How to plan a memorial service

A memorial service is an event where people gather to remember someone who has passed away. It tends to be a separate event from the burial or cremation. People often arrange them on the birthday of the person who’s died, or on the anniversary of their death.

This article will explain how a memorial service is different to other types of end-of-life events, and how you might plan a memorial service for a loved one.

What is a memorial service?

A memorial service is different from other end-of-life events

The focus of a funeral tends to be the person who’s died reaching their final resting place, and a wake usually happens directly before or after the funeral. But a memorial service is about remembering the person who’s died - not about finding their final resting place.

A memorial service is also different from a celebration of life. Whilst a celebration of life is about celebrating the unique life of the person who’s died, a memorial service is about remembering and honouring their life. This might involve celebrating, but also might not.

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A memorial service can take place days, months or years after your loved one dies 

Because they tend not to have the person’s body present, memorial services often happen further down the line.

You do not need a specific reason to hold a memorial service, or for a certain amount of time to have passed since your loved one passed away. But you might hold a memorial service if:

  • Your loved one died suddenly, and you had to plan their funeral in a hurry

  • There were loved ones who couldn’t make the funeral

  • Financial constraints meant the funeral could not happen as planned

  • You have reached a significant anniversary of your loved one’s death

  • You are approaching your loved one's birthday, especially their first birthday after passing away

  • You are approaching a date that meant something to your loved one - for example, if they loved a particular religious holiday

  • You have reached a specific time of year where you feel the absence of a loved one more strongly

Memorial services are particularly common in some Christian groups

For this reason, a traditional memorial service sometimes looks like a traditional Christian funeral

  1. Opening music - hymns (or other music) play as guests enter the venue

  2. Readings - someone reads a particular text, often a poem or a Bible passage

  3. Blessings/Prayers - guests join a specific speaker in prayer

  4. Eulogy - a loved one gives a speech about the person who’s died

  5. Closing music - hymns (or other music) play as guests leave the venue

  6. Reception - guests gather to pay their respects

This tends to take somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour, though it can be shorter or longer.

This structure might not be right for you and your loved ones. The structure of your memorial service will depend on the faith, taste and preferences of you, your guests and the person who’s died. You can also pick and choose a mix of both traditional and non-traditional elements.

Passing time

Victorian England had unique ways of remembering people who passed away. One of these was stopping all the clocks in the room where your loved one had died.

There are lots of areas to think about when you plan your memorial service

Activities

You can include whatever you want in a memorial service, as long as it helps you and your loved ones honour the life of the person who’s died.

Some less traditional ideas include:

  • Writing down memories of the person who’s died on pieces of paper, and creating a memory jar (where you put the pieces of paper in jar) or memory tree (where you clip the pieces of paper to leaves or branches of a small tree)

  • Filling a scrapbook with things that remind you of the person who’s died - such as photographs, poems, or tickets to specific events

  • Baking the favourite meal or dessert of the person who’s died

  • Sharing a specific drink with your guests that reminds you of the person who’s died

  • Sharing childhood photos of the person who’s died

  • Reflecting on what has happened since your loved one passed away

Some people might choose to call their memorial event a ‘memorial gathering’ instead, especially if it’s not a traditional Christian event.

Readings

Some people like to have readings at memorial services. This is when people take turns to read things out in front of the guests.

People traditionally take readings from religious scriptures. But you can take readings from wherever you like.

Some popular non-religious readings are:

  • Do not stand at my grave and weep - Mary Elizabeth Frye

  • Roads Go Ever On - J.R.R. Tolkien

  • Death Is Nothing At All - Canon Henry Scott-Holland

Dress code

Memorial services are traditionally more serious and often have all-black dress codes. But this is a decision you can make yourself.

You could set a particular theme, perhaps linked to a hobby or interest of the person who’s died. Memorial events are about remembering your loved one, and you can do this in whatever way you choose.

Timings

On average, memorial events tend to last between one and two hours. But you can adapt this however you like, according to your guests’ preferences, availability, and needs.

Memorial services can also happen at any time of day, and you can adapt the timings to suit the people who are attending. For example, if there will be children at the event, you might want to avoid finishing too late.

Venue

Some people will choose to hold a memorial service in their own home. Others will hire out a special venue, hold the event at a religious building, or even book out an area of a pub.

If you’re holding the memorial service somewhere other than your home, it’s important to discuss the event with whoever owns the building - this could be a landlord or a religious leader. This will help make sure the memorial service can go ahead as planned.

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It’s important to let your guests know what to expect in advance

It’s important to give your guests enough notice for the memorial service. This will vary depending on who you’re inviting, but try to let guests know about the event at least a fortnight in advance - and ideally as far in advance as possible.

Some people might choose to send out invitations to specific people. This could be something they do:

  • Online - such as via email

  • In the post - often via a paper invite

  • Over the phone

  • In person

Others might post a notice on social media, or on a public noticeboard. You’re free to do a mixture of things. For example, you could post formal invites to a small group of close friends, but also post details of the event on a public social media channel.

If you are making a public invitation, it’s important to remember that anyone could see it and turn up - particularly if you are posting on social media. It might also be hard to estimate how many people to expect. You could let the venue know in advance that you’ve done this.

Some guests might have questions about the tone of the event so that they know what to wear and how to behave. This is even more important if the memorial service is going to have a different tone to the other end-of-life events you’ve organised. 

For example, if the funeral you had a year ago was very traditional and sombre, let guests know if you want this memorial to be more of an upbeat celebration.

Planning a memorial service can be overwhelming

Some people find planning a memorial service more difficult than planning a funeral because it brings up unexpected feelings of grief. Equally, some people find having longer to reflect helps them come to terms with their loved one’s passing.

If you are struggling, you could reach out to friends and loved ones - whether that’s for emotional support, or help with planning the event itself. You could also hire a celebrant: a person who helps plan end-of-life events.

There is no right way to have a memorial service

Although memorial services are traditionally religious events, they do not have to be. Above all, it’s important to make sure the event is right for you, your guests, and the person who’s died.

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