Learn all your options for the variety of celebrations available today, be it a end-of-life celebration, life celebration of a memorial service. Understand the differences and how best to plan one for yourself or someone you love.

Labyrinths to Mend By

A visual tour of our favorite meditative labyrinths in the
San Francisco Bay Area.

Planning a Funeral or Memorial Service

« Previous Topic § Next Topic »

Planning a Funeral or Memorial Service

There are as many ways to celebrate a life as there are to live one. If you are planning the funeral or memorial service for a recently deceased loved one, rest assured, first and foremost, that it’s all up to you. There are an endless variety of celebrations, services, and traditional funeral options. By thoroughly planning your event beforehand, you can be surer that it will best reflect both your wishes, and those of the deceased.

What is a memorial service? What is a funeral? What do you need to remember when planning a funeral or memorial service? What is a life celebration? This section of SevenPonds will help to guide you through these questions. You can also see Preplanning a Funeral or Memorial Service for more information.

Things to Know:

  • Today’s services can be an eclectic mix of religion, spirituality, and life celebration.
  • Funeral directors distinguish between “funerals,” where the body is present, and “memorial services,” where the body is not.
  • If you are planning a funeral, with the body present, soon after death, and if no plans have yet been made, you may want to hire an event planner or celebrant to assist with logistics.
  • The memorial service or funeral should be an expression of the deceased and his or her loved ones, in total accord with their wishes. As such, it is completely up to you what form your event will take.
  • “Life celebration” is a newer term for a certain kind of memorial service, totally free of format, where “celebrating” rather than “mourning” is the active intent.

What type of event can be planned?

You can plan a funeral, where the body is present, or a memorial service or life celebration, where it is not. We at SevenPonds encourage our readers to consider natural or green burial or a home funeral, should they be so inclined.

What do funerals, memorial services, and life celebrations have in common?

A defining difference between a funeral and a memorial service is the presence of the body. The body is present at a funeral, and the body is absent at a memorial service, therefore affecting limitations on scheduling and form of after-death care, among other considerations.

The definitions of funerals and memorial services vary considerably by culture, religion, and place. They have meant different things at different times to different people. We have noticed a trend in North America towards freer interpretations, where religion is less a defining factor, and decisions are as much at the whim of the family as they are the edicts of tradition. Alternatives such as cremation, natural burial, and home funerals have further widened our options, and we encourage our readers to look into these more recently embraced grieving events. For further information you can read our articles on Choosing Cremation, Choosing Green Burial, or Planning a Home Funeral.

  • Traditional funerals are generally held in places of worship or funeral homes. But less traditional funerals, memorial services, and life celebrations can be held in places as diverse as a private home, a hotel, a public meeting space, a mountaintop, a beach, or a park.
  • Funerals and memorial services may be religious or nonreligious, spiritual or nondenominational.
  • Memorial services and funerals can include elements of a traditional service, including music, flowers, prayers, readings, eulogies, and sermons.
  • Memorial services and funerals can also be highly nontraditional, secular affairs; they can include the sharing of stories, displays of photos or memorabilia, bouquets of organic rather than mass-produced flowers, and requests for charitable donations.
  • You can hire a professional caterer, or family and friends can bring food.
  • You can display objects of special meaning from the deceased’s life: photos of a favorite vacation, artwork, a handmade quilt, childhood memorabilia, awards and trophies, a motorcycle, fishing pole, or a musical instrument.
  • You can play music, such as the deceased’s favorite songs, or you can hire a band to encourage singing or dancing.
  • The event may last an afternoon, a day, a weekend, or even longer.

What are funerals?

  • Funerals are typically held several days following death. It may be difficult to coordinate the event if it has not been preplanned, so consider hiring an event planner.
  • Bodies are typically displayed at the visitation, usually held the evening before burial so that the bereaved can pay their final respects.
  • Funerals can be religious, nonreligious, or spiritual, based on the preferences of the family.
  • If you choose cremation as opposed to burial but still wish to view the body to better facilitate the grieving process, you can still have a funeral. Many cremation providers allow grievers to view the body before cremation, and they may have facilities for on-site services with the body present.

What are home funerals?

Home funerals are events in which the visitation is held in the home, with the body present and the house adorned as the hosts see fit. Friends or family prepare the body, complete some or all of the paperwork to attain after-death documents, and in some cases may also transport the body for cremation or burial after the home funeral ends. If you choose to conduct a home funeral, make sure you are in full accordance with your state and local laws, and you may wish to contact a home funeral consultant near you, through the Home Funeral Directory, for further information. See our article on Preplanning a Home Funeral for more information. Home funerals generally bypass the embalmment process, and as such are perfect precursors to an environmentally friendly green burial.

What Are Memorial Services?

  • Memorial services are held according to scheduling, frequently without the body present, as much as a month or more after death. For this reason, if you have not preplanned your event, this may be an easier logistical alternative to a funeral.
  • Memorial services are remembrance events held for a deceased person whose body is not present, typically preferred following a cremation.
  • Like funerals, memorial services may be religious or nonreligious, spiritual or nondenominational.

What Are Life Celebrations?

  • “Life celebration” is a more recent term for a certain kind of memorial service, where the emphasis is on the word “celebration,” and grieving is less the event’s focus.
  • Life celebrations are fresh and unique. They are affairs of laughter and tears, toasts and memorials; the deceased’s favorite movies can be played in the background.
  • Like memorial services, the body is not present at a life celebration, and the event can therefore be held days, weeks, or even months after death.

Are there any reasons to hold a memorial or celebration later rather than sooner?

By holding services at a later date, it is easier to gather the family and friends who want to attend. With enough preplanning, before the death, a more personal service may be able to proceed more quickly. See our article on Preplanning a Funeral or Memorial Service for further information.

Planning a Funeral or Memorial Service

SevenPonds provides these steps to help with planning.

  1. Decide on the type of service.
    • Did the deceased have a known preference for a funeral or memorial service?
    • If the deceased preferred for their body to be present at their service, than you must have a funeral, and will need to quickly make the necessary legal and logistical arrangements for handling the body. SevenPonds encourages you to consider a home funeral or green burial, if you see fit.
    • Would some combination of funeral, memorial service and life celebration be suitable? For example, you may hold a memorial service with prayers and a eulogy, or a funeral with elements of a life celebration, such as popular music and dancing.
  2. Make a list of attendees.
    • Compile a list of those who will be invited. Remember to consult any of the deceased’s preplanned invitation lists.
    • Decide how to notify invitees. Do you have enough time to mail the announcements, or should you e-mail them? Should you invite them by telephone? You may wish to design a paper or electronic announcement or have one designed, and again, remember to consult any preplanned preferences documented by the deceased.
    • Consider group invitations, such as to the members of a book club, a volunteer pet rescue group, or a yoga group.
  3. Select a location. The location will need to be appropriate to the service, the season, the number of attendees, and any special considerations. Refer to any preplanned arrangements or preferences documented by the deceased. It may help to use this location checklist:

    Location Checklist:

    _____ Reservations

    Must the location be reserved? If so, how long in advance?

    _____ Weather

    If outdoors, is it practical for the season? If not, is there an alternative?

    ______ Space

    Is the location large enough? Will there be enough parking? Will the location be accessible for everyone?

    ______ Special Considerations

    Will the location accommodate any special considerations? If you plan to scatter the ashes you will need a location where scattering is legal. Is the location pet friendly? Is it wheelchair accessible?

  4. Identify one or more facilitators.
    • Whether the funeral or memorial service was preplanned or not, you may need one or more facilitators to aid in implementation. You may designate someone other than yourself to speak or make introductions at the funeral or memorial service. Facilitators may be family members, friends, or professionals. In larger communities, you may be able to hire an event planner or celebrant, much as someone hires a wedding planner.
    • Determine who should facilitate the various tasks. For example, you may designate a relative to select music, a friend to make speeches and introductions, and a professional planner to reserve a location and arrange for catering, while you handle the invitations yourself.
  5. Commit the details to writing. Write down the details, especially if your event is in only a few days and you find yourself straining to remember the various logistical concerns. You may find the following checklist helpful:


    Who will facilitate the funeral or memorial service and what will they be responsible for?

    • Remember to refer to any preplans left by the deceased.
    • Who will facilitate any prearranged details?
    • What details will the facilitator(s) handle?
    • Are certain friends or relatives needed to provide transportation and/or lodging for out-of-town guests?
    • Will a particular friend or family member gather mementos of the deceased’s life and bring them to the funeral or memorial service?

    Who will speak at the funeral or memorial service?

    • Which family members or friends would the deceased have asked to speak? Did the deceased specify any particular people?
    • Will there be any guidelines for the subject matter?

    Who should be invited?

    • Develop a list of names and addresses, phone numbers, and/or e-mail addresses. Remember to consult any preplanned invitation lists and contact information left by the deceased.
    • When and how will you distribute invitations? What will the invitations say? Will you post a public announcement of any kind?
    • Did the deceased want the family pets present at the event? If so, does your location allow for them?

    What should be read at the funeral or memorial service?

    • Do you, or did the deceased, want a somber eulogy, a funny limerick, or something in between?

    What music will be played?

    • Did the deceased want traditional funeral music, favorite contemporary music, or some mix of the two?
    • Did the deceased want a favorite band or instrumental soloist to be hired to perform?

    What should invitees bring to the funeral or memorial service?

    • Should invitees bring flowers, or make donations to a pre-designated charity? Before you purchase memorial flowers, SevenPonds encourages you to consider the Environmental & Social Impact of Flowers.
    • Did the deceased want everyone to participate in some particular way, such as by sharing a memory?
    • Did the deceased want favorite photos, images, or artworks displayed?
    • Will you hire a caterer with a list of pre-selected items, or do you want friends and family to each bring a dish? Did the deceased have any favorite foods or drinks?
    • Will you commemorate the event with a photo album or a DVD recording? If so, you may consider hiring a professional photographer or videographer.

    Where will the memorial service or funeral be held?

    • Which location or locations would the deceased have preferred? If outdoors, have you made contingent plans in case of bad weather?
    • Do you need to reserve this location? Are you able to do so with the time remaining? Will it accommodate all necessary special considerations?

    Where will out-of-town guests stay?

    • Will you need to arrange for anyone to stay in your home or with friends?
    • Have you reserved hotel rooms for out-of-town guests?

    When will the funeral or memorial service be held?

    • Would you prefer a funeral shortly after death with the body present, or would you rather conduct the visitation at the crematorium prior to cremation? Have you considered a home funeral?
    • Will you be able to allow time after death to accommodate travel plans and airline ticket purchases for some invitees?
    • What time of day will the funeral or memorial service be held, and how long will it last?

    Why are you having a memorial service or funeral?

    • Although this may be clear to you, it may not be clear to those who will help facilitate the funeral or memorial service, and you should specify your reasoning in the invitation.
    • Did the deceased want a memorial service focused on the spirit after death, a life celebration to give family and friends a joyous occasion for remembrance, or a traditional funeral in keeping with their religious beliefs? Be sure to tell your facilitator(s) the motivation behind these choices.
    • Did you want to create a record of your loved one’s life? Do you want family and friends to bring certain items to the memorial service or funeral, such as a photo or an object associated with a story or memory?
    • Do you want to make a video of the funeral or memorial service available online for friends and family? If so, you may consider hiring a professional videographer.

For more information about planning a funeral or memorial service: