An Unspoken Event – A Funeral

Here is my montly morsel for Jan 2010 – I thought I would start the year off by writing about what it is like to plan a funeral from an event planners prospective.

Claire

Throughout the years with this column, I have written about weddings, all types of corporate parties and given tips about entertaining in the home. This month, I am going to discuss something that no one is ever really prepared for and which I’ve never seen any event professional discuss: a funeral.

On Dec. 19, 2009, my beloved father, who really was a rock in my life, died of pancreatic cancer. He had been doing very well. Then, out of the blue, his health took a sharp nosedive. It is at this point that I’d like to ask you to envision yourselves in this situation and put on your event planning hat. That is exactly what I had to do when I arrived at his house the day before he died. After sitting with dad for a bit, I had to go straight to the funeral home to plan his funeral with no instructions.

Let’s face it, on some level my father was my client. It was my job to plan this event — for lack of a better word — that would be his last statement to the world. It was my responsibility to do for him what I do for all my other clients — give him my best effort and make sure it would be perfect, even though I only had 48 hours to put it together. My responsibilities included going to the funeral home to pick out a casket, creating timelines of visitation and service, designing a service, writing an obituary, writing a eulogy, meeting with the rabbi, designing food menus, organizing shiva (as we are Jewish), picking out pictures for the viewing room at the funeral home, meeting with the lawyer, calling his close friends and working with my immediate family to keep everyone glued together.

The information that I had to work with were those things I cherished about him: Dr. Gould lived in a small town for over 50 years and was a well known eye doctor; and he loved flying radio-controlled model airplanes, sailing, his golden retriever Allie and being an overall good guy to his friends.

So what would be my advice to planners in the same position? First of all, hire a reputable funeral home, as they are very good at gently guiding you through the process and giving recommendations. (Jack Bauer lovingly and professionally kept us on task the entire process.) Next, I recommend you really think about the person and how can you design the funeral home space to give friends and family a sense of what he or she was all about. Because my father flew radio-controlled model airplanes, we brought an airplane to the funeral home. I picked out three pictures of dad to reproduce and put the copies on a bulletin board for people to take home with them. We put thoughtful groupings of pictures throughout the space, showing dad with family and friends in a variety of scenarios. Being the foodie that I am and knowing my father’s love of dark chocolate, we had a candy dish at sign-in.

Lastly, I can’t impress upon you enough the importance of communicating with the family. I jokingly did a daily 5 p.m. staff meeting for all of us to sit together and talk through issues, make group decisions and, most importantly, be together and put everyone on the same page regarding our next steps.

Let’s talk food for a moment, specifically the food we had at the house afterwards. Many times friends, family and churches do the planning for the culinary with little guidance from the family. I recommend, if you can, to reconsider this. In our case, my father loved to eat. (The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!) I wanted the food to express his tastes, so the theme was his favorite foods. We communicated this at the service, asking people to come wearing their “eating” clothes so they could enjoy a variety of dad’s favorite foods. Should any of you ever go this route, don’t be shy about having a wide and interesting sampling of foods, even if it looks like a hodge-podge. I had Subway make a three-footer of his favorite sandwich and ended it by handing everyone a dark chocolate Klondike bar. By continuing to make the day about my father, it allowed people to stay emotionally connected and in the spirit of being with him.

As I wrap up this morsel, I do want to note the reason why I shared this very personal experience with you. Unfortunately, we will all have to face this situation at some point in time. I hope by putting myself out there and sharing my experience, I can give someone reading this some helpful guidance and useful recommendations for when he/she find themselves in the same situation.

Remember, this will be the one type of event where there is no “wrong.” Stay focused on the positive aspects of the person you are remembering to highlight their goodness and what you do will always be right.

This is my story for now and I will be sticking to it. Let the cleaning of the house officially begin

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