How to Plan a Funeral or Memorial Service

Step-by-Step Guide to Honoring a Friend, Family Member or Loved One

How to plan a funeral can seem a daunting task, but a step-by-step approach can help you to honor and remember a loved one. The funeral and memorial services provide opportunities for family members, friends, and others to offer comfort and support to the bereaved and to each other.

You can use the same step-by-step model to make decisions about the type of burial you want for yourself, who you want to lead or participate in a service, and how any donations should be handled. It offers advice on everything from what to do with funeral flowers to the standard number of pallbearers (it's six).

Read on for an overview of how to plan a funeral or memorial service, whether for yourself or for a loved one. It makes clear the importance (whenever possible) of planning ahead and making your wishes known before death, as well as alternatives to traditional funeral services.

Mourners standing over grave
While commonly confused, a funeral and burial are not the same thing. Photo © DreamPictures/Blend Images/Getty Images

Contact the Person's Legal Representative

In many cases, a person has identified a personal representative who is responsible for handling their affairs after death. Experts suggest that the instructions for end-of-life care and funeral arrangements be kept separate from a person's will, which may not be read until weeks later.

In most cases, this person is close to the deceased and knows their wishes. They can guide the funeral planning process in terms of burial or cremation, what type of service and where, and who will be involved in tasks like planning the readings or inviting guests to a meal afterward.

If you're not the legally appointed representative yourself, it's important to contact them first.

Choose the Form of Disposition

When planning a funeral or memorial service, it might prove easier to first select the form of final body disposition you desire. Traditional or green burial, or cremation, all are options.

Traditional Burial

Whether below ground in a cemetery plot/gravesite, or above ground in a mausoleum or sepulcher (sometimes referred to as "entombment"), traditional burial generally involves purchasing:

  • A casket
  • A cemetery plot or mausoleum space
  • A grave liner or burial vault
  • A headstone, grave marker, monument or plaque

Natural (Green) Burial

A growing number of traditional burial cemeteries and sites specifically created for this form of final disposition now offer natural or "green burial" opportunities.

In general, people who select natural burial seek to minimize their impact on the environment after death. A 2022 report found 84% of people would consider a green funeral if it was offered to them, and 85% would contact a funeral home in their area if they were planning a green funeral.


The cremation process uses heat/flame to reduce a body to bone fragments or "ashes."

These cremated remains offer survivors various options afterward, such as keeping or scattering the remains, burial below ground in an urn, placing the inurned cremated remains in a columbarium, etc.

Alkaline Hydrolysis

This form of final disposition is relatively new and might not yet be available in some areas.

The alkaline hydrolysis process, sometimes called "flameless cremation," uses pressure and relatively low heat (versus cremation) to reduce a body to an inert liquid and skeletal bone fragments.

Choose a Funeral Home

The next step is to research your service and provider options. If death has already occurred, you can contact a local funeral home, cremation provider, or cemetery.

Your chosen provider can help you:

  • Arrange the funeral, memorial, and/or interment service you desire
  • Provide information about various products and services
  • Explain the costs involved for merchandise, services, and other professional fees
  • Help you create an obituary or death notice
  • Obtain official death certificates

In some cases, these options will be spelled out if the deceased has planned for their funeral in advance. Contacting the personal representative can help to ensure their wishes are honored.

If you're planning a funeral or memorial service in advance, research the products and service options offered by various funeral homes, cremation providers, and/or cemeteries in your area. Choose one that aligns with your religious and cultural preferences, knowing you can trust them to complete your end-of-life instructions for a memorial.

Decide on the Type of Service

Many people mistakenly assume that a funeral and cemetery burial are the same thing, or that choosing cremation means you can't also hold a funeral service with the deceased's embalmed body present beforehand. Or, they can't be "buried" along with a spouse (sometimes, they can).

It's important to understand that a "funeral" involves two important functions:

  • What to do with the deceased's physical remains (the form of final disposition)
  • How to honor, remember, and celebrate the life and memory of the person who died (the form of the funeral or memorial service)

A personalized funeral or memorial service reflects the unique life and personality of the deceased individual, regardless of the form such services take (faith-based service or secular gathering, public or private). You'll want to ensure that a memorial reflects their unique personhood and any spiritual practices.

Consider these options when creating a memorable, meaningful opportunity for mourners to express their grief and share their comfort. You may need to plan for:

  • Officiant(s) who will lead the service, such as a clergy member, celebrant, funeral director, etc.
  • Readings, such as poems, prayers, religious or secular passages, etc., and who will deliver them
  • Eulogist(s), who will write and deliver a eulogy about the deceased
  • Music, whether contemporary, religious hymns, or both, and whether they're live or recorded
  • Food/beverages, whether professionally catered, provided "potluck" by attendees, or arranged by the funeral home or provider
  • Pallbearers, if the final disposition involves a graveside service
  • Personal touches, such as a memory board, memorial video, personal memorabilia, etc.

Webcasting the funeral, or making a recording of the service available later, can be an important feature for those unable to attend a gathering in person.

Should the Body Be Present?

Burial and cremation are meant for final body disposition. Neither choice means the body needs to be present during a funeral or memorial service. You can still have open-casket visitation hours with the body present even if cremation is planned. Or, you can complete a cremation but still plan a memorial service later without the remains present. Your plans will reflect your loved one's and family's wishes.

Arrange for Flowers and Donations

Traditionally, people send funeral flowers or sympathy flowers as a sign of support and to express their condolences. It's common now for people to make donations to preferred charities and organizations instead of sending flowers.

You can let people know your loved one's wishes (or the family's) by putting instructions in the death notices and obituaries. You also can share them on social media, or in personal conversation.

Some suggestions for donations include:

  • The hospice that cared for your loved one
  • A nonprofit seeking to find a cure for the illness or disease that caused your loved one's death, such as cancer, heart disease, or Alzheimer's disease
  • A charity, organization, or business reflecting a purpose with which your loved one connected

Determine Payment Options

Your costs will vary depending upon the form of final disposition and the type of funeral or memorial service you want, but you should consider how you will pay for these services. There are many payment options available today, such as:

  • Personal savings
  • Insurance
  • Financing, often through your funeral provider
  • Credit cards
  • Totten trust/Payable-on-Death (POD) account at a financial institution, which specifically sets aside funds for final expenses that pass to a designated beneficiary while avoiding probate

In addition, it is possible to formally arrange your services in advance with a provider and then pay in advance, whether all at once or through installments.

People enter into these "preneed" arrangements for many reasons, including removing the burden of making difficult decisions once death occurs to prevent financial hardship on survivors, or spending down their assets in order to qualify for certain federal benefits.

The Federal Trade Commission Funeral Rule

You have several basic rights under the FTC "Funeral Rule" that you should review. Providers are required to give you accurate, itemized price information and disclosures about services. Most businesses provide convenient product and service information and prices, and even post their general price list online. This makes it easier to compare local prices and service options.

Tips for Preplanning Your Own Funeral or Memorial Service

Finally, if you're planning your own funeral or memorial service in advance, you should inform your family about your end-of-life wishes to make sure they know what you want. Make sure they have contact information for the funeral home or similar service provider where you made arrangements.

This includes written and/or digital copies detailing the options you've chosen and their cost. If you've formally prearranged your funeral or memorial service with a provider, or chosen and paid for a cemetery plot, then you should keep those documents with other important papers.

If you've already worked with a provider, they should have information about disposition choice, and the purchase of an urn, coffin, vault, and more. Tell them whether your memorial plans include having the body present. Most funeral services will help you and your family plan a service, though faith leaders typically work with them, too, if your memorial will be held at your place of worship.

Follow the same steps presented here, but talk through all of your options when interviewing providers and selecting a funeral home. Many offer full-service options, like helping your family get needed death certificates and filing for Social Security benefits after your death.

If you keep your legal documents in a safe, or offsite in a safety deposit box, you should ensure that your loved one(s) also know the safe's combination or can access the key.


The death of a loved one is often a busy time, with a flurry of activity and numerous tasks. Planning a funeral or memorial service may be among them, though these services often are prearranged.

It can help to take a step-by-step approach, beginning with the loved one's own instructions (if available). These resources can guide decisions about the type of service, and everything from the music and readings to how and where the body is transported.

Funeral home staff, trusted faith leaders, and the personal representative can help to coordinate the planning and make sure your decisions, and those of your loved one, are honored.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. International Cemetery, Cremation & Funeral Association. Resources for Consumers.

  2. Hootman, T. FindLaw Funeral Planning FAQ.

  3. Rempen, K. Green, Greener, Greenest? Follow the Data to More Sustainable, Eco-Friendly Funeral Options.

  4. Cremation Association of North America. Alkaline Hydrolysis.

  5. Federal Trade Commission Consumer Information. The FTC Funeral Rule.

Chris Raymond

By Chris Raymond
Chris Raymond is an expert on funerals, grief, and end-of-life issues, as well as the former editor of the world’s most widely read magazine for funeral directors.