A Ceremony for Cremation
By Gail Rubin, CT, The Doyenne of Death®
“Simple” is one popular reason people cite for choosing cremation. Simply send the body off to the crematory for direct cremation and you don’t have to mess with a funeral. No muss, no fuss – just deal with it, go home and move on.
While that may sound good to those who want to avoid the messiness of mourning, this simple efficiency can leave a deep emotional hole to fill. Those who opt for direct cremation may not recognize the importance of some sort of goodbye ritual.
When a person is loved – or hated – their passing really matters. The significance of their life calls for recognition. Without some sort of ritual to say goodbye to this person, death can generate an emotional black hole for the deceased’s family and friends.
Grief counselors cite clinical experiences with patients who do not recognize a death with some sort of ceremony. Very often, six months later these people seek professional help to process their grief.
Irrespective of the disposition method, we humans need to express our emotions over a loss. Mourning at the time of death can prevent repression which causes psychological trouble down the road.
There are many ways to accomplish a Good Goodbye. The current trend is to celebrate the life, avoiding the somber trappings of a traditional funeral or memorial service, visitations and viewings. However the life is remembered, it’s important to express emotions over the loss and receive the support of one’s community.
When a family chooses cremation for economic reasons, very often visitations and viewings get omitted because of added costs when working with a funeral home.
Just because someone is going to be cremated doesn’t mean you can’t have a visitation with the family prior to a memorial service, and a viewing of the deceased, if that’s the family’s custom. Families can do their own visitations and even hold viewings with a home-based funeral at little or no added cost.
Prior to a funeral or memorial service, the family receives the support of their community with a visitation. Visitation provides time for the family to receive visitors who offer their condolences. It’s a time to share stories and catch up with long lost friends and relatives prior to a memorial service. This can be a day or two before the service or immediately before the funeral or cremation.
To help lighten the atmosphere, play a soundtrack of the deceased’s favorite music, or play popular tunes appropriate to the age of the deceased. This is also a time for socializing. It is appropriate to have food and drink available. Visitation can take place at a funeral home, which can add to costs, or in a private residence.
Visitations are customary among Christian denominations. Members of the Jewish and Muslim faiths focus on burying the dead quickly and receiving community support after the funeral. Visitors come to the Jewish mourner’s home for a shivah lasting up to seven days after the funeral. Muslims may observe up to 40 days of mourning at home after a death.
The body of the deceased may be displayed for visitors to view as part of the visitation or funeral prior to cremation. Viewing is a highly individual choice for families, and it’s not for everyone. Jews and Muslims consider viewing the body a sign of disrespect.
Some people are highly visual or touch-oriented. If they don’t see the deceased actually laid out dead, or have the opportunity to touch the body, they may not fully accept the reality of the death.
Embalming is not required by any state law. However, many funeral homes insist on embalming for a viewing by more than immediate family and for a greater time span than 30 minutes. It is often the funeral home’s own rules regarding viewings they cite for requiring embalming.
If a person is going to be cremated, refrigeration is sufficient for preserving the body for a few days. Embalming is traditionally prohibited by the Jewish and Muslim faiths.
With cremation to follow, the deceased may lie in a wooden casket, a rental casket, or simply laid out on a bed, recliner or bier. If there is no casket, or a rental casket is used, the body will be transferred into some sort of container prior to cremation. Alternative containers are basically cardboard boxes used to place the body in the retort (the high temperature cremation machine).
Here is an outline of a Good Goodbye ceremony involving cremation. This ceremony template incorporates what I call the Four R’s of a Good Goodbye: Recognize the death; Remember the person; Reaffirm beliefs; and Release the spirit of the deceased.
This service template can be used for a variety of memorial services: with or without cremated remains, as an outline for a private gathering for immediate family at home, and at ash scattering events. Those who opt to do their own home funerals can incorporate these elements as part of their Good Goodbye process prior to cremation.
The service can be as upbeat and secular or religious and somber as the family wants. If it’s a secular service, a celebrant, the funeral director or a member of the family who is comfortable with public speaking can serve as the master or mistress of ceremonies. If the funeral is religious, a clergy person, preferably one who already knows the family, can preside over the service.
Components of the funeral or memorial service can include:
- Playing up to three meaningful pieces of music at the beginning, middle and end of the service – either recorded or performed live by musicians;
- Welcoming attendees to the service and focusing on the significance of the event;
- Reminding everyone present to silence or turn off electronic devices to maintain a sacred space for the service;
- Introducing the person who lived and died. An obituary is often read to provide an overview of the person’s life or the celebrant can prepare a life story or eulogy;
- Telling stories about the deceased – sharing details about his or her life, death, values, passions and accomplishments. These stories can come from prepared eulogies by those close to the deceased, further stories from the celebrant and/or open comments from attendees;
- Showing a video montage of photos set to music featuring the deceased with family and friends;
- Stating beliefs about life, death and the afterlife, whatever the family believes to be true, is the third R, Reaffirm beliefs. This can be a tricky line to navigate, as members of a family may hold divergent beliefs, from atheists to evangelicals. See the reading below by Benjamin Franklin as a possible middle ground.
- For those families who would appreciate Bible readings, the 23rd Psalm (The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…), the 121st Psalm (I lift my eyes to the mountains…) and Ecclesiastes 3:1 (To everything there is a season…) can provide a measure of comfort.
- Closing with a statement that sends the deceased on their way to whatever comes next, and the living to their new life without the deceased, provides the fourth R, Release. Here’s my closing statement which you may use:
“While (name) is no longer present in physical form, he/she will live on in the hearts and minds of those present – and by carrying (name) in memory, he/she becomes immortal. Let us resolve to go forth from today’s service inspired to live better lives thanks to (name’s) example and dedicate ourselves to the higher causes that (name) held dear.”
– Celebrant Gail Rubin, CT
Here is a lovely reading for the third R, Reaffirming beliefs, appropriate for almost any funeral, save for staunch atheists and some humanists. These words by Benjamin Franklin come from a letter written in 1756:
“We are spirits. That bodies should be lent us, while they can afford us pleasure, assist us in acquiring knowledge, or in doing good to our fellow creatures, is a kind and benevolent act of God.
When they [our bodies] become unfit for these purposes and afford us pain instead of pleasure, instead of an aid become an encumbrance, and answer none of the intentions for which they were given, it is equally kind and benevolent, that a way is provided by which we may get rid of them. Death is that way.
Our friend and we were invited abroad on a party of pleasure, which is to last forever. His chair was ready first and he has gone before us. We could not all conveniently start together; and why should you and I be grieved at this, since we are soon to follow, and know where to find him.”
– Benjamin Franklin
Chapels that incorporate a retort are common in Great Britain, but they are not yet widespread in the United States. In a cremation chapel, at funeral’s end, the casket is slowly lowered out of sight or curtains are closed before the casket moves into the retort.
If the funeral home has a chapel connected to the cremation retort, the beginning of the cremation process can make a moving end to the funeral. However, many cremation retorts are located in industrial settings. This makes a ceremonial transition to the cremation problematic. Those closest to the deceased might go to the retort for the final disposition.
Whether in a chapel or industrial setting, a designated family member or friend can push the button to start the cremation process. A reading or prayer may be said at this point.
This statement I’ve written for reciting at the start of cremation can help with the fourth R, Release:
“(Name), we consign your body to the flames, consuming your physical body and releasing your spirit. We remember all the good you brought to this life and forgive your faults. As you pass from this physical lifetime, we wonder where we go after breath has left our bodies. Your memory burns brightly in our hearts, and as long as we remember you, you will live on. Go your way in peace.”
– Celebrant Gail Rubin, CT
After the funeral/cremation, attendees may gather for further story telling and sharing support over food and drink. This gathering can take place at the funeral home, a restaurant, a private residence, or in a meaningful setting, indoors or outside.
Everyone deserves a Good Goodbye. Use this template as a way to craft an individualized ritual for those who choose cremation.
Hail and Farewell: Cremation Ceremonies, Templates and Tips offers families guidance and ideas for creating meaningful, memorable memorial services after a loved one has been cremated. MORE INFORMATION
The book’s title refers to the last line of an ancient elegiac poem written by the Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus approximately 2,000 years ago. He mourns the death of his brother, who died while Catullus was traveling abroad. Upon his return, he sadly addresses his brother’s cremated remains, “… with brotherly weeping. And forever, brother, hail and farewell.”
Hail and Farewell: Cremation Ceremonies, Templates and Tips, is published by Light Tree Press and retails for $10.00 (plus shipping and NM sales tax as applicable). Order your copies today!
Gail Rubin, CT, The Doyenne of Death®, is a TED speaker who brings a light touch to serious subjects. As a speaker she uses humor and funny films to attract people to discuss mortality, end-of-life, estate and funeral planning issues. She is a Certified Funeral Celebrant and is Certified in Thanatology: Death, Dying and Bereavement by the Association for Death Education and Counseling. A pioneering Death Café hostess, she is author of the award-winning book and host of the TV and radio shows A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die and creator of Mortality Minute information spots.