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Planning a Memorial Service or Life Celebration


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

Planning a ceremony begins with one primary decision. Will the event be a traditional memorial service or a more contemporary life celebration? This planning guide provides detailed information and resources on how to do a memorial service or life celebration.

A memorial service is typically focused around a recent loss and often has religious overtones. A life celebration is centered on the joy of having been blessed by a 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, religious preferences, circumstances leading up to death and any wishes previously indicated by the deceased.

For either style of service you choose to hold, below is a summarized checklist as a planning tool. Here are some details and resource links to help you with planning a memorial service.

  1. Determine the type of service or celebration.
  2. Decide on location, date and time, and who will attend.
  3. Outline a budget.
  4. If desired, publish details about the service or event with the obituary in local papers.
  5. Compile a guest list and send invitations; include RSVP.
  6. Decide who will officiate or host / hostess the event. Consider hiring a planner.
  7. Select readings according to desired tone.
  8. Write a eulogy; consider family or close friends to read, as well.
  9. Choose music. Consider a friend to play, or hire a musician.
  10. Decide sequence of readings, speeches and music.
  11. Create a program.
  12. If cremation has been chosen, consider a memorial urn for the service or keepsakes for close family and friends.
  13. Consider important final touches: flowers, food and drink, a memory table or board, and a memory chest for written notes and/or photos.
  14. Write thank-you notes or prepare a small thank-you gift for help received.

What is the significance of a memorial event?

Whether burial or cremation is chosen, there are important reasons for planning a remembrance. In a recent Huffington Post article, Marilyn Sewell writes about the significance of such an event.

The ritual of the funeral or the memorial service has several purposes. First of all, it helps mourners recognize the loss as real. Sometimes a body is present at the service, often not, but always we know that we are there to acknowledge that someone has died, and to acknowledge the death not just in fact, but in feeling. We come together to grieve in the presence of a caring community, and for the time of the service we have permission to give ourselves to the experience of loss.

These rituals are not truly observed for the dead, but are performed for the living. Interestingly, it is becoming more common for the dying to request no service at all. But often out of a need for closure, those who live gather to mourn and celebrate a life lost. A genuine need for support from one another during a difficult time, and reminders that life will continue are also reasons for gathering.

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 un-channeled grief, can confuse children about how to handle death, and can postpone the beginning of closure that allows us to move forward.

Begin your planning by doing research. Gather ideas about a theme for the service by canvasing friends and family or by browsing the Internet. When planning a celebration of life service, your research can help inform your decision as to the type of service or celebration.

Who, Where, When?

As with any event, it’s important to set a budget. Many subsequent decisions will be determined by the budget.

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. Just like any event, 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.

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 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.

The next step is to coordinate help.

When planning a life celebration ask 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 and hostesses to welcome guests and ensure a smooth flow to the event.

A pastor or hired celebrant can direct a portion of the ceremony. Additionally, an event planner can facilitate a broad range of planning and services. This allows freedom from having to focus on the logistical details of the service. On the day of, having a planner who can handle a seamless flow of the event can allow you to be present to your emotions and those of others. The sevenPONDS website offers guidance around hiring planners.

Choosing readings for the 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. If religious in nature, consult your pastor for suggestions as to scripture readings. If nonreligious, canvas friends or the Internet to find a good poem. The blog LoveToKnow has a lifestyle section on death and dying that offers a great deal of advice on planning remembrance events. Their entry on “Memorial Service Readings” suggests the following when making selections:

  • The first and most important step when choosing the materials you will read 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. Reserve time for guests to share, music and a few moments of silent reflection.
  • Keep in mind, your introduction often sets the tone for the service-choose your words carefully.
  • Offer a prayer or kind word for those in attendance, acknowledging their grief and expressing your gratitude.

(quoted on www.lovetoknow.com “Memorial Service Readings”)

Writing a memorial speech or 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 that will influence the speech or eulogy. OneWorld Memorials’ contributing writer and celebrant Jerri Haaven has a detailed guide on Planning a Memorial Speech, offering sound advice on preparing and delivering this important piece. Her advice on delivery includes:

  • Moderating 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.
  • [Taking it] Slow and Easy – Make a deliberate attempt to speak slowly. This helps to ensure that people are listening, and reduces any nervousness you might be experiencing.
  • Pausing with Purpose – Pauses are powerful when used appropriately. Pauses between important statements allow your audience time to reflect, and afford you the opportunity to collect your thoughts.
  • [Thinking about] Body Language – What is your body language saying? If your shoulders are slumped, or your hands are on hips or in your pockets, it may give the wrong impression.
  • [Making] Eye Contact – Above all else, engage your audience with your eyes. If you reference someone by name, be sure to look at him or her at that moment.

Choosing music

Selecting music is similar to the process of selecting readings. The Light Beyond suggests that when choosing music, there are three purposes that might be fulfilled. They are:

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

(quoted in www.thelightbeyond.com)

Their blog entry goes on to list a number of popular tunes as a jumping off point toward determining final musical selections. One nice touch, if possible, is to have a close friend or family member perform. 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 or as an interlude during a moment of remembrance, and a recessional as the ceremony concludes. Whether or not to continue music throughout a reception following the service is up to you. One advantage to hiring musicians for this purpose is that they can handle the selection of music, and will also be able to arrange it to suit the flow and temperament of the event.

Creating a memorial program

Don’t worry if writing or design layout isn’t your strong suit. Online templates to the rescue!

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. There are many templates available online that allow for easy editing. LoveToKnow (referenced above) 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. The minimum that you will need to provide includes:

  • A photograph of the deceased or appropriate image for the cover of the program
  • A copy of the obituary
  • A copy of brief readings to include
  • The order of the speakers, readings and music during the service, with names of participants
  • The time, date and location of the service

Proof a draft of the program before agreeing to the final product. Print enough copies for all of your guests plus a few extra. Many people keep these as mementoes.

Don’t forget the finishing touches

Some important final touches will tie everything together and make for a more memorable experience.

Flowers always add warmth. Choose according to the personality and preferences of the deceased, the season, or a related theme. Flowers are a symbol of the fragility of life. They also communicate hope during tough times.

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

Also, consider creating a memory table or a memory board to display prized possessions, proudest moments, or a synopsis of a lifetime through photographs. This helps guests to connect with the person they came to say goodbye to. Photographs, in particular, can trigger a variety of memories and conversations that wouldn’t necessarily bubble up otherwise.

One last consideration is that of guest participation. This helps to enrich the attendees’ experience and the catharsis of conflicting emotions. There are many ways to invite participation, one being to have guests write anonymous notes to the deceased and place them in a memory box or memorial urn, such as a memorial chest.

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


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** Image: http://bit.ly/1PPPLZr

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