The Art of Imagineering a Unique Funeral Service

My high school speech teacher, a favorite to many, known as “BC”, was dying.

I met with BC and her brother to discuss possibilities for her service, listening as they recalled all the plays and student activities she had directed, and her many interests. I let my imagination run with ideas to celebrate her life.  Developing these ideas, or what I’d like to call imagineering, had begun.

As we concluded, BC shared her thoughts and gave her permission for some of the ideas her brother and I suggested.

Later that year, I received the call that BC had died. As we developed the arrangements, we reviewed the list of ideas from the pre-planning, deciding which of those ideas would be possible, and started imagineering those elements.

BC’s brother was excited and said he would help. However, we encouraged him to choose one aspect to develop and let us handle the rest. That would keep him from becoming overwhelmed. We met three more times over the week to give him progress reports, and get his input on details. He appreciated the role of being involved, but not having to “Do It Himself” which we refer as “DIY.”

The service developed into a full blown theatrical production at our local performing arts center with scripts for participants, music, staging, and lighting guides. BC’s brother was truly excited and looked forward to the service as he knew this would be a wonderful tribute to his sister. That was a great comfort to him. And on the day of the service as I directed from behind the stage curtains, I could see his smile, I heard his laugh, and I saw his tears. I saw him begin to heal from the loss of his sister.

For us, collaborating with families like BC’s has helped them face the loss with hope.
Hope as they realized that others would see the facets of their loved one’s life and carry a bit of her spirit with them after the funeral.

You, the funeral professional, can develop similar services using a few simple skills you already possess. So how can you start? Here are a few tips, from me to you:


1. Ask the right questions

First, ask questions that empower the family and help you as the director. Your first question should be “How do you think your sister would want to be remembered?” The common reply is “She was a great gal who was helpful and loved everybody.” That’s a good start, however we need details to build a unique service.

The next, and probably most helpful question is “How do you want people to remember your sister?” Again a common reply is “she was a fun teacher.” That simple answer can open up follow up questions; “What made her fun?” Were there activities she loved to share? Delve into hobbies, interests and the favorite memories of the family. There may be only one nugget, or there may be many.

2. Use Your Imagination

The next step is what makes my profession enjoyable. Use your imagination and don’t be afraid to tell families about the ideas you may come up with. If presented respectfully, even the over-the-top suggestions will be well received. There are times we propose a creative idea and the family says, “good idea, but no thank you.” Those families are affirming that they would like a more traditional service. More often the response is “Really, we can do that?”

3. Don’t just be another commodity

Some of our colleagues say “we don’t have time or funds to do the extra things.” No problem, but beware. If you don’t take the time to differentiate your services and make them more meaningful for families, you are in the downward spiral of a failing business. When the public sees you as a simple commodity, they will go to the least expensive option for a mediocre service. That translates to much less income for your firm, or worse yet, no income for your firm because they called XYZ Discount Firm down the street, and have a Do-It-Yourself gathering at home, if they do anything at all.

4. Invest in props to support your services

We recommend investing in minimal props and elements that could work for most creative personalized services you plan. In many cases, the family will gladly pay the cost of the creative things that you suggest for the service. In some cases, the cost may be paid by the funeral home. Many props you develop for a creative service can be re-used for other services. The benefit will be well worth the expense in the eyes of the family and their guests.

5. Focus on creating a rewarding experience for everyone

The most rewarding services we develop are those that have the over-the-top personalization elements. We are fortunate that when we present the outline of an imaginative service, the majority of the staff smiles and says, “this will be pretty cool”. We are fortunate that we have staff members who are creative and enjoy the challenge. The best reward of a creative service is when the service ends in applause from the guests. Yes, applause.


Why imagineer creative personalized services?

When we imagineer a creative personalized funeral service successfully, we build up the expectations of the family , and we build our value as professionals. I enjoy it when a family asks “This is what you did for our last funeral, what can we do this time?” I smile and ask “What did your sister like to do? And how do you want her to be remembered?” Then I do my best to listen and imagine.

And finally, my biggest reason for doing what I do is creating stories. I love it when I tell stories about some of our creative funerals and people say “You can do that at a funeral?” My answer is, “Sure, what should we do for yours?”


What are some of the most rewarding experiences you’ve had imagineering creative services at your funeral home? Tell us in the comments below!


About Joe Pray:

Joe E Pray is the fifth generation to serve the community through Pray Funeral Home.  He has helped his family firm earn numerous professional awards including four Keeping It Personal Awards from the ICCFA.  He believes that helping families tell the story of a loved one is the best way to help heal a family after a loss. Joe E.’s limited time outside the funeral home is occupied with community projects and boards, antique cars, airplanes, and doing anything his four year old grandson wants to.

To learn more about Joe’s unique services at his funeral home, Pray Funeral Home, click here.


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