Most of the funerals I’ve attended have been pretty much the same: A wake at a funeral home full of somber people dressed in black, surrounded by flowers. A religious service, often led by someone who barely knew the deceased. A procession to a cemetery and a burial, followed by a shared meal in a banquet room big enough to host the crowd. 

Your religious background, and your experience with funerals, might be different. But I bet it shares a lot of that monotony. 

That’s starting to change, though, as people want to customize the experience and celebrate the lives of their loved ones.

“We’re seeing that baby boomers are moving away from the traditional, cookie-cutter funerals of the past and are interested in more custom — and often casual — ceremonies,” says Alison Johnston, CEO and co-founder of Ever Loved, a website that helps families plan and pay for funerals.

After all, when someone dies, all that’s really required is that the necessary documentation is completed and their remains are disposed of in a safe and legal way. And as many people move away from organized religion, they’re searching for ways to honor the lives of loved ones without falling back on traditions that may no longer feel meaningful.

“As we become a less religious society, we’re left questioning what to do,” says Elizabeth Meyer Karansky, co-founder and chief strategy officer of Farewelling, a company centered on personalizing the funeral experience. “You want to give someone the celebration their life deserves.”

Make the ceremony meaningful

It’s fine to have a service at a funeral home or religious site, but those aren’t your only options anymore. “A celebration of life can be any kind of event you choose. We’ve seen a celebration of life where loved ones planted a garden, one where the group paddleboarded out into the ocean together, and many where people got together to drink beer at a favorite bar,” Johnston says.

Karansky agrees: “If someone was in the military, have it at the VFW. If they were a water lover, have it at the beach,” she says. “Have a memorial service at a favorite restaurant, or at home, or outdoors in nature.”

How to personalize your event

Music. Curate a playlist, or ask people to share songs that remind them of the deceased.

Photos. It’s easy to create a photo montage, and many restaurants and other venues can display them.

Food. Invite everyone to a favorite restaurant. Or, prepare a favorite recipe at home. You can serve a specially brewed beer, or a wine from a favorite vineyard, Karansky says.

Clothing. Black isn’t mandatory. You can encourage people to wear Hawaiian shirts, team jerseys and colors, or anything that might make people smile as they remember the deceased.

Tributes. Ask people from all walks of life to share stories about the person who has passed. “At my dad’s service, some people talked about his childhood, and others talked about his workplaces,” Karansky says. Those stories gave her insight into aspects of her dad’s life she hadn’t seen. 

Of course, if a traditional funeral is more in line with what you or your loved one prefers, that’s always an option. “Before any decisions are made, think about what mattered to the deceased. If you want to personalize it within religion, ask what parts of religion mattered to the person,” she says.

More than half of people now choose cremation over burial, that number could climb to 80% by 2035.

Within that context, you can still add personal touches. “Maybe you don’t want too many flowers, or you want to bring in paintings, memorabilia, or trophies,” Karansky says. “You don’t have to go over the top. It’s more about what changes you want to personalize the experience.”

Consider options for the remains

More than half of people now choose cremation over burial, and the National Funeral Directors Association predicts that number will climb to almost 80% by 2035. Those ashes can be preserved in beautiful, custom urns you can display, or scattered in a location that was meaningful to your loved one. 

Joy Loverde, author of Who Will Take Care of Me When I’m Old? The Complete Eldercare Planner, says there are also a lot of non-traditional alternatives for distributing ashes:

  • Spread them near a tree, or in an urn that becomes a tree
  • Insert them into a cement mix that can help rebuild coral reefs
  • Launch them in a helium balloon or a fireworks display, or into outer space
  • Turn them into jewelry
  • Infuse them in a glass paperweight
  • Mix them with tattoo ink
  • Insert them into an hourglass

People are also choosing green burials, whole-body donation, biocremation, or composting (in Washington state) as more environmentally friendly alternatives. 

Even with a traditional burial, you can personalize the casket by having it painted the colors of a favorite sports team or college, or choosing another theme. And a lot of caskets have special drawers where you can leave letters or meaningful objects for your loved one. 

Planning ahead is key

“Preplanning a burial, funeral, or memorial service just makes sense. Not only do you remain in control of what you want, but planning eliminates the need for the grieving to deal with details at a time when minds are unclear, and hearts are overburdened,” Loverde says.

Farewelling provides a range of checklists so you can prepare ahead of time, or make sure you have everything covered if someone has just passed away. “When all you want to do is grieve, you shouldn’t have to be making decisions,” Karansky says.

She appreciates having the conversations about death with her mom that she wasn’t able to have with her dad. “When she passes away, I’ll be able to grieve. I won’t be worrying about making the right decisions, because she made them,” she says.

If you’re planning for yourself, Karansky recommends noting why you made a certain choice. For example, if you would like donations made to a certain charity, mention why that’s important. Your loved ones can use this information to guide other decisions they might still have to make. 

And make sure someone knows where to find this information. “Leave it somewhere that’s easily accessible,” Karansky says. Don’t put it in your will — your loved ones might not see it before your funeral.

Above all, think through and talk about how to honor and recognize the end of life for yourself and your loved ones. “This is a one-time celebration. If you have someone who lived a beautiful life, you should celebrate it beautifully,” she says. 

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