When Your Loved One’s Last Wish Was ‘No Funeral’

Our columnist offers 7 alternatives for memorializing the dead.

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Web Over the past year, I’ve experienced several losses that, at the request of the deceased, did not include funerals. Grief rituals are central to my mourning process, but there’s no negotiating with the dead. In the absence of the most standard of ceremonies, how do you give expression to your grief while respecting someone’s final wish for “no funeral, please?” Through personal experience, and conversations with friends and readers who’ve faced the same scenario, here are seven ways to do just that.

  1. Write and place an obituary in their local paper.

My 93-year-old grandmother died in May, and had insisted she didn’t want a funeral. My grandfather had planned to write the obituary, but amid his grief, the project was understandably pushed aside. Yet the idea of my much-beloved grandmother’s life and death going unrecognized publicly was an uncomfortable one. So I contacted surviving relatives to get the details of Gram’s early life, and placed obituaries in the papers of her East Coast childhood and West Coast adulthood. Plotting her life achievements through words provided a way to process my grief. Seeing her name, picture and story in print granted me a sense that she isn’t forgotten.

  1. Take up one of their skills or hobbies.

Was she a yoga aficionado or competitive knitter? Was he a golfer? Engage in an activity that reminds you of the deceased and try to discover what they loved so much about it.

  1. Assemble an homage to the deceased in your home.

Bring out your memories of him or her — photos, postcards, ticket stubs, keepsakes — and display them with a memorial candle in your home. When the person crosses your mind, light the candle and say a few words. Rinse and repeat as needed.

  1. Post a personal tribute with photos on Facebook and/or your blog.

What would you have said at their funeral? Which story or picture would you have shared with other mourners? Craft your tribute and tell it to Facebook or your blog followers.

  1. Donate to their favorite cause.

I was crushed last September to hear that a former L.A. colleague and brilliant writer had died of cancer. She’d quietly quit her job, told no one that the disease she’d beat years ago had returned, and entered a nursing home. The news that she’d donated her body to science and didn’t want a memorial was a one-two punch. For weeks, I struggled with how to honor this woman who’d been a generous mentor early in my career. Since she was a self-proclaimed “cat lady,” I made a donation in her name to Kitten Rescue Los Angeles. The act didn’t provide the same degree of catharsis as a funeral, but it offered a personalized way to honor her legacy.

  1. Host a dinner or cocktail hour in their honor.

Gather would-be funeral attendees for a meal where signature drinks and dishes loved by the deceased are served. To encourage guests to exchange favorite memories around the table, start off by sharing yours.

  1. Plan a pilgrimage to sites charged with their memory.

After the uncle of one of my friends died suddenly, the family learned that he had not wanted a funeral. In lieu of it, they gathered in his hometown and did a walking tour that included his childhood home, the church where he was confirmed and the lake where he and his surviving sister had ice-skated. Through this expedition, the family was able to respect the uncle’s wishes while sharing the tears and memories that would accompany a formal service.

Tré Miller Rodríguez is the author of “Splitting the Difference: A Heart-Shaped Memoir” and the popular Tumblr WhiteElephantInTheRoom.com. Her essays appear in The New York Times, Marie Claire and on MindBodyGreen.com, and she overshares at @tremillernyc.

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