Planning a Memorial Service or Life Celebration


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Planning a funeral, memorial service or celebration of life can be stressful. This guide from OneWorld Memorials is designed to help you and your family plan for a fitting and comforting event to commemorate your loved one’s life and unite fellow mourners in supporting each other’s loss.

Use this Planning Guide as a starting point and framework for organizing an appropriate event, finding information to inform your decisions and accessing resources that make your event both meaningful and manageable.

What is the difference between a memorial service and a celebration of life?

Planning a funerary ceremony begins with one primary decision: Will the event be a traditional memorial service or a more contemporary life celebration?

A funeral service is typically held immediately following the death of a loved one, while memorial services and celebrations of life can be held sometime later, which gives you time to plan and arrange for the event. The tone of each event can also be quite different. With a funeral, feelings of loss are still fresh with the family and those attending, while with a memorial or celebration of life, everyone has had time to reflect on the relationship and experiences they had with the person. You may create time for those in attendance to say a few words. If you plan to keep those tributes to a minimum, make sure people are aware of those wishes.

A memorial service is typically focused around a recent loss and often has religious underpinnings or overtones. A life celebration is generally centered on the joy of having been blessed by the departed person’s presence and is often nonreligious in nature. When considering these options, it may be helpful to think about the culture of the family, any religious preferences the deceased had, the circumstances leading up to death and any wishes previously indicated by the deceased.

For either style of service you choose to hold, beginning with a general checklist is always a solid plan. Here are some details and resource links to help you organize your thoughts and plans while organizing a service.

  1. Determine the type of service or celebration.
  2. Decide on a location, date, time and guest list of who should attend.
  3. Outline a budget.
  4. Determine what you will need beyond the venue, such as food, flower arrangements and printed materials.
  5. If desired, publish details about the service or event with an obituary in local papers.
  6. Compile a guest list and send invitations. Include a way to RSVP, either by phone, email or social media.
  7. Decide who will officiate or host the event. Consider hiring a planner to do the heavy lifting.
  8. Select readings according to the deceased’s personality and the desired tone of the event.
  9. Write a eulogy; consider family or close friends to either take over this task or provide anecdotes or details that could be included.
  10. Choose music for the event. Consider inviting a friend or hiring musicians to play acoustic instruments.
  11. Decide a sequence for the readings, speeches and music.
  12. Create a program that will guide guests through the event.
  13. If cremation has been chosen, consider a memorial urn for the service or keepsakes for close family and friends. Also consider scattering urns that allow friends or family members to join in releasing cremated ashes into nature.
  14. Bring flowers, food and drink, and the joy of friendship into the event through a memory table or board, and a memory chest for written notes or photos.
  15. Write thank-you notes or prepare a small thank-you gift for any friends or family members who helped with the event.

What is the Significance of a Memorial Event?

Whether burial or cremation is chosen, there are important reasons for planning a remembrance. The Center for Loss & Life Transition has been an educational resource and professional forum for supporting mourners as they move through the grieving process since its founding by Dr. Alan Wolfelt in 1984. An article about the importance of funerary rituals from Dr. Wolfelt clarifies the necessity of this type of event for processing loss:

“To heal in grief, we must shift our relationship with the person who died from one of physical presence to one of memory. The funeral encourages us to begin this shift, for it provides a natural time and place for us to think about the moments we shared — good and bad — with the person who died. Like no other time before or after the death, the funeral invites us to focus on our past relationship with that one, single person and to share those memories with others.”

These rituals are not truly observed for the dead but are performed for the living. Even though it is becoming more common for the dying to request no service at all, those who remain living and feel the loss of an important person often need an event to seek closure and find a sense of connection with others experiencing similar loss. A genuine need for support from one another during a difficult time and reminders that life will continue are also excellent reasons for gathering after a loved one dies.

These ceremonies form an important part of our social fabric. They deserve the same attention as other important markers of life events, such as weddings and baby showers. Not to recognize an event of such magnitude can leave us vulnerable to the effects of unexpressed grief, can confuse children about how to handle death and can postpone the beginning of closure that allows us to move forward in life.

Start with a Little Research

Begin your planning by doing research on the physical resources in your area and reaching out to others experiencing this loss with you. Gather ideas for a theme for the service by canvasing friends and family about their views and memories about what your loved one valued and how they should be remembered. Browsing the internet can also help inform your decision as to the type of service or celebration. As with any event, it’s important to set a budget. Many subsequent decisions will be determined by the finances available.

Decide What, Who, Where and When

After you have settled on the type of service and determined a budget, it’s time to secure an appropriate location and set a time and date. Assemble a guest list and notify the guests. Include RSVP information to get a sense of how many will attend. You might consider asking invited guests to extend an invitation to others who have been overlooked in the initial invitations. The number of people attending might affect your planning, and what you expect to happen at the event.

Details about the service can be published in local papers, along with the obituary. Many families, though, prefer to keep such an event private. Remember that — outside of a few strict religious requirements — there is no rule that stipulates how soon after a death the service must happen. It is entirely appropriate to wait until out of town family can arrange to attend.

Don’t Be Afraid to Reach Out for Help

Are you comfortable with planning and conducting the remembrance event yourself? Most individuals find it helpful to recruit a family member or friend to help out. Think of someone or a few people as being the hosts to welcome guests and ensure a smooth flow to the event.

A pastor or hired celebrant can direct a portion of the ceremony, and the religious preferences of both the deceased and the mourners should be considered when planning the event. Tradition often dictates the way a religious community observes rites like funerals. In the absence of a religious preference, family traditions may offer insight into what most mourners will expect in terms of ceremony.

Additionally, an event planner can facilitate a broad range of planning and services for both religious and secular events. This allows freedom from having to focus on the logistical details of the service. On the day of the funeral, having a planner who can handle a seamless flow of the event allows you to be present in your emotions and have meaningful connection with others who share in your grief.

Choose Words of Comfort and Meaning for Any Memorial Service

As you begin to turn your thoughts toward the details of the service, start by researching a few readings appropriate to the desired tone of the event. Consult your pastor for suggestions about scripture readings, canvas friends for ideas or browse the internet to find poems that express grief eloquently. The blog LoveToKnow offers a great deal of advice on planning remembrance events. Their suggestions are helpful in deciding what works best:

  • The first and most important step is to follow the wishes of the deceased. If your loved one has selected a poem or scripture, use that in conjunction with a corresponding introduction and closing.
  • Be brief. A lengthy reading is not required or appreciated. Reserve time for guests to share stories, music to lift everyone’s heart and a few moments of silent reflection.
  • Choose your words carefully. Keep in mind that your introduction often sets the tone for the service.
  • Offer a prayer or kind word for those in attendance, acknowledging their grief and expressing your gratitude.

Speak Well of the Deceased: Crafting and Delivering the Eulogy

With readings in mind as a point of departure, you can now move on to writing a memorial speech or eulogy. If another friend or family member is to perform this task, coordinate on the tone of the service, when the speech will occur and other details. OneWorld Memorials contributing writer and celebrant Jerri Haaven has a detailed guide on Planning a Memorial Speech that offers sound advice for preparing and delivering this important piece of any funeral or memorial service:

  • Moderate Your Voice – It is likely that there will be people in the audience who are hard of hearing. Speak loud enough for everyone to hear you, but don’t shout.
  • Take it Slow and Easy – Make a deliberate attempt to speak slowly to ensure that people are listening and reduce your own nervousness.
  • Pause with Purpose – Pauses are powerful when used appropriately. Pausing between important statements allows your audience time to reflect and lets you collect your thoughts.
  • Remember Body Language –Take your hands out of your pockets and avoid putting your hands on your hips. If there’s a podium, use it to help straighten your posture.
  • Make Eye Contact – Engage your audience by looking up from your notes a few times. If you reference someone by name, be sure to look at him or her at that moment.

Celebrate Life Through Music

Selecting music is similar to the process of selecting readings. The Light Beyond suggests keeping three purposes in mind as you choose music for a funerary event.

Your goal is to:

  • Commemorate the life and personality of the deceased
  • Convey feelings for or about the deceased
  • Express religious or cultural beliefs about death and life after death

One nice touch that makes any event more personal is to have a close friend or family member perform music. If this is not practical, consider hiring a local musician referred by a friend. Musical recordings can also be played from a stereo or sound system.

Remember to choose appropriate tunes to set the mood as guests arrive, in between speeches, as an interlude during a moment of remembrance and as a recessional when the ceremony concludes. Whether or not to continue music throughout a reception following the service depends on the type of crowd.

Create a Memorial Program and Keepsake

Once you have determined the type of service, established the location and time, assigned roles to the officiant, readers and speakers, and chosen music, it’s time to prepare the program. Don’t worry if writing or design aren’t your strong suits, as there are many templates available online that allow for easy editing. LoveToKnow offers one such template as a free editable PDF document.

If finding, downloading and editing the template still seem daunting, ask for help from a computer savvy friend. Alternately, hire a service to create the program. At minimum, make sure the program includes:

  • A photograph of the deceased or other appropriate image for the cover
  • A copy of the obituary
  • A copy or listing of readings or musical pieces from the ceremony
  • The order of the speakers, readings and music during the service, with names of all participants
  • The time, date and location of the service

Proof a draft of the program before settling on the final product. Have at least one or a few other people help proof the draft. More eyes are likely to catch any errors before you invest in printing. Print enough copies for all your guests plus a few extra. Consider using a heavier paper stock than simple copier paper, as the programs will hold up better and make a nice impression. Many people keep these as mementoes.

Bring Flowers, Food and Friends into the Mix

Flowers always add warmth and are a symbol of the fragility of life. They also communicate hope. Many people will likely send flowers as part of their condolences, but adding more as décor is fine.

When planning a celebration of life, refreshments after the service offer a relaxed way for people to share memories and comfort in a casual atmosphere. You could plan to have family prepare favorite comfort foods or have the event catered.

Also, consider creating a memory table or a memory board to display prized possessions, proudest moments or photographs from throughout the deceased’s life. This helps guests connect with the person they came to say goodbye to. Photographs tend to trigger memories and conversations like nothing else.

One last consideration is that of guest participation. This helps to enrich the attendees’ experience and encourages a healthy catharsis of conflicting emotions. There are many ways to invite participation. Have guests write anonymous notes to the deceased and place them in a memory box or memorial urn, such as a memorial chest, or allow a moment for anyone who’d like to share a story or prayer with the group. Consider providing a guest book for people to sign and write a comment or two. This will also help if you plan to follow the service with notes to attendees.

Find Solace in Community

Bereavement is usually considered a solitary journey. Sharing the loss with others offers the potential to unlock silent grieving and create space for healing. Honoring the lost loved one with others through a memorial service or life celebration can provide immense comfort and immeasurable support.


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