How to plan a meaningful memorial

Person holding photographs.

During Covid-19, more people than ever are planning to hold memorials. But what exactly is a memorial and how is it different from a funeral service? Here’s everything you need to know along with our tips for making sure the day feels meaningful.

How is a memorial different from a funeral service?

In technical terms, a funeral service includes the coffin while a memorial doesn’t. But, for most people, any event on the same day of the funeral wouldn’t be considered a memorial. Memorials generally happen some time after a person has died, and it’s up to you when that will be.

Memorials are especially common when someone who has died is being repatriated or has family overseas who can’t be there for the funeral. Covid-19 has also meant that more people are planning memorials after changing their funeral plans due to government restrictions.

While memorials can be really varied, there are still some common patterns. In many cases, memorials include a wider circle of people than funerals, like neighbours, well-wishers and more distant friends and relatives. Memorials may also be less formal and structured, which means that they’re often easier to plan.

In the end, memorials are really about serving the emotional needs of grieving family, friends, and sometimes the wider community — and how that looks will always be unique.

What is a memorial for?

Memorials are a chance for people to join together and mark the death of someone who mattered to them. Because memorials happen later on, it can sometimes be easier for them to be a celebration of life. While grief is a very individual journey, people often feel more able to be involved when someone hasn’t recently died.

It’s also completely possible for a memorial to be more sombre or formal. During Covid-19, a lot of people are planning a memorial that feels like the funeral service they’d originally hoped for. In this case, it may be useful to work with a celebrant who can help you structure the event. Including a celebrant can also help evoke the kind of spirit that many people associate with a funeral.

Whatever the circumstances, you should always feel free to hold the kind of memorial that feels right to you.

What do I say about the person who has died?

One really common question is what to share about the person who has died. If you’re not sure where to begin, it may be helpful to think about:

  • The person’s likes, dislikes, interests and what made them laugh.
  • What anecdotes really say something about them as a person?
  • Are there any poems or readings that help express what you feel?

Keep in mind that it’s absolutely fine to talk about the whole person. In fact, a willingness to share your feelings honestly can play an important role in remembering someone.

How to plan a memorial

The beauty of a memorial is that there really aren’t any constraints. You can hold a memorial at a formal venue, pub, park or even in your own home. It can be very loosely structured or more formal — whichever option works best for you.

It’s helpful to consider what kind of atmosphere you’re hoping for, along with some practical questions about location, cost and possible venues. If someone has been cremated, you may want to include the scattering or burying ashes in their memorial. Following burials, some people choose to hold the memorial when the headstone is ready to go up. Others plan a service around the dedication of a bench or the planting of a commemorative tree.

It can be very powerful to incorporate a shared theme or activity so that everyone can get involved. That could mean bringing photos of the person who has died or wearing someone's favourite colour. We’ve seen some incredibly creative and touching examples, like temporary tattoos to celebrate the person who has died’s body art.

While these shared rituals bring structure to the day, don’t be afraid to give people time to feel their sadness. Pauses in the flow of speeches or activities can also help everyone come together and grieve.

Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong way to go about planning a memorial. For many people, it’s simply about reaffirming the value of someone’s life in a positive way — whether that involves lots of tears, laughter or a combination of both.

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