How To Plan a Funeral Reception: Step by Step Guide

According to an article in the academic journal “Mortality,” funerals are “significant ceremonial events” that are psychological, social, and spiritual. Funeral receptions, too, allow for socialization and remembrance of the deceased, usually in a less formal setting. Planning a funeral reception involves multiple steps.

Here’s how to plan a funeral reception:

  1. Set a budget.
  2. Choose a date and time.
  3. Select who to invite.
  4. Delegate responsibilities.
  5. Pick a venue.
  6. Create a setup and clean-up plan.
  7. Prepare photos and memorabilia.
  8. Choose the decorations.
  9. Decide what food to serve.
  10. Plan remembrance activities.
  11. Consider offering keepsakes.
  12. Let people know.
  13. Create a funeral reception schedule.
  14. Host the event.

This article breaks down the funeral reception planning process to help families plan a meaningful celebration of life. If you’re looking for a thorough guide to help you with every step, keep reading.

1. Set a Budget

Before starting the funeral reception planning process, consider your budget. The budget allotted for the funeral reception ultimately decides what you can offer during the service. It may also limit the number of guests you can host and feed, as well as reduce venue options. Don’t let that discourage you — you can still provide a memorable celebration of life even without an enormous budget.

Tight budgets often require a greater deal of creativity, but this provides you with a lot of freedom in personalizing the reception in honor of the deceased.

Here are some examples:

  • While you may not have the means to afford a catering service, you can opt for a potluck instead, encouraging guests to bring a dish that reminds them of your late loved one.
  • Renting an event hall is expensive, so choose to host the event at a local park the deceased frequented.
  • Decorations can take a large chunk of the budget. Instead, create poster boards with pictures of your loved one or some of their favorite quotes.

Once you have a set budget, it’s easier to plan the rest of the event accordingly.

2. Choose a Date and Time

The majority of funeral receptions take place immediately following the funeral service. Some families, however, may decide to host the funeral reception on a different day.

When deciding on a date and time, there are several factors to consider:

  • Proximity to Death – It’s customary (though not required) to host the funeral reception within three days to two weeks of the date of your loved one’s passing.
  • Out-of-Town Guests – Guests arriving from out of the state or country may need additional time to plan the trip. Keep in mind that when hosting a funeral reception on a date other than the date of the funeral, out-of-town guests may be unable to attend both events due to travel expenses or work schedules.
  • Venue – Depending on the location of the reception, you may need to make reservations in advance. Keep in mind that start and end times are necessary when renting a facility for a specific time period.

Most funeral receptions last around two to three hours, but there are no hard and fast rules. Decide what works best for you and your family.

3. Select Who To Invite

Write down the names of family and friends that, without a doubt, will attend the reception. From there, determine whether the budget allows you to accommodate everyone on the list.

If you find it difficult to stretch the budget enough to provide adequate space, food, and refreshments for the number of expected guests, you have one of three options:

  • Get creative with planning (which we’ll discuss throughout the rest of this article).
  • Reduce the headcount.
  • Set up a remote option so that guests can attend without being physically present.

When the reception takes place on the same day as the funeral, the host typically invites everyone in attendance to join them for the post-funeral celebration of life. However, multiple large gatherings in a single day may prove overwhelming to the bereaved — this is entirely understandable. Never feel guilty about arranging a smaller, more intimate get-together.

4. Delegate Responsibilities

While it’s customary for the immediate family to plan the funeral and reception, grief may impede the process. As such, if you or your loved ones find it challenging to plan or feel overwhelmed with stress and emotion, reach out for assistance. Family and friends are usually more than willing to lend a helping hand in the planning of memorial services.

Create a plan and delegate certain tasks. For example, allow one person to find a suitable venue and make reservations. Another might make a music playlist for the reception.

Some other tasks that you can delegate include:

  • Food preparation
  • Photo printing
  • Activity planning
  • Decoration purchases

Sometimes the bereaved may feel the need to take on all of the planning, as it means a lot to them. Therefore, if you feel up to the task, by all means, go for it — just don’t be afraid to accept help once offered.

5. Pick a Venue

Don’t feel obligated to shell out hundreds of dollars to reserve a fancy venue for the funeral reception. Many times, the family holds the gathering at the funeral home, a church, or even the home of a close friend or family member — the latter being the best option for strict budgets.

Before settling on a venue, think about the number of people you invited from step three. You’ll need a venue large enough to accommodate the number of people you expect to attend.

When hosting the funeral reception at a home, consider setting up both an indoor and outdoor area to open up the space a bit more and allow for guest movement.

Another option includes renting an event room at the deceased’s favorite bowling alley, golf course, restaurant, or museum, or renting a shelter house at a park frequented by the dearly departed.

If your loved one in spirit was a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, you might want to consider hosting the event at their local VFW post. To find information about the posts in your area, visit the Veterans of Foreign Wars website.

Set banquet table in white

6. Create a Setup and Clean-Up Plan

It might seem like an unnecessary step, but creating a setup and cleanup plan saves a lot of time and eliminates additional stress on the day of the event.

While some event centers provide cleaning services once the reception ends, the host is responsible for setting up and taking down decorations, photos, memorabilia, and leftover food. Some banquet halls require that the host cleans the room in its entirety, leaving it as they found it. As such, it’s wise to put together a setup and cleaning crew early on.

Ask around to see if there are any volunteers for the task. Make sure they’re reliable people — otherwise, have a few backups just in case.

Before the funeral reception, the group is responsible for:

  • Setting up tents, tables, and chairs
  • Decorating the venue
  • Organizing and setting up the food stations
  • Choosing areas for guestbooks, memory walls, etc.

Once the event ends, the group should:

  • Clear and wipe down tables
  • Take down and pack up decorations
  • Remove and package leftover food
  • Break down tables, chairs, and tents
  • Dispose of trash
  • Vacuum, mop, or sweep

You’ll feel less stressed out at the conclusion of the funeral reception with a designated setup and cleanup crew, as the task isn’t left solely up to you.

7. Prepare Photos and Memorabilia

When planning a funeral reception, prepare photos and memorabilia in advance so you don’t have to rush a few days before. This gives you time to print any necessary photos, create memory boards, and decide what to include.

You can order prints and frame them, create pamphlets or brochures with photographs, quotes, and memories of the deceased, or opt to share images and videos on a large projector screen.

Gather some of your loved one’s cherished items, such as sports memorabilia, collected items, trophies, awards, certificates, or other things that they were proud of.

8. Choose the Decorations

Most families opt to personalize the funeral reception using specific decorations, such as tablecloths in the deceased’s favorite color or floral arrangements featuring flowers they loved. However, the quickest and most convenient way to personalize the event is with photos and memorabilia.

Set up memory tables featuring memorial cards, the deceased’s favorite memorabilia, and display pictures, favorite quotes, and memories on a “memory wall.”

Alternatively, you may set up “stations” where guests can sign a guestbook, write down their favorite memories, pick up a keepsake, or write words of encouragement for the family. You could encourage guests to bring an item that reminds them of your late loved one and organize those items on a table — just don’t forget to remind guests to grab their items before departing.

9. Decide What Food To Serve

In most traditions, it’s customary (though not required) to enjoy a meal at a funeral reception and to spend time socializing and celebrating the life of the deceased.

There are several options for food at a funeral reception, including:

  • Potlucks – This is an easy, inexpensive choice. It takes some of the stress off of the bereaved. Additionally, it brings family and friends together, allowing them to nurture one another with food. They can even honor the deceased by bringing a dish they loved.
  • Restaurant Catering – If budget allows, consider hiring a catering service from your loved one’s favorite restaurant. This takes a lot of the guesswork out of food and cleanup. Also, restaurants can provide foods for those with dietary restrictions.
  • Make Appetizers and Finger Foods – To reduce the amount of time spent cooking, consider preparing only small appetizers and finger foods such as sandwiches, crackers, chips, breads, cheese, dips, and vegetable and fruit trays.
  • Church Assistance – When hosting the reception at the deceased’s church, they may be able to assist you with food costs, planning, and setting up for the funeral reception.
  • Buffet-Style Meal – This requires a lot of preparation, but if you ask several people to make one dish, you can easily create a buffet line for cheap. However, you’ll need chafing dishes with fuel to keep the food hot.

If you want to go for the buffet option, I recommend picking up the Chafing Dish Buffet Set, available on Amazon. It’s a cost-effective option that comes with six chafing dishes, six water pans, wire racks, and chafing fuel that burns for up to 2 ½ hours. Each food pan measures 10⅜ x 12¾ inches (26.4 x 32.4 cm).

In some cases, you may wish to serve beer or wine. However, you needn’t feel obligated to serve alcohol or a full-course meal.

Once you’ve decided what types of food to offer, determine how much you’ll need based on headcount. Also, budget for plates, cups, napkins, and eating utensils. From there, you can factor the cost into your budget and begin delegating food responsibilities if needed.

10. Plan Remembrance Activities

Those planning a celebration of life may opt to include activities or ceremonies in honor of the deceased. Some examples include:

  • Candle lighting ceremony
  • Charitable donation in the deceased’s name
  • Tree planting event
  • Tribute videos
  • Open mic for memory sharing
  • Paper lantern release

Activities aren’t required, but it’s a way to bring friends and family closer together and to involve everyone in the remembrance of the dearly departed. Remember to factor these activities into the schedule for the funeral reception (which we’ll discuss more in step thirteen).

If you intend to release paper lanterns, Amazon offers a 10-Pack Biodegradable Chinese Lanterns. These are an excellent choice for honoring your loved one. The biodegradable paper ensures that you’re not contributing to pollution and is easy to write on. Write down memories or a message to your lost loved one before releasing them.

In addition to activities, you may want to consider playing music in the background during the reception. The academic Journal of Loss and Trauma concluded that listening to music enjoyed by the deceased is helpful to those suffering from grief.

11. Consider Offering Keepsakes

Keepsakes allow family and friends to take home an item to remember of their lost loved one. You can set these items up on a table near the door for guests to grab on their way out.

Some examples of memorial keepsakes include:

  • Seed packets
  • Keychains
  • Garden stones
  • Candles
  • Rosaries

If keepsakes don’t fit into your budget, consider creating your own. For example, you can purchase a large pack of flower seeds and then design and print your own personalized packets to put them in. Or, create garden stones using regular rocks with hand-painted “In Memoriam” messages.

12. Let People Know

Sometimes the budget limits the number of guests the host can accommodate, whether due to space restrictions or limited food and refreshments. In that case, feel free to reduce the headcount, opt for free venues, organize a potluck, or set up a remote option so guests can celebrate the life of the deceased without physically being there. 

If you intend to host the reception immediately after the funeral and wish to invite all of those in attendance, include the information in the funeral program and the obituary. For example, you might write:

“Funeral reception to follow at [LOCATION/ADDRESS].”

For smaller, more intimate receptions, send invitations or personally reach out to each guest to let them know the date and time. It’s best to keep the information low-key for private get-togethers.

When inviting people from out of town, get the word out as early as possible. This provides them with adequate time to plan ahead for flights and time off work.

If you’re hosting a remote event in addition to a physical reception, send out invites including links and the required code for the online meeting, or include them in the funeral program if you’re inviting everyone in attendance.

13. Create a Funeral Reception Schedule

Before the event, create a schedule so that things go smoothly. This also ensures that guests know when it’s time to wrap up and depart.

Below is an example of a funeral reception schedule:

10 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.Arrival and socializationGuestbook signing
10:30 a.m. to 11:15 a.m.Meal and refreshments
11:15 a.m. to 11:45 a.m.Tribute videoSpeechesOpen mic
11:45 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.Tree planting ceremonyLantern release
12:15 p.m. to 12:30 p.m.Pass out keepsakesGoodbyesClean

Use the above schedule as a general guideline. Your specific schedule depends on start and end times and whether you rent a venue within a certain time range. You can make each part shorter or longer, or even do away with others altogether.

14. Host the Event

On the day of the reception, don’t expect things to go exactly as you have it written in the schedule. The schedule simply acts as a way to keep the reception moving and flowing while still ending at the scheduled time.

Here are a few examples of things you may do as the funeral reception host:

  • Greet guests and socialize
  • Encourage guests to sign the guest book
  • Instruct guests where to place items in remembrance of the deceased
  • Guide guests to the next part of the ceremony (i.e., moving on to food, activities, etc.)
  • Thank guests for coming
  • Encourage guests to pick up a keepsake

During the event, if you ever feel like you need a moment to regain your composure, give it to yourself. You do not have to engage throughout every moment — you have every right to take time for yourself.

Final Thoughts

Funeral receptions allow loved ones to spend time together in celebration of the life of the deceased. They come together to share memories and provide support to one another.

Even with a smaller budget, there are ways to plan a memorable funeral reception. Getting creative is one way to personalize the event and save money.

Planning a funeral reception may be challenging, but with a clear plan, it becomes more manageable.

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Alex Noel

Hi there! I'm Alex Noel and live in Indianapolis, Indiana. I started this website to share my experience. My goal is to provide Americans a more fulfilling goodbye.

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