How to Plan a Memorial Service

How to Plan a Memorial Service

A Memorial Service is a ceremony held some time after the death of someone; the body is not present at a Memorial Service the way it is at a Funeral Service.

A newer term used for the Memorial Service is a Celebration of Life service.

Planning a Celebration of Life ceremony takes a bit of time, yet it can a wonderful way of expressing one’s love and affection in a meaningful commemorative ceremony.

Memorial Services Becoming More Popular than Funerals

Memorial Services and Celebration of Life Services are becoming more popular than traditional funerals for several reasons.

  • Scheduling – With all of the crazy work schedules that people have it may require some coordination to get everyone together for a service following a death.
  • Preplanning – Often times Memorial Services can be planned by the person prior to his or her death. (This can be of great benefit for the family.)
  • Increasing Rate of Cremation – Some Memorial Services include the cremains (the cremated remains of the person who has died).
  • Creativity – Memorial Services allow people to be more creative with the elements that they wish to include compared to the more traditional funeral.
  • Focus – Celebration of Life, rather than Mourning a Death

Steps for Planning a Memorial Service

Planning a Memorial Service or Celebration of Life Service can be divided up into several areas:

  • Practical
  • People
  • Service
  • Decorations
  • Music
  • Food and Beverages
  • Activities

Planning the Service

Sometimes, loved ones have expressed or even written their wishes of what they would like to see happen at their memorial service. Other times, the family is left to plan the ceremony. With a bit of thoughtful planning you can create a service which would have made your loved one very happy.

Planning a Memorial Service or Celebration of Life Ceremony can be divided up into several areas:

  • Practical
  • People
  • Service
  • Decorations
  • Music
  • Food and Beverages
  • Activities

It may be easier to divide up the different areas to different reliable family members or friends so one person doesn’t have to do it all.


Settling the practical matters first helps in the rest of the planning. The practical aspects to determine are the When, Where and Who.

  • Date
  • Guest List
  • Location

Memorial services may be held weeks or months after the death.


Selecting people to participate is another key part to the service. The people to include are divided into three main categories.

  • Officiant
  • Speakers
  • Other Participants

The Officiant is the person who officiates at, presides or leads a service or ceremony. This is often a clergy member or trusted friends. Speakers would be those delivering memorial speeches or eulogies. Other participants could be singers, poetry readers or candle lighters. These roles may be good for those with special talents and younger members who may not be able to give a speech.


Decide on the components, the flow and the order of the service or the program.

  • What is included?
  • Will there be a speeche(s) or a eulogy?
  • Will additional readings, poems, scripture passages be included?
  • Will there be music?
  • What is the order of the speeches, readings and music?
  • What will happen afterwards?


Once a location has been determined the next step is planning the decorations or picking a theme. What sorts of things will be included in decorations?

  • Plants
  • Flowers
  • Candles
  • Displays
  • Photos
  • Military Decorations
  • Symbolic Elements
  • Other special touches – printed program, photograph displays

Potted flowers or plants and decorative candles can be offered to guests as mementos of the service.


Decide on the type of music you want. Choosing favorite musical numbers of the deceased can be played as reminders. Music also has a healing quality. There are many beautiful musical numbers that can help the participants in the healing process.

Determine how the music will be performed.

  • Will it be sung or played by a performer?
  • Will there be live music or will you use a CD of the music?
  • Will the participants sing along?

Food and Beverages

Sharing food during times of bereavement is an old practice that is still popular. Many people start cooking and bringing the casseroles the minute there is news of a death.

Food and refreshments can range from serving light refreshments to pot-lucks, seated luncheons or elaborate catered dinners. Favorite foods of the deceased can incorporate into the food and refreshment part of the ceremony.

Serve water, juice, tea or coffee. Distraught people and alcohol are not a good combination.


Activities can be included as a way of sharing memories and preserving memories. An activity is also a good way to close the service.

There are a variety of different activities that guests can participate in

  • Sign a guest book.
  • Light a candle.
  • Have everyone bring a favorite memento, photos, news clippings or recollections that can be assembled into a memory book.
  • Write down favorite memories that are collected into a memory book.
  • Participate in a butterfly or a dove release.
  • Plant a tree.
  • Unveil a plaque or a bench

Planning a Memorial Service or Celebration of Life

The Memorial Service is a time to honor the memory of the person who had died. The Celebration of Life Service is a time to celebrate their life, not mourn their death. A bit of thought and planning and one can create a service of which your loved one would have been very pleased.


Funeral Consumers Alliance. 2005. Planning a Memorial Service. PDF File Brochure.

Morgan E. 2001. Dealing Creatively With Death: A Manual of Death Education and Simple Burial. Hinesburg, VT: Upper Access.

Searl E. 2000. In Memoriam: A Guide to Modern Funeral and Memorial Services. 2nd Edition. Boston, MA: Skinner House Books.

York S. 2000. Remembering Well: Rituals for Celebrating Life and Mourning Death. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

© Kirsti A. Dyer MD, MS, FT

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