The new reality

words: Dr Bill Webster, Grief Journey
Dr Bill Webster

The following incident should send a shiver down your spine.

A clergy friend of mine was recently approached by a family about a funeral. The elderly deceased had been a direct cremation. The family arrived at the church, urn in hand, to ask if a service and reception could be held there, but they did not want any funeral director involved ‘to save the expense’.

More and more people want their weddings, birthdays and other life events to be meaningful, memorable and moving experiences. The funeral director’s challenge is how to provide guidance to enable them to do what they need to, offering a one-stop shop for ‘celebration of life’ events.

In this economy, the experience you provide for your families ultimately defines how they feel about what you offer. Emotions and experiences are linked to memory in a way material objects are not. No matter how much time passes, people always remember how certain events made them feel, and are more likely to return if their experience with a company is smooth and positive.

So how can we transform a funeral into a positive experience? Obviously, a funeral is rarely a happy occasion, so we have our work cut out. But can we find creative ways to make it meaningful, memorable and moving?

The most important words to say to someone planning a funeral are: “It’s your agenda. What could we do to make this meaningful and memorable for you?”

The client may not have an answer, but you can help them discover what would be appropriate. Often, that can be a ‘theme funeral’. What were their loved one’s interests? What did they enjoy?

Here are some examples:

1. I assisted Tracey, a funeral planner, with a ‘celebration of life’ for a six-year-old girl who died of cancer. “Bill,” she said, “this little girl loved Peter Pan and her parents would like that to be the theme.” We put together an order of service that incorporated readings and poems chosen by the family, video clips from Frozen, Bedknobs and Broomsticks and, of course, Peter Pan. Tracey went to huge effort to create Neverland in the church, including a pirate chest from which children could take a gift at the end of the service.

2. I wrote in SAIFInsight last year about my friend Mark’s invitation to facilitate a ‘campfire gathering’ to commemorate the life of a lady who wanted to be remembered in that environment.

3. I spoke with JoAnn, another planner who goes out of her way to help families personalise their service. Examples included a nautical theme for a sailor, including an opportunity to put a message in a bottle, and a tropical theme for someone who loved the islands, including Pina Colada – non-alcoholic, of course. Plus, sports themed events with team uniforms or memorabilia.

4. After my own bereavement last year, I found the resources of video and memorial book company MyBabbo particularly meaningful. We actually had two celebrations of my son’s life in British Columbia and Ontario. MyBabbo crafted a beautiful slideshow of Steve’s life with music we played at the celebrations, which were live streamed on Facebook. We also watched a longer presentation of more than 100 pictures for the visitation and reception. Later, they produced a memory book which family and friends will treasure.

The service and tributes were great and the funeral home absolutely wonderful, but what I will remember most are the pictures, candles and memorabilia MyBabbo provided, which from the other side of the consumer fence I found enormously meaningful, providing a great opportunity to grieve while celebrating his life.

“The future belongs to those who see possibilities before they become obvious.” (John Sculley)

But you will have to be proactive. You can train staff to be creative planners, or call in a company to provide meaningful resources, but this is the modern reality in funeral service.

Learn from the people, plan with them; build with what they have and build on what they know. When the task is finished, the people will remark: “We have done it ourselves.” Then you will know you have done a good job.

“Long-range planning does not deal with future decisions, but with the future of present decisions based on past experience.” (Peter Drucker)

Grief Journey

Dr Bill Webster is the author of numerous books and resources for grieving people. He has some innovative resources which funeral directors and professionals can make available to their clients as part of an after-care programme. Check out Dr Bill’s resources at his website,

Linda D Jones, Executive Director of Resources,

Tel: 0333 8000 630


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