“If the people we love are stolen from us, the way to have them live on is to never stop loving them.”

~ James O’Barr

Planning a Funeral or Memorial Service

Planning a funeral or memorial service for your loved one is challenging. However, it can also help your work through the grieving process, eventually allowing you to begin the healing process.

Typically, an Indigenous bereavement process includes some or all of the following steps:

  1. Viewing
  2. Wake services
  3. Sacred fire
  4. Funeral or memorial service (including burial and feast).


Some people decide to have a viewing to provide their family and friends with closure and allow them to pay their final respects. A viewing can be held at a funeral home, a church or the residence of the deceased’s family member. For some people, it helps to see the body; for others, it can be traumatic. If you plan to take children to a viewing, prepare them in advance by talking to them and telling them what to expect.

Wake Services:

(this can be one to four evenings of wake services, depending on individual process.)
A wake service is sometimes held with the body, and sometimes without. Wake services are typically held in churches, at the home of the deceased or at the local community hall. This can be a good opportunity to allow people to pay their respects and say their good byes.

It is good to have coffee, tea, water, little sandwiches, and other snacks or dainties. If you are expecting a lot of guests, ask your family and friends if they are willing to help out with preparing the food.

Depending on the type of wake service, you may wish to invite gospel singers, a drum group or play recorded music. Guests can also sing at the wakes and you can invite someone with an acoustic guitar and also play pre-recorded music.

It may be useful to have a microphone and sound system for a larger venue if you plan to have an open mic session for people to sing special songs, read poems or share memories of their lost loved one.

Some important items you may wish to have for the wake:

  • Flowers
  • Candles
  • Music
  • Wreaths
  • Kleenex
  • A guest book for people to sign and leave messages of comfort
  • Food
  • Beverages
  • Plates, napkins, and cutlery
  • Lines, ribbons, and flowers for the casket area
  • Additional tables and chairs
  • Tobacco for an Elder
  • Sage, smudge bowl, and matches
  • Bibles, hymn books, and rosaries
  • An elder, traditional teacher, minister, pastor, or clergy person present to lead the prayers
  • An agenda or plan for the evening

Sacred Fire:

This is typically a four-day fire that firekeepers must continuously monitor. Before asking them to fire keep, it is customary to present firekeepers with tobacco. It is good to have several firekeepers so that they may take shifts watching the fire and keeping it burning. It is a good idea to designate one or more people to ensure that these young men (typically) have food and water while they tend to the sacred fire.

The Funeral or Memorial Service:

Depending on your loved one’s wishes or their family’s wishes, a funeral or memorial service can look very different for everyone.

Here are some essential elements that you may wish to keep in mind while planning the service:

  • Visitation with family (typically before the service begins)
  • Funeral program with the order of service
  • Formal service
  • Flowers and wreaths
  • Music
  • Location of the service
  • Speakers
  • Reading of the eulogy
  • Reading of the obituary
  • Photos or video slideshows
  • The burial
  • The feast

Other Details to Consider When Planning:

  • The type of casket or urn
  • Open or closed casket
  • Where the remains will go or where the burial will take place
  • Clothing, glasses, and jewelry for the viewing and final resting: Along with your family members, you will want to choose these items for your loved one.
  • Headstone or marker preferences
  • Pallbearers

A few additional considerations:

Elements of the Service:

From the flowers to music, the funeral service should reflect your loved one—and their ongoing spirit. Take some time to consider what you would like included and discuss it with your family and friends.

Religious Elements:

If you’d like to include religious elements at your funeral or memorial service, it’s best to discuss them with your priest, pastor, or minister, in advance. You may want to select hymnals, scripture readings, prayers, or even the style of the sermon. Most funeral and memorial services include religious components—both in celebration of the deceased’s life and in comfort to grieving loved ones.


Plan the location of the feast or reception in advance. Be sure to estimate the number of guests to ensure that you will have enough tables and chairs. You may choose to have the feast at the local community centre, church, or local banquet hall. You could also have a down-to-earth gathering at a park or a barbecue at someone’s house.

The feast is an opportunity for your family and friends to express their grief as they celebrate the deceased’s life and all of the beautiful moments they shared. Cooking for a feast can be a massive task; ask as many friends and family members to help as possible and keep a running list of who is bringing what, including beverages, plates, cups, napkins, and cutlery.