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 remarks Setting the tone for the service Honoring the feelings of those who are gathered Naming the meaning of this gathering and including people who could not be present Speaking on behalf of family who may not be able to speak for themselves
  2. Honoring and remembering the person who has died Composing a memorial portrait Personal 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.


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:

  • 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 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.

  • 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.

    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.

    After people have been given sufficient time to share their remarks, which ordinarily evoke both tears and laughter, the following words close this section:

    With tears and laughter, we dip into the deep well of love and memory. May these memories and those unspoken nourish you and keep ________ with you.
    If there is a musical selection during the service, it may fit in well after this time of sharing.

    Responsive Reading

    A responsive reading invites participation.

    One grief stirs another, and many who gather are reminded of their own losses. This ritual brings us into that holy intimacy where we connect with one another on a spiritual level regardless of our religious beliefs.

    I include my adaptation of a Jewish litany of memory (responsive reading) in every service and follow this with a prayer:

    "I invite you to join in a litany of memory for _______, for ______ (if there are other members of the deceased's family or community who are particularly missed, I name these person along with the one we are memorializing), and for others whom you hold dear in your memory.

    Please respond to each line that I read with the words, 'We remember you':

    In the rising of the sun and its going down.
    In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter.
    In the opening of buds and in the rebirth of spring.
    In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer.
    In the rustling of leaves and in the beauty of autumn.
    In the beginning of the year and when it ends.
    When we are weary and in need of strength.
    When we are lost and sick at heart.
    When we have joys we yearn to share.
    Yes, we remember you. So long as we live, ______ too shall live, for she/he is a part of all who have know her/him."

    Spoken Prayer

    A spoken prayer touches the soul of community. When I plan services with families who are not comfortable with prayer, I tell them that I want to provide a time during the service for all of us to feel a part of a community of caring. I also tell them that I want to use this time for an expression of gratitude.

    The prayer is offered into shared space, where its common expression provides a sacred dimension to the invocation to a spirit of healing, forgiveness, and renewal.

    The service closes, most often, with a poem or a benediction (or both).

    Celebrating Life and Mourning Death

    A friend told me recently that the trouble with a lot of memorial services these days is that they do not create space for the tears to flow. People want to celebrate a life but are afraid to mourn a death. An effective memorial service will do both.
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