3 ways to personalize a funeral

Googling "Riverside California funeral homes" was the first thing I did when I started planning my mom's funeral.

She had no plans other than her request that we scatter her ashes about 3,500 miles away, in her hometown. No guidance for music to play. No menu curated for what we should serve the guests — no guest list at all to begin with. So I started from scratch and went looking for the one resource I figured could help me out.

As anyone who has planned a funeral might know — and as anyone who has never planned a funeral might be surprised to find out — funeral homes aren't always as welcoming as you'd like or need them to be. Since, I've been lucky to get in touch with incredibly compassionate, kind, creative, open, warm funeral directors and planners that live for helping people plan their best post-death service. But when I made arrangements to go visit a few funeral homes with my dad, we were pretty disappointed. 

This was due to the fact that:

1. I had no idea what we wanted — coming unprepared (which is all too normal these days) was overwhelming.

2. We were totally in a state of shock — planning was the first thing I could think to do to get over this shock, but I was in and out of "Wait, what just happened!?" mode. 

3. I was distracted by little, ridiculous things that were easier to focus on than the fact that my mom was dead. Is this lady's wig a little askew? Is that a wig? Is this guy's suit covered in dust? Why do they keep answering the phone in the middle of my sentences? What's that smell... should funeral homes have a smell? 

So. After visiting two funeral homes that were very off-putting, my dad and I stood on the curb and talked. Did we think this was an appropriate place to even have mom's ceremony? What difference does it make, if there's no body? What the HELL is with the prices and the fact that they're being shoved down our throats? Do we need people driving 45 minutes on a SoCal freeway to go cry, drink booze, and then drive home? And what would mom want?

By answering these questions (and calling my aunt in Canada for a gut check), we realized that my mom's celebration of life wasn't meant to happen in a place with plastic covering the circa-1960s lamps, or a place where the curtains were drawn so tight I swear the pews (also, pews ::eye roll::) had never seen the light of day. So we decided it was important to celebrate her life in a place where we'd all lived our best lives as a family, as husband and wife, as mother and daughter: our home.

Below are a few things that we did to make her ceremony particularly special and personalized. If you're planning a celebration of life, memorial, or straight up funeral, here's some inspiration for ways you can make it even more special — whether in your backyard, on the beach, or at a funeral home. 

We hosted in our childhood home's backyard.

I pulled this quote from my eulogy, which sums up why we decided to do it at home. “There are a lot of things that I can think about and talk about that celebrate her life — things that have already happened that we can think back to. A lot of those thing are around this house which makes me really grateful for the fact that we decided to do this here today and invite everyone. Because it means a lot that we could all be here to celebrate her life because this house — any corner of this house — my mom was in it somewhere. Whether it’s an earring that fell out of her ear that’s under a carpet, or her trinkets that she taught me to love that are everywhere..."

My first bit of advice is to consider throwing the service you're planning somewhere special. Somewhere your loved one enjoyed going, somewhere that they always wanted to go, or somewhere that it open. Ditch a small, cramped room with hard wooden pews for an open yard, a pool, or even a park with benches and picnic blankets. These services are definitely about respecting the wishes of someone you love, but they're also an opportunity to celebrate in a way that's comforting, joyous, and filled with love and light. Highlight those special moments or experiences you shared in a place that's comfy and positive.

"There are lots of pictures and there are lots of things just around the property: my parents planted my first Christmas tree in the front yard, when we built the pool my mom used one of her cookie cutters to stamp some hearts in the concrete around the pool. My mom planted things like rose bushes for Princess Diana. My mom threw the frisbee back here with the dogs as long as she could. She drove us home form school everyday with her Montero in the front yard. There are pictures of us and lockets of us that I found are all over the house and in the frames."

I requested that everyone bring sunflowers instead of booze or food.

When someone dies, there's a good chance you'll turn to food and booze to feel better. Why? Because it f'ing feels great to cry over casseroles and triple whiskeys. Unfortunately, it's not always great for the body and it's especially bad for your mental health. 

I decided that since our fridge was full of snacks, and we needed anything but more alcohol stocking our bar, it was important for people to bring something that would positively impact both our bodies and our minds: beautiful sunflowers (one of my mom's favourites) to decorate the yard, service area, and our home with. Because the only thing better than waking up to 10 quiches and an Irish coffee is dozens of bouquets of fresh flowers.

Ask your friends and family to bring something healthy, positive, and meaningful, instead of unhealthy foods and liquor. Your body is grieving, which takes a lot of physical and mental energy. So surround yourself with something that'll help you feel good.

It doesn't have to be flowers! (As comedian Sean White once pointed out, flowers die too, so they're not always the best thing to have laying around a few days after a funeral.) So it could be photos that they have with your loved one, music to play that reminds them of your loved one, or a card with a specific memory jotted down, so that you can review them after the service when everyone's left and you're alone again.

We served one of my mom's favourite foods.

On the food note (my favourite note) it was really important that we 1. didn't have to cook the day of the service (one less thing to worry about) 2. we were eating something that tasted good af. For me, it was important to have something that my mom loved. If she couldn't be there to eat it anymore, we would scarf it down and share great memories of times eating dinner at the hottest Tex-Mex joint in Riverside (go ahead and lol — these bacon-wrapped shrimp were the bomb). Many of the people at the service knew the restaurant well and had fond memories of eating there with my family, my parents, and specifically my mom, since she looooved these shrimp! 

Plan a menu that reflects what you need for the day: that might be a positive memory about your loved one, or a tasty meal that lifts your spirits. What'd they like to eat on their birthdays? What did they like to eat when you went to their favourite restaurant (consider asking them to cater, it's worth it)? What did they cook for you that you loved that someone else could recreate?


Most importantly, I'd stress that you don't have to wait until your parent, friend, or loved one is gone to talk about this stuff. Bringing up the fun, small features of a service can be a great way to get planning long before someone's gone. You'll get their input (i.e. my mom raving about bacon-wrapped shrimp at dinner) and their personality (my mom letting me know whenever the sunflowers started blooming on the property while I was away), which goes a long way in taking the stress off of you at times when there's already enough to deal with.