Memorial Service Planning Checklist & Ideas
Many families today want a service which celebrates the life of their loved one. We introduce them to the concept of a memorial service, and provide support in designing a service that is as unique as the life of their loved one.
We always enjoy working together with families in planning a memorial service for their loved one. While it can be a challenge to put together an event that both pays tribute to and celebrates the life and spirit of, a complex individual; it's also one of the most rewarding things any one of us can do for someone we've loved and lost.
Sarah York, opens her beautifully-crafted book, Remembering Well, with the very personal story about how her family chose to pay tribute to her mother. "My mother died in April 1983.... she didn't want a funeral. 'Get together and have a party,' she had said when the topic was allowed to come up." However, she was quick to tell readers that the survivors did not honor the request. "We needed the ritual. We needed to say good-bye, but we also needed a ritual that would honor her spirit and would be faithful to her values and beliefs."
When Ms. York acknowledge the position of her family; that they needed not a party but a ritual; she teaches us all something important: the memorial service events we plan with families should be shaped as much by their own emotional and spiritual needs, as their desire to celebrate the life lived.
While memorial services are not burdened by social expectations—they can be pretty much anything you want them to be—it's important to realize that the event you're planning should meet the emotional needs of the guests. So, think about exactly who will be there, and what they're likely to want or need. Then, bring in those unique lifestyle and personality characteristics of the deceased; perhaps add live music or refreshments, and you've got the beginnings of a remarkable memorial service.
Funerals vs. Memorial Service
It's interesting; funerals and memorial services have much in common, yet they often appear very different. Each is a ceremony; a gathering of people who share a common loss. It's just that one is more rooted in tradition, while the other is the result of recent changes in social values. But both serve to do three things:
1. Help the bereaved family, and their community, publically acknowledge the death of one of their own.
2. Support the grieving family by surrounding them with caring friends, co-workers, and neighbors.
3. Move the deceased from one social status to another.
Yet they achieve those things in very different ways. First, let's take a closer look at what most of us commonly see as very traditional funerals.
It's not surprising funerals have been around for a very long time. Composed of three activities, the visitation, the funeral service, and the committal service, performed at the graveside; this funeral is the one we'd easily recognize from contemporary literature and film.
The Visitation: Held prior to the funeral, often the night before but sometimes on the same day, the visitation (or viewing) is a time when people come to support the family and, more importantly, pay their respects to the deceased. This often involves stepping up to the casket to view the body; either in the company of a member of the surviving family or on your own.
The Funeral Service: Commonly held in the funeral home or church, the traditional funeral service is led by an officiant of one kind or another; most commonly a pastor or the funeral director. This individual follows a very predictable funeral order of service which includes the singing of hymns; and invocations, Bible recitations, Scripture readings, and prayers led by the officiant.
The Committal Service: This takes place at the cemetery, after a slow and respectful automobile procession from the place where the funeral was held. The committal service ends when the casketed remains are lowered into the ground, and final prayers are said.
If you'd like to know more about the history of funerals in the United States, you may like to visit the website of the National Museum of Funeral History. But for now, it's enough to know that a funeral service traditionally has these three distinct components. Now let's look at a memorial service.
Author Barbara Kingsolver, in her book The Poisonwood Bible, wrote “To live is to be marked. To live is to change, to acquire the words of a story, and that is the only celebration we mortals really know.” We think this reflection is at the heart of a memorial service. While a funeral, as we've described it above, has more to do with the orderly and often spiritually-defined; a memorial service is more concerned with telling the story of the deceased. memorial services are just that: a time people come together more to celebrate the unique personality and achievements of the deceased than to merely witness or mark the change in their social status.
Memorial services are similar to memorial services, which can be described as a hybrid event; combining the flexibility of a memorial service with many of the activities of a traditional funeral order-of-service.
There's more room for creativity in a memorial service than a funeral. Since memorial services are commonly held after the individual's physical remains have been cared for through burial or cremation; there is much more time available to plan the event. And without doubt, this allows you to make better decisions about how you'd like to celebrate the life of someone you dearly loved.
Wondering How to Plan a Memorial Service?
It's really a process of asking–and answering–questions. Sit down with other family members, at least once, but maybe even more than once; to explore the memorial service ideas which arise from answering these questions on how to plan a memorial service:
1. Who will be invited? The number of guests define the where, when, and how of your memorial service. Write down the names of everyone you think would want to be there and then set it aside. You can add new names to the list as you go along.
2. Where, and when, should the event take place? Here's where your imagination is tempered by any scheduling or travel-related issues facing those who will be invited. Be sure to check in with out-of-town relatives and friends about their situation before settling on these critical details.
3. Who will orchestrate or conduct the event? If your loved one was religious, you may opt to have their pastor or church minister perform these tasks. However, many families today hire a non-denominational celebrant to oversee the memorial service.
4. Who wishes to speak at the event? Many times family members or friends will be very direct about their desire to make a short presentation at the memorial service; other times you need to come out and ask folks if they would be willing to publicly share their thoughts and feelings. Either way, you'll want to select those people who have shared a close relationship with the deceased and have something meaningful to contribute.
5. What group activities would be appropriate? We've heard some exciting memorial service ideas over the years. This question involves thinking about what your loved one liked most about their life and gives everyone a remarkable space to share memories, laugh, and even cry together.
6. What food or beverages should be served? What you serve may depend on the theme of your memorial service, or may be based on your loved one's favorite dishes. It's entirely up to you; we've even seen "pot luck" memorial services where guests actually sign up to bring select foods and beverages.
7. What readings and music should you include? Music is an integral part of life for many people, and a memorial service is the perfect event in which to showcase the meaningful music of your loved one's life. But, if your loved one didn't appreciate music (and lots of folks don’t), it may be more appropriate to read chosen spiritual selections, or excerpts from literature.
8. What details of your loved one's life do you want to share with guests? Not every biographical detail needs to be highlighted; rather you're trying to capture their essence by telling revealing anecdotes or stories. Sometimes you can reveal their character by detailing one short moment in their life experience.
9. What decorations will you have? Many families create a tribute video and use it as the centerpiece of the event. Others choose to use a memory table of photographs and other memorabilia instead.
Are You Undecided? Turn to Us
We've got years of experience listening, brainstorming, and advising families how they can best pay tribute to a beloved family member. That means we're the perfect people to help you decide between a funeral and a memorial service. We'll explore your funeral service options with you in detail, taking all the time you need.
In the book Chocolat, by Joanne Harris, you'll find this fundamental truth: “Life is what you celebrate. All of it. Even its end.” As funeral professionals we help families express reverence for life. Let us do that for your family. Call our funeral home at 904-765-1234 to speak with a member of our staff.
Barbara Kingsolover, The Poisonwood Bible
Joanne Harris, Chocolat
Sara York, Remembering Well: Rituals for Celebrating Life & Mourning Death