How to Plan A Memorial Service

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Guest post by Jasmine Tanguay
Legacy Facilitator and Funeral Celebrant


Are you thinking about what sort of funeral service you might want or planning a memorial service for a loved one? As detailed in What is a Memorial Service, a memorial service can be a powerful way to celebrate the life of a loved one.

No matter your reason for wanting to learn more about memorial services, some supportive guidance can help make the planning process easier for you.

Planning a memorial service can be an inspiring, emotional, and oftentimes exhausting process.  It is also a highly personal one, and your decisions will be shaped by your life experiences, your relationship to the deceased, what the deceased wanted or what you desire for yourself after you die, what you can afford, and myriad other factors. So let’s jump in and go through the steps of planning a memorial service.

Determine the overall feel of the event

Decide if the gathering will be small and intimate or open to the larger community. The service can be as informal as a picnic in a park, or as formal as a wedding with ushers, caterers, flowers and a reception line. A Funeral Celebrant or other officiant can lead or coordinate ceremonial elements such as candle lightings, responsive readings, a balloon release, or something as simple as attendees joining hands and encircling the family.

Consider any wishes of the deceased, and especially the preferences and finances of family members. The Funeral Consumers Alliance offers a wealth of planning information to assist with navigating less expensive and do-it-yourself options.

Decide on a memorial service date

Memorial services often benefit from being scheduled at a convenient time—even weeks or months after the death. Confirm the availability of the desired venue and key participants. Remember that a long lead time may be necessary to accommodate any out-of-town guests who must make travel plans. In some cases, a memorial service may take place on an important milestone such as the first anniversary of the death.

Choose a venue

The location of a memorial service affects the tone, cost, and capacity of your event, as well as the amount of external support and structure provided. Venue options include churches, funeral homes, beaches, parks, private homes, and public meeting spaces. The choice of location should be both meaningful and convenient, taking into account practical matters like cost, availability, and services.    

Religious venues
Churches, synagogues, and chapels are common locations for a memorial service. For those with connections to a religious community, holding a service in a place of worship provides comfort and support to family and friends. The location itself may feel meaningful, along with the traditions, music, and feeling of being among your spiritual community. When choosing this location, be aware that you may need to reserve the space well in advance and there may be a fee or honorarium.

Secular services
These may be held in a variety of public and private locations. Funeral homes offer space for memorial services, which come with a staff to assist in practical matters. Prices for these services are easily available. Other public locations take a little more planning, but this planning can be a meaningful part of the grieving process. When seeking out other locations, be sure to ask about practical matters like bathrooms, parking, accessibility, set up, clean up, and technology.    

Your home
Welcoming friends and family into your own home for a memorial service is another common option. Home services offer the most flexibility in terms of length, timing, and personal touches. They can range from a short program to an all-day celebration of life. If considering this option, take into account the size of your home, food preparation, and cleanup, and be sure to enlist the help of other friends and family.

Select speakers

Memorial services held in religious spaces are most often lead by clergy members. They will help you identify roles for other speakers, such as readings, scriptures, and eulogies. Ideally, the clergy member will have known the deceased and work with you to select meaningful readings and personal touches.

Another option is to select a funeral celebrant, easily found by searching online. Funeral celebrants (also called secular celebrants) are experienced speakers who work with family members to create and lead memorial services. The role of a celebrant can range from giving the entire service to helping facilitate sharing by other participants.  

You may not want to hire a professional at all and simply have family and friends lead the service. Identify people who would like to contribute readings, stories, testimonials, or poems. Assign the eulogy to someone close to the deceased who can share a brief summary of the person’s life celebrating pivotal events, important relationships, and special memories.  

Invite guests

Wondering how to invite people to a memorial service? You will want to issue invitations as soon as you have settled on the date, time, and place, adjusting the size of the invitation list based on the capacity of the venue and the desired attendance. Remember to check the address book or phone contacts of the deceased in order to assist in developing the invitation list.

A newspaper announcement or Facebook event can reach a large number of people quickly, although it may not be preferred if the event cannot accommodate the public. Individual phone calls, letters, and emails are more personal, and a “telephone tree” can save time. Evites can be a great way to extend individual invitations, track RSVPs, and communicate up-to-date information while still limiting the information to invitees only.

Choose music

Music plays a number of roles in a memorial service. It evokes emotions, brings back memories, and conveys a message, all while providing structure and comfort. Depending on how formal the service is, most people find it appropriate to incorporate a wide variety of music into a memorial service. Songs from a particular religious tradition, popular music, and special instrumental music can all have their place.

Selecting music that was meaningful to the deceased is a way to honor and recognize them while also evoking memories in attendees. Music can be either recorded or live and used throughout the service. All options require some planning, from contacting musicians to checking on technology to play recordings. You could also ask guests to include a meaningful song title with their RSVP that you can add to the playlist.

Create a program

A printed program listing the order of the service, music, readings, and participants is helpful to the guests and makes an excellent keepsake. Typically the cover will feature the name, photo, and dates of the deceased, with details of the service inside. You may wish to include a brief biography as well as a few personal tributes.

Funeral homes and print houses will generally customize and sell programs from a limited set of designs. If you prefer to craft your own, templates are available online at a variety of sites; our favorites are Etsy and Canva for their variety of attractive options.

Compile photographs

Often, a collaborative effort is helpful to find photos, clippings, awards, or other special mementos that you can display at the service, assemble in a memory book, or combine into a slide show. Confetti is a great option that allows people to contribute their personal photos of the deceased to make a joint online slideshow or picture book.

Choose a guest book

A book for guests to sign with thoughts and wishes for the family is a common item at a funeral or memorial service. Ask young children to contribute by drawing pictures, helping find photos, or encouraging other guests to sign the book.

Pick flowers

Flowers are a traditional part of memorial services in most cultures. Flowers are an expression of warmth, beauty, and love. They represent the fragility of life and the abundance of nature. Flowers are used to decorate the venue, from the altar or podium to table tops and aisles. Any type of flowers can be used, so look for ones preferred by the deceased or associated with the season. When arranging for delivery, be sure that someone is on site to receive them. Also, consider what to do with the flowers after the service. Hospitals and nursing homes often accept donations, which can bring joy to others.

Decide on food

Sharing food during a bereavement gathering is a popular tradition—breaking bread together is a powerful ritual. This could be anything light refreshments at church to a catered reception. Have close friends and family contribute finger foods to serve at home or plan a gathering at a favorite restaurant. Certain states don’t allow funeral homes to serve food, so be sure to check well in advance in case you need to make other arrangements. 

Specify seating

Usually, a funeral director, event planner, or even the deceased’s grandchildren greet guests as they arrive and present them with a memorial program that outlines what to expect. The family generally sits in reserved seating in front. Guests are typically welcome to sit anywhere. If you are the event planner, consider whether the family will process in after everyone else is seated, whether there is a special musical selection while they are coming in, and whether the audience will stand at all during the service.

Address attire   

Wondering what to wear? Generally, the location (and sometimes the time of day) will drive the dress code. As the folks at Legacy Navigator say, “Overall, it’s a dress-up occasion that doesn’t take itself too seriously.” However, they also mention a service where the deceased person's hunting buddies all showed up in camo, so there’s room for tasteful diversion from the standard. Did the deceased have a favorite color? You could ask your guests to wear clothing or accessories that feature that color. This small gesture can be quite powerful in bringing everyone together.

Consider cost

Memorial services are typically less expensive and simpler to arrange than a traditional funeral. Costs for a memorial service are largely driven by the venue used. Funeral homes, churches, and private facilities all have widely varying use fees. If you have access to a large home, you can skip all of those facility fees and invite guests to a service in the backyard, or to come and go throughout the course of the afternoon.

Personnel costs are an additional component of the total cost: these can include the officiant, musicians, and other personnel fees (sextant, custodian, or others, depending on venue).

Other expenses for materials such as brochures, flowers, food, and mementos can vary tremendously based on selections made. In short, memorial services can be done for almost no cost, or they can be elaborate functions costing many thousands of dollars. There are many opportunities to save money by doing things for yourself rather than purchasing items or packages from vendors. And most importantly, remember that the money spent is never an indicator of how beloved someone was.

Make your wishes known

Cake is a perfect platform for helping you figure out all your end-of-life preferences and sharing them with family so they don’t have to make all of these decisions when the time comes. We never know when that time will be, so specify your memorial most-wanted list by signing up for a free Cake plan while you have the chance. Whoever is charged with planning your funeral or memorial service will be grateful you did!


Author Bio

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Jasmine Tanguay, Legacy Facilitator & Funeral Celebrant

Jasmine is a funeral celebrant and life-cycle sustainability strategist, currently crafting a green legacy blueprint course called Completing My Circle. She is the founder of A Sustainable Legacy, working to help folks align their final outcomes with their deepest values and greatest gifts. She advises clients and conducts workshops on a variety of DIY legacy and deathcare topics. Jasmine also curates the website FullCircleLife.org which examines the connected cycles of life and death, and homesteads with her family and livestock in Southeastern MA.


Sources

"Planning a Memorial Service" Funeral Consumers Alliance. www.funerals.org/frequently-asked-questions/funeral-arrangements/28-arrangements/49--planning-a-memorial-service Accessed 1/15/19.