Funerals and Burials

Note:  Acknowledging that there are many different types of end-of-life ceremonies including a funeral, memorial service, celebration of life, etc., we will use the term ‘funeral’ to indicate all ceremonies.

Many death rituals have some common purposes - to celebrate the deceased, to mourn together, and to look for meaning in life.

This section of can help guide your decision-making on:

  1. Notifying your Community
  2. Type of Ceremony, if any
  3. Visitation or Wake
  4. Financial Assistance
  5. Burial or Disposition of the Remains
  6. Green Funerals
  7. Funeral Planning
    a)  The Obituary
    b)  The Clergy or Officiant, Celebrant
    c)  The Eulogy
    d)  Reception, Salite, or Shiva


1.  Notifying your Community

Some cultures dictate that the ceremony must take place within a certain time period after death.  In the Jewish and Muslim communities, for example, burials typically take place within 24 hours.  For others, the funeral may be determined by when the local newspaper can notify the community of the death or when family members are able to arrange travel home.

A religious or cultural community may have an organized means of communicating that will help inform its members.  With the growing use of social media, a family will sometimes choose to reach out electronically with a death announcement, but immediate family should be informed first.  Funeral homes also have a listing of recent deaths on their websites, including the obituary and funeral details.  While there are now only a few daily newspapers in Nova Scotia, they usually do publish obituaries.  Some radio stations also make death announcements daily.

These days funerals or memorials are sometimes scheduled for weeks or months after a death.  Particularly if the deceased has been sick for a long time, family may decide to delay the ceremony until a time when they would regularly meet, perhaps summer holidays or Christmas.  Others do not wish to delay the event, describing the period before the funeral like being “… in suspended animation, like waiting for the period at the end of the sentence”.  For them, the ceremony can be an important part of the healing process.

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2.  Type of Ceremony, if any

The ceremony you choose may be a traditional funeral, a celebration of life, or a memorial service.  The ceremony can take place in a church, a funeral home, or in the graveyard, at home, or in a community hall.  The traditional funeral format includes music, a eulogy, a sermon or message, readings, the committal, and interment.

Many people feel that the ceremony should reflect the intentions of the deceased.  However, If they have not expressed their wishes, you can make the arrangements you consider appropriate, perhaps keeping the personality of the deceased in mind.  For instance, for someone who was religious, their church may the best location.  For someone who loved the outdoors, perhaps you would choose a forest or beach setting.

A growing number of deaths have no public acknowledgement other than the funeral home notice.  Many obituaries will state that honouring the wishes of the deceased, there will be no visitation or funeral.

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3.  Visitation or Wake

Any type of ceremony can include a visitation or wake.   In some communities, the person will be waked at home.  In First Nations communities, the wake begins shortly after the death and continues round the clock until the funeral; a sacred fire burns, tended by a Firekeeper, and tobacco offerings are made by those coming to pay their respects.  Visitations and wakes are a time to come together with others and to remember the deceased, talk, share stories, laugh and cry together as you process the death of your loved one or friend.

Sometimes a receiving line will form as those who come to pay their respects line-up to speak with the family of the deceased.  Although an important aspect of the visitation for many, this can be tiring for the bereaved.  The immediate family may choose to be in different areas of the room or house so all those attending have a chance to speak with a close relative without waiting in line for an extended period.

Costs for funerals vary depending upon whether there is a cremation and urn or an embalming and casket.  Music, burial, food at the reception, public notices - each of these options add to the cost of the event.  The size and grandeur of the funeral does not indicate the love for the deceased by survivors.

A Funeral Director can lead you through the process of planning a funeral.  Funeral Directors in Nova Scotia must be licensed.  The legislative acts that apply to Funeral Directors in Nova Scotia can be found on the provincial government website.

If the funeral has not been pre-arranged and prepaid, be clear when speaking with funeral home staff about what you can and cannot afford; ask for an itemized list of costs.  Taking on substantial debt to pay for a funeral seldom serves a family well.  If you feel that you are being pressured to spend beyond your means, be firm that you must work within a budget.  If you meet any further pressure, consider looking for a different funeral home.   The Province of Nova Scotia provides information on their website regarding funeral and burial expenses.

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4.  Financial Assistance

For those who are not able to afford a funeral for their loved one, the Department of Community Services (DCS) may be able to help financially.  Application can be made for funding to cover expenses such as professional services, casket or urn, grave opening and closing, grave liner, notices in the newspaper and on radio, honoraria for clergy, and mileage.

If you will be representing the deceased’s estate in such an application, you must have access to their personal financial documents (bank statements) to demonstrate financial need.  You will work with the funeral home and bring the bill to DCS if your application has been approved.  Please contact your local DCS office for more information.

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5.  Burial or Disposition of the Remains

The body or cremated remains may be committed to the ground in a cemetery plot or in a columbarium niche.  However some families prefer to keep their person’s cremated remains at home.  The Province of Nova Scotia does not require that the body is in a casket to be cremated, but check with the crematorium to be sure of their requirements.  An urn can be purchased or made to hold the ashes of your loved one, or ashes can be placed in any container you choose.

Regarding the disposal of cremated remains, the Nova Scotia government website states: “There are no legal restrictions on the family scattering the ashes at a chosen spot, such as a body of water, or in the wild. The scattering of ashes on land is subject to the laws regarding property – check for any local or municipal bylaws. It is best to avoid scattering of ashes near watercourses that are used for drinking water.”

A partnership between a funeral home and local fishing captain on Prince Edward Island now offers a sea burial through a memorial service, Dearly Departed.

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6.  Green Funerals

As our awareness of climate change increases, so does interest in green burials.  The Ecology Action Centre has information on the benefits of a green burial as well as links to cemeteries in Nova Scotia that offer green burial options.

The Fiddlehead Casket Company in Fredericton, New Brunswick, offers beautifully crafted, plain wooden caskets that can be shipped flat-packed and assembled where needed.  This locally crafted product is, “Handcrafted of local New Brunswick pine, lined with hand sewn organic cotton inserts filled with recycled pine shavings from its creation, the casket minimizes waste and is a salute to nature.  Untreated pine, cherry wood joinery and no metal parts.”

A deep green burial is an account of the burial of an environmental activist living, and dying, in Pictou County.

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7.  Funeral Planning

The deceased may have left specific instructions for their funeral or you may have discussed it with them.  If they have not, you have several decisions to make.

The Canadian Virtual Hospice article Planning A Funeral can be used as a decision-making guide.  It covers such topics as types of funerals, services offered by a funeral home, who needs to be notified of the death, death certificates, air travel discounts, and pre-arrangements.  You may also need to think about whether you would like a casket or urn, the location of the ceremony, music selection (live or recorded), flowers, pallbearers, memorial donations, who will eulogize your person, printed programs, and who will lead the service (clergy or a lay-celebrant).  Some funeral homes offer a webcast of the service so those who cannot attend in person can witness the ceremony via the internet.

Your religion or culture may dictate how and when a funeral takes place.  The traditions of your family may also play a part in the plans that are made.  The resource Different Cultural Beliefs at Time of Death outlines what ceremonies are expected by ten of the world’s major religions.

7a)  The Obituary

Many people prefer the traditional obituary that includes the date and location of the death, a listing of professional and personal accomplishments, a listing of family members, the logistics of the funeral, and where to channel memorial donations. However, in recent years there has been a gradual departure from traditional ways, and some obituaries contain more personal information including examples of the deceased’s sense of humour.  Other people write their own obituary, speaking directly to the reader in the first person.

There are many online guides to writing obituaries, but perhaps the best resource is your local newspaper.  Read through several obituaries and see what jumps out at you.  Is there phrasing you like?  Are there some aspects you would like to include or exclude?  Is the language too flowery or too impersonal?

Costs for obituaries vary and will increase if you wish to include a photo.  Some newspapers will publish an abbreviated obituary at no cost, referring the reader to the funeral home website where a more complete version can be found.

Confirmation of the death or a copy of the Death Certificate may be required before the obituary can be published.  Please remember to check for publication deadlines and the format in which the newspaper would like to receive information.

The Funeral Services Association of Nova Scotia offers some advice on Writing an Obituary.

7b)  The Clergy or Officiant, Celebrant

You may have a member of the clergy who can be called upon to conduct the ceremony.  It can be a great comfort to have a leader in your faith community who will help with the ceremony.  Or you may wish to ask a friend or family member to lead the event, introducing speakers and directing the mourners to the reception location.

7c)  The Eulogy

The family of the deceased will often ask a close friend or another family member to eulogize the person who has died - to share some memories or reminiscences about the deceased during the funeral or celebration-of-life.  Some will hesitantly agree, uncomfortable with the thought of having to speak to a group of people at a very emotional time.  Others look forward to using their writing and speaking ability to honour their loved one who has died.

If you are struggling with how to start, you may want to begin with an appropriately funny or heartfelt story about the deceased to put everyone more at ease, or perhaps you could read the lyrics of a favourite song or share a few lines of poetry.  The point of the eulogy is less to recap the life of the deceased person than to share your thoughts or the thoughts of those with whom you have conferred.  Your thoughts may be able to bring some peace to you and to others who are suffering the death of your loved one.

Other families may opt to dispense with a formally prepared eulogy in favour of an invitation to those attending to share stories or remembrance of the person who has died.

7d)  Reception, Salite, or Shiva

Receptions after a funeral are often held in the church hall or at the funeral home.  An extended gathering may take place at home later that day.  Receptions may be catered by groups such as the Ladies Auxiliary or Legion Auxiliary, or by a hired caterer.  Some receptions take place at the home of a family member; if it is a pot-luck, the work will be shared amongst many.  Some families may want a quiet gathering, others will use this time for a great party with live musicians that goes late into the night.

A Salite is a sacred Mi’kmaq tradition that includes a feast and an auction after the funeral. The feast is a celebration of the deceased and thanksgiving for their life. The auction of donated items helps the family in meeting funeral expenses.

In the Jewish faith, following a funeral, the family and friends of the deceased will "sit shiva" for seven days. It is during these seven days that the mourners will grieve their loss and pray together. While sitting shiva, the mourners do not go to work, groom themselves, wear fresh clothing, or engage in pleasurable activities. Typically, those grieving will gather in a single home to observe shiva together. During shiva, visitors are welcomed into the home however, it is appropriate for visitors to remain silent until they are acknowledged by one of the mourners. Before visitors leave, it is customary to say, "May the Almighty comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." A large part of sitting shiva is prayer and the mourners will recite the kaddish memorial prayer for the deceased.

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Caregiver Tips

You may find that sorting through pictures to be used at the visitation or service can be bittersweet.  When others are involved, stories will be remembered and retold.  The time spent together on this activity allows you to console and support each other while accomplishing a task.