Presiding over a funeral
July 19, 2007 7:59 AM   Subscribe

My friend is dying, and has asked me to preside over his funeral. I am meeting with him this weekend to talk about his wishes. What questions do I need to ask him while he is still alive? What information will make it easier for me to do this? I have been fortunate enough not to have experienced the death of many family or friends, so I don't really know much more about funerals than what I learned from Six Feet Under.
posted by arcticwoman to Human Relations (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: It might be relevant to explain that my friend is a different religion than his family, so out of respect to them he wants to keep the service non-religious. This means there will be no priest/minister/rabbi talking. So who does talk?
posted by arcticwoman at 8:03 AM on July 19, 2007

If there is no presiding religious authority, usually friends and family of the deceased will take turns sharing memories, readings, etc. Ask your friend if there are any songs he'd like played, photos he'd like displayed (and/or handed out; wallet photos are cheap to order in bulk), poems or passages to be read, etc. Where would he like the service? Indoors? Outdoors? Does he already have an actual funeral planner (i.e. a parlor or home he's working with) or are you expected to look into some of these arrangements as well?
posted by availablelight at 8:11 AM on July 19, 2007

I suggest that the question of who talks is one that you might raise with him. At non-religious funeral services I have been to (in the UK) family and friends have talked. i imagine there is some flexibility for you to create a funeral that respects him and his wishes. On a practical level, you might also check with him who should be invited, and how to get in touch with them, if that is in the sphere of your responsibilities.
posted by londongeezer at 8:13 AM on July 19, 2007

Thank goodness you have this opportunity, arcticwoman. At least someone (you) will have peace in knowing that the service represented his wishes (something his family will not likely be comforted by). At least some small thing about this situation will be as he wished it.

You really should probably talk to him about the family stuff, to find out which of them to approach (and how) should they try to take over or override your position as the coordinator of this event. Make sure you have everything in writing, if possible, so that you can prove that what takes place is his vision, not yours, if you are called to.

This will be hard-- everyone likes to think they know what someone would have wanted. I hope having an active role to play in this will ease your own grief.
posted by hermitosis at 8:27 AM on July 19, 2007

What a wonderful friend you must be, for him to place this sort of respect in you. Kudos.

The one thing I would suggest, depending on what his family is like, is for him to put his wishes down in writing and have it witnessed. This will prevent the family from hijacking the arrangements.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 8:30 AM on July 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

I would be very direct and just ask lots and lots of questions.

Do you want people to mourn? Do you want us to eat? Music? Live or canned? Shall we dance? Would you like to open the floor for people to speak about you? Flowers or donations? Would you like to make a farewell video?

I'm one of those "celebrate their life" not "mourn their death" kind of people--but I think I'm in the minority on that one.
posted by TomMelee at 8:47 AM on July 19, 2007

You absolutely must make sure you have the legal right to take care of his body, arrange funeral, etc after his death, if this isn't clear and legally enforceable in whatever legal jursidcition you are in then the family may well be able to just step in and it's off to the the church/chapel/synagogue/mosque if they decide it should be so.

An elderly friend of mine a couple of years ago had time to plan his own service ahead of time and he did it very well. He had what was essentially a non-religious service, but held in a church as it was convenient, quiet, solemn, seating arrangments as standard. Picked out a couple of good readers and wrote some appropriate stuff/got them to write their own (he was somewhat lucky in having a nephew who is a professional tv journalist). Favourite songs, etc.
posted by biffa at 8:49 AM on July 19, 2007

There is a MeFi user who is a funeral director who might offer more pragmatic advice.

Advice that I would offer is to keep in mind that funeral services are for the living, not for the deceased. The tone that is set is for the people who are there.

Some funerals I've been to included people talking about their memories of the person. My mom went to one where the parents of the deceased made it clear that this was a celebration - they weren't happy that they had lost a son - they were happy that they had so many friends who loved them and had touched their lives and that's how they celebrated his passing.
posted by plinth at 8:49 AM on July 19, 2007

Best answer: I've probably been overly influenced by Orson Scott Card's Ender series, but when I conduct a funeral, I try to tell the person's story, as best I can. What were their hopes and dreams, their greatest joys? What difficult times did they go through, and what got them through it? What risks did they take, and what were the rewards? Normally, I'm reconstructing all that with the family, after the death has occurred, and I've learned that I can usually ask just one or two questions and the conversation just takes off, leaving me scribbling notes as fast as I can. When I'm done, I put it all in some kind of coherent framework, and give the family members a copy of what I've written, which is the main text for the service. I'm a minister, but there's nothing particularly religious about that part of the service, and it seems to be the most meaningful thing I've done for families.

This varies some from family to family, but if I were you I would seriously consider gathering all the family and friends together around your dying friend. Let him tell everyone that he has asked you to coordinate the arrangements. Then, see if you can get the memories started. If you wind up speaking at the funeral, it will give you lots of potential things to talk about, and if not, it might still be a very meaningful time of remembrance. If you write it all up, that's a great keepsake for the family and friends.

It doesn't take much to jumpstart that kind of memory sharing. For a married person, "How did you meet your spouse?" is usually I have to ask. Other questions flow naturally. For a single person, something like "What was the most significant decision you've ever made?" might do it.

Honestly, I've never done this kind of preparation with a dying person who wasn't very old, and that makes some things much easier, I'd think. But I do know this, from my hospital chaplaincy experience: most dying people want to talk about the fact that they are going to die, and often their family and friends are unwilling or don't know how to let that happen. Being a mediator who is willing to let the dying person talk honestly and make plans for the funeral will be a tremendous blessing for everyone.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:12 AM on July 19, 2007 [4 favorites]

I feel I have to write this because of experience: will you please be very, very, very careful to listen with all your heart to what your friend says?

Pay utmost attention to a change of mood, open all your senses to any feeling at all that your tone is not quite right - or that a loving "joke" is going awry or that your friend's tremendously brave intentions to order things for after he is no longer alive are suddenly - piercingly - too much for him to contemplate.

There are some extraordinary responsibilities that come with what you've been asked to do.

I am sure you will be absolutely brilliant.

As others have said here with their excellent advice, it is a considerable honor you've been given.

But when plinth said above (quite rightly) that funerals are for living, this talk you will have with your friend doesn't quite apply.

Be prepared for emotion. Above all, listen.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 1:58 PM on July 19, 2007

Memories in no particular order. Some as strong as ropes that could pull the ocean ashore. Some that shimmered and swayed in the faintest breeze like spiderwebs. The entire person, all the little movements, that dimple that appeared when she was amused at something foolish he had said. Their youth together, their love, the procession of their days toward middle age. The small cheers and the pain of dreams never realized. So much about him, as he spoke of her. His voice soft and warm and filled with a longing so deep and true that he had to stop frequently because the words broke and would not come out till he had thought away some of the passion. He thought of her and was glad. He had gathered her together, all her dowry of love and taking care of him, her clothes and the way she wore them, her favorite knickknacks, a few clever remarks: and he packed it all up and delivered it to a new repository.

The very old man gave Minna to Billy Kinetta for safekeeping.
—Harlan Ellison, Paladin of the Lost Hour

posted by eritain at 4:16 PM on July 19, 2007

Response by poster: Thank you for all the help.
posted by arcticwoman at 5:20 PM on July 19, 2007

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