Composing a Memorial Service From Beginning to End

Excerpted from "Remembering Well" by Sarah York. c 2001. Used with permission

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):

  1. 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
  2. Honoring and remembering the person who has diedComposing a memorial portraitPersonal remarks from family and friends
  3. Invoking a spirit of gratitude, healing, and love (as in litany or a prayer)
  4. 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.

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Sarah York
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