19 creative ideas for funerals, memorials and celebrations of life

There are a lot of assumptions made about how a funeral ‘should’ look and what it ‘should’ contain. And when you’ve just been bereaved, thinking creatively can be especially hard, so it’s easy to go with whatever your local Funeral Director tells you, or revert to your idea of ‘the norm’.

Whilst there’s nothing wrong with that of course, funeral traditions (or at least the notion of ‘how it’s done’) have stagnated somewhat. I often hear people saying ‘oh I wish we’d done something like this for my dad’ or ‘if only I’d known it could be like this’ after ceremonies.

The standard advice for what a funeral ceremony should contain, (having the coffin present, 3 pieces of music – one in, one out and a reflection or slideshow, a eulogy, maybe a hymn, someone reading a poem, and everyone listening to the person standing at the front) works well and can be endlessly personalised – but it isn’t a rule.

19 creative ideas for funerals, memorials and celebrations of life ~ Sussex wedding celebrant Claire Bradford of Creating Ceremony
Photo by Kzenon on DepositPhotos

Here are 19 thought starters for creative additions to funeral ceremonies. It’s not an exhaustive list of course, but I hope that it inspires you:

1. Not being at the crematorium/local burial ground/place of worship

The first thing most people think of or are asked to make a decision on is where they want their ceremony, and it is often assumed that this will be at a crematorium, local burial ground or a place of worship, if the person was religious. Often, people aren’t even aware that they can have a ceremony pretty much anywhere.

Whilst a crematorium is ideally suited in many ways – because of seating capacity, parking availability and so on – they can have a bit of a ‘conveyor belt’ feel to them. You also will have only around 30 minutes for your ceremony. And they’re not cheap!

It’s worth having a think about alternative venue options. Ask your Funeral Director and also do some of your own research. Some places might not have even thought about funerals but are a great choice. Local wedding venues are often worth asking, for example. Or you could do it at your house, in a wood, in somebody’s garden… the choices are endless.

You’ll need to think about the number of people coming of course, and whether or not there will be a coffin present and the logistics of that.

Which brings me on to…

2. Don’t have a coffin – choose a direct cremation and celebration of life

Once flagged as the most simple and pared-down option, many people are starting to use the option of a direct cremation as an opportunity to be more creative with their celebrations of their person.

You can either have the coffin at the venue you’ve chosen and then the Funeral Director will take your person away for direct cremation as you move on from the ceremony into sharing your stories over a glass or cup of something, OR…

You can choose to have your person directly cremated and then have their ashes present (or not) at a big celebration of them later. This also gives you the advantage of having more time to play with for organising your event.

3. Post-it notes on coffin in lots of colours/draw on coffin

19 creative ideas for funerals, memorials and celebrations of life ~ Sussex wedding celebrant Claire Bradford of Creating Ceremony
Photo by Elnur on DepositPhotos

If you are going to have a coffin present, whether or not you’re in a crematorium or alternative venue, a lovely participatory way to involve people is to ask them to write their thoughts or a message to your person on a post-it note and, at a certain time in the ceremony, play music and invite them to come up and stick their message on the coffin. This way, your loved-one is surrounded by lots of pretty, multi-coloured words of love as they go on the next stage of their journey.

You can do a similar thing by providing pens and asking people to write directly on a cardboard or white painted coffin. This can work really well if there are only a handful of people and you can talk as you doodle, decorate or write. Be aware that some people feel a bit strange about being in close proximity to a coffin, so it might not be comfortable for them. That doesn’t stop you doing it though, and they can sit at a distance perhaps.

4. Tying labels onto a sapling

A similar sort of idea to the above, but one that can be done without a coffin present, is to have a sapling or small tree and give people cardboard labels with string to write on. They can come up and tie their messages on the tree at a given time and it creates a really beautiful image, plus it involves people.

I recently did this at a funeral and cherry trees were an important part of the person’s story, so they had a cherry sapling in blossom at the ceremony to tie the labels onto. They then planted the tree in their loved-one’s memory. It was really poignant.

It doesn’t have to be a tree of course – one family, whose matriarch loved watching the birds in her garden, bought a beautiful wooden bird feeder and used that instead, before putting it in their garden in her honour.

5. Singing a song

There’s an old idea that you ‘have to’ sing a hymn at a funeral. I mean, I love a good hymn personally, but they’re not everyone’s idea of a good time. Often, the hymns that are sung have another connection with the person other than religion. ‘Jerusalem’ is popular for rugby fans and for members of the WI, for example.

If you like the idea of singing but you’re not religious, don’t let that stop you! One person whose funeral I conducted was famous within her friendship group for her love of ‘The Sound of Music’. No night out was complete without her singing a rendition of ‘Doe a Deer’, so we sang it all together for her at her funeral too.

6. Bringing things that make you think of that person and talking about them

For a smaller funeral or celebration, you might want to ask people to bring something that reminds them of the person and invite them to talk about it and why they chose it. This can be an easier thing to do than a full tribute but again, be aware that some people might not be comfortable speaking in front of others, so don’t put any pressure on them.

As this sort of thing wouldn’t tend to be written or rehearsed, it might go on for a while depending on how many people you have and how much they like to talk. So it might not be the easiest thing to include if you’re at a crematorium where you’ll need to be out on time (not impossible though!)

7. Having a conversational style ceremony – maybe with pictures to prompt conversation

On a similar sort of vein, intimate ceremonies with a handful of guests who know each other well sometimes feel oddly performative if they follow the traditional lines. If the whole gang is there when we meet to arrange the funeral, the idea of me standing up on the day and telling them what they told me can feel a bit strange.

In these sort of situations, my job is a lot more about holding space for them to tell their own stories rather than being their voice for them (which it sometimes is in bigger ceremonies). It’s good to have a beginning and an end, but the middle bit can take a form of its own with a bit of facilitation and gentle prompting when needed (‘so your dad was a huge Seagulls supporter, wasn’t he…?’)

One family recently brought along some photo albums and we enjoyed about an hour going through them, talking, laughing and remembering together before laying their dad to rest.

8. Tributes in the form of music played, songs sung, dances, art…

Tributes from friends and family don’t have to take the form of someone standing behind a lectern and sharing their stories (although this is great too of course!) They can also take the form of a dance perhaps, a picture drawn of or inspired by the person, a quilt made in someone’s honour using pieces of their clothing, a song or a piece of music played on an instrument.

Some of my favourite ever ceremonies have included live music. I remember one early one I did which saw about 100 people squeezed into a tiny chapel, several of them with guitars, who sat on the floor and played gently as we spoke. One unforgettable moment was when a seven year old girl gave a detailed run down of the picture she’d drawn of her Nana and her Nana’s cat, and still another included an impromptu interpretive dance at the front of the chapel!

9. A shared meal or picnic with all their favourite foods or best recipes

Was your person a foodie? Maybe they had a favourite restaurant you could all go to and share your memories there? You could have fish and chips on the beach and feed the seagulls with the scraps as they always used to love doing. If they were a great cook you could use their best recipes and cook up a storm to share whilst you remember them together? Or you could all gather for an outdoor celebration of their life, with the instructions to those coming to bring a blanket to sit on and food to share perhaps.

10. Pairs of hearts

St Barnabas, the hospice in my home town of Worthing, has the most wonderful reputation for their kind and caring staff and their thoughtful touches. At a recent funeral I conducted, the woman who had died had been cared for there. When she died, one of the nurses explained to her husband about the hearts that their volunteers knitted. The hearts came in pairs, so each had a matching one but otherwise they were different. She laid one heart for each of the woman’s close family around her to go with her into the coffin, and the matching hearts were given to each of the family members. We incorporated this into the ceremony and it really meant a lot, especially to her grandchildren.

11. If someone can’t be there physically, they can record a video/audio of their tribute to be played in their absence

If somebody wants to be involved in a ceremony but can’t be there in person, it doesn’t stop them attending. Most crematoria now have webcast options for them to be watching from wherever they are, or you could set up a Zoom link in a private venue (connectivity permitting!)

If they want to take part in the ceremony itself, they could do so via Zoom (although it can be a little frustrating if there’s any delay or glitching) or they could record themselves reading a poem or sharing their memories to be played at the funeral or memorial. Video or audio recordings work well with the tech set up of most crematoria, but be prepared to pay extra for it. Otherwise, you can play a video on a screen in your chosen venue or, perhaps easier, play their audio tribute through a Bluetooth speaker – this even works if you’re outside too.

12. Doing a jigsaw (perhaps with a picture of your person on it?) whilst talking together about them

This is another idea for a small amount of people to take part in. Doing something together can often ease conversation and focus the mind, and it can really be helpful if you have somebody who is neurodiverse or has anxiety.

Gather your people around a big table or on the floor, and do a jigsaw together. You could even have one made with their face on it perhaps. Let the conversation flow from there – you might be surprised at how the change of focus helps people to talk who wouldn’t normally talk.

You can also do this with other practical activities. Jake at Sussex Willow Coffins offers the opportunity to come and weave your loved one’s coffin, for example. Or you could be decorating the coffin together (see above).

13. A playlist funeral where the focus is on the music

For a music lover, what better tribute than a funeral full of people sharing their tracks? You could ask people to share a song that they associate with your person, that has a line that describes them in the perfect way, that is linked to a specific memory of them, or that was one of their favourites, for example. You can make a playlist of these tracks and ask people to introduce their choices, and share a little about their thoughts of that song and your loved one.

This is probably not the sort of ceremony where you’ll want everyone sitting still in rows, so encourage dancing or singing along, if it feels appropriate!

 You could also share the playlist with everyone afterwards as a fabulous keepsake.

14. Bringing their favourite cake/sweets/fruit/sandwiches to share

I mentioned the picnic or shared meal above in point 9, but even if you’re having a more traditional venue, there’s nothing stopping you sharing a food that is relevant to your person.

Maybe bake their famous fruitcake and make sure there’s enough for everyone to have a slice either during the ceremony or on the way out. I’ve also been at ceremonies where the person’s favourite sweets or chocolate bars were in a bowl to take one on the way out and remember them, and that’s always gone down well.

Tastes can really take us back to happy memories quickly. Extra Strong Mints will forever be associated with car trips with my dad in the 80s and 90s, for example. If your person was a liquorice fiend or couldn’t resist a good strawberry, this might be a good one to have at their celebration.

15. Spray their perfume or aftershave around

Another sense that is strongly connected to memory is our sense of smell. So if your loved one had a signature scent, you could consider spraying it around in the room before people come in, to evoke their presence. Do go easy though! One person I worked with did this recently but sprayed so much that we had to wait another few minutes before we could go in as it was so strong!

16. A toast to them with their favourite tipple

Was your person partial to a glass of Prosecco or a tot of brandy perhaps? You could consider having a toast as part of your ceremony for them perhaps. Depending on how many of you there are and where you are having your celebration, you might want to ask people to bring glasses or have some disposable shot glasses at the ready.

At one person’s funeral, his wife told me that he loved really good whisky. He wasn’t a big drinker, but he subscribed to one of these clubs where they send you a very high-end bottle of whisky every month or so. About once a week, he enjoyed choosing which one he wanted, running a bath and savouring his drink whilst he was soaking.

The problem was that she had lots of bottles of very expensive whisky, all opened and all with quite a lot in them. And she couldn’t stand the stuff! So, as part of his celebration of life in the woods, all 150 guests were invited to come and get a shot of whisky during a reflective piece of music and, at the end, we all drank to his health in style!

17. Bring their dog/cat/animal along if appropriate

Now bringing an animal to a ceremony is a decision that is always going to be very dependent on that animal, the type of ceremony and the venue of course. But if your person had a four-legged friend that never left their side and you’re sure it won’t distress the animal to come, it can be such a lovely thing to include them. It’s also a great distraction/coping mechanism for people, especially children, to have an animal to look at or play with.

Make sure you have somebody who can take them out if necessary and that they always have water, a place to pee and all that good stuff!

18. Everyone brings a poem, quote or song lyric to share that they feel says something about that person

For a lover of words and literature, you could ask guests to bring along a quote, prose extract, poem or song lyric that they feel really says something about your person. Invite them to share their contribution with a few words about why they chose it, if they want to. Just like with the playlist funeral in point 13, you could perhaps collate all the words together into a book or PDF to share as a keepsake.

19. A dove release

I know that dove releases are controversial amongst celebrants. But, whilst I do see that there are ethical issues around the use of animals in ceremonies (for example, butterfly releases or some ill-advised uses of birds of prey), my own experience of dove releases through Lamberts White Dove Release has been nothing but positive.

Dove releases, done responsibly and carefully, can provide a tangible sense of emotional release and are incredibly moving. They are also a particularly good way of involving neurodiverse people or children, as they provide a physical focus for what is going on.

If you like the idea of this and you’re in the Sussex area, I’d recommend Viv and Laura wholeheartedly. However, if you do use a different supplier, do research them well and make sure that their doves are well housed, free to fly, and trained to fly home from a longer distance (some less reputable companies expect young, inexperienced birds to fly back from distances they’re not prepared for).

19 creative ideas for funerals, memorials and celebrations of life ~ Sussex wedding celebrant Claire Bradford of Creating Ceremony
Photo by 卡晨 on Unsplash

If you’ve read this far, thanks for sticking with me! I hope I’ve inspired you to think creatively about your ceremony. Don’t forget you can ditch more of the ‘norms’ too – here’s a post I wrote about alternative orders of service, for example!

And if you would like a celebrant to help you to hold the space, curate your thoughts and cocreate this ceremony with you, please do get in touch.