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How to Plan a Memorial Service: Saying a Very Personal Goodbye

When a loved one passes away, it’s traditional to arrange a funeral or memorial service to celebrate their life. It can take place separately from the cremation, without the coffin present. Holding a celebration that focuses on their life, rather than their passing, is an uplifting way to celebrate all the memories, liveliness, and experiences.

What is a memorial service?

A memorial service is very distinct from a funeral service in that there is no burial or cremation, and it is a ceremony for mourners to honour the life of the person who has passed away.

It’s common for people to feel that a traditional funeral leaves them feeling cold. Many funerals follow a familiar format and this can be constrained by the time available at the crematorium. This generic formula may not accommodate everything you want to say about your loved one.

A memorial service allows the family to show how important the deceased’s life has been, and how much their life made a difference to all those around them. There are no rules you have to follow when planning a memorial service. You can hold it just once, or many times over. It can take place anywhere and anytime after death, even years after a person’s funeral.

During a memorial service, you might hear people swapping stories about the deceased, laughing, crying, and honouring their relative or friend together. Because the ceremony can take place in the future, you’ve got more time to plan and to include distant friends and relatives in this personal and special goodbye.

Pre-planning the memorial gathering

Planning a memorial service can be a challenge but when you get it right, it’ll be one of the most rewarding things you can do for someone you’ve loved and lost.

There are lots of things to consider:

  • A location
  • A date
  • Who you want to attend
  • A theme for the memorial
  • The order of the service and who will lead it
  • Creation of a photo memorial

Several factors can help with your decisions, for example, the will your loved one has left, as well as their style of life and character. All these things can help set the right tone for such a special event. 

Decide on the type of memorial event

There is no hard and fast rule when it comes to organising a memorial event. You can discuss with other family members and friends the way you choose to celebrate a loved one’s life. Sit down together and explore different memorial service ideas. Some of the options to consider include:

Indoor vs outdoor memorial service

More traditional venues include a family home, community centre, pub, social club, or some other rented event location. The venue you choose could be a place of special significance for your loved one or based on the convenience of other attendees. If your loved one had any religious beliefs, it might be appropriate to hold their memorial service at a place of worship. 

An increasing number of people are choosing destination settings for a more memorable service. Suitable facilities are available in a range of beautiful places such as gardens and greenhouses, museums, arenas, theatres, football grounds, zoos, aquariums, and clubhouses.   

Another option is to hold the memorial event outdoors. This is particularly relevant if your loved one had a love for nature. Consider places such as a favourite park or local beach.  

Self-conducted memorial service

When planning your loved one’s memorial event, you should think about the people you’d like to speak at the event. It’s not something everyone will be comfortable doing, so it’s wise to consider the options.

If the memorial event is going to be a religious one, it’s usually for the clergy to lead the speeches and eulogies. However, it’s also common practice for others to speak as well. Writing a eulogy can be a very emotional experience. It can be difficult for some, while others will be very comfortable with the task.

For less formal events, you can provide an open-mic. However, if you think there will be no-one who wants to speak, there’s always the option of hiring a guest speaker. 

Intimate or a larger-scale memorial service

Whether you choose an intimate event or something on a much larger-scale, depends on the network of the person whose life you're celebrating, your budget and the number of guests you plan to invite. If the deceased was a shy and reserved kind of person, a more toned-down celebration with just a few close family and friends is going to be appropriate. 

If, on the other hand, they were a very outgoing and gregarious person with lots of friends, a much larger and more elaborate celebration would be a better choice.

Budget range of the memorial service

A meaningful farewell doesn't have to cost the earth. Connecting to the life and personality are far more important than how much you spend. Asking friends to design invitations, or inviting guests to bring favourite food, items for a memorial display or produce from their garden are all lovely ways to help people feel involved..that also happen to save money.

Different memorial service ideas 

Whether you have a traditional memorial service in a place of worship or something more unusual, there are plenty of beautiful ways to honour your loved one.   

Scattering the ashes ceremony

It can be very confusing choosing what to do with the ashes when someone special passes away. You can do almost whatever you wish with them, but one option might be to scatter the ashes somewhere meaningful, such as a favourite beauty spot of theirs. You can organise an event where friends and family come together to scatter the ashes and say a few words.

Hosting a funeral reception

A funeral reception is one of the more traditional ways to celebrate a person’s life. Commonly held after the funeral or cremation, this is an opportunity for mourners to gather, spend time together, and often eat and drink.

A celebration of life is all about joy, not grief

Funerals and memorial services have tended to be sombre occasions in the past. We all find our own way to deal with grief and loss and celebrate the life of our loved ones, and there’s no wrong or right way. However, as conversations surrounding death become more open, a shift is taking place and more people are using a memorial service as a celebration of life, rather than mourning

Informal family reunions

A celebration of a loved one’s life doesn’t have to be something strictly defined as a memorial service. Your loved one may have clearly stated they didn’t want a ceremony or anything associated with a funeral. In this case, a family gathering after the cremation to scatter the ashes can be an equally meaningful way to say goodbye. 

Choosing the right venue for the memorial service 

The location of your memorial service is a lovely way to reflect who your loved one was. If, for example, they were a very active church member, their local church would be the perfect venue. For people with a passion for gardening, a local garden might be a fitting location for their memorial service. Depending on their interests and personality, there are lots of other possibilities.

Traditional memorial service venues

Traditional locations for a memorial event include a church hall, churchyard, cemetery, or crematorium. The number of people attending the ceremony will determine the size of the venue needed. 

Keeping the memorial service private

Your loved one may have expressed a preference for something more private, in which case you might want to hold the event in the family home, private gardens, or a sanctuary. 

Celebrate at a public venue 

Alternatively, you might feel a public venue is more suitable for such a celebration. There may be a place with great meaning to the deceased – an art hall, museum, sports club, restaurant, or hotel. 

Saying the final ‘Goodbye’ to a loved one

Having a memorial service or celebration of life separate from a cremation opens up a wealth of wonderful possibilities when you want to say a more personal goodbye. Here are some ideas from families we’ve looked after. Use them as inspiration for your own perfect farewell event.

Vintage Afternoon Tea

Mum was a member of the WI for many years, so tea and cake were always going to be essential ingredients. We found a collection of the last survivors of various tea sets she'd had over the years, so we used these to serve the cakes that friends had baked. The grandchildren crafted table decorations and we had a lovely display made up of favourite photos, a selection of the knitted toys and jumpers she'd given us over the years, and Mum's favourite flowers. Informal, fun, and quirky – just like her.

Saturday memorial service

Our family is scattered far and wide, so it was going to take time to gather us all together. But we knew that a church service would work for us, and the vicar was happy to do this with the ashes instead of the coffin. A local print shop enlarged one of our favourite photos, which we displayed on an easel at the front of the church. The urn stood in a stunning bower made by the local florist which received lots of compliments. Taking more time and holding the event on a Saturday meant everyone could be there, which made a huge difference.

Reaching the Top

He loved the mountains and hills, so a big group of us had a memorial ramble which carried a small portion of his ashes to a favourite peak. We snapped selfies and toasted his memory with a favourite single malt. The small linen pouch of ashes was placed snugly in a crevice which we marked with a large engraved pebble. Then down we went for a hearty lunch with more toasts and tall stories.

Doggy Delight

So many of our happiest family memories feature the beach, dogs, and sandy ham sandwiches. So we decided to bring everyone together with their four-legged friends for a memorial 'doggy-lympics' followed by a big picnic. We shed a few tears but mostly laughed. We'll remember her, and that day, every time we come back to that lovely stretch of sand.

Quiet Reflection

He was a quiet man and so a big "do" was just not his style. On the day of the cremation a few of us got together at home, we each lit a candle and listened to a playlist of some of his favourite music. It was very relaxed and calm, and as the music finished we each "let him go" by saying goodbye and blowing out our candles. We'll light them again on his birthday. He'll never be forgotten.

Serene Lake

A boat took us out to the middle of the lake and once the water was still we read the poem ‘Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep’ which was perfect. Then we placed the special 'ashes pillow' over the side and gently pushed it away. Everyone had a rose to toss in the water with a kiss as we played ‘Sailing’ and sang our hearts out. Brilliant.

Stately Goodbye

Sunday lunches and family birthdays at the nearby hotel were always special, so we arranged a memorial service there. The civil celebrant helped us create a service that included everyone who wanted to take part, from his oldest friend to the youngest great-grandchild. We'd wanted a proper service, but somewhere comfortable and familiar. Beautiful readings, favourite music, and a dove release on the lawn made a perfect combination.

The memorial service planning checklist

When it comes to the planning of the memorial event, a checklist is always going to make it easier and you’ll be less likely to forget an important aspect. At the beginning of the checklist are factors that are common to all memorial services. While the last few items in the list relate to more personal things you can organise as part of the celebration. 

Ticking off the general plan of the memorial service

  1. Your loved one’s expressed wishes✓
  2. Event type ✓
  3. Venue ✓
  4. Date and event hours ✓
  5. Event host and speakers ✓
  6. Guestlist ✓

Adding a personal touch to the memorial service

  1. Theme and special decor: You might decide to align your memorial service with a meaningful date. If you’re not planning on holding the event on a meaningful date think about hobbies, passions, or special interests that were central to the deceased life and look for ways to weave these aspects into the memorial.
  2. Program: This is something you can create to give to guests as they arrive for the service. It will typically contain an outline of the event, along with the name of the deceased and death date. You might also decide to include the obituary, a favourite poem, memorial service readings, or memorial service prayers.
  3. Food and beverage: Base the food and drinks on the likes of the deceased or the theme of your memorial service. If they had a particularly sweet tooth, a selection of desserts has to be an important part of the spread.
  4. Table of memories: This is a wonderful way to personalise the service. You can include a wide variety of items on the table such as photographs, hobbies, pictures of pets, awards for work, favourite books, and sayings. You can invite guests to bring their own mementoes to contribute to the memory table. This will really start the story telling!
  5. Memory takeaway: A memory takeaway can be a delightful addition to a memorial event. Choose something simple such as a ribbon to wear, an angel shaped bookmark, a recipe card of a favourite dish, or a packet of memorial seeds.

What to include in a memorial service program

Although a memorial service can be a memorial in itself, it’s becoming more and more common for people to set up a small tangible memorial to the deceased at the service. It might consist of photographs, a slideshow, or video footage. The focus will be on the deceased’s life and provide guests with an opportunity to remember things they have done together. 

For many people, music plays an integral part of their life. A memorial service is the perfect opportunity to showcase music that had meaning for your loved one. Think of some good songs for a memorial service. Alternatively, if they were more of a literature lover, it may be more appropriate to include excerpts from favourite books or spiritual selections. 

There have been some very interesting memorial service ideas over the years, none more so than those that included social activities such as dancing, tea parties, or dog walking. Releasing balloons, lanterns or doves, lighting candles, donating to a charity, filling a memorial book or album, or planting a tree are all fitting ways to remember a loved one.  

What to wear to a memorial service?

A memorial service is generally less formal than a funeral, but you might want to include a memorial service dress code if you think it’s appropriate. Traditionally, people wear classic dark colours for such events. 

The deceased may also have expressed a preference for people to dress up or even don themed costumes, for example, in which case you should let all the guests know.

When you’re suggesting a dress code, consider what’s going to be appropriate for the weather conditions and venue.  

Online memorials to keep memories forever

An online memorial is a wonderful way to remember a loved one who has recently passed away. When family and friends live all over the world, it can be difficult for them all to come together for a memorial service. Distance is not an issue with an online memorial as it lets mourners share their own favourite memories of a loved one online and to visit whenever they wish.

Should you post memorial news on social media?

Social media platforms have become informal hosts for memorial news, tributes and messages of grief. There is, however, a downside to death and social media. The scope of these platforms is very limited and you have no control over who interacts and what else might be featured or advertised along with the messages of grief and tributes. 

Create a digital memorial

Digital memorials are far more popular because they are customisable and you can choose whether the memorial is public or private. Traditionally, it would have been an obituary in a newspaper that would let the community know of a passing or potential invitation to a ceremony. 

Nowadays, a digital book of remembrance creates a single enduring tribute that can be visited on significant days. Alternatively you can create an online memorial that can either be kept private or shared with family and friends so they can contribute too.