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 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 remarksSetting the tone for the serviceHonoring the feelings of those who are gatheredNaming the meaning of this gathering and including people who could not be presentSpeaking on behalf of family who may not be able to speak for themselves
- Honoring and remembering the person who has diedComposing a memorial portraitPersonal remarks from family and friends
- Invoking a spirit of gratitude, healing, and love (as in litany or a prayer)
- Offering words of blessing and inspiration for the living
Readings and Music
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 an ear toward 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 on 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. Readings-a short poem, a scriptural selection-should be brief an should be chosen to serve a very specific purpose at a particular time in the service:
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 at a time such as this.
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.
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.
Any service that is held in a home or yard opens in a setting where a person's presence is evoked in a variety of ways, and reminders of that presence can be named-creative decorating, a love for gardening or nature, a treasured sitting place, the environment of hospitality.
The Heart of the Service: A Life Remembered
When my mother died, we remembered her in an informal gathering where everyone was invited to share memories. When my father died, there were designated speakers. At my mother's service, I spoke; at my father's, I did not.
The real heart of the service is the words spoken by family and friends. One factor to consider is time. A memorial service is emotionally intense. Except in communities where people are accustomed to being in services longer, a service should not extend more than about an hour or so.
If you want to keep a service within a particular time frame and are concerned about speakers taking too much time, you should give each speaker clear boundaries, perhaps inviting them to speak for less time than you actually expect them to use.