Emotions and Spirituality
My father did not view himself as religious and was not connected with a church. How can we approach planning a memorial service?

A memorial service can be a very helpful way for families, their neighbours and friends to mourn. It gives people an opportunity to

  • express their grief;
  • remember and honour the person who has died;
  • experience a supportive community in the face of loss;
  • consider the meaning of life and death within the web of life.

Planning a memorial service may seem like a daunting task because you usually need to do it at a time when you are also coping with grief. However, creating a memorial service that suits you and your family and that honours your father can give you a focus in your time of loss.

You do not need to do it alone. Talk with other family members about what would be meaningful to them. Ask how they would like to be involved in the planning or leadership of the service. Decide together who would be the best person to be the emcee or leader for the service. Consult with your funeral director or a trusted and supportive religious leader for tips about what to include or exclude and how to put the service together. Their experience in planning such events can help you figure out how to make your hopes for the service a reality.

As a family, you will likely want to consider the location, the timing, and the program of the memorial service.

In deciding where to hold the service, consider the following:

  • Who do you expect to attend?
  • Is there a location that would reflect who your father was?
  • What setting suits the kind of service you want?
  • If you want music or videos in the service, can they be used in this setting?
  • Does the setting allow everyone to hear and see those participating in the service?
  • Can you arrange for refreshments following the service so people can visit with each other?
  • What are the costs associated with using this setting?

Many people choose to have a memorial service in a funeral home. In this setting, funeral directors can help you arrange many of the details you may wish to include. However, you may want to consider other settings. Memorial services are also held outdoor, in community centres, residences, and at the place of burial or scattering of ashes. What is important is that the place is suitable for people to celebrate your father’s life, comfort each other, and experience a sense of community.

In some communities there is an expectation that the memorial service will happen within several days of the death. This opportunity for public mourning seems to help healthy grieving. However, depending on your family’s circumstances, you can plan for a memorial service weeks or even months after your father’s death. In this case you may have a small gathering of family and friends who are available for the burial or cremation soon after the death, with an announcement that a memorial service will be held at a later date.

If your father’s body is being cremated, you may choose to place or scatter the ashes at a later date. This can be done in a small, intimate circle of family and friends in a way that allows you to share memories of your father and support each other in your loss. Ashes can be placed in a niche, memorial garden, or burial plot, or you may choose to scatter or bury your father’s ashes in a location that held special meaning for him.

There is no right or wrong way to hold a memorial service. However, usually families and friends find it most meaningful to have a service that includes honest and loving references to the person who has died. Some or all of the following may help achieve that:

  • words that acknowledge your father’s death and the emotions of those who are mourning;
  • stories, pictures, videos, or music that help people remember your father;
  • simple actions like lighting candles or placing flowers at the casket or urn;
  • playing or singing music your father enjoyed or your family finds comforting;
  • silent reflection (perhaps with music) with an invitation to recall a favourite memory of your father and quietly give thanks for him;
  • readings that speak to your grief and affirm life in the midst of loss and death;
  • time for informal visiting and refreshments;
  • a program pamphlet that includes the order of service and the readings and words of the music used.

You may find helpful readings and prayers in this book:

Sacred Rituals: Creating Rituals for Embracing the End of Life by Megory Anderson.  

For more guidance in planning your father’s service these Virtual Hospice articles may help:

Rituals to Comfort Families

Planning A Funeral