Personalizing Your Funeral and Burial: A Gift to Grieving Loved Ones

Preparing for a Good End (Part 5)

After caring for dying patients and grieving her own losses, Ms. Vaughan said she believes getting in close to the sacred moments of dying offers solace and connection.
Personalizing Your Funeral and Burial: A Gift to Grieving Loved Ones
Sharleen Lucas

Follow the "Preparing for a Good End" series here.

In this series, we'll examine ways of making meaning in the face of death, offering tools founded in traditional wisdom and scientific evidence to help our readers live well right to the very end. 

To registered nurse Gina Vaughan, death isn't a surprising anomaly.

“Call it lucky or unlucky,” she told The Epoch Times, “I've been around a lot of people who passed. ... It becomes less scary. It becomes a little more normal because, really, is there anything more normal than dying? It’s as natural as being born.”

After serving more than 20 years in an emergency department, intensive care unit, and now the public health system, Ms. Vaughan is well acquainted with death. The most recent one was that of her 29-year-old cousin, whose informal lakeside funeral reconnected scattered family.

“It was the only good thing you could get out of a young death. She had a baby that wasn't 8 months old. You can't make sense of it, but she brought the whole family back together from 15 different states, and now, we all talk on a regular basis ... I feel closer to them ever since Katie died.”

After caring for dying patients and grieving her own losses, Ms. Vaughan said she believes getting in close to the sacred moments of dying offers solace and connection.

She once sat with a dying father in the ICU who talked to Ms. Vaughan thinking she was his daughter. He died not long after the encounter, apparently satisfied that he’d said what he wanted to say. Ms. Vaughan quickly wrote it all down during a busy shift, asking coworkers to cover for her for a few minutes. When the daughter arrived at the ICU hoping to see her dad before he died, Ms. Vaughan consoled her with the words her father intended for her. Listening to Ms. Vaughan, the daughter sobbed with gratitude.

Moving in close to vulnerable moments of death can soothe the human soul, but it’s also something many people fear.
The U.S. funeral industry seems satisfied to help people keep their distance with its $16 billion business. Its goal—much of it from genuine, kind-hearted undertakers—is to create a final blessed moment with a loved one by preserving bodies with embalming fluid and fixing blemishes with makeup as if to rewind time.
This tradition goes back for thousands of years, as several ancient civilizations practiced some form of embalming, from the famous example of the Egyptians to the Aztecs, Mayans, and more.
But some loved ones report that this preservation prolongs their grief rather than eases it by hiding death's stark and physical reality. Still, many who grieve are grateful to have their loved one quickly removed, beautified, and placed into a watertight casket to protect the corpse from its inevitable decay.

However, this growing dissatisfaction with our modern funeral and burial practices invites questions as to whether an unrealistic distance from death is what most grievers truly want.

According to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), 60 percent of Americans today want to learn more about green burial alternatives, which oppose embalming, lacquered and metal caskets, and concrete vaults or liners. Meanwhile, the NFDA predicts that cremation rates will reach 78.7 percent by 2040.
The booming businesses of cremation and burial alternatives reveal people’s increasing desire to blend modern and traditional practices.

You can now create diamonds and stained glass from your loved one’s cremated ashes or scatter them into outer space. Meanwhile, green burial offers body composting, water cremation, or burial in an egg-like pod at the base of a tree.

Riding the coattails of this creativity is the rise of natural burial cemeteries, which refuse modern practices. They encourage earth-friendly burials using simple pine caskets or cloth shrouds to lay the dead to rest in a natural reserve, letting their bodies decay to feed the soil.

This reflects the ethic of rejoining the earth, which some prefer to the practice of sheltering the body against it.

Freedom of Choice in Burials, Funerals

Death care options—what happens to the body after it dies—are becoming increasingly diverse.

In her book "Advice for Future Corpses (And Those Who Love Them)," Sallie Tisdale, a veteran hospice nurse and Buddhist, wrote: “Why does it matter what happens to the body ... why would the body have meaning? Yet it does, it always does; whether we cling to it or flee it, what happens to the emptied body feels momentous.”

“As long as we will continue to live, we will remember what happened to the body of the one who died,” she wrote.

Death care laws differ from state to state, but there is more freedom and personalization in burials and funerals than many know.

As Ms. Tisdale wrote, “You don’t have to do any of the things many people do with the body, but hardly anyone will tell you that.”

No federal law requires the dead to be embalmed or placed in a vault. Most cemeteries, however, require vaults or liners to keep the land structured under the weight of large lawnmowers and trucks.
Rules about funerals are minimal, too, giving rise to more home funerals, sometimes with loved ones tending to the body instead of nurses or morticians.

As more people discover death care freedom, stories surface of people designing their burial and funeral to add meaning and personality to their final act on earth.

Experts in the palliative care community aren’t surprised. They’ve known for a long time that planning one’s memorial helps the dying add meaning to their last days, leave a final legacy, and care for loved ones left behind.

Wrapping Up the Loose Ends of Life

At first, participating in one’s funeral planning hardly seems important when reeling from a new terminal diagnosis, worrying about loved ones, and tying up life's loose ends. But as dying patients progress, many see that planning helps them process their life and relationships while soothing those left behind.

“We make a death plan because we can—for our own peace of mind, and as an act of compassion for the people nearest to us who will be left, quite literally, holding things," Ms. Tisdale wrote. "Birth and death are the only human acts we cannot practice.”

And when we can’t practice, we plan.

"All the planning and support and advance directives in the world won’t give you control,” Ms. Tisdale wrote.

Still, as her book argues, preparing is an act of processing your life and ending it as well as you can while tending to your loved ones.

Planning Your Funeral

Ms. Vaughan recalls how her stepfather’s funeral helped him and her mom grieve as they made plans together.

“It helped them both because they sat down and talked about it. He wanted to be a part of it, but it also made her feel better. She wasn't having to make a decision and think, ‘Oh, would that be what he wanted?’ It really took pressure off both sides because he felt like, ‘I'm helping her get ready and prepare ... and it gets to be what I want as well.’"

Ms. Vaughan’s mom and stepfather talked about every detail.

They discussed who they would invite and who they wouldn't. They discussed how many people her stepfather wanted there and which photos to display. He chose an informal potluck as his memorial service.

Ms. Vaughan said: “He wasn't the kind of guy that would wear a suit normally. So, I think because of that, everyone came as they really were in his life, if that makes sense.”

As a result, everyone felt comfortable telling stories, crying, and laughing together.

“It gave everybody some closure because ... they knew this is what he wanted.”

Perhaps best of all, Ms. Vaughan said, her mom also “felt a little bit closer to him because while she was doing it, she thought, ‘This is what we talked about; this is what he wants.’”

Getting in Close

Embracing one’s burial and funeral can help everyone involved accept death. Ms. Tisdale’s message throughout her book is to get close to death when it moves close to you. She says it with raw honesty and painfully beautiful stories.

Ms. Vaughan shares another fitting memory. When her best friend Dovie unexpectedly lost her husband of 42 years, Ms. Vaughan helped her clean and prepare Sandy's body as he lay dead on his hospital bed.

Surprising to many, nearly every hospital allows this and gives you all the time needed to grieve next to a loved one’s bed.

Tears streaming down their faces, Dovie “cared for every inch of her husband” to the point of separating and cleaning each finger while she talked to him.

“Watching her do that and thinking she never gets to do this again just brought me to my knees,” Ms. Vaughan recalled. “I think it helped her process so much. It was like her own little funeral."

As they tended to him, they shared stories, processing their loss as they did.

"There were times you'd start crying, and there were times where we would start laughing,” Ms. Vaughan said.

"There was this grace about it.”

Since watching Dovie tenderly care for Sandy, Ms. Vaughan said firmly, “If I ever have the chance ... I would want to do that for the person I loved ... It really was a very thorough goodbye.”

Getting in close, even to a funeral and burial, can help you and your loved ones finish with a meaningful goodbye when your time inevitably comes.

Next: Palliative care lets you live better for longer. 

Read the entire "Preparing for a Good End" series here.

Sharleen Lucas, R.N., is a freelance writer with medical, spiritual, and emergency care expertise. After two decades of serving patients and families at the bedside or as a spiritual care director, she’s committed to empowering readers’ physical and spiritual well-being by boiling down health information with the warmth and skill of an RN next door. You can find her at