How Can You Work with a Funeral Director to Plan a Personalized Funeral? An Interview with Amy Cunningham

Funeral Director Amy Cunningham gives us some ideas for planning a funeral that you can be proud of

New York funeral director Amy Cunningham founded the firm Fitting Tribute Funeral Services, and is the creator of The Inspired Funeral blog. A former magazine journalist and blogger for beliefnet.com, Amy has much experience with home vigils, alternative rituals, mixed faith and contemporary funeral services. Today she speaks with us about ideas for working with a funeral director to plan a personalized funeral to jump-start the healing process after a death.

Credit: Amy Cunningham

Credit: Amy Cunningham (photo by Fonda of Zuzu’s)

Kimberly: What do families need to be aware of when dealing with funeral homes?

Amy: The first thing I tell people is that when hospice is in charge, death is not an emergency. If hospice is in charge and death occurs as expected, you don’t need to tell the funeral director to come right away to make a hasty pickup. You are entitled to time in the room with your loved one. When death occurs, it’s a good moment to hold the hand of the deceased, sing, continue talking, have other family members take turns having private times with the deceased, have a clergyman in. Every hospital or hospice is different, but it’s my understanding that at least a couple of hours are allowed for grieving. You just have to clear it with the hospice nurses and call the funeral director. I’m the kind of funeral director that says ‘when do you want us to come?’ rather than ‘we’ll be there.’

Not everyone is into that. Some people are so wracked with exhaustion and the dead family member is so emaciated with a face full of pain that some people just want to leave. Even so, I tell people to stay and acknowledge what you are grateful for. You’ve obviously been talking the whole way, but this is a sacred time and a funeral director doesn’t have to intervene immediately.

Amy’s tips to cultivate a good relationship with a funeral director:

  1. Ask him/her to describe some of the best/most favorite funerals the funeral home has directed.
  2. Tell him/her about your family’s faith journey. (Open up, in other words. Now is not the time to be vague or mysterious about your most deeply held values and beliefs.)
  3. Relate details of other funerals in your lifetime you’ve liked or disliked.
  4. Try to have some basic knowledge about your local cemeteries and crematories if possible.
  5. Review timetables carefully. Does the funeral start time seem realistic given one important family member’s tendency to arrive late?
  6. Motivate the funeral director to work hard for you by—just once—commenting on something you see around the funeral home that you like (if you don’t like anything, go to a different funeral home). I know grieving customers should not be required to be charming, but I’m here to tell you that being a little charming helps.
  7. Tell your funeral director, if you’re pleased with the way the funeral has gone, that you’re going to post a review and tell everyone you know about your experience.

The second point then, is that you can take the deceased home if you want to. This varies from state to state, for example, in New York where I practice, they insist upon the involvement of a funeral director to file the documents after death occurs to allow for this. One time, when a death occurred in a home, I went in and did my work to file for the death certificate, but the woman was so emotional in saying goodbye to her husband of 55 years that she asked to spend the night with him in the apartment. Death occurred late in the afternoon, so I went over and saw that his body was in very good shape. I called my boss and her family members—I don’t think we would have done this if family members couldn’t also keep her company—so she was there with family members overnight with her husband. Come morning, we picked him up at 6AM and she was in a better space emotionally to say goodbye. In this case, she chose not to have a funeral viewing afterwards.

Credit: Amy Cunningham

Credit: Amy Cunningham

So a funeral director should be flexible and a good listener to interpret your wishes and try hard to give you the time you need and want. This is a more common request nowadays. People who request this typically do not want an embalming, or a traditional funeral with an open casket and a wake. This is called the liminal time—the time between the moment of death and the burial or cremation. This is a lovely time that, according to your emotions and your belief system, is sacred. Funeral directors should work with you so that you feel that you’ve said what you’ve needed to say.

My own experience with my mother’s body is that I sat at her bed for a while. I just stared at her hands and held her hands after she died. I realized that I’ve been looking at those hands all my life. It’s quite amazing to spend time with someone you have loved after they are dead. This is not something that most people are aware of.

Kimberly: Especially because when people are grieving for such a long time, it is hard to exit out of this without that sense of rush.

Credit: Amy Cunningham

Credit: Amy Cunningham

Amy: Even when the dying is prolonged and you are keeping vigil at a death bed, you lapse into this make believe thinking that it’s never going to happen. When it finally does happen and death occurs, you cannot believe it. This is why it’s important to know your rights and study up on what is possible with a funeral.

After death occurs, especially in a home, you can have a shroud on hand. The family, at the time of death, can sponge bathe the person and shroud them. This way, when the funeral director comes, the family can just let them know that the body has already been bathed and shrouded. The burial can then take place as soon as the documents have been taken care of and the shrouded body can then either go directly to a green cemetery or to a simple box and burial or cremation.

I like to have people communicate with their funeral director as well to include as many personal objects, like letters and photos, into the funeral casket. There is more that you can do than just behold the deceased. We can put photographs and flowers, and in the case of cremation, as long as it is material that can burn safely, you can decorate the outside and the inside of the casket.

I’m very bullish on casket decorating. People can say to the funeral director, ‘can we have the box’ before the service and they can decorate the casket. People can ask for the white Starmark casket, or other white combo trays, and they are simple and inexpensive boxes that people can feel fine about purchasing and they can decorate them by writing on them in markers or any kind of water-soluble paint.

Kimberly: Are there any technological advances that have changed the way funeral services are being practiced?

Amy: I try to get people to sing, and also with the new Bose speakers and an iPhone, you can have fantastic recorded music at any service on the go. You also have photo scans and videos of people’s history that can be transformed into memory books or movies that you can post on YouTube.

This isn’t about technology per se, but in the old days there used to be registry books where everyone would sign their names. Today, I try to make it a blank book where people can not only write their names and addresses, but they can also take the time to write a story or a note. Fancier funerals can have an iPad where you can sign in and write a note like this as well.

Credit: Amy Cunningham

Credit: Amy Cunningham

Kimberly: I feel that a lot of people will also joke about specific things that they want for their funeral, but when it comes down to the actual planning, people tend to take a more traditional approach.

Amy: It is a family’s tendency to get more religious in the event of a death to make sure that they have touched all their bases. I encourage folks like that to make sure that they do have a traditional aspect to their funeral, but then go ahead and have a poem or some music to add to the funeral.

At my green burials, I bring sprigs of rosemary, which is a British touch to funerals. Rosemary is an herb that simulates the memory and it is a way of honoring memory and articulating faithfulness and love. It’s a simple thing where you can inhale the smell and toss it into the casket before you say goodbye.

We are also seeing a trend in shoveling at green burials, which was taken from Jewish burials where a rabbi presides as everyone shovels a scoop of dirt on top of the casket. All people at a natural burial want to engage in a covering of the casket in the earth. When I do this at Jewish funerals, I do the tradition where the first shovel is upside-down as well.

I’ve noticed that especially for men and adolescent boys, shoveling at the graveside becomes cathartic. Someone that may have been in the background of the funeral for the rest of the time can finally be seen as coming to an understanding when they begin shoveling. It’s primal and it unites us with all of humanity through time.

Kimberly: Thank you for talking with us today!

Amy: Thank you!

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45 Responses to How Can You Work with a Funeral Director to Plan a Personalized Funeral? An Interview with Amy Cunningham

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  2. avatar Jim Sanders says:

    It’s not often that you plan a funeral. I like your advice to talk about what you’ve liked and disliked about other funerals. It’s easier to decide what you want to do when you have some examples in mind. It’s a difficult but important event, it’s important that it honors the person well.

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  3. avatar Delores Lyon says:

    Thanks for sharing this insight on planning a funeral. I agree that it is a good idea to plan develop a good relationship with the director, especially since they will be pulling all of the strings. Asking about their favorite funerals that they have directed can not only help you develop a good relationship with the director, but also give you ideas on the funeral you are trying to plan. Plus, it is always good to have insight from someone who has experience in that business.

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  4. This has been a common subject among my family as of late. We would really like the funeral to turn out the best it can. We like your tip about developing a good relationship with the funeral director. Thanks for helping us learn a little bit more about this.

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  5. I’m glad that Kim asked how technological advances are changing the way funeral services are helping people. It seems like recording videos to post online for the people who can’t come to a funeral would be a good way to share the memory of a person who’s deceases. I have family members who live abroad, so I’m sure that they would appreciate a video featuring pictures of my deceased mother that’s posted online for them to watch.

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  6. avatar Chase Wilson says:

    Great tips! I like how you said to review the time tables over and over. No one likes getting to a point during the day and not knowing what to do. Don’t forget the 5 P’s: Proper planning prevents poor performance. Do most funeral planners work directly with a specific funeral home, or are they kind of like realtors and just run around?

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  7. avatar Irena Ryans says:

    Thanks for the information. Like you said, it can be really beneficial to make funeral arrangements ahead of time. My grandfather is getting pretty old and sick, so now may be the time to look into it. I’m going to follow your tip about working with the funeral director, seeing as this is what they’re trained to do. Do you have any other suggestions for me?

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  8. Your comment about taking time with your loved one is touching. It gives those, who have lost a loved one, time to reflect and fully experience all of the overwhelming emotions they are feeling. I think that it also brings closure to the relationship and the person who lost their loved one can remember the wonderful memories with the deceased. Thanks for your comments.

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  9. I actually like the idea of using things from past funerals you’ve attended to help you plan out a funeral. There are a few funerals I’ve been to before that did things that I liked and disliked, so that would definitely help me to avoid some things during the planning process. I just hope that I won’t have to actually go through that planning process anytime soon.

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  10. avatar Owen Camden says:

    Dealing with the loss of a loved one is a really hard thing for everyone to go through. However, it is really comforting to know that there are people out there to help you get through this hard time. It is so nice that workers are willing to let you spend time with your deceased loved one before they are taken away. That is a great time to be able to say your goodbyes. Good funeral home directors can really help you get through times like these.

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  11. Getting people to sing is a great idea! There is something about music that can really soothe the soul. It can be very therapeutic to a grieving family. Great post!

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  12. My mother in-law recently passed away, and she was very close to my family. I’ve never planned a funeral before, but I wanted to do it as well as I could for her. I really appreciate this article and for the professional advice on the subject! I appreciate your tip about reviewing timetables, this had been a concern of mine and I’m glad to have had a little direction.

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  13. avatar Kyle says:

    These are some great things to keep in mind. My wife lost her mother a few days ago. While her death was expected (she was in her 90’s and was dealing with several health issues), it has still been hard for my wife and her family. I will make sure to inform her of some of these great tips when planning the funeral, especially to make a good relationship with the funeral director.

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  14. avatar James Bay says:

    I think this is something to keep in mind for any future events. Complimenting the home sounds like it could be very beneficial. I will have to keep these things in mind in case anything unfortunate happens in the future. Thank you for the great post.

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  15. This is some really great information. We’re trying to plan a funeral and finding a good director that can help sure would be nice. It seems like finding one and then getting a good relationship with them can really help the process to go smoothly. Thanks for sharing this.

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  16. I really appreciate this information on how to work with a funeral director to have the best funeral for a loved one. There is so much to think about and so much grief after a death, it is nice to know that this article helps us know how to deal with the funeral so we don’t have to stress about that as well. I appreciate the honesty and sympathy that this article offers. Thanks for the information.

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  17. avatar Michael Lee says:

    Hey, Kimberly great read! I would be devastated if I lost a family member, but I would make sure to plan a big funeral. And it is really important that people take notice of the tip that Ann gave to compliment the funeral director on something around the funeral home. Funeral services are an important service regardless, and you should treat a funeral just as you would any other important family gathering.

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  18. avatar Ella Ross says:

    These are some really great tips to make sure that you can work with the funeral director well. My grandmother recently passed away, an we are hoping to organize a really nice funeral for her. I think it would be nice to get some help from the director, because then we can get everything done that we need. To establish this relationship, I will be sure to learn more about cemeteries and talk about time tables. I will also be sure to ask for advice on funerals. Thanks for the great post!

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  19. avatar Paul Langley says:

    This is some really great information for anyone planning a funeral. I had never thought about asking the funeral director about past services they had held, but that’s brilliant. And knowing what your plan for the remains are is imperative. Thanks so much for writing!

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  20. Just as I want the burial of my dad to be in a special place I want the funeral home to have the same feeling. It should be a place that my dad would’ve liked to be in. Although I guess in order to make everything go smoothly we need to follow someone’s guidance and give input. Thanks for the tips.

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  21. I really appreciated the insight and perspective that this interview gave. The last little bit I’ve been looking at funeral options just out of curiosity, and this was a lot of interesting information. The ways that technology has altered the way that funerals run was to me the most interesting, but the whole thing was an good read. Thanks for sharing!

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  22. avatar Luke Smith says:

    I really do like this article, I like how Amy is the type of director that does not put a family but waits until they are ready. I also look like being prepared can be helpful, like what cemetery will be used, and other things. I can just imagine working with a funeral home that does what they can to help the family would be very grateful.

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  23. avatar Hazel Owens says:

    I like your tips about how to build a good relationship with a funeral director. Like you said, a person in grieving isn’t expected to be charming all the time, but a little bit can go a long way. I think that choosing one good thing in the funeral home to compliment or asking the director about good experiences in the past are great ways to be more friendly during a difficult time. I’ll definitely be implementing these tips next time I’m planning a funeral. Thanks for the article.

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  24. My brothers and I are working on planning my moms funeral, but we really aren’t sure were to begin. I really like what you said about cultivating a good relationship with the funeral director. That way when we have questions, we will have someone who we are comfortable talking to. I really like your point about looking at timetables very carefully. We have no idea how long things take, so having a funeral director help us with that is a great idea.

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  25. avatar Jalu Sakti says:

    I really like your idea to ask a funeral director about their most memorable funeral services and what made them so great. I think that is a great idea for getting a professional opinion on what went well and what didn’t so that you can plan the service accordingly. I wish I had known all of these tips when my grandmother passed away last year. It would have helped us know what to expect in working with a funeral director.

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  26. You have some great tips for working with a funeral director. I like your idea about asking the director about his favorite funerals ever held at the home. I bet they have seen some pretty beautiful funerals.

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  27. avatar Jade Brunet says:

    I appreciate this information about what one needs to know when it comes to working with a funeral director. It is good to learn that one should connect with a funeral director by telling him or her about the family’s faith journey. Something to consider would be to find if the funeral home allows children.

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  28. I love what you said about a funeral director needing to be flexible and a good listener to interpret different wishes and desires. I’ve heard that some funeral directors will, if you so desire, allow you to plan the entire service, and they will just carry it out. My grandmother is nearing this stage of life and we’ll have to keep these wonderful funeral tips in mind, thank you!

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  29. avatar jresquival says:

    That’s a good tip to ask the funeral director about notable and favorite services they have done. That way you can learn what they value in a service. I’ll have to keep that in mind if I need to plan a service.

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  30. avatar Jade Brunet says:

    It is good to know that one should form a good relationship with the funeral director to ensure a quality funeral. I liked what was said about asking the director to describe some of the best funerals that they have directed. Something to find would be if the home allows the presence of children. This would be good to know if you plan on having children attend the service.

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  31. I like the idea to ask the funeral director about the best services they performed. I recently lost a dear cousin of mine this past week. I definitely think that we should consider finding a funeral home that could help to perform a memorable service.

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  32. avatar Mark David says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us. I would like to appreciate you and your work. You really doing great job.

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  33. avatar John says:

    I really liked the tips to cultivate a good relationship with a funeral director that was mentioned earlier in the article. It says you should open up about your family’s faith journey. I’d imagine this would be really important if you want the funeral services to happen according to faith parameters. My grandpa is extremely active in his faith, so I can see how this would be helpful in customizing his funeral when the time comes.

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  34. avatar Max Jones says:

    My wife and I have been helping to try and plan a service for her mother, and I think that the family wants to do orthodox funerals. I’ve never been a part of orthodox funerals before, so I think that being able to work with a service who could help us to plan things accordingly for the rest of the family would be good. I’m glad that you talked about being able to work with the director to make sure that the orthodox funeral service is up to par, so hopefully we can find a good director to help us!

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    • avatar Kathleen Clohessy (Blog Writer, SevenPonds) says:

      Hi Max,
      If your family isn’t familiar with Orthodox traditions, you may want to speak with a rabbi at a local synagogue to learn more about what’s required. That person may also be able to point you in the direction of a funeral director what has experience working with Orthodox families.
      You may also want to read our recent interview with Rabbi Me’irah in which she talks about Jewish traditions around mourning, funerals, and burial. You can find it here.

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  35. avatar Silas Knight says:

    Thanks for all of the tips for planning a funeral. I will take your advice and start studying up on what we can do with a funeral. My dad has been on his death bed for months, but it could happen any day now!

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  36. avatar Kathleen Clohessy (Blog Writer, SevenPonds) says:

    Hi Silas,

    Yes, it is always a good idea to plan as early as possible. Although your dad has been sick for a long time, dealing with the arrangements immediately after his death may be quite hard. The more you can do now, the easier planning will be for you and your family.

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  37. Thanks for your comment about how you should try to plan with your funeral director so that they can help make sure the services are well-done when you are grieving. I like how you said that you should hire someone who will listen to your comments and concerns and make sure that your plans happen. My friend is considering funeral directors to plan a funeral for her grandmother.

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    • avatar Kathleen Clohessy (Blog Writer, SevenPonds) says:

      Yes, planning early is the best way to ensure that you or your loved one gets the kind of funeral you really want. Working with a funeral director ahead of time builds trust and lets you explore all of your options. Making important decisions when you are grieving is never the best route. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but very often it’s not.

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