While for some tradition means full body burial, for others cremation has become their new tradition. No matter the tradition, a wake or visitation, a funeral or memorial and a graveside service are all options; with cremation there are additional possibilities as well.
A Visitation, similar to a Wake, provides an opportunity for the public or just chosen individuals closest to the deceased to see the deceased and say goodbye. The family will select clothing, jewelry, and a casket and the funeral home will prepare the deceased by simply setting features or full embalming. Today this gathering typically takes place at a funeral home, though it was historically held in the family’s home – an option still available today. Those assembled may wish to place keepsakes, flowers, or other symbolic items in the casket for the cremation process (some items cannot be cremated, ask the funeral director about significant items first). Any items that cannot be cremated, or that the family does not wish to have cremated, will be returned to the family.
A Funeral Service typically includes the body of the deceased laid out by the funeral home in clothing and a casket selected by the family. The service may be open to the public or held privately with an open or closed casket based on the family’s preference. Those assembled may wish to place keepsakes, flowers, or other symbolic items in the casket for the cremation process (some items cannot be cremated, ask the funeral director about significant items first). An officiant, such as a religious leader or celebrant, will provide a service honoring the deceased for those assembled. This gathering may take place at a funeral home or a place of worship. The family can decide if clothing, jewelry, and other keepsakes, as well as the casket, should be included with the body for cremation, or if the items should be returned to the family (or, in the case of a rental casket, the funeral home).
A Witnessed Cremation is offered by many crematories and allows for a chosen few closest to the deceased to be with the body as it enters the cremator. This allows for final goodbyes, additions of keepsakes, and, for some, peace of mind as they watch their loved one throughout the cremation process. (Some items cannot be cremated; ask the funeral director about significant items first). Witnesses may stay for the cremation or leave to return when the cremated remains have been processed and placed in the urn. A witnessed cremation must be specifically requested and scheduled with the funeral director or crematory in advance.
A Memorial Service does not have a full body present but may instead just have the cremated remains in the urn or meaningful memorabilia selected by the family and arranged by the funeral home. The service may be open to the public or held privately based on the family’s preference. An officiant, such as a religious leader or celebrant, will provide a service honoring the deceased for those assembled. This gathering may take place at a funeral home, a place of worship, a cemetery, or any location meaningful to the family.
A Graveside Service, a traditional name that isn’t limited to full body burial, may include placement of the urn
in a niche in a columbarium, buried in a cemetery plot, cremation garden, ossuary or other cemetery location, and takes place at the site of permanent memorialization in a cemetery. The service is typically private to those invited by the family. An officiant, such as a religious leader or celebrant, will provide a service honoring the deceased for those gathered. Those assembled may wish to place keepsakes, flowers, or other symbolic items with the urn in the final resting place.
A family may choose any or all of these services, and, in the case of the memorial and graveside services, they can be held at any time when the family can gather and is ready to grieve together and say goodbye. Cremation expands the timeframe to allow for decision-making and the funeral director is a useful resource at any time to plan a service.
Use of a service officiant provides a great opportunity for personalization. While for many this role is filled by a religious leader, the increasingly secularized world may make use of a community leader or choose from the growing number of Certified Celebrants who can provide a service as unique as the life that was lived. This may incorporate everything from prayer and hymns to story-sharing and classic rock.
A note on religion and cremation. Some religions, such as orthodox Buddhist and Hindu faiths, include cremation of the deceased in the rituals of mourning. Others, such as orthodox Jewish and Muslim faiths, see the practice as a sacrilegious dishonor of the deceased. Christian sects differ, but the Catholic acceptance of cremation in 1963 and reaffirmation in 2016 changed the perception of cremation for many. Our decisions about how we treat our dead are extremely personal. CANA recommends learning about cremation and discussing it with your loved ones, exploring options with your funeral director, and asking for guidance from your religious leader when making a decision.
Cremation with a ceremony/service before or afterward
+ Loved ones have time and space to grieve and remember together.
– There are no real downsides to a well-planned service.
Cremation with viewing/identification
+ Provides an opportunity to say goodbye and to identify your loved one.
– Some facilities may only accommodate a limited number of people.
– There may be limited guidance for navigating available cremation and service options
DIY – direct cremation with no additional services
+ Fully individualized, designed by you and your family and friends.
– You must handle potentially complicated arrangements on your own, possibly in the midst of grieving.
Resources: Your best resource is a funeral director who can guide you through the various options.
Avoid Regret: Don’t Do Nothing
Cremation provides opportunity for creativity and a memorial as unique as the life lived. The only recommendation CANA makes is don't do nothing. Urns can be removed from niches or disinterred from plots to make keepsakes. Remains that were scattered remotely can be memorialized at the cemetery or other location for future visits. Understand your options so you won’t make the wrong choice for your loved ones.
Estimates are that over two million sets of cremated remains are abandoned at the crematory, in limbo on the closet shelf at home, or tucked away in a storage locker, only to show up for sale at a flea market or a resale shop. While a funeral home or crematory will have policies in place about storing cremated remains—the remains in their care definitely won’t show up at a secondhand store—too often a family won’t make a decision about the cremated remains of a loved one and the container will be handed down until it is unrecognizable and forgotten. This is how they end up at a garage sale—or even the landfill.
But cremation means that a decision can be made at any time, even if the person died years or decades ago. It’s never too late to find a place to memorialize family. If you come across unidentified cremated remains, contact a local funeral home or crematory. They can help you find the unique identification number and you may be able to discover who it is.
Lastly, for truly unique choices, talk to your funeral director or crematory manager about the feasibility or safety of what you are considering.
Cremation Association of North America
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