“Come with me this morning to the church within our hearts, where the bells are always ringing, and the preacher whose name is Love — shall intercede for us!”

—Emily Dickinson

“It is better to go to a house of mourning

    than to go to a house of feasting,

for death is the destiny of everyone;

    the living should take this to heart.”

—Ecclesiastes 7:2

Earlier this week, I conducted a memorial service for Rena K, who died of ovarian cancer. She was a 55-year-old woman, deeply injured by the “violence” perpetrated upon her and her siblings by their father when they were children. She lived her whole adult life estranged from her birth family, except for her younger brother Richard. The details of Rena’s life were hard for me to ascertain, mostly because she had drifted so far from family and also because of the reticence of Richard, her baby brother, who was guarded about the family’s secrets. But I pieced together a few details—after graduating from high school, Rena moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she studied social work in college and, although she didn’t graduate, worked as an assistant in a shelter for women who were victims of domestic abuse. She legally changed her name from Kimberly to Rena, and also her last name from “Beardsley” to a Sanskrit name which means “One Who is Compassionate.” Rena married a couple of times, but was divorced at the time of her death. She didn’t leave behind much, except for books and journals which contained her intense interest in spirituality. Richard retrieved her possessions in one drive to Santa Fe in his Ford. All her belongings fit into his late model Escape. 

Another thing she did NOT leave behind were instructions on what she wanted for her memorial service. Richard, her brother, didn’t know what kind of music she liked. He didn’t know what readings to choose. He didn’t really even know if she had a bent for a particular spiritual tradition—Hindu? Buddhist? Her adopted legal last name was the name of an ecumenical deity revered by both the Hindus and the Buddhists in Kathmandu. So the tone of the service was generic Santa Fe spiritualism, with a white-person’s view of generic “eastern” spirituality.  We were flying blind. I chose a playlist of Ravi Shankar and Anoushka Shankar’s sitar ragas. I told Rena’s sister, Lisa, to bring a basket of rose petals, that we could sprinkle around Rena’s Tree of Life urn. We chose white as our funereal wear, instead of black. Richard chose a community center in Mukilteo with floor-to-ceiling windows, so we could look out over the sea and the ferries. He hung Tibetan prayer flags. After the service we ate catered Indian vegan food. Richard, with my help, cobbled together a service that we hoped she would be honored by. It was a guessing game. 

My question for you is how do you want to be remembered? 

How do you imagine your funeral? 

What does your ideal funeral service look like? 

Will you be laid out in an open casket dressed in your white Elvis jump-suit, collar popped, in the front of a chapel? (With body = Funeral)

Or will you be ashes in a bronze book-style urn with rose petals sprinkled around?  (Without body = Memorial)

Will you have a pastor or priest or pandit conduct the service?  

Will you pay, as one of my families did earlier this year, for your imprisoned brother to come in shackles?

Which passages or poems are your very favorite, to be read?   

Who should read them? 

Will you have us play “Rock of Ages” or “Free Bird” or Shania Twain? Journey? 

Do you want us all to add “…between the sheets” to some hymn titles for juvenile levity?

What is the cosmology conveyed at your funeral?: 

Are you now “in a better place” dancing in perfect connection with God, conjoined to your cloud of witnesses…

Or are you in your white tabi trudging out there somewhere on your transitional journey? 

Do you want everyone to wear your favorite turquoise jewelry; all the men in turquoise bolo ties? 

Do you want the repast to include pork dumplings and soy sauce? Importantly, which IPA? In addition to Coors.

Do you want a stranger celebrant to get up, someone who has never met you, and tell of your significance? Do you want your “Salon of Shame” teenage journals turned over to him or her?  

Do you want all your exes invited? 

Do you invite us to talk freely about ALL OF YOU, authentically? Your struggles? Your unachieved but intensely held aspirations? 

Your handicaps? Your specific individual sin? In addition, to your glory.  

Who do you choose to share with the mourning congregation your ‘Three Regrets of My Life’? 

Which one of your favorite Four-Wheelers do you want at the front of the chapel? 

Do you have an iconic “sacred” object(s) that represents a lot of you? (If not the Four-Wheeler)…

Do you want a slide-show shown at your funeral? Pictures of you. Do we have your favorite ones? 

Is there an undesirable person in your life, one who you wish not to be there, for fear of them hijacking the service? ‘Toxic’ is 2018 Oxford Word of The Year.

Will you be buried? Urn or casket…either. And if you will be, do you wish that graveside service to take place immediately following? 

Do you wish to have a motorcade procession to the graveside? 

Do you want a live string quartet? Or a harpist? (joke!) Or a Journey Tribute Hair-band?  A karaoke machine at the reception? 

What is your chosen venue? Both for service and the repast? 

Do you have an email or address list of those who should be invited? And the person in charge of inviting knows the name of your Toxic Person? 

Do you want an “Obituary” posting, with announcement of funeral details, on Facebook?

Are there any posthumous thank-yous you’d like read? 

[In all of the above, we are only talking about the funeral, not even yet about a will or advanced-care directives.]


Do you punt on all the above? 

And leave everything up to us, while grieving your gone-ass? 

In which case, who is your lead bereaved decision maker on all the above? If your spouse/partner, who is the back-up gopher/helper? 

Where are your instructions to be found?


  • Paul Boardman

    Writer and inter-faith Funeral Chaplain and Celebrant living in Seattle, Washington.

    Paul Boardman grew up in Tokyo, Japan, and holds the farcically-named “Masters of Divinity” from Princeton Theological Seminary. Two of his enduring thematic obsessions in writing are: what constitutes a good life in the face of death/loss and the nature of yearning, even greed, for love. His work has been featured or is forthcoming in The Good Men Project, Gravel, 3rd Act and ICCFA magazine, and in the anthologies Grief Dialogues: The Book, Just a Little More Time, We Came to Say and We Came Back to Say. He is looking to place his memoir.