How to plan a funeral

A step by step checklist

Someone you loved has passed on, and now there is a funeral to be arranged. It can be an overwhelming time. Suddenly there are many decisions to make and there may be costs you didn’t anticipate.

Times are changing. No longer are we satisfied with funeral services that all look the same that fall short of reflecting our loved ones in an authentic and unique way. Many of us have little experience arranging a funeral, but with some guidance It’s possible to arrange an unforgettable funeral for the ones we love.

Here’s a guide to all the decisions that come into play when planning a funeral.

Contents of page

The First 24-48 Hours

Choose a Service Venue / Decide Location

Creating The Service / Preparing the Service

After the funeral

The First 24-48 Hours

The immediate period following the passing of someone you love involves letting people know and making several decisions regarding the body.

Letting People Know

A digital world makes it easier than ever to let people know when someone has died. Some still value placing a death notice in the newspaper, although this is possibly now only relevant for an older generation.

  1. Place a notice in the newspaper, although note there is no legal obligation to do so. This typically advises that the person has died, place and date that death occurred and may mention other facts about their life such as surviving family. It will typically include details for the funeral, and may include a photo and statement from the family.

  2. Set up an online honoring page. People can join, get all the details of the funeral, post tributes and photos, share messages for family and friends.

  3. Have someone within the family take on the role of letting people know. It can be a good idea to write an email or message for people to share so there is consistency in what people are being told.

Choose a Funeral Home

The funeral home you select will have compassionate and competent people to support your family as much or as little as you need to make the funeral arrangements. Like any industry, prices vary, and can be influenced by facilities, location and business ownership.

If you’re in the Portland OR area, you can also check out our funeral home providers.

Arrange a Death Certificate

This is handled by the funeral home as part of the fixed service fee they charge. It is possible to arrange this directly with local authorities.

Will and Insurance

It can be some time before the will is read following death. If the will is probated there can be a significant delay. For that reason, a will is a poor choice to place instructions regarding the funeral. A separate funeral plan is an excellent solution, and enables someone to record everything from decisions regarding the body (like burial and cremation) to who will give eulogies and act as pall bearers. Check if there is a funeral plan in place that records decisions.

Life insurance policies often pay a component of distributed funds for funeral arrangements. This can be paid out quickly ahead of the remainder of the policy being finalized. Check with power of attorney regarding insurance policies in place. In some cases there is a separate insurance policy for funeral arrangements.

Cremation vs. Burial

Following death, one of the first decisions a family faces is regarding burial or cremation. If instructions have been expressed to family, or noted in a funeral plan then the matter is relatively straightforward. If not, family will have to determine what is best. This decision can affect what type of service is planned, such as a graveside committal in the case of burial, and what to do with ashes if cremating. Cremation is now the preferred option for Americans with almost 60 percent of deaths opting for cremation.

Choose a Casket

Unless family have elected for direct-to-cremation, there will be a casket present at the funeral service.

There are lots of poignant moments at the service that are anchored by the casket; the arrival at the service venue, carrying the casket by chosen pallbearers, and finally, the moment the casket is driven away. If burial has been chosen there is the added ritual of lowering the casket into the earth and the committal ceremony.

There are a wide range of casket options from traditional to eco friendly, and an equally wide range of prices. Caskets can be purchased via the funeral home, or directly from some providers.

It’s worth noting that a casket isn’t legally required. With natural burials growing in popularity, some favoure alternatives such as shrouds.

Choose What They Will Wear

It is one of the more moving and emotional decisions; choosing what your loved one will wear in the casket. If the casket will be open may affect what you select, and the degree of presentation you wish to have, as may deciding if something special is best retained as an heirloom or keepsake instead.

Cosmetology and Hair

Alongside choosing what your loved one will wear, there will often be some degree of cosmetology and hair treatment. This can be done at the funeral home, or may be done by family.

Select a Cemetery Plot

When burial is selected for committal of the body a cemetery will need to be chosen. There are a number of factors influencing this decision such as family history, location and accessibility, earth friendly options and more.

Prepare An Obituary

An obituary tells the story of someone's life and is typically published in a newspaper. Major newspapers therefore mostly carry obituaries for well known public figures. However, there are ample opportunities to create an obituary for a loved one and have this published in an appropriate place.

Graveside Arrangements

Your funeral home and chosen cemetery can work with you to assist with graveside arrangements. You may be planning a simple committal event that follows on from the funeral service being held elsewhere, or graveside could be the location of the main service, possibly followed by a gathering at another venue. The cemetery will assist with opening and closing of the grave, and the funeral home will coordinate transport of the casket, unless you choose to give this privilege to someone in the family.

Here are several things to consider for a graveside service:

  1. Weather: Either extremely hot or wet and cold conditions can make a graveside service tricky. Umbrellas cover both situations nicely. If conditions on the day are predicted to be extreme, have a plan B that might mean reducing numbers and live streaming the service.

  2. Seating: Typically provided only for immediate family and those who are older, frail, or incapacited in some way. Have someone guide appropriate people to their seats.

  3. Length of Service: Graveside services are generally shorter in length than those held in a church, funeral home chapel or other venue. Allow time for eulogy formalities at the afters venue if the main service is to be a graveside event.

  4. Funeral Procession: For some families, having others follow the hearse is a way to enable others to show respect and support. Ensure you communicate the location and timing the hearse or casket transport will leave from.

  5. Refreshments: If not holding an afters function, consider if you’d like to provide something for people at the conclusion of the graveside service. Some cemeteries have facilities to host. If not, would a coffee cart or similar be appropriate? Most natural burial grounds encourage people to remain afterwards, perhaps with a picnic or other shared meal.

  6. Committal Rituals: The lowering of a casket into the ground is a deeply significant moment. For some, their church will have an appropriate committal ceremony. Others may choose something different which could include a reading, or other words of committal and farwell. Placing flowers, sprinkling soil or even filling the grave might be part of saying goodbye.

After The Funeral

Planning a Reception/After Service Function

Gathering together after the funeral enables people to be together beyond the formality and structure of the service. It can be a time for a few more speeches, music, and being together over a shared meal. Oftentimes, friends and family may be catching up after a long absence. A function after the funeral gives lots of opportunity for people to connect.

Will it be at the same venue as the service, or would you prefer somewhere different? Funeral homes and churches often have a place for refreshments but these can be limited to a short morning or afternoon tea, and may have limited time. If you would like greater flexibility regarding time, catering, beverage selection and perhaps music then consider selecting another place for the after service function. This could be a favourite restaurant, local pub, community theatre, sports club, vineyard or literally anywhere that meets the needs for your Great Goodbye.

If you would like people to remain in the same place as the service then ensure you keep this in mind early on when selecting the venue.

Choose a Service Venue / Decide Location

When and where the funeral will be is one of the first things that people want to know. It’s therefore one of the first things a family needs to give attention to.

Grand or grassroots, formal or freestyle, the service venue can be anywhere that suits your family and the kind of Great Goodbyes you’re creating.

You may opt for a place of faith or a funeral home chapel. You might choose somewhere such as a sports club, family home, or an events or function centre. Once you have the service venue decided, and the date and time arranged, you can begin to let people know the details, and put information on the honoring page.

Consider things like; capacity, if the venue is casket friendly, on-site catering (or freedom to self cater), distance to travel. If you would like people to remain afterwards for a reception then consider the venue's facilities and how much time you’d like to be there. Funeral homes and places of faith generally have more restrictions.

Great Goodbyes has found some wonderful alternative funeral venues in Portland, OR

Creating The Service / Preparing the Service

Choose Someone to Officiate

The person who leads the service has an important role to play. They will be the first person that guests hear from, set the tone for what follows, and give the service some structure. A funeral is not a legal event, and It surprises people to learn that anyone is able to lead a service. That could be a clergy member, professional officiant or someone within the circle of family and friends.

Choose Speakers

One of the most meaningful parts of the service is when the eulogies and readings are given. This is when stories are told by those that knew the deceased best, who walked some of life’s road alongside them. Paint a full picture by choosing speakers from different groups; family members, friends, work mates.

Choose the Pallbearers

There are typically three people per side to carry the casket, for a total of six pallbearers. Sometimes the casket is carried both into and out of the service venue, which is an opportunity for 12 people to have this important honor.

Select Casket Flowers

Known as a casket spray, flowers are typically placed on top of the casket. These may be ordered through the funeral home, but families should feel free to deal directly with their chosen florist. A funeral home will generally charge a handling fee for making floral arrangements as this isn’t covered by the funeral fixed service fees. Some funeral homes charge a mark-up on flowers.

You don’t have to purchase a formal floral arrangement; go DIY and bring flowers from home and simply tie with a ribbon, or purchase a foam floral cradle and make your own casket spray. For a more masculine touch make an arrangement in grasses, flax and greenery.

But it doesn’t have to be flowers. A more authentic touch might come from a pair of worn out running shoes that covered miles of trails and tracks. It could be a bowl of lemons, a lucky hat and trusty fishing rod. Go with your instincts on what feel like the perfect fit.

Photos and Video

It’s common for the funeral service to include a photo and video montage that reflects the life of the person who has passed on. It can be a challenging and sad undertaking collating them, but also provides a wonderful chance for people to gather together and go through old albums. Of course, many photos are now digital and held in online albums and social media accounts.

Funeral homes can assist with the creation of a photo and video reel. This will be an additional charge to the fixed service fee. If you have someone digitally savvy and creative in the family or friend circle you might ask them to create the presentation. Don’t forget to select music to accompany the photos.

Check with your chosen service venue about a big screen and how they wish to receive the photo/video file. If you're holding the service somewhere won’t have audio visual capability there are still ways to have photos included in the service, In fact it can be a wonderful way to have people involved.

Ask people to bring along a favorite photo, and get them involved in making the montage:

  1. Pin them to the trunk of a tree in an outdoor setting.
  2. Put a string line along a wall or in a stairwell and provide a basket of mini pegs for people to hang the photos.
  3. Place a pin board on an easel or hang on a wall for people to pin photos.
  4. Set up a honor page and ask people to post photos of favorite memories and moments.

Audio Visual Requirements

Funeral homes, churches and event facilities will almost always have audio visual capability. You are likely to need a microphone, speakers to play music for key moments, and a large screen for the photo montage. You may also wish to live stream the funeral service to those who cannot attend. Again, professional facilities will be able to assist. If the funeral service is going to be somewhere personal and unique such as a family home, favourite club, or outdoor venue then you will need to make arrangements to rent equipment.

Order of Service

An order of service is the hand out frequently given to guests when they arrive at the funeral. It typically has one or more photos of the deceased, date of birth and death, and then details of the service such as names of those giving readings and eulogies, the pall bearers, and sometimes the words to hymns or songs. Often, funeral homes will prepare for a fee, and will have a number of templates to choose from so you can select something fitting and appropriate.

As with almost everything, there is no rule to say you must have one, or that you need to follow a particular format. You could opt for a postcard-sized piece with a single photo and a simple phrase or saying on the reverse side.


Transport of the casket is a poignant component of the funeral. Typically, it is done in a vehicle modified to carry the casket, and is black and formal in nature. Depending on their size, a funeral home may have a single hearse option, or provide a selection. It is also possible to choose something different that gives this aspect of the funeral a unique and personal touch. You might select a white hearse instead of traditional black. There are modified motorbikes with sidecars able to take the casket and other unique vehicles.

Family can also take on this honor themselves. Taking that one last drive can be deeply moving

In the Days that Follow

There will be many things to be done once the funeral service is over. Get support and help from friends and family. Specific to the funeral service itself, here are a few things to think about:

Update the Honoring Page

If you created an honoring page for your loved one, add further information and details. It is a beautiful way for people to remain connected. This checklist captures some updates you may wish to make.

Choose a Cremation Container

The proceeds of both traditional and bio cremation are returned to the family. There are a wide range of beautiful urns available.

Choose a Grave Marker

This typically doesn’t happen immediately after the funeral service. It can be another significant cost, depending on what style is selected.

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Set up a funeral plan

Save ideas to your favourites and start to pull together the elements of the funeral that you want to personalize to create a truly authentic Great Goodbye.

Create a Plan