Don’t Panic! Helpful Tips for Dealing with Unexpected Loss


Sometimes life comes out of nowhere, ambushing you when you least expect it. For most of us, the untimely passing of a loved one feels like suddenly being thrust into the deep end, floundering in unfamiliar waters as you try to catch your breath. Obituaries. Wills. Eulogies. There’s so much to learn and so many decisions to make in such a short window of time. And it’s even more stressful when you’re in mourning, trying to process your own grief on top of it.


At St. Luke’s Historic Church and Museum, we’re here to help you through this unfamiliar process as best as we can. If you’re reading this because you’ve just experienced a loss—don’t worry, you’re not alone. If you’re planning ahead, either for yourself or a loved one: congratulations. Your future planning will save yourself a great deal of stress down the road.


When presented with the unfamiliar, like a death in the family, it helps to have guidance. To get the answers you need, you have to first know what questions to ask. Think of this guide as a roadmap: a handy checklist of things to do in the event of an unexpected loss. From funeral planning or purchasing a cemetery plot, to obituaries and wills, we’ll walk you through the basics and give you the tools you need to work your way through this difficult process.


Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

Wills can be thought of as one final parting gift to friends and loved ones. Their purpose is to remove legal ambiguity, which can help the estate avoid probate courts and family in-fighting. Equally as important, wills clearly answer that nagging question many families find themselves asking—what exactly did they want? 


When a loved one has passed, you’ll want to find out if a will or estate plan exists. Oftentimes, a family member or close friend has been told where to find one, provided the death wasn’t sudden or unexpected. Desk drawers, safety deposit boxes, and file cabinets are all great places to check.


If there’s a will, it may provide answers to many questions you’re looking for, so be thorough. A will could outline burial preferences (e.g., cremation vs. burial, the type of burial ceremony) or may be accompanied by paperwork for reserved burial plots at a cemetery, if the deceased planned ahead.


Remember, communication is key. Don’t wait until it’s too late to have the tough conversations with your loved ones. You don’t have to go into specific details about your post-life plans if you don’t want to, but at the very least, make sure your loved ones know where to look for key documents in the event of an emergency to save them a lot of stress and heartbreak.


Choosing a Funeral Home

Early in the planning stages, you’ll want to decide on a funeral home. Their team will walk you through the burial process and answer any questions that you have. They can provide you with a death certificate, which you’ll need to file with the state, IRS, and Social Security. If you have been named the executor of the estate, you may also need to provide this certificate to other entities where the deceased maintained accounts, like banks, brokerage firms, and the post office.


To alleviate time and stress, consider answering the following questions before contacting your chosen funeral home:


  • Are you thinking about burial or cremation?
  • Are you planning to have a viewing/open casket?
  • Will you need to purchase an urn or a casket?
  • What clothes would you like the deceased buried or cremated in?
  • Will you need transportation to the service or burial site?
  • Do you need help preparing an obituary or setting up a digital memorial site?


Writing the Perfect Obituary

For most people, writing an obituary is one of the hardest steps, particularly if done in the midst of grief. How do you adequately convey the beauty—the totality—of a life in just a few short paragraphs? 


Please, don’t overthink it. Remember, the purpose of the obituary is to deliver the news to friends and acquaintances. You’ll want to post it in a local newspaper or two, as well as online. Some newspapers will post it on their website, but it can be helpful to set up a digital memorial site as well.


When you’re preparing an obituary, you’ll definitely want to include:

  • The deceased’s full name
  • Location and date of birth
  • Location and date of death
  • The deceased’s parents names
  • Names and relationships of any close living relatives (e.g., ”____ is survived by their two sons…”)


You can choose to include cause of death, although some families consider this information personal and may prefer to omit this. Consider adding small details that tell the reader something fun or interesting about the person. Hobbies, passions, or short anecdotes, particularly those that convey facets of the deceased’s personality, are great to include.


Be sure to share the obituary with close members of the family before sending to the newspaper or posting online. Some family members could have strong opinions about what to include and what to omit. Obituaries are deeply personal to many people. You will likely receive helpful feedback on wording or anything you might have overlooked.


Selecting a Funeral Plot

Choosing the right cemetery is one of the most important steps in the planning process. If you’re looking to establish roots with a family plot, you’ll want to choose a picturesque cemetery that is inspiring to you. Remember, graveyards are for the living. Visiting a cemetery is about quiet contemplation, and you’ll want to choose a serene, well-maintained location where you can clear your mind and process your emotions. 


If you are a Coastal Virginia local, we encourage you to come take a stroll around our pristine grounds. We’re located in Smithfield, Virginia; only a short day trip from the many cities comprising Hampton Roads (Williamsburg, Newport News, Hampton, Portsmouth, Norfolk, Chesapeake, Suffolk, and Virginia Beach). History buffs, drawn to the rich history of the area from all over, are often mesmerized by the beauty of our grounds and take solace in the idea that they too can entwine themselves forever with history, as centuries-old plots commingle with new burials in our Ancient Cemetery.


Once you choose a cemetery that suits your needs, you’ll want to select what kind of memorial plot you would like. At St. Luke’s, we have several options for any range of needs: from our Columbarium and Memorial Urn Garden for cremated remains, to burial plots in our Memorial Park and Ancient Cemeteries. Veterans can usually receive special markers on their gravestones, so make sure to mention if the deceased was a member of the military.


Family and friends will appreciate having a place of remembrance that they can visit to contemplate fond memories, and future descendants can quietly reflect on their history—all who have come before them.


Planning the Funeral

When planning a memorial service, you’ll first need to decide where you will hold the ceremony. Often, funeral ceremonies are performed in a church, graveside, or sometimes at a funeral home or other reception venue.


Here at St. Luke’s Historic Church and Museum, we welcome people of all faiths, creeds, and denominations. Our Old Brick Church stands as a symbol of religious freedom, with a rich history spanning four centuries. Our St. Luke’s Old Brick Church building is available for funeral and memorial services in two-hours blocks for a nominal fee. Our chapel is available even to those being interred off-site, but use of our church is completely free to anyone being buried on our grounds.


You’ll also need to decide on what kind of memorial service you’d like to have. This may be something touched included in the will, and often it is tailored to the deceased’s religious faiths and beliefs. If the deceased’s religious views are different from your own, you may consider reaching out to a close family or church member of your loved one to help you plan out the ceremony’s specifics.


In preparation for the funeral service, you’ll want to:


  • Select a florist, and decide on arrangements
  • Contact any friends or relatives that may wish to say a few words at the ceremony
  • Select any music to be played. This may be played via portable speaker or you can hire a musician or two to perform at the funeral.
  • If the deceased was a member of the military or other special organizations, you may need to reach out to that organization to receive military honors
  • Hire an officiant or clergy member to perform the ceremony. This role could be performed by a close friend or family member.
  • Choose passages or scriptures to be read. If you need help, an officiant or clergy member will be able to point you in the right direction
  • Arrange for transportation from the funeral site to the burial site, if needed. This includes transport of the body, as well as making sure guests know where to go. If needed, a police escort can be secured to ensure safe travel for your caravan of mourners.
  • Gather mementos or photos of the deceased for display at the service
  • Bring a blank register book so that guests can sign and write a short note to the family
  • Plan a reception event for after the funeral, to give family and guests a space to decompress and share fond memories. You’ll likely want to decide on food to be served as well. You may consider either hiring a caterer, purchasing some light fare to-go fare from a restaurant or grocery store, or having some family members contribute a dish or two


Crafting a Eulogy

Writing a eulogy is in some ways like crafting an obituary. If you’re composing a eulogy that will be delivered by a minister or officiant, unless it is a family friend or member of the deceased’s church, there’s a good chance that they won’t know your loved one, at least as well as you do. In these instances, it’s best to think of an anecdote or two that they can share at the service. A story or two that tells something special about the deceased’s personality will work best. Sometimes, a funny story can alleviate tension, and introduce much needed levity to a tense and trying day for guests.


The main difference between a eulogy and an obituary is that with a eulogy, you can often go into much greater detail about the deceased. Those in attendance will know the departed, so surface-level details can be replaced by more emotional or personal ones: what your loved one meant to you. Truly expressing your own emotions will give yourself a chance to grieve, and will help guests process their own feelings as well. Speaking from the heart is often the best approach. Guests will understand that you are in mourning, and will be highly forgiving of any hiccups, stutters, or imperfections in your delivery, if you will be the one speaking.


Come Be a Part of History 

There’s a reason that a death in the family tops the list of the most stressful life events people encounter. At St. Luke’s, we’re here to make the process easy for you and your family. If you’re a Hampton Roads or Coastal Virginia native, we encourage you to come tour our grounds—learn about the history of our cemetery and church.


Come see why President Dwight D. Eisenhower said of St. Luke’s Church, “this monument to the founders of our country is in truth a national shrine.” St. Luke’s Church and Museum has witnessed the breadth of human emotions over the past 400 years: from tragic family losses to celebrations of life in marriage and everything in between. We guarantee you’ll be inspired by our peaceful grounds, and soon learn why so many people continue to return to St. Luke’s year-after-year.


Smithfield Cemetery Memorial Park
Cemetery in Smithfield VA
St. Luke's Historic Church Museum Cemetery Memorial Park
Cemetery Smithfield VA

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