Not long ago, I attended a memorial service that was planned and conducted by a friend of the bereaved family. It was in many ways a satisfying ceremony, providing space for people to share their memories of the person who had died. But the service leader conducted the service as if he were the master of ceremonies introducing one act after another. A memorial service is less like a variety show and more like a musical composition or a woven fabric. Each part, from beginning to end, is a part of the whole and contributes to the rhythm and mood of the entire service. Each part has a purpose, and participants need to know how they fit into the larger design, the fuller meaning.
Four elements are essential to nearly all ceremonies (with additional readings or music included as desired):
- Opening remarks
- Honoring and remembering the person who has died
- Invoking a spirit of gratitude, healing, and love (as in a litany or a prayer)
- Offer words of blessing and inspiration for the living
Setting the Tone
Opening remarks set the tone and create space for what people are feeling. When you enter a space to honor someone who has died, you don't want to wait long before hearing what it is that has brought you there. And you want to hear a name--"dearly departed one" or "the deceased" just doesn't cut it.
The words that open a service define the space as holy and the time as sacred. This is particularly important when the space itself is not a traditional religious setting. The opening words invoke a spirit of love and healing to prevail. They may be offered in an informal setting but should never be offered casually. The first words spoken set the tone for the entire service.
What tone or style will be in keeping with the spirit of the person who is being remembered? Should it be dignified, warm, creative, pious, earthy, sophisticated, homespun? Whatever it is, it will come across as much in the presence of the person speaking and in the preparation of the meeting space as in the words spoken. Often there is something in the opening words that invites the spirit of the person who has died into the space.
Readings and music nourish the soul, ground the spirit, and invite emotional release. They are not essential to the basic structure of a service, but they are often included for their power to offer spiritual nourishment and to touch universal chords of human feeling. Because of their power, they need to be carefully chosen, with an eye and ear towards being as inclusive as possible of the various perspectives that people in attendance will have.
Any readings used in a memorial service should be selected intentionally and used sparingly. Most people do not come to a funeral to hear a sermon or philosophize about death. They come in the presence of death to grieve and reflect on what is meaningful in life; they come to be comforted and uplifted in their time of loss. Reading--a short poem, a scriptural selection--should be brief and should be chosen to serve a very specific purpose at a particular time in the service:
- At the start of the service, to define sacred space and invoke a holy presence for the time together
- As part of a eulogy or personal remarks, to invoke the person's presence--especially if the selection was written by the person, especially meaningful to the person, or particularly reflective of the person's life
- Before a selection of music, to comfort or offer reflection
- To lead into a time of meditation or prayer
- At the close of the service, to uplift and offer peace, hope, and promise
Music is the language of the soul--a powerful source of healing. Its selection will be dictated by individual tastes and by the tone or style the family wants for the service.
Use music once or at most twice during the service, as relevant. It may be introduced as something requested by or composed for the deceased. It may just be a quiet reflective piece following a prayer or reading. If music is likely to evoke powerful emotions, it should be used only