What's a Memorial Service? What You Should Know


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A memorial service is a commemorative event without the body present. It provides a designated time and space for loved ones to grieve and support each other. The service can be held weeks or months after the death, allowing loved ones more time to plan and more flexibility with date and location.

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A memorial service can even be in addition to a traditional funeral service, either for a broader audience, for loved ones who could not attend the funeral or even emphasize a different aspect of remembrance.

COVID-19 tip: If you're planning a Zoom memorial service using a service like GatheringUs, the order of service, etiquette, and timing will vary. Consult with the funeral director, event planner, or religious leader to see what changes will be made to the ceremony, wake, and reception. And, make sure to add the proper links, passcodes, online funeral etiquette, and troubleshooting instructions to your online guests at least a day or two before the funeral.

Tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, handling their unfinished business can be overwhelming without a way to organize your process. We have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.

How is memorial service different from a funeral?

Generally speaking, the two terms can refer to the same concept: a gathering to honor the life of the deceased.  Where they differ is that the body or cremated remains are present for a funeral, but generally not so for a memorial service.

In other words, a memorial service focuses on activity #1 below, while a funeral combines #1 and #2.

  1. Commemorative gathering: Horning the life of the person who died in a funeral home, religious center, private home, etc
  2. Final disposition: The burial of the body, or scattering of the cremated remains 

Memorial services that take place after burial or cremation are increasingly replacing or supplementing “traditional funeral services” where the body present.

This can also allow for a more private disposition ceremony if desired.

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Is a memorial service the same as a celebration of life service?

A celebration of life is a particular style of memorial service with a focus on celebrating the deceased's life in a positive, uplifting environment. Laughter and storytelling often find their way into this more celebratory, less somber, affair.

Celebrations of life can stand alone or be incorporated as a component of a more traditional service. For some, the best arrangement is to hold a celebration of life that is supplemental to a traditional funeral or memorial service.

For others, a celebration of life as the sole memorial gathering is most fitting. Some may opt to have a smaller celebration of life gathering with family and close friends to share food, conversation, laughs, photos, and a glass of champagne or Guinness in honor of their loved one.  

Why have a memorial service?

Text about memorial services with an image of candles in the background

We are often uncomfortable imagining others coming together to discuss our lives or anxious about burdening loved ones with the associated costs of an event like this. Many of us have been to poorly-officiated services that don’t reflect the life and values of the person being honored, and want to avoid that fate ourselves.

But many bereavement experts emphasize how important a funeral or memorial service can be in helping loved ones process a loss and work through grief.  Ceremonies help people acknowledge the reality of death and encourage expressions of grief and gratitude. 

A funeral or memorial service offers the opportunity to come together to grieve in the presence of a caring community and to fully inhabit the experience of loss.

As Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell reminds us, “If it is done well, the service will bring at least a partial sense of closure to the void that one feels at these times. The purpose of all ritual is transformation: We come to the service in one state, we leave in another.”

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What are memorial services like?

In our era of increasing personalization, memorial services are a blank slate for a highly-personalized farewell. Generally, a memorial service is more relaxed than a funeral, with fewer “rules.” 

The memorial service is usually planned by the deceased’s loved ones and can be customized to their wishes. Typically, there is a formal component to a memorial service that will include music and remembrances from family and friends. 

Slideshows with photos or video footage of the deceased can be a wonderful visual tribute. Some families create a memory table with the deceased’s beloved objects. Sometimes, a celebrant or loved one will offer a “take-away” memento to guests that are symbolic of the deceased’s unique qualities as a treasured reminder.

For examples, check out how to plan a memorial service.

Where can I have a memorial service?

Text about where you can have a memorial service with an image of the ocean in the background

Houses of worship or funeral homes are common locations for a memorial service. Yet there is a great deal of flexibility as to where memorial services can be held. If you have the space for the ceremony, parking, and perhaps a reception, a memorial can even happen at a private home.

If the service includes a ceremonial act, such as scattering of ashes, consider ideal locations that had meaning to the deceased (a special overlook, perhaps). Be sure the location can still support the practicalities of the service e.g., if scattering ashes offshore is part of the ceremony, be sure you have secured a boat that will fit attendees.

Online memorials are a great way to have family and friends write tributes and even donate money to go toward funeral expenses or a charity organization. It's free and easy to create a beautiful online memorial page with Cake.

» MORE: Are you preparing for the loss of a loved one? Get support now.

Planning a memorial service

If this sort of service seems like a good fit for you or your loved one, start working out some of the details in advance.  

If you're planning for yourself or a loved one, be sure to record your preferences as you go. It's easy to explore, document, and share all your funeral planning wishes by signing up for a free Cake end-of-life planning account

Want to learn more about specific burial or cremation options? Check out how does cremation work and understanding your green burial options.

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