17 tips for throwing a successful funeral – wait, what?!

The title of an online article — “4 tips for throwing a successful funeral” — caused me to do a double-take. Perhaps it was the use of the word throwing as opposed to say, planning, that made it sound a little … um, inappropriate.

Two years ago this week, the most overwhelming aspect of my newly-widowed life was the thought of planning a service. But after all was said and done, the Celebration of Life service we *threw* for Hubby was just that. A celebration. And why not?



Photographer: Howard Gorman


There were some tears, of course, but mostly it was a joyous occasion of family and friends gathered around some great story-telling and fabulous memories.

If these 17 tips—as I stumbled forward with Daughter Summer, the sure one of the two of us—can help ease the stress of even one funeral-planner, then mission accomplished:

1. Let people help; ask people to help. Summer lectured. often. about how I wasn’t good at accepting gifts. Or accepting help. In order to prove her wrong, I not only learned to say, “Yes, thank you,” but I also learned to ask for help. Try it; it’s really quite painless.

2. Send invitations. Daughter-in-law Denise put an e-vite out on Facebook with date, time and location. It helped to get a general idea of how many people to expect.

3. Get a photographer. Wasn’t sure if this was appropriate, but I asked a friend if he’d take a few pictures before, after and during the ceremony. And I was grateful to have those photos.

4. Create a program. We designed a simple program as a fat bookmark with a color photo at the top. A friend touched up the design and printed them on card stock, and I loved how they turned out.



Photographer: Howard Gorman


5. Embrace décor. We were in the winter holiday season when Hubby died. Every year on the Friday after Thanksgiving, a crew decorates our church auditorium for Christmas. Which means, on the day of Gary’s celebration, trees and greenery in our church were entwined with hundreds of tiny white lights. It was almost enchanting in its simple beauty. Unexpected gift.

6. Create a memory table. Flowers were spread out in blue Mason and clear glass jars across tables in the foyer of our church. Our grandkids had written letters to their grandpa before he died, which were framed and set out on the table. We clothes-pinned photos onto twine attached to retro luggage, and set out items that represented Hubby’s interests: backpack, trekking poles, show-shoes, camera. Family members brought some of their favorite photos of Gary, which were also scattered across the table.

7. Have a guest book. Our non-traditional *guest book* was a basket of river stones with black permanent markers for guests to write a brief note, sign, and then place in a tall glass canister. I set the canister on our fireplace hearth, and reading all the messages later was a lesson in heart-warming-ness. (Pinterest is an excellent source for decor, memory table and guest book ideas.)



Photographer: Howard Gorman


8. Greet guests. No one said I should do this, but I stood at the church doors greeting guests before it was time to be seated. And even though I didn’t get to everyone, I’m glad I took the time to smile and hug and reassure these friends and family.

9. Find the right minister. It’s nice if the officiator knows your loved one well. Our pastor and our son-in-law Josh, also a minister, shared the officiating. Josh included an early remembrance of Gary. Apparently, back when Josh called to ask our blessing to marry our daughter, Gary had responded in his typical deadpan way: “How much is this going to cost me?”

10. Prepare the eulogy. I drafted the highlights of Hubby’s life, and then Son Jeremy added his own humor and memories. It blessed my heart to hear my son talk about his father.

11. Share stories. I asked people from different areas of Hubby’s life—his siblings; a cousin; our hike leader; the director of the men’s rescue mission where he volunteered—to share a story or remembrance. Interestingly, all the stories connected, as if the story-tellers had practiced together. A few tears, and much laughter. And laughter is good medicine for the grieving.

12. Include grandchildren, if appropriate. As mentioned earlier, Daughter Summer and SIL Josh had encouraged their children to write letters to their grandfather in the last weeks of his life. The letters arrived electronically from New Jersey, and were read out loud to Hubby. As part of the service, eleven-year-old Titus elected to read the letter he had written. And it warmed my heart all over again to hear him share his memories of his grandpa and how they teased each other over their respective football teams.

13. Include video. SIL Josh created a slide show video, beginning with baby photos of Gary; as a young man with his ’66 GTO; sporting mutton chop sideburns and holding our own babies; years later, trimmed up and walking our daughter down the aisle toward her groom; Hubby and me hiking the Cascades, Tetons, Rockies. Priceless gift, this video.

There were also two short video clips recorded earlier by a Japanese daughter, Yuki, and one of my former cheerleaders, Annie, that contained sweet and humorous memories of Gary’s influence in their young lives.

14. Have music. We intentionally kept the music simple because we didn’t want the service to extend too long. Gary had a favorite song by the group, Selah: “You Raise Me Up So I Can Stand on Mountains,” which was the perfect backdrop for the slide show of his life.

15. Arrange for housing. With friends leaving town the week of Thanksgiving, we located three large homes for overnight lodging for our out-of-town family members.

16. Share meals together. In one of the homes, Daughter Summer and I hosted a dinner on Friday night after Thanksgiving — roasted chicken, multiple salads, pretzel rolls — the perfect meal as family members arrived at various times throughout the evening.

On Saturday after the service, the women from our church served a lovely sit-down meal for family and a few close friends who had traveled some distance. Linen tablecloths; lights dimmed; candles lit. People lingering long and catching up over good food.

Later that evening, we brought take-n-bake pizzas to a friend’s house as family, once again, congregated together, sharing stories around the large kitchen island with a college game playing out on the big screen in the living room. Over-the-top, thoughtful gifts — these meals, these gathering places.

17. Send thank you’s. After all was said and done, there were dozens, dozens of thank-you notes to write: The ministers, the crew that prepared lunch, the people who let us storm their houses, the gifts and meals delivered to our home, the flowers, so many who sent checks that defrayed the cost of funeral home expenses.

Should you try to thank everyone? Yes. Most definitely yes. Which may seem overwhelming to the newly-widowed—it was—but I drafted a list, and plugged away at it bit by bit. And eventually it got done. People don’t mind if a thank-you note arrives a couple weeks after the fact; they simply love hearing from you, and hearing what their part meant to you.

* * *

Go ahead. Throw a celebration in memory of that most beloved person. And don’t fret if there is laughter and joy. Because hopefully, many of your memories are laughter-making and joy-filling.

Oh, and the video SIL Josh produced? After Gary died, Josh and Summer adopted three young brothers from Uganda. Every time I visit, every time I visit, they ask if they can watch grandpa’s video, even though they’ve never met their grandpa. It goes without saying that I love LOVE watching this video with them, again and again.

P.S.  If this post would be helpful to someone you know, please share, tweet or pin!


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  1. KR


    Thanks for sharing such lovely unique ideas.

    Why, should you not celebrate and honor the memory of your most beloved and make it
    a joyful experience with laughter among the tears. After all laughter is the best medicine.

    • I was a little hesitant about this post, KR. Not a popular topic … because who wants to be reminded that someday they will more than likely need to plan a funeral service. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Karen Bradley

    Good stuff Marlys. It’s so true that the laughter and tears mix together when our loved one has lived well and loved us well. In the days after my mom’s passing my sister’s neighbor wondered why she was having such a big party because we were together as a family, comforting Dad, comforting one another – and laughing a lot!

  3. Joan Mimiaga

    Thank you Marlys for sharing. We were out of town when you had your hubby’s celebration so we were unable to attend. This blog was so enlightening to me.

    • I’m not suggesting that you fall into this category, Joan … but what’s amazing to me is the number of women close to my age who have admitted wondering (worrying, having anxiety) about widowhood and what it might entail. Oftentimes we don’t know how our writing comes across, but I hope writing about my widow experience vulnerably and openly will help alleviate some of that worry/wonder/anxiety over the unknown. Thank you for your kind words!

  4. John Moran III

    Hi Marlys!
    As usual, your insights and wisdom are amazing. I have never heard of ‘throwing a funeral’, but it makes so much sense. Of course people talk about a ‘life celebration’ instead of a funeral, etc. but the way you celebrated Gary was awesome. I am sorry I did not know of it so I could attend.
    I love the details and the list of what and how to do it. People don’t have to follow each step exactly, nor should they, since everyone is different. But to have a great outline to give guidance and structure in such time of grief and need, is truly a gift.
    I am reminded of a TV movie I watched decades ago, called “Tuesdays with Maury”. The young man who was visiting his old former teacher (I think that’s what the relationship was) on Tuesdays, was shocked to see people at Maury’s house having a wake one day, only to go inside and find Maury was not dead. Maury said “why should I wait until I’m dead to hear all those good things being said about me?” I found that a very interesting comment.
    I have had the ‘itch’ for years, to write each of my 5 kids a ‘closing letter’, in case I die without getting to say all I want to say to each of them. I have come close to death a number of times, (crashing my bike on my way to your bible study in ’84, having a tree fall on me in ’05, having kidney failure in ’06…) and we just never know when our time is up. This is on my ‘to-do’ list, and I hope to do them soon.
    I think the written word is very powerful, and your writings have been a great influence to me. The Bible also is a love letter to us, from our Heavenly Father. It would do us well, to read it often and be guided, comforted, and instructed by it. When my time comes and I leave this earth, I do not want people weeping about and grieving over me. I hope I have lived a life which will cause my loved ones to gather, laugh and eat and share a good party, and remember what I goofball I was, and that I loved the Lord.
    Stay well, keep writing and encouraging us, and keep on keeping on 🙂 🙂

    • Oh, John – yes, write those closing letters to your kids. In fact, I’ve started the draft of a blog – probably to be posted after the New Year – about writing Life Review Letters. Thank you for your encouraging and kind words, and for reading my writing (one never knows who’s reading!).

      P.S. Grateful the bike, tree, kidney didn’t take you out.

  5. Outstanding post, Marlys! I’m tucking this post away for that “someday” loss that lies ahead, when I’ll need this road map. What a beautiful way to honor your husband. What deep love you have for him, and what deep love for Christ you demonstrate along the way. Super-practical tips – thank you!

  6. Peter Howe B.E.M.

    I pray folks are lifted by all that has been written here and I’m certainly sure ‘A celebration of Life’ is the true way. I decided I would sing at my younger brother David’s funeral service back in ’77, it wasn’t easy but David was with me and HE helped me. I became guardian to his two children so David has always been with us, how could he not be. At my mother Nancy’s funeral I just wanted to sing ‘My Peace I give unto you…..’ and I knew my mother was smiling on for me. So, really by taking that positive decision we can create those special memories as are written here as we are helped deal with the ‘physical loss’ of our loved ones, who will always be there for us to talk with. Marly’s is also doing, through her blog, such a service which we can all share in. I recall in 2000 a group of cancer sufferer/survivors came together and we formed a similar cause to this, which we called – ‘A celebration of Life after Cancer’ because WE as a group needed to be there for others who might need some help. Our idea of ‘A celebration of Life’ was paramount, so that was part of the title (who ever’s life we might be talking about), then to ‘Celebrate that Life after Cancer’ was so meaningful. Those in the ‘fashion shows’ annually are all in treatment and their positivity and determination is so heartfelt… I know because my Barbara, our grand daughter Laura and ‘self have all contributed and we wouldn’t have missed it for the world. The legacy is in ‘being there’ with what ever help you/we have for those who may come to us for it. Love what you are doing Marlys, thank you and everyone who supports you. God Bless, Barbara & Peter.

    • Peter, I love that the name of your group was ‘A Celebration of Life after Cancer’! And what a great mission – to be there for others who might need some help. That’s awesome!

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