PostHeaderIcon Planning a Memorial Service

How To Plan A Memorial Service

A memorial service is an honoring of a loved one. It is an opportunity to morn and say goodbye with the support of family and friends.   A small group from the family, or best friends are usually involved in planning a memorial service.  It is best if one person takes the lead in maintaining the contact and setting up conference calls.  The spouse or person closest to the deceased should be consulted but not asked to make all the decisions.

The group may begin by making a list of relatives and friends to invite and also create a list of the things that were important to the loved one - a favorite song, hobbies, bible verses, poems, etc. that will help with planning the memorial service.  The group should also decide if the memorial will be followed with a reception. The reception typically includes food and drink, and is less formal.

Use this checklist to help the group plan the memorial service. The group may go through each item together or each person may choose particular items they will be responsible for. If you find the list to be daunting, consider hiring a local funeral director or an event planner. They can assist by taking the lead and have choices for locations, flowers, music, speakers, catering, etc.

1.    Decide on a theme.

You may want to decide on a purpose or theme for the memorial service, as a guide for readings, etc. For what will the deceased be remembered? Her devotion to family? His love of music? His active lifestyle?  Her dedication to charity? The theme can be reflected in any decoration, the choice of location, the choice of music, etc.

2.    Choose a location.

Traditional locations for a memorial service are churches, homes, funeral homes, and other rented event locations.  The number of people attending reflects on the size of venue needed. If the deceased did not have a strong religious affiliation, consider places that reflect their personality or interests. For example, the memorial for a nature lover might be held at a local park or garden. Also, try to choose a location that is convenient for friends and family members. Remember, more than one memorial service can be held.  There may be one for immediate family and a second that includes extended family and friends.

3.    Select a date.

The date selected may be several weeks after the death. Pick a date that allows friends and family time to make travel plans and adjust their calendars. Perhaps it makes sense to have the service during the summer when all were planning to gather anyway, an early morning ocean sunrise or late evening fireside chat may become the memorial service. Scheduling the event in two or three weeks lets out-of-town guests take advantage of the 14-day advance booking discount on airline tickets.  By not feeling pressured to have a service right away, there is time for thoughtful planning.

4.    Deal with Controversies.

Consider if there are issues to be discussed or conflicts to be resolved that will help attendees deal with the death. It may be best to address a controversy before the service rather than to ignore it.  A therapist or religious leader may assist with this process, and help bring resolution to particular attendees. This therapeutic session should be held separate from the memorial service – if possible, at least one to three days before.

5.    Write the obituary

See our Cremation Resources for tips on writing the obituary. After writing the obituary, check the cost of publication with local newspapers. There are also online obituaries.  If the price is too high for your budget, copies of the obituary can be emailed or mailed to friends and family as an alternative.

6.    Notify out-of-town family and friends

All those to be included in the memorial service should be notified-either in writing by email or with a phone call-in time to make travel arrangements. You may want to include a list of hotels close to the memorial location for out-of-town visitors not staying with friends and family.

7.    Choose a leader for the service

Decide who will lead the service – options include a clergyperson, adult son or daughter, spouse, friend, or sibling.  Of course, a well-organized service may also be led jointly.  If possible, choose someone who has experience speaking in front of groups and is at ease in the leadership role.

8.    Decide on the Plan or Order of Service

Create a plan for service – a simple list of what happens first, next, next, and then how it will end. Include who will be involved with each part and ask each family member how they wish to be involved.  The leader follows the plan and announces each person, song, or event.  Here is a sample for you to customize to fit your own unique circumstances.
1. Music
2. Opening Words
3. Candle Lighting or other Ritual
4. Address giving background information
5. Readings
6. Personal reflections by one or more family members or friends
7. Readings
8. Summation by service leader
9. Closing words
10. Music

9.    Consider creating a printed program or memorial cards

A program can include photographs, names of speakers, copies of the readings, favorite memories, and information about the deceased, along with the order of  service.  If a reception will be held, details should also be included.  Copies may be sent to those unable to attend the service.  This is a keepsake that family and friends will hold onto and therefore a professional layout and printing is often used.

10.    Decide on speaker(s)

One speaker is usually asked to give highlights from the life of the deceased. Others may read a favorite religious passage or prayer, poem, or memory. Decide who will read and what will be read. All attendees may be given an opportunity to share memories, with the service leader serving as a moderator to keep things moving and bring the discussion to a close at an appropriate time. Did the deceased leave writings, maybe instructional or inspirational letters a relative has saved? You could ask friends and relatives to write up a favorite memory to read aloud or to be read. (Having those vignettes in writing, too, will mean a lot to a surviving spouse or off-spring after the service.)

11.    Decide on Flowers

Flowers are an added touch that make an event seem special.  You may decide to purchase flowers, gather bouquets from your own garden or just use those provided as gifts. Some families choose to send home flowers with guests after the service. Some decide that it is better to donate to charity than to send flowers.  Also note that some religious groups and naturalists prefer live plants over flowers.

12.    Collect photographs or memorabilia.

Put together a table or space to display photos or favorite objects that exemplify and reflect the deceased's personality. Some people put together memory books or videos with contributions from family and friends. A reflection book may also be provided for guests to write down favorite memories. The Urn with a recent photo may also be displayed on this table or on a separate table with flowers.

13.    Decide on Music.

Many memorial services open and close with music. Some options include playing the deceased's favorite song, solicit a performance from local musicians, or lead guests in a hymn.  The universal language of music can be calming, healing, or unifying as people gather, whether played by community musicians or made available on CD. In this age of personalization, anything goes— jazz, a Bach organ concerto, a New Age harp.  Attendees are even likely to be forgiving of a grandchild’s imperfect flute rendition of “O Danny Boy” when it’s offered with love.

14.    Decide on Readings

Part of the service often includes readings and/or prayer. Family or friends may wish to write something special to be read. If you belong to a faith group, consult a clergy person or prayer book. Others may choose to use special poems or passages from favorite books. Words chosen should be soothing to the audience and help with the healing process.

15.    Decide on Memorial gifts

Memorial gifts are a way for guests to remember the deceased. They may be as simple as potted plants used in the ceremony, or a photo of the deceased attached to their favorite quote, or the program from the memorial. If the deceased had a favorite charity, providing the name and address will make it easier for guests to make a memorial gift. Charitable organizations often have pre-addressed donation envelopes which they would be happy to make available to have on hand at the service.  Some families plant a tree as part of the memorial.

16.    Plan the Reception

Food is often an important part of any family gathering. Make clear to your guests if/when/where a reception will be held following the service. It may be held in a private home, activities center of a retirement community, park, restaurant, church basement, or other convenient location. You may choose to provide simple or more elaborate refreshments. Once again, the theme chosen may be helpful in planning the reception.  When inviting guests, provide information about the food – whether it is pot luck, someone is providing the food, it is being catered, etc. so guests know what is expected of them.

17. Finalize the Plan

As part of finalizing the plan, go through each item above and determine what objects need to be in the room. For example, a CD player and speakers for the music, candles for all the guests, etc.  If the reception is to be held at a home, then items may include typical items for any party or large gathering - plates, silverware, seating, tables, etc. Beside the list write who will bring that item.  If at the last minute that person cannot come, someone else will know that those items need to be handled.


Writing Down Your Wishes

If you want any type of after-death service, you can help your executor and other loved ones by writing down your preferences. Consider the following details as you write out your plans:

  • the location of the gathering or service
  • who should be invited -- for example, should it be private (for invited family and friends) or public (open to anyone who wishes to attend)
  • who should facilitate any ceremonies
  • who should speak at the service or say the eulogy, if you want one
  • whether you will be cremated and have an urn or whether your body will be present in a casket and, if so, whether the casket should be open or closed
  • any specific clothing or jewelry in which you wish your body to be attired
  • who you would like to serve as pallbearers, if necessary
  • whether you would like a picture or other items displayed with (or instead of) your remains
  • special music, readings, food or drink, or other details, and
  • whether you want to direct survivors to send flowers or send memorial donations to a special charity.