Spring 2002: Memorial Services: Mourning a Loss and Honoring a Life

by Jean T.D. Bandler

Funeral directors tend to urge a “full” funeral as a necessary part of the grieving process, essential for survivors to “deal with afterward”, and to come “to closure” on death. The mortician/poet Tom Lynch feels that a service without a body is “like a baptism without a baby”. Such comments are ironic from an industry specializing in euphemisms (“the departed, slumber room, interment, cremains, memory picture”), but the intent is to spare no expense in arrangements and last rites. This is fine if one truly wishes and can easily afford embalming, cosmetology, viewing, casket, vault, floral displays, hearse, cars, and a program run by a funeral director. Many, however, want simpler and more economical arrangements – a direct burial, a cremation, or a medical donation.

Many also prefer ceremonies that engage and involve the participants in mourning a death, honoring a life, and comforting the bereaved. Rather than relying on prepackaged ideas and the direction of an undertaker, we recommend a personalized service, whether funeral or memorial, planned and directed by loved ones. This means active work, not passive attendance, with an involvement that melds sorrow and joy, death and life, past and future.

It may be tempting to plan one’s own service, both to spare kin the sad details and to ensure that one’s wishes are followed. (“For who else knows my life better than I”) These are good reasons to specify the type of arrangements for the disposition of the body, but less valid for a memorial or funeral service. Here, the major purpose is to help survivors face the death, grieve, remember, and begin to go forward. It is wise, therefore, to give only general wishes and to leave the planning, specifics, and details to one’s loved ones.

A memorial service, held after the arrangements for the disposition of the body, helps to focus attention on the life and values of the deceased rather than on the dead body. The planning is done by family, a few close friends, and clergy. It is a time for beginning reminiscences, for broad outlines of when, where, who, and what is  most appropriate. There are no set formulas or wrong answers. Some wish a service shortly after the death to mark a formal recognition of mourning; others prefer waiting a few weeks for reflection. A good suggestion is to set a time that is convenient for most, as a weekend or an evening. It is also helpful to pick a place that is appropriate to the person and fits the number of attendees – church, temple, meeting house, union hall, library, living room, park, or meadow. (A memorial service for an avid golfer was held on the golf course.) And, the service is not a time to settle grudges or exclude an estranged person, so try to notify all family, friends, and colleagues.

Memorial services may be formal or informal. Usually either a religious leader or friend presides to start the service, set the tone, and close the ceremony. Quiet music, live or recorded, as people gather and leave may be used, and often there is music during the service and singing by the congregants. Music, whether classical, folk, or pop, should reflect the interests of the person who died. Readings are helpful and can be drawn from poetry, the Bible, the classics, and the deceased’s own letters and writings. There can be one or more designated speakers, family and friends, for eulogies and reminiscences, or, in the Quaker custom, an open forum of unprogrammed reflections and remembrances. (Here, if many are unfamiliar with this tradition, some advance notice is useful.) Speakers can use humor, describe frustrating incidents, touch on problems. They should avoid grandstanding, sentimentality, and idealized descriptions. And, most important are the unique qualities of the deceased that illuminated the life, live on in memory, and provide inspiration. The point is, as Rob Baker writes, “to encapsulate a life in a few words: to pare down the excesses of feelings or details to those that capture the person fully, yet concisely.”

A reception after the memorial service is a good time for informal visiting and continued reflections. Light refreshments or a meal may be served. (A favorite spaghetti and meatball recipe was served at one reception). Many families also have a table of photographs and memorabilia.

Earnest Morgan notes that a memorial service meets many needs by deepening spiritual life, offering emotional support, reestablishing relationships, reaffirming values, and continuing the best ideals of the deceased.   Rob Baker writes that “memorial services help you confront your loss and keep alive the memory of those who have died.”  To Morgan , in a memorial service, “the spirit and ideals are alive and growing in each of those present”.

A memorial service is an affordable and dignified way of mourning a loss, recalling a life, and renewing a commitment to shared values.