Saying farewell: How today’s funerals are changing

For the first 50 years of my life, I think I went to 10 funerals in total. Now that I’m middle-aged I go to about 10 a year. It’s a new fact of my life. I’m a baby boomer. I have relatives, friends, in-laws and out-laws, all with parents who are nearing the end of their lives. And because I work with seniors and their families, I know many more people who are older and will be dying soon.

What I’ve noticed between before 50 and now is that funerals have changed. I thought I would share with you some observations of how these events are evolving to become more of a family celebration.

What are your options?

Before, many of the funerals I attended were religious. A minister, priest or rabbi would officiate at a formal service for the deceased. The service would include prayers, hymns and readings from a holy book. People would show up at a church, synagogue or funeral home, listen to a sermon, hear a few key people doing a reading, have tea or coffee afterwards and pass on their condolences to the family. They were sad, desolate affairs, and I think this is why I avoided them for so many years.

Now, we call them services, memorials, celebrations of life or, in the case of my father, “a roast.” Family members, friends and business associates share their memories and give speeches in a funeral home or banquet hall, on a boat or in a park. We may learn about the person’s accomplishments, both professional and personal.

Instead of being placed in expensive and ornate caskets, people’s ashes are interred into the sea, a lake or a river, or perhaps on a special piece of property. I read about one daughter who organized her father’s funeral in a hockey rink because that was where he spent most of his life.

Now, people laugh as well as cry. When my mother died, we learned my brother was quite the comic as he shared his stories about his relationship with mum. At the end of mum’s service we drank champagne, played her favourite song (“In the Mood”) and danced. At dad’s service I heard about his illustrious naval career for the first time.

When is the event?

Before, funeral services were held within a few days of the person dying. The service was often open to the public and all those who could make it for the event would be there. But those who couldn’t be present for any number of reasons—finances, bad timing, a business conference—were left out.

Now, family members may wait to get things organized so that more of the key players can attend.

When my father-in-law died in 2004, my husband was in the USA and other important family members were also out of the country. My father died in April 2010 in British Columbia. My siblings and I were scattered around the world and could not get home in time for the usual service.

Before both men died, the families talked about “what if and when.” In both situations we agreed that we would do something when everyone was back on home turf. In the case of my father-in-law we had a formal service in New Brunswick about three weeks after he died. For my dad, we had three events: a funeral service in British Columbia on the May 1st; an ashes internment into the sea on Father’s Day; and finally a celebration of life in mid July.

Who might attend?

Before, anyone could show up at a funeral and pay their respects. Often they would find out about the funeral from a notice in the local paper. Children were left at home, I suspect wondering what they had done wrong. If they did attend they were seen and not heard.

Now, people young and old are invited to attend. Invitations can be sent by mail, email or phone. I’m not yet at the Twitter, Facebook or blog stage, but I’m sure these communication methods are spreading the word about someone’s life.

With my dad’s memorial we only invited people who knew him personally. We wanted it to be an intimate gathering rather than a public forum. We gave people plenty of notice and asked them to RSVP. If people couldn’t make it, we asked them to send a story or memory and we would share it on the day.

Now, children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews attend and also take part in the planning and proceedings. My nine-year-old nephew took on the role of greeter for my dad’s memorial. Children can add a lot of humour and joy as they share their stories.

Technology’s new role

Before, the most technology at a funeral was an organ.

Now, we have scanners, videos, PowerPoint presentations, music over the speaker system, videos and—the best so far—the internet and webcams. My sister lives in Australia and couldn’t come to dad’s memorial, so we hooked her up over the internet. We had her connected through a laptop that we put on a stool. She watched and listened to the whole thing at 4 am in the morning her time. People spoke with her too. Amazing!

Costs to consider

Before, the main cost was to the funeral home, which provided a range of services including caskets, room rental, limousines, hearses, tea and coffee afterwards, cremation and notices in the paper. Other costs included the official and the flowers.

Now, many people pre-pay for their funerals. I must say this was a huge help with my in-laws as all we had to do was pick a date and time and show up. My mother left me a small life insurance policy to “organize things.” My dad had pre-paid for his west-coast service. My siblings and I paid for dad’s internment into the sea and for the final celebration we rented a banquet hall in Aurora. We did it all ourselves and it was a great event. We offered appetizers, a host bar, several heart-warming and funny speeches, picture boards, music and PowerPoint displays.

It’s a family affair

Before, the grieving widow or widower, with the support of the oldest child, made all the arrangements with the funeral home.

Now, all family members near and far can get involved. Even though many of my dad’s relatives live in England, they were able to contribute to the service by sending stories, pictures and emails that we shared with our invited guests. My siblings and I made decisions about the venue, food and tone of the event.

It’s important to let everyone have a role during the memorial itself. A niece can be responsible for music and displays. A brother can read the speeches from absent friends. A sister can arrange flowers. A brother-in-law can make up name tags and greet guests.

My main contribution to my dad’s memorial was to be co-host with my brother. I also put together a booklet of the memories, stories and pictures from the day and sent it out afterwards to those who could not be there.

What I’ve realized is that each family has to make choices that work for the person they’ve lost, the dynamics of the family and the financial resources available. Be prepared for some differences of opinions between family members. If you come from a large family like I do, it can be daunting to get agreement among everyone. If possible, try to let all those who want to take part in the planning and proceedings.

The bottom line

Whatever you want to call them—funerals, services, memorials or celebrations—they are our way of saying goodbye. As I attend more and more of these events I’m often surprised and delighted at the efforts of the family to make it a more positive experience. The events are certainly more creative and more fun. Now I look forward to sharing a few laughs and learning more about the people who have died and how they lived their lives.

Words of warning

As a word of warning, be prepared to spend up to $10,000 or more for a service. The government of Canada will provide up to $2,500 in death benefits and this may be applied toward the cost of a funeral. The executor must apply for these funds. For more information, visit

If the person was a veteran, there may be additional resources available. Contact your local Veterans Affairs office for information.

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1 Comment

  1. This is awesome. I just love all the things you find and share with us. Thank you.Ps. Also love the updated rotating images on the front page of the blog. Hot!