this. The funeral home has caring and experienced staff ready to help you with all your questions and concerns as you create a moment in time that can bring peace and comfort for years to come.

Camera sitting on top of photo album

How to Use Photos to Personalize a Service

By Meaningful Funerals No Comments

Whether you’ve recently lost a loved one or you are helping a loved one in hospice care make final arrangements, a personalized funeral or memorial service is key to remembering and cherishing a loved one’s memory and honoring their life. Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a nationally recognized grief expert, author, and counselor, often says, “When words are inadequate, have a ceremony.” Meaningful ceremonies are reflective of the life that has been lived. They spark memories, help honor a legacy, and bring to mind the good times that were shared. Using photos is one important way we can personalize a funeral and reflect on a life well-lived.

Great-grandmother sitting at table, looking at old photo album with grandson

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and that is certainly true when you are sharing photos of a loved one’s life. Let’s talk about how you can use photos to create a tribute that will bring meaning, hope, peace, and comfort to those who are hurting.

10 Ways to Use Photos to Personalize a Funeral or Memorial Service

Photos are unique to a person, a time, a place, a memory. That’s why they are a perfect way to personalize a funeral or memorial service. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Red rose on In Remembrance program

1. Add Photos to the Order of Service

For most funeral or memorial services, you will receive an “Order of Service” program. This pamphlet usually outlines the order of events that will occur at the service, including speakers, special songs, opportunities to share memories, etc. The Order of Service is a good place to incorporate photos. You can be as creative as you’d like, including your favorite photos or simply ones that capture your loved one’s personality.

2. Make a Collage or Timeline

A photo collage or timeline allows you to tell your loved one’s life story. The big moments, the small ones, the ones that mean the most to you and your family. You can highlight weddings, births, vacations, milestones, hobbies, childhood photos, and so much more. Then, as people view the collage or timeline at the service, conversations will spark. Memories will become fresh. Hearts will be comforted.

Grandfather and grandson sitting at kitchen table, looking at book together, laughing

3. Put Together a Memorial Photo Album

Sometimes there’s something special about a tangible object. Just like some people prefer physical books over electronic books, there are those who prefer the sturdy presence of a photo album to any amount of digital storage. If you or a family member are one of these people, you might consider putting together a memorial photo album or bringing your old family photo albums to the gathering or visitation. Holding the book and flipping through the pages often evokes a strong feeling of connection. By allowing friends, family, and guests to look through the album, you create an opportunity to remember special times and learn new things about the one you love.

4. Create a Memory Board

Similar to a photo collage, a memory board intentionally leaves space open for family, friends, and other guests to add photos of their own or to write personalized messages on the board. By inviting people to participate, you do two things. First, you allow others to mourn; that is, put their grief into action. Dr. Wolfelt tells us that, “Grief is what you think and feel on the inside, and mourning is when you express that grief outside of yourself. Mourning is grief inside out. [It] is showing and doing.” Secondly, by inviting others to add their own thoughts and memories, you create a lovely keepsake that gives a full, vibrant picture of your loved one’s life.

Photos pinned to twine that is strung in front of a window

5. Use Photos to Personalize the Gathering/Reception

Many families decide to include a gathering or reception following the funeral or memorial service. Doing this allows family, friends, and others an opportunity to share memories and offer support to one another. The gathering/reception is also a great time to add personal touches to the funeral experience. You might string a clothesline in one area of the room and invite friends and family to a bring a photo to hang. Or, you could use photos to decorate the tables – as centerpieces or even as a table runner. Alternatively, if you are having an outdoor event, you could decorate a tree with photos of your loved one and add mason jars with candles to add softness to the display.

6. Make a Tribute Video

With a tribute video, you can use photos, audio clips, video clips, favorite quotes, and so much more to create a truly personal account of your loved one’s life. A tribute video adds a meaningful element to the service, allows guests to reflect on their memories, comforts family and friends, evokes laughter and tears, and can be a special keepsake that can be watched for years to come.

Hands holding photo of mother and child playing, reflecting on a cherished memory

7. Invite Mourners to Bring a Favorite Photo

Another option you might consider is inviting mourners to bring a favorite photo of your loved one. You could ask people to write a favorite memory on the back and leave the photo with the family as an encouragement. Alternatively, you could create a collective collage. By requesting that everyone bring a 4×6 photo, you can create pre-made spaces where people can add their photos to the collage. Or, you could simply ask mourners to look at the photo and remember your loved one as the eulogy is spoken. A visual reminder – especially one that means something – will help each person connect with their own feelings and begin the grief journey on the right foot.

8. Make a Memory Wreath

Another way to use photos in a unique way is to create a memory wreath. This special wreath will not only serve as a special focal point for any gathering or reception, it can also be re-used in your home afterward. Photos are a great way to remember our loved ones. They connect us to the past; they remind us of the stories of our lives. Sometimes, they even express emotions better than words.

Man holding camera in right hand, held by his thigh

9. Ask Someone to Take Photos at the Funeral

While it may sound odd, you might consider asking someone to take photos at the funeral or memorial. Not necessarily of your loved one – but of the events and the people who have gathered. Photography is about capturing the important moments in life, and the passing of a loved one is significant. Photos taken at any point of the service (funeral, reception, graveside, etc.) will all show a variety of emotions – sadness at the loss, joy at seeing living loved ones, happiness at sharing cherished memories. Who knows, you may find that one of these photos becomes a cherished favorite.

 10. Print Remembrance Tokens

Finally, for many of us, specific items have great value and significance to our memory. “I bought this painting when we went to France,” or “This scarf always reminds me of my grandmother.” Photos can do the same. Consider printing out some of your favorite photos and giving them to guests as a remembrance token. You might add a quote, scripture verse, or poem on the back. As each person takes a photo, they have a physical reminder of your loved one, something they can hold onto and contemplate on as they walk through their grief journey.

Man playing guitar, focus on strings and hands

10 Songs for a Meaningful Final Tribute

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Whether you’re in hospice care yourself or are with a loved one receiving care, now is the time to have the conversation about how to honor life and legacy through a personalized and meaningful service (if you haven’t already). By doing this, you can balance the personal wishes of the person who is dying with the emotional needs of the family, creating a service that will bring healing and honor legacy. One way to personalize a service is to include songs that are special to you and your loved one.

Man playing guitar, focus on strings and hands

Music can be a powerful component of the funeral ceremony because it allows us to process our feelings in a very special way. Grief counselor and educator Dr. Alan Wolfelt says that music imprints itself on the heart more than any other experience in life and that it is one of the most essential elements of ceremony. For this reason, we’ve put together a list of 10 songs to consider using in a funeral service. Of course, if your loved one had some favorites you’d like to use, play those instead. However, if you find yourself stuck and looking for inspiration, these 10 songs could provide just what you are looking for.

10. Stand by Me (Ben E. King)

Oh, I won’t be afraid
Just as long as you stand
Stand by me.

This classic pop song is simple and direct, but that doesn’t mean it lacks depth or heart. An instantly recognizable anthem of love and perseverance, the song strikes just the right note for a funeral, conveying hope in the midst of painful circumstances. It’s been performed by a number of talented artists, but the original is preferable for its familiarity and for King’s raw energy.

9. Fire and Rain (James Taylor)

Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus,
You’ve got to help me make a stand.
You’ve just got to see me through another day.”

This enormously popular early 70s hit, written and passionately sung by the great James Taylor, contains many themes that are applicable to a service: the loss of a friend, the desire to communicate with a higher power, and attempts to stand firm during times of “fire and rain.” While some of the lyrics are painful, the melody is peaceful and sweet. This juxtaposition effectively captures the complexity of the grieving process and reflects the paradoxical emotions that many people experience following a loss.

8. You’re My Best Friend (Don Williams)

You placed gold on my finger
 …Brought love like I’ve never known
 You gave life to our children
 And to me a reason to go on.

Country music isn’t for everyone, but one would be hard pressed to find a person who isn’t moved by Don Williams’ no-frills, stripped down approach. This modest acoustic piece is the perfect song to honor the memory of spouse. Don Williams delivers some of the most heartfelt and heartbreaking lines ever recorded as a tribute to the person that is his “anchor in life’s oceans.

7. Landslide (Fleetwood Mac)

“Well, I’ve been afraid of changin’
Cause I’ve built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Even children get older
And I’m getting older too.”

With their self-titled 1975 album, Fleetwood Mac exploded into the mainstream. The first of the band’s albums to feature the subtle and intricate guitar work of Lindsey Buckingham and the distinctive voice of Stevie Nicks, it contains some of their most popular songs, including Monday Morning, Over My Head, and Rhiannon. But it’s Landslide, a heartfelt exploration of loss and change, that packs the greatest emotional wallop. A great choice to honor the memory of a parent or close loved one, this gentle pop song has been a favorite at memorial services for many years.

6. I Grieve (Peter Gabriel)

It’s just the car that we ride in
A home we reside in
The face that we hide in
The way we are tied in.

Is there another lyric that so perfectly encapsulates the relationship between the body and the soul? This examination of perseverance in the aftermath of loss functions as a microcosm for the grief journey. Gabriel slowly moves from despair to hope, frustration to acceptance. But don’t let this familiar narrative arc fool you: Gabriel doesn’t send a simplistic, cliché-ridden, “keep-your-head-up” message. The final words of the song, “I grieve,” emphasize the ongoing nature of the struggle and suggest that the grief journey is not purely linear. Hopeful and transcendent, but honest and realistic, Gabriel’s crowning achievement captures the conflicting emotions of mourners and evokes the fierce love that we feel for those who have passed on before us.

5. We’ll Meet Again (Vera Lynn)

We’ll meet again,
 Don’t know where,
 Don’t know when,
 But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.”

Vera Lynn’s 1939 classic has been a favorite choice for funeral services for many years. Written on the eve of the Second World War, it captured the sentiments of many families who had to say goodbye as their loved ones left for battle. But this British tune is more than a mere historical document. Vera Lynn’s piercing voice conveys hope in the face of loss in a way that carries universal appeal, and many people have used it as a tribute to a loved one.

4. My Way (Frank Sinatra)

I’ve lived a life that’s full
I’ve traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way.

Sinatra’s anthem might be the most frequently used funeral song, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a celebration of a life well lived, a testament to the power of the individual and the impact that he or she can have on the world. A fitting tribute to a loved one who embraced life to the fullest and faced “the final curtain” with dignity, My Way is timeless.

3. Into the West (Annie Lennox)

“Across the sea
A pale moon rises
The ships have come to carry you home.”

While it was composed for the end credits of the 2003 film, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, respect for this song extends far beyond Tolkien fans. The universal appeal of the lyrics and Lennox’s breathtaking vocal performance makes it a great choice for a funeral service. This ode to a loved one uses the departure of a ship at sea as its central image, which suggests an absence that is painful, but temporary. Lennox’s faith-driven assurance that “you and I will meet again” makes this is a particularly good choice for religious ceremonies.

2. Long as I Can See the Light (Creedence Clearwater Revival)

Pack my bag and let’s get movin’, ‘cause I’m bound to drift awhile.
 When I’m gone, gone, you don’t have to worry long,
 ‘Long as I can see the light.”

Few vocalists can deliver as viscerally as John Fogerty. On every song of every album, he sounds like he’s at the end of his rope, like he’s giving his all because it might be the last song he has in him. But in addition to being a showcase for a great vocal stylist, this song is also a beautiful illustration of a journey, a movement from absence to return. To religious listeners, Fogerty’s cries of “coming home” and seeing “the light” can take on an entirely new meaning, one that can be particularly comforting in a time of grief.

1. Tears in Heaven (Eric Clapton)

Beyond the door
There’s peace I’m sure
And I know there’ll be no more
Tears in heaven.

Written after the loss of his 4-year-old son, Tears in Heaven is a moving piece of Clapton’s grief journey. The gorgeous melody, restrained but masterful acoustic guitar work, and heartfelt lyrics are perfect for a funeral setting. Clapton pulls off a delicate balancing act, conveying the emotional exhaustion of a man who is heartbroken while simultaneously communicating a sense of peace. Over the past 25 years, the song has sprung up in many funerals, and its popularity isn’t surprising. Tears in Heaven is a bold and honest attempt to wrestle with grief, and the deeply personal nature of the song resonates with families who have lost loved ones.

Middle-aged man sitting at computer in his bright, clean home

Writing a Great Obituary

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If you are taking care of a loved one in hospice, you may be wondering, “What can I do now, before the death occurs, to make things easier?” That is a great question. Many family members often plan for funeral arrangements ahead of time to make things easier when the loss does occur. If this sounds like you, we hope this simple guide will help with at least one task ahead of you: writing the obituary.

The obituary is something you can work on ahead of time that will be helpful to everyone after the loss. Below are a few helpful tips and guidelines for writing a great obituary that reflects the life and of your loved one.

Young woman sitting at desk, typing on her computer

Announce the death

Start off the obituary by announcing the death. Provide your loved one’s name and a very brief description, their age, and the day of passing. You can probably squeeze all of this information into one sentence. For example:

On Monday, September 14, 2020, John Doe, loving husband and father of four children, passed away at the age of 74.

Provide general biographical information

Next, include some biographical information, such as birth date, upbringing, education, marriage information, accomplishments, and work history. With most obituaries appearing online today, there’s no need to be too careful with how many words you use. However, if you plan to send the obituary to a printed medium (like a paper newspaper), consider how much space you have. Be compact and precise with your wording. Try to get as much meaning into as few words as possible.

John was born on July 31, 1943, in Houston, TX, to Bob and Jane (Smith) Doe. He received his law degree from the University of Texas in Austin in 1971, and he practiced business law for 31 years in Houston. On May 28, 1975, he married Grace Ann Lewis. They raised two sons, Nick and Joel, and two daughters, Alice and Lisa.

Elderly man handwriting an obituary

Make it personal

Perhaps the most important ingredient for a great obituary is personalization. Try to capture the spirit of your loved one. Compose a paragraph that describes not only what your loved one did, but also what your loved one was like. For example, focus on hobbies, passions, and personal characteristics. Remember, if you are planning to submit the obituary to a print newspaper, they will charge you by line, word, or inch (depending on the publication), so don’t write more than you can afford. A short, factual obituary might be all you need. However, if you have more space to work with and you want to write a special, personalized obituary, include details like this:

John had a passion for painting. He also loved to bird watch, and he combined his two favorite hobbies to create extraordinary art. His paintings of various birds were much admired not only by friends and family, but also by all who frequented the coffee shops where his paintings were displayed. He was also an avid music lover and a collector of Beatles memorabilia. He was known for his quick wit, his infectious smile, and his kind and compassionate spirit.

Listing the family members

You don’t have to mention every nephew and cousin by name. However, it’s important to write a general overview of the family members who passed away before your loved one as well as the surviving family. Close family members can be listed by name, and other relatives can be referred to more generally.

John was preceded in death by his father, Bob, and his mother, Jane. He is survived by his wife Grace, his four children, Nick, Joel, Alice, and Lisa, his brother Paul, and several cousins, nieces, and a nephew.

Middle-aged man sitting at computer in his bright, clean home

Funeral information

To invite others to come pay their respects and take part in saying goodbye, make sure to provide the date, time, and location of the funeral or memorial service. Also include information regarding donations, flowers, or condolences.

A funeral service will be held on Thursday, September 17, 2020, at the Church of Christ on Main Street at 1 o’clock p.m. Flowers or donations may be sent to 1234 Street, Houston, TX.

Put it all together, and you’ve got a complete obituary.

                                                                         Full Sample Obituary

On Monday, September 14, 2020, John Doe, loving husband and father of four children, passed away at age 74.

John was born on July 31, 1943, in Houston, TX, to Bob and Jane (Smith) Doe. He received his law degree from the University of Texas in Austin in 1971, and he practiced business law for 31 years in Houston. On May 28, 1975, he married Grace Lewis Doe. They raised two sons, Nick and Joel, and two daughters, Alice and Lisa.

John had a passion for painting. He also loved to bird watch, and he combined his two favorite hobbies to create extraordinary art. His paintings of various birds were much admired not only by friends and family, but also by all who frequented the coffee shops where his paintings were displayed. He was also an avid music lover and a collector of Beatles memorabilia. He was known for his quick wit, his infectious smile, and his kind and compassionate spirit.

John was preceded in death by his father, Bob, and his mother, Jane. He is survived by his wife Grace, his four children, Nick, Joel, Alice, and Lisa, his brother Paul, and several cousins, nieces, and a nephew. A funeral service will be held on Thursday, September 17, 2020, at the Church of Christ on Main Street at 1 o’clock p.m. Flowers or donations may be sent to 1234 Street, Houston, TX.

Mature woman sitting at kitchen table with laptop in front of her, writing on notepad

Review for mistakes

The final step: Check, check, and check again. Once you are satisfied with the finished product, send it to a friend or a third party for review. Since obituaries are composed during a time of grief, it’s not always easy to keep a clear mind when writing one. It’s always good to get multiple perspectives. When you are sure that the obituary is what you want, send it off for publication.

For examples of unusual and inspirational obituaries, visit these pages:

This Incredible Obituary May Be the Best Thing You Read All Week

Betsy Cohen

Seattle Author’s Powerful Self-Written Obituary Goes Viral

94-year-old’s obituary is what every mom hopes her kids will write for her

open book with pink flowers next to it

10 Poems to Enhance a Meaningful Service

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Whether you’re in hospice care yourself or are with a loved one receiving care, it’s important to discuss how best to honor a person’s life and legacy through a personalized and meaningful service. By talking now, funeral wishes can be communicated, giving the family peace of mind and certainty that they are doing the right thing to honor a loved one’s life. One way to mark the significance of a life is through readings and poems.

Nationally recognized grief counselor Dr. Alan Wolfelt tells us that readings and poems are an valuable element of the service because they speak to “word people,” helping us search for meaning in the loss and activate support.

Poems are a particularly powerful type of reading that contribute to what Dr. Wolfelt refers to as the “sweet spot” of a meaningful funeral experience. For this reason, we have included ten great poems that can enhance a funeral service.

open book with pink flowers next to it

10. “Dear Lovely Death by Langston Hughes

Famed Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes was a master of economy, and his “less is more” approach is perfectly realized in “Dear Lovely Death.” Hughes packs an extraordinary amount of insight into a mere 10 lines. The result is a powerful and hopeful piece that speaks to mourners. Hughes suggests that death does not destroy or eradicate, but merely changes the nature of those it touches. The idea of death as change strikes an important balance for a funeral setting. Hopeful but not naïve, it allows us to see the situation in a more comforting light while never denying the reality of death.

9. “A Clear Midnight by Walt Whitman

This short piece by Whitman turns conventional poetic imagery on its head. While most poems use “midnight” to evoke negative, frightening emotions, Whitman sees the night as a time of calm and peace. When applied to a funeral setting, the flight of the soul “into the wordless” can be viewed as a metaphor for death. This vivid imagery touches mourners by depicting death as a place of rest.

Man sitting on couch with mug and book

8. “Death is a Door by Nancy Byrd Turner

Turner’s poem views death as a time of transition and change and emphasizes the calming nature of death. Through the use of nature imagery, Turner evokes a sense of rejuvenation and implies that death gives birth to new life, though we can’t yet see what this new life looks like. Turner’s assertion that the threshold of death is eagerly crossed by “willing and weary feet” implies that whatever lies on the other side of the doorway of death is more encouraging than frightening.

7. “Requiem by Robert Louis Stevenson

Few people know that Robert Louis Stevenson, author of the famous novels Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, also penned one of the greatest poems about death. “Requiem” is written from the perspective of the deceased, who is clearly satisfied with the life he lived. “Glad did I live and gladly die,” he proudly claims, and his contentment regarding the journey from life to death is comforting and encouraging. For those who lived a full and wonderful life, this poem reminds mourners that their loved one is at peace.

Book standing on end with white feather on top

6. “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

One of the most famous poems of all time, Robert Frost’s masterpiece is not necessarily a “funeral poem.” It isn’t specifically about death, and it doesn’t attempt to encourage mourners to ponder the transience of life. But it’s a wonderful tribute to a life well lived. The closing lines, “I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference,” are a testament to a person who broke the mold and embraced life to the fullest. If you are looking for a piece that celebrates the uniqueness of life, consider reading this ode to originality.

5. “Successby Bessie Anderson Stanley *

In this famous essay-turned-poem, Bessie Anderson Stanley analyzes the true meaning of success. Success is not embodied in a person who chased after shallow achievements. Instead, success is a person who “laughed often, and loved much,” and “left the world better than he found it.” A fitting tribute to the life of someone who understood the true value of life, this classic poem will bring encouragement to mourners and allow them to reflect on the meaningful life of the person who has died.

Pink rose on top of books and papers

4. “When Great Trees Fall by Maya Angelou

This extraordinary work by the late Maya Angelou emphasizes the ripple effect created by the death of a great person. Angelou suggests that the deep hurt we feel is a testament to the brilliance of that individual’s life. While grief may hurt, it indicates that someone made a difference in the lives of others. The poem suggests that grief is extremely difficult but “after a period, peace blooms.” As we move through the grief journey, we come to accept the reality of the death. Eventually, we are able to recall memories that motivate us to find meaning in our lives.

3. “Death, Be Not Proudby John Donne

Perhaps the most famous poem to address mortality, John Donne’s 17th century classic is a tightly structured and perfectly realized refutation of the permanence of death. In a mere 14 lines, Donne sets out to bruise Death’s ego, and his skill matches his ambition. He challenges death by comparing it to rest and sleep. While death marks a stronger transition than sleep, Donne views both states as temporary. The final line, “Death, thou shalt die,” indicates Donne’s strong belief in an afterlife. For this reason, “Death, Be Not Proud” is a great choice for religious ceremonies. It is important to realize that Donne’s poem shouldn’t keep us from acknowledging the reality of death in this world; death separates us from our loved ones, and it is okay to grieve. Rather, the poem should encourage those who are religious by reminding them that the soul of their loved one is at peace.

Woman sitting near window with hands clasped on book

2.”If I Can Stop One Heart from Breakingby Emily Dickinson

In this compact, seven-line poem, Dickinson doesn’t waste time on flowery language or indulgent imagery. Her approach to the material is clear, concise, and direct. The primary theme of the poem is the importance of love, which trumps all other human virtues. The speaker claims that by helping another being, she “shall not live in vain.” The size of the act is less important than the intention behind the act. A person need not have his or her good deeds recognized as grand accomplishments to live a great life. Rather, living a full and meaningful life is accomplished by spreading love wherever and however one can. Dickinson’s heartfelt poem is a great choice when honoring those who dedicated their life to helping others.

1. Psalm 23: A Psalm of David, The Book of Psalms (KJV)

This famous psalm speaks directly to our desire for peace, both for ourselves and for our loved ones. Psalm 23 is perfect for a service because it applies to both the mourners and the person who has died. When David claims, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me,” he’s expressing a sentiment that not only encourages us when thinking about a lost loved one, but also gives mourners the strength to continue on the grief journey. The “valley of the shadow of death” can refer to those who are making the transition from life to death and to those who are trying to face life after losing a loved one. For religious ceremonies, this is a wonderful choice, a beautiful testament to God’s ability to bring comfort and peace to his children in dark times. A cry of faith amidst the storms of life, Psalm 23 is the perfect funeral reading.

*”Success” is often incorrectly attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson.