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How to Plan a Meaningful Memorial Service

A 'celebration of life' honors the passing of a loved one in a personalized way

spinner image Group of five people holding a paper lantern during a memorial service
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When Andrea Traubner lost her husband, Richard, to Lou Gehrig’s disease after 42 years of marriage, per Jewish tradition he was buried within 24 hours. Nine months later and starting to emerge from her grief, Andrea welcomed more than 100 guests to a celebration of Richard’s life.

Richard was a prominent music scholar, and the service reflected that — complete with a pianist and professional singers performing songs from his favorite operettas. A filmmaker friend and her son created a video tribute they played before the service. Programs with photos and memories of Richard were on each seat for guests to take home.  

“Producing the concert was difficult, but it focused my mind and helped me set aside the grief, day after day,” Andrea says. “When I heard the singers first rehearse with their accompanist, Richard’s memory shone out like a bright and beautiful star.”

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Celebrations of life honor the memory of a loved one in a personalized way and typically don’t include the liturgy of a traditional funeral service. The term “celebration of life” is interchangeable with “memorial service.” 

The major difference between a memorial service and a funeral is that there is no body present at a memorial service, says William Mariani, a funeral director with Rossi Funeral Home in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. Funerals are held soon after a death, often within a week. “A memorial service can be held at any time, any place for whatever the particular reason,” Mariani says.

Memorial services have become more prevalent as cremation has outpaced traditional burials in the U.S., a trend fueled by boomers’ growing concern about the cost and environmental impact of burials coupled with a fall in religious affiliations. In 2015, the U.S. cremation rate outpaced the burial rate for the first time and now stands at 57.5 percent of deaths, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. By 2040, the cremation rate is projected to exceed 78 percent.

What steps do you need to take to plan a celebration of life? Here are some suggestions:

Pick a date

“Preplanning can happen when the family feels they have gotten through the first wave of grief,” says Rabbi Melinda Bracha Bernstein, a freelance rabbi in Tamarac, Florida, who leads lifecycle ceremonies for all faiths. “Sooner is better,” she says. “If people don’t have that sense of completion, they are walking around with this heaviness.” For timing, consider when it is practical for the most guests to attend, such as on a holiday weekend, and how far people have to travel.

Don’t go it alone

Pick a close friend or family member as the point person for the event, and allow them to delegate tasks such as selecting and renting a venue, planning the program, sending out invitations and arranging for food and drink if desired.

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Many of us have someone in our circle who is good at taking charge. If not, consider engaging a funeral celebrant, which is a professional who helps design a customized service that reflects the deceased’s personality, values, culture and wishes. Resources to find one near you include Funeralwise and the Celebrant Foundation & Institute.

Include elements of faith

If the deceased was religious, a priest, minister, rabbi or imam can lead the ceremony or help weave in elements of their faith. “The person in charge of the service can either lean on a funeral director for guidance or just call the local church, synagogue or house of worship the individual belonged to, and the leader of that community is usually willing to help,” says Mariani.

Select the right location

The venue can be anywhere from your local VFW Post or a favorite restaurant to a golf course or park. Some people prefer the intimacy of a service at home, while others opt for services at a church or synagogue.

Personalize the service

There are no fixed rules for the program. “My only rule is to make it a reflection of the person you are honoring,” says Anne Murphy, a lifecycle celebrant in Saint Paul, Minnesota. “You should have a really good idea of how they lived and how they impacted our lives by the end of the service. If you don’t, it can feel really empty.”

Gather memories, stories and mementos such as photos and letters from family members and friends. Murphy suggests using a shared online document that all involved in the service can see and comment on beforehand so that everyone is comfortable about what is to be shared.

Jeff Baron, a playwright and children’s book author, has led numerous services for friends and family in the past 20 years. “I think about it the way I think of putting on any show. I make it meaningful and engaging for the intended audience and for the deceased,” he says. His tips include having a rehearsal for speakers, as well as offering to read remembrances for those who are uncomfortable speaking in public or who cannot attend.

Share an item of remembrance

Some services provide attendees with a takeaway, such as a card with the deceased’s favorite poem and the event’s program. Bernstein always brings stones. “I have people hold them and connect to the individual through them, and then put it in their pocket and take it home or put it in their garden,” she says.

In all, a celebration of life should “uplift the memories of the deceased and elevate the hearts of the survivors,” she says.

This article was originally published May 11, 2020. It has been updated with more recent data on cremation and burial rates.

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