We are living in strange and unsettled times and what we thought was normal just isn’t anymore as in the case of funerals.  As a human race the singular need is to be together and this need is even more important at those moments in life when we stop to remember a milestone – such as death.  At this time people want to be with others – to properly recognise an event where the significant people in our lives share it with us.  It is especially true at the time of death.  Our first wish is to be together, to hug, to share stories and to remember … together.

But this is a unique time in the history of the country and we are prevented from following our natural instincts.  The churches are closed, graveside funerals are very limited with strict social distancing and the local crematorium has a limit currently of 10 close family only mourners and, in some other areas of the country the crematoria have moved to direct cremation only with no mourners allowed.

Families are left to manage their grief in this world that has been turned upside down by the pandemic. In some cases, even immediate family aren’t able to attend funerals due to health conditions and having to self-isolate.  In some cases, funerals have been recorded for those who cannot travel to it, or aren’t able to go because of health conditions or due to restrictions in numbers. Funerals in some areas of the country have been livestreamed or broadcast remotely via one of the video conferencing apps but these new ways of operating in the face of current restrictions do not suit everybody so what other options can be considered?

What is a memorial or celebration of life service?

A memorial service or celebration of life service is a ceremony in memory of someone who has died that takes place after the body has been buried or cremated.  The service can take place any time after the death, from a week to a year.  We are hearing of a number of families who have experienced a death recently and who needed to change the arrangements for the funeral from what they had expected in more ‘normal’ times and who have decided that some time after the funeral service, they will hold a memorial or celebration of life service.  This gives all the family the opportunity to get together and pay tribute to the person and for all involved to honour the life of the person who has died.  The service allows you to design something that is exactly the way you wanted to say goodbye to your loved one and to celebrate their life.  Everyone needs the moment when family and friends gather to remember the deceased.  Planning the service the right way can ensure that it is a unique, personal tribute to your loved one.

What three things should the service encompass?

First – It establishes the significance of your loss and how much the person will be missed.

Second – You want to establish the significance of the person who dies – their life, what they did, share their stories.

Third – Establish their social significance.  You want to share that other people loved them too.  That their life touched people.  That they had great value.

What is the difference between a memorial and a celebration of life service?

Many people don’t differentiate between the two – although a memorial service may be focussed around a recent loss and sometimes is religious in nature whilst a celebration of life is centred on the joy of having been blessed by a person’s presence, and may often be nonreligious in nature.

Where can my service be held?

The service can be held in any location.  Generally, people choose locations that have some personal significance, such as a family home, or a significant location such as a favourite hotel, or locations that can accommodate a large group, or a religious place of worship, a favourite restaurant, pub, or even a beach or park.

If you follow a religion, you may want to hold the service at your place of worship your religious official can help you plan and coordinate your memorial service.

What are the features of a memorial or celebration of life service?

There need be no formal structure to the service.  As with a traditional funeral, people may participate in the service in many different ways, including delivering reading, poems or prayers, singing songs or playing musical instruments, or sharing a memory of the person who has died.  You could include a powerpoint or video tribute. Special memories can be shared by asking family and friends to fill in a ‘Share a memory’ card which can be read out at the service or these can be incorporated into a eulogy. A memory table can be set out which incudes photographs, pictures of family and pets, awards for work, sports or community service, favourite books and sayings, favourite flowers, writings or creations of your loved one, recipes, sports jerseys, and items related to work as appropriate. You could light a candle in memory of your loved one in the service. If you will be having a religious service, there may be a religious structure that you’ll follow.

Image by Thought-Catalog on Unsplash

When should I hold the service?

Services can be held at any time that is convenient or significant to you.  Many people hold the services in the weeks following the death, but in these strange time of lockdown, it may be appropriate to schedule the service for after the current restrictions are lifted – assuming at some stage we will return to more ‘normal’ operations!  Another popular time to have a service is on the first anniversary of the death.

How long is a typical service?

Most services last about 30 minutes – 1 hour but may last longer if there are readings or speeches.  Also, if the person is well known and many people wish to speak at the service, it may last longer.  There are no hard and fast rules, it can last as long as you wish.

Post Service Reception.

In just the same way as after a funeral, it is common to have a reception after the service which can be held anywhere that can accommodate the size of the party, it could be in the family home, a religious place of worship, or in any other location that you agree on. 

Who leads the service?

Anyone you nominate and who agrees can lead the service.  If you are religious you may want a priest, vicar or a religious minister to lead the service but you could have a friend, family member or a celebrant. In planning the service it can be exactly what you want and what you think your loved one would have wanted.  There really aren’t a lot of rules.

Valerie Marshall, Independent Celebrant

Wedding, Baby Naming, Renewal of Vows and Funeral Celebrant