Questions to ask when planning a memorial service

  • Did my loved one leave instructions about if, how, and where they wanted a memorial to take place?

  • Who can I ask for help? Friends and family? A funeral celebrant?

  • How can I make the service special and craft a program that captures and celebrates my loved one’s unique life and personality?

  • If I send my guests away from the service with a keepsake, what will it be, and how will it remind them of my loved one?

When someone you love dies, surrounding yourself with the people you cherish and those who were close to your loved one can help ease the pain. Unlike a funeral, which marks the person’s burial, a memorial service is focused entirely on celebrating the life of the person you love, filling your spirit with joy for the time you spent with them, and honoring their accomplishments and final wishes. It is a great way of creating a safe environment of mutual care and solidarity to express and process your grief. 

In most cases, it is not a requirement to hold a memorial service. Some people will have left precise instructions about if they wanted a memorial and how they wanted it to take place. Others will give you free rein as to whether to host one or not and what the service should be like.

How late is too late?

Unlike funerals, which need to take place soon after your loved one’s death, memorial services allow you to take it slowly.

Because grieving is a highly subjective process, it is important to start planning or thinking about preparing your loved one’s memorial service when you feel comfortable and ready to tackle the task. 

However, it is still a good idea to plan the service for no later than a few weeks after your loved one’s passing. When someone passes, it is essential to allow yourself and those close to them to process their death and experience some form of closure. 

Planning a memorial service in the few weeks following your loved one’s death can allow people who are less immediately grieving to send their regrets in a timely manner. If travel is involved, this timeline also allows your guests to make the necessary arrangements. 

Enlist family and friends to help

You should not have to take on the responsibility of organizing every aspect of the memorial service by yourself. Do not be afraid to ask for help. A close friend or family member can be a useful point of contact to help you carry the weight. For example, you might ask them to assist in researching venues, sending out invitations, or deciding what food and drink to serve. 

One great way to personalize your service is to ask guests to bring something that reminds them of your loved one.

If you are having a hard time identifying someone in your close circle who can help you, consider hiring a funeral celebrant. These professionals are non-clergy who assist in the organization of preparation for memorial services. They can customize your experience and help shoulder the responsibility by running the service. 

Finding the perfect location 

If your loved one did not leave you with specific instructions as to where they wanted their memorial service to take place, you generally have two options: 

A place of worship

The death of a close friend or relative often makes one feel connected to their faith. Holding a memorial service in a place of worship, either because of the support it offers or because of your loved one’s religion, can infuse your celebration with tradition, anchoring your service in a long history of faith-based rituals.

A favorite location

You may also think about locations that mattered to them and that can accommodate you and your guests. For example, if they loved hiking and the outdoors, you may want to consider a local garden or park. If they were a foodie, call their favorite restaurant to reserve the space. Alternatively, you can always host your memorial service in the comfort of your home.

Making it special

Memorial services are the perfect time to celebrate your loved one’s unique life and personality.

There are no set rules here. A memorial service is your opportunity to take stock of the way your loved one lived their life, the things, people, and places they loved, the food they enjoyed, the movies and shows they watched, and the dreams they aspired to. 

One great way to personalize your service is to ask guests to bring something that reminds them of your loved one. You might even ask them to send you a memory ahead of time so that you can plan your programming around how people remember the person. 

Would your loved one have liked a memorial service with a theme? Did a specific type of music get them on the dance floor? Did they always buy the same kind of flower? Were they known for something in particular that the service can be built around?  

Thinking outside the box with your co-organizers can help you develop a unique and meaningful memorial service.

Crafting a program

Memorial services are the most successful when they are structured. Sitting down with your co-organizers and setting a program can help you and your guests make the most out of the experience. You may want to consider some of the following: 

  • Music 

  • Opening and closing words

  • Candle lighting or another religious or symbolic ritual

  • An open mic for reflections by family and friends

  • Readings from significant works of literature 

There is no right or wrong way to program a memorial service, but some of these elements might help you create a structure and fill it in with whatever makes the most sense to you and your family. 

Finishing things off

Traditionally, memorial services include a memorial gift for the attendees. This can take whatever form you wish, be it a photo, a potted plant, or a printed program of the reception. A gift sends your guests away with a keepsake that makes them think of your loved one. 

Memorial services are your time to process your grief surrounded by the people you love and be creative in how you choose to memorialize the person who is gone. In these difficult moments, the presence of others, the celebration of a life, and the collective turning of a page can go a long way in helping you and your loved ones get the closure you need to properly mourn and start a new chapter.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.