Memorial vs. Funeral Service: What’s the Difference?

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You have many decisions to make when planning a funeral. One simply involves deciding whether to plan a traditional funeral or a less conventional memorial service.

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Some people use these two terms interchangeably. However, in the funeral services industry, they actually refer to two different types of occasions.

This “memorial vs. funeral” guide will cover the essential differences between the two. Whether you’re planning a funeral for yourself or for a deceased loved one, we’ll help you better determine which type of service is right for your goals.

Memorial vs. Funeral Service: Overview

Memorials and funerals do have some similarities that you’ll learn about later. However, their differences are what’s most important to consider when choosing between the two. The following points will help you better understand them. They’ll also help you understand what to expect from a funeral and what to expect from a memorial service.

What’s a Memorial Service?

The specific nature of a memorial service can vary on a case-by-case basis depending on the choices those planning such services make. In general, though, a memorial service is an alternative to a traditional funeral.

Further down, this article covers key differences between memorials and funerals. Memorials may be more joyous occasions, they don’t need to take place right after a death, and they can take place in a wider variety of locations than a traditional funeral usually can.

Who Typically Chooses Memorial Services?

Various types of people and families choose memorials over funerals. Typically, someone comfortable planning a memorial service likely isn’t someone who prioritizes adhering to traditional and/or religious practices. Many people who opt for memorials also simply do so because it gives them more freedom to plan a service exactly as they see fit.

What’s a Funeral Service?

A funeral service is the traditional way of putting a deceased individual to rest in our culture. While no two funerals may be exactly alike, they often feature such common elements as the presence of a casket or urn, religious rituals (if applicable), and post-funeral burials. They also tend to take place in certain traditional locations.

Who Typically Chooses a Funeral Service?

Someone who might choose a funeral over a memorial might be a traditional or religious individual. Many religions have certain guidelines (and even requirements in some instances) regarding how to put a deceased person to rest. Someone with strong religious values might not want to stray from their beliefs by planning a memorial.

Even if someone isn’t religious, they may choose a funeral if they simply believe in the importance of tradition. Or, while they might be comfortable with a memorial, they might decide that many family members and friends who have traditional values would prefer a funeral.

Main Differences Between a Memorial and Funeral Service

Memorial services and funeral services can differ in various ways. The following are among the more noteworthy.

Timing

A funeral service typically occurs shortly after a death. While a memorial service can as well, it doesn’t have to. A memorial service can take place weeks or even months after the deceased passed away.

This highlights another reason some people choose memorials over funerals. They may want to pay tribute to their loved one in a celebratory manner. However, planning a joyful occasion can be very difficult in the immediate aftermath of a passing. Thus, some people find it’s easier to plan such an occasion when they’ve had more time to mourn.

This can also serve a practical purpose. For instance, maybe a loved one’s friends and relatives live throughout the world, making it difficult for many of them to make travel plans in time to attend a traditional funeral. They might, however, be able to plan a memorial service that takes place weeks or months later.

The body

Although there are exceptions, typically, the deceased’s body is present at a funeral service. If a memorial service takes place shortly after a death, it’s possible for the body to be present, but often, the body is not part of a memorial service. An urn or framed portrait may stand in for the body instead.

Location

The presence of the body places certain limitations on where a family can hold a traditional funeral service. Usually, a funeral’s location will be a funeral home or place of worship.

A family can plan to hold a memorial service at a funeral home, as well. Many modern funeral homes work with customers to arrange such services.

However, because a family doesn’t have to hold a memorial at a funeral home or place of worship, they often choose another location. This can be their own home, a local park, a nearby event space, a beach, or virtually anywhere else they please.

Atmosphere

Again, the memorial vs. funeral debate you might have with yourself when planning a service often involves considering the type of experience you want yourself and other mourners to have. While not all funerals are somber affairs, they tend to be.

A memorial service can be more of a celebration. It gives mourners the opportunity to pay their respects to a lost loved one without dwelling on their painful emotions.

Frequency

In virtually all instances, a traditional funeral only occurs once. A memorial service is also usually a one-time affair. However, it doesn’t necessarily have to be.

For example, perhaps after a loved one’s death, a family sets up a memorial foundation in their honor. Their foundation might host annual fundraising events which could also potentially serve as annual memorial services. It’s not particularly common for a family to hold a memorial service multiple times, but it can happen.

Religious requirements

A funeral may have certain religious requirements depending on the faith of the deceased and their loved ones. No such requirements ever apply to memorial services. A family absolutely can incorporate religion into a memorial service if that’s their wish, but there’s no requirement that they do so.

Main Similarities Between a Memorial and Funeral Service

During your internal memorial vs. funeral debate, you should be aware that there are some similarities between the two. They include the following.

Attendees

Naturally, the same people likely to attend a loved one’s funeral would also attend a memorial service. However, because you have more freedom to choose your preferred location when planning a memorial, doing so might give you the opportunity to select a location large enough to accommodate more guests. 

Music

Music is an element of many funerals. Music also frequently plays a role in memorial services.

That said, because the essential nature of each service is different, the type of music you might play could vary depending on which service you choose. For example, although it’s not a requirement, most people are more likely to opt for traditional funeral songs when planning a funeral service. During a celebratory memorial, it may be more appropriate to play music the deceased was a fan of in life.

Eulogies

It’s not uncommon for funerals and memorials to both include eulogies. Like music choices, the only difference may be their tones. A eulogy at a traditional funeral is often somber. At a memorial service, someone delivering a eulogy or speech in honor of the deceased may feel more comfortable being funny or positive.

Emotional purpose

The purpose of a memorial is the same as a funeral. Along with honoring the life of the deceased, both serve to help surviving loved ones move on. Some simply feel that a traditional funeral service is best for this purpose, while others feel a memorial service is more useful in this manner.

How to Choose Between a Memorial or Funeral Service for You or a Loved One

Ending the memorial vs. funeral debate you might be having with yourself doesn’t need to be as difficult as it might seem. You simply need to consider the following essential factors.

The deceased’s wishes

Obviously, if the deceased specified whether they’d prefer a funeral or memorial, you should honor their wishes. However, even if they didn’t state which they preferred, you may nevertheless be able to make an informed decision based on what you know about them.

For example, if someone was fairly religious or traditional in their ways, a funeral might be the best option. If they were an unconventional free spirit, they may have wanted a memorial. Think about who the person was in life when making your decision.

Travel

Again, if you plan a funeral service shortly after a loved one’s death, friends and relatives who live far away may not be able to attend.

This factor might not be an issue if most potential attendees live nearby. However, you might consider planning a memorial over a funeral if this is a concern.

You might also consider hosting a virtual or hybrid memorial with a service like GatheringUs.

Others’ wishes

You don’t have to be the only one making these decisions. Making plans in the aftermath of a loved one’s death is almost always easier when you consult with other close family members and friends. They can help you determine whether a funeral or memorial is best.

Location preferences

The type of location where you would like to hold a service can also influence your decision.

For example, perhaps you want to organize an event with a large number of attendees, but none of the funeral homes, chapels, or other traditional funeral settings in your area are large enough for your needs. In these circumstances, it may be best to plan a memorial.

Cost

You want to plan a service that respectfully honors your loved one (or yourself if you’re planning your own service). However, you do have to account for your budget when making these types of decisions.

A traditional funeral can be fairly expensive. Depending on the nature of the event, it may be less costly to organize a memorial service instead.

Time limitations

You may have many plans for your loved one’s service. You might want to arrange for music to be performed, invite a large number of guests, create a lengthy tribute video, arrange for catering, and more.

All of that takes time. If you don’t think you’ll have enough time to put together an ideal funeral, a memorial may be more to your liking.

Your emotional state

Planning a funeral in the days after a loved one has died is difficult for many understandable reasons. A major one is the simple fact that your emotional state might interfere. Making decisions about a loved one’s funeral when you’re in mourning can be a very draining experience. You might be in a better mental and emotional space to plan a respectful service if you give yourself more time to mourn.

None of this is meant to discourage anyone from planning a traditional funeral! It’s simply meant to cover instances when a memorial may be a suitable alternative. Additionally, you always have the option of planning both. For instance, some families plan small and intimate traditional funerals while also planning memorials for larger groups of guests later.

Memorials vs. Funerals: Different Services, Similar Purposes

It’s important to be aware that there’s no universally “correct” decision to make when choosing between a funeral or memorial service. Once more, you need to account for various factors to decide which is right for you and your loved ones. Hopefully, though, this guide has made your decision somewhat easier.

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