How to Organize and Conduct a DYI Memorial Service

How to Organize and Conduct a DYI Memorial Service

My mother and father, at the time of their deaths, had very different services.  Neither went to church.  When my mother died our family felt a bit frantic finding a place and minister to conduct her service.  One of her good friends was a member of a near-by Methodist Church with a great-hearted pastor.  The service was tastefully conducted in a lovely sanctuary, included a soloist, and was presided over by an affable minister who clearly had done hundreds of such services.

How I put together a meaningful memorial service without a minister

When my father died, our family gathered again, but with no yearning to repeat the service we conducted for our mother.  We certainly wanted to have a service, but felt emboldened to concoct our own.  I organized a service accommodating family members’ wishes.  We rented the “chapel” in the funeral home.  I printed and distributed speaking parts to each family member.  At the service itself, I spoke emotionally about my father’s life.  Attendees and participants alike felt very good about what we had done together.

Full disclosure: At the time of my father’s service, I had been a Presbyterian minister for 35 years.  I had conducted hundreds of funerals and memorial services.  Where I lacked experience was in being part of a bereaved family without a church or minister.  Even I was surprised how daunting the task of organizing that memorial service felt.  Can you do this without a minister?  Is it official?  What will attendee’s think?  Will the whole thing seem amateurish?  I actually had these thoughts.

Your Own Service

The process I followed in the days before my Dad’s service is simple enough for a motivated grieving family to follow.  The resulting ceremony can be as helpful and heartfelt as your departed loved one deserves.  Best of all, participants will feel a deeper love for the one who has died and gratitude to God for giving that life and holding it forever.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Get clear in your thoughts what the memorial service’s purpose is. Here’s my best wisdom: You’re having a service in order to comfort everyone by remembering the good that the deceased brought into the world and the goodness of God that created that person and holds him or her still.

  2. Schedule your service for the right time. Doing the service yourself means that you don’t have to work around a minister or funeral home’s schedule.  You’ll find that ideas for the service will improve if they have a few days to develop.  Allowing a week or two to pass before holding a service drains some of the emotional energy that follows a death and may leave the service feeling anti-climactic.

  3. Know the feelings of non-family member attendees. A grieving family’s friends are surprisingly anxious when an acquaintance dies.  They are desperate to do the right thing.  Give them as many prompts as possible so they will know exactly what to do.  Announce the service time and place as promptly as possible.

  4. Do all the arrangements in accordance with your values, budget, and beliefs. Funeral homes can assist here; however, with cremations, funeral homes are not necessary.  Find a place.  Arrange for music.    Plan for a meal or get-together after the service.  Here’s one church’s staff checklist for funerals.  Use this to prompt ideas or remind you of details you may not have thought of.

  5. Work from an outline. Here is a sample service.  Here’s a MS Word Version of that service so you don’t have to key it in.   Here’s a list of appropriate hymns.  Here is a brief committal service.  Of course, these are “points of departure.”  Use these to prompt your creativity and improve on them when you can.

  6. Delegate loved ones and friends to take each of the service elements.

  7. Plan to say something about the loved one who has died. Tell one or two stories that encapsulate that person’s spirit.  There are several ways to accomplish this:

    1. Have an articulate and sensible family member fulfill this task.
    2. Compile a list of all the nice things people say about the deceased in the days before the service and simply read the list.
    3. Have family members compose their own mini-remembrances and let them each present their thoughts. Or have a reader read them all.
    4. Call on congregants to stand and offer their own remembrances. I’ve never had a problem with wacky attendees spoiling the service’s mood, but I have employed a trick to keep this under control.  I say, “Jill and Ben have offered to speak today about our loved one’s life.  There may be others of you who also would like briefly to say a word about our loved one before Jill comes up here to speak.”  Don’t be defeated by the avoidable.  Don’t hand a microphone to troublemakers.
  8. Get someone who can do it to say something about God’s goodness. The less the better.  Avoid attempts to argue that the deceased deserves to be in heaven.  Don’t attempt to conduct a revival service.  Remember point one and the purpose of the service.  Don’t attempt this unless you can do it in a way that everyone can appreciate.

  9. Be “high touch.” Friends are always at their best at the time of a death. Let them connect with you, touch you, and cry or laugh with you.  Include in the arrangements some time to talk with people who have come to your service.  If you can, invite everybody to everything you do: visitation before service, service, hand-shaking after service, meal or reception after service, and even time together at home.

All readers of …first light…are welcome to use and modify materials here without attribution.  And if you are reading this in the wake of a loved one’s death…may God comfort and strengthen you.


Featured Image: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.





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