Memorial Service Basics: Honoring the Deceased, Comforting the Bereaved

After my daughter and father-in-law died the same weekend, my husband and I were in such shock we could hardly think. Family members agreed that we could not hold two services at this time. We would have a service for our daughter and have a memorial for my father-in-law at a later date.

Planning our daughter’s memorial service was a challenge because we did not belong to her church. All we could do was rely on our instincts and focus on memorial service basics. What are these basics?

Clergy and funeral directors think it includes advanced notice, a leader, music, time for reflection, perhaps comments, and a reception of some sort. The Recover from Grief website details basics in “Plan a Memorial Service: Comfort and a Creative Outlet for Your Grief.” According to the article, you start with when, what, and who. When will the service take place? What are the components? Who will come?


We wanted our minister to lead the service and our daughter’s church agreed with this request. “It will take some of the pressure off of you to select a clergyman, or master of ceremonies to most of the speaking and presentation,” Recover From Grief notes. Certainly, my husband and I were in no shape to speak.

I wrote our daughter’s obituary and sent it to the newspaper. With input from family members, I wrote my father-in-law’s obituary as well. Our daughter’s church asked for photos of her and her twin children. We delivered these to the church and it created a slide presentation for the service.

Our minister asked us for information about our daughter. I sent information to her and wrote two paragraphs for her to read. This information helped our minister set the tone of the service and provide a word picture of our daughter. At the end of the service, she noted my father-in-law’s passing, and his photo appeared on two large screens.

Music is an integral part of the memorial service. Planners suggested a solo by a talented minister of our daughter’s church and we thought this was a good idea. Though we liked his voice, we didn’t like the selection he chose. Still, the solo and organ music gave the service cohesion. As the Creative Funeral Ideas website explains, “Beginning the service with music and ending the service with music creates natural ‘bookends’ for the event.” The article goes on to say that music can be calming and unifying.

Refreshments are another thing to consider and we decided to keep them simple. Since our daughter had been a Girl Scout leader, we asked the church ladies to serve scout cookies and coffee after the service. The ladies also baked a cake, a common practice in this congregation. Some religious communities ask members to contribute food for the reception. “This relieves the pressure on you to take care of feeding people after the funeral,” according to Bob Deits, author of “Life After Loss.”

But Deits thinks the number of dessert items should be limited to avoid a “sugar fix” at this stressful time.”

Hundreds of people attended our daughter’s memorial service, so many that some didn’t sign the guest book. We received more bouquets of flowers than we could count and arranged for them to be delivered to local nursing homes.

Remember, the memorial service is for you and other bereaved family members Make it what you want. As Therese A. Rando, PhD summarizes the memorial service in her book, “How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies.” As she writes, “Unless you are carrying out the prearranged funeral of the deceased, you should recognize that you have the right to tailor it to your personal needs.”

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