Skip to main content Skip to header navigation

16 ways I turned my husband’s funeral into a celebration of his life

Marlys Johnson
When I saw the article, “4 tips for throwing a successful funeral” it 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.

More: Some of us just never heal from grief

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?

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 16 tips can help ease the stress of even one funeral-planner, then my mission is accomplished.

Let people help and 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.

Send invitations

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

Get a photographer

I 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.

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.

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.

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 and these 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: backpacks, trekking poles, show-shoes, and a camera. Family members brought some of their favorite photos of Gary, which were also scattered across the table.

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 heart-warming. (Pinterest is an excellent source for decor, memory table and guest book ideas.)

More: How I learned to face my grief and love more openly

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, hug and reassure these friends and family.

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?”

Prepare the eulogy

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

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.

Film it

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

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 slideshow of his life.

Provide housing

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

Have plenty of 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, coffee and cookies — 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. People were lingering 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. These meals and gathering places became over-the-top thoughtful gifts.

Write thank you cards

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, and to 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 and 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 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 their 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.

Originally published on BlogHer

More: Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings” is helping me through my grief

Leave a Comment

Comments are closed.