How best to describe today’s memorial service? With Pinterest offering 1,000-plus ideas to create a meaningful memorial celebration, it’s fair to say that the memorial service is open to interpretation. This flexibility means that a memorial service is often more relaxed than a funeral, with fewer “rules.”

The one constant is that there is no body present at a memorial service. The service can occur weeks or many months after a death. And a memorial service often feels a little looser than a funeral service because – with that gap in time – emotions of the bereaved aren’t quite so raw. Think of it as a celebration of someone’s life.

To be sure, the traditional memorial service, held in a house of worship or a funeral home, has not gone away. It is exactly the same as a funeral service except that there is no coffin or cremation urn. As for the not-so-traditional memorial service, it can be summed up in one word: personalization. Even though each service is likely to be quite unique, there are some universal elements that you can expect at a memorial service.

Memorial Service: Where to Sit

Memorial service venues are wide-ranging – a fire station, theater, restaurant, cultural arts hall, nature preserve. Family generally sits in reserved seating in front. Guests are welcome to sit anywhere. Often, family will place a notice in the obituary section of the local newspaper to alert the public about the service. Usually, a funeral director or event planner or even the decedent’s grandchildren greet guests as they arrive and present them with a memorial program that outlines what to expect.


Memorial Service: What to Wear

In large measure, the place and time of day drive the dress code. If you’re on a beach, obviously, lose the high heels. Overall, it’s a dress up occasion that doesn’t take itself too seriously. At one service I attended, the decedent’s hunting buddies all showed up in camo.

Memorial Service: What to Expect

There is usually a formal element to a memorial service that can include music and remembrances, often lighthearted, from family, friends and colleagues. Typically, clergy aren’t involved. Slideshows with photos of the deceased with friends and loved ones are standard – and provide a wonderful visual tribute that really speaks to celebration and reflection.

Many families create a memory table with objects the deceased enjoyed or cared about. One woman I knew lived to travel; it was her greatest joy. On her memory table: her passport, roller bag, a selection of souvenirs, and a world map with pins marking all the places she had been.

At the conclusion of some services, family and close friends may release balloons as a sign of letting go. Food and drink typically follow, most often on site.

Memorial Service: What to Say

A memorial service is all about communicating who the deceased was and why he or she mattered. It’s an ideal place to share memories with family and friends. In fact, at some services, there’s an open mic where visitors are welcome to speak publically (though respectfully and briefly.)

If you prefer to share your thoughts privately with family, that’s fine too. Just keep it real. Canned phrases like “I know how you feel” and “She’s in a better place” can be off-putting instead of comforting. A better idea is to share a memory about the deceased that you feel the family will find meaningful. Expect tears – but also expect laughter. Both are mile markers in the journey through grief.