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How to Make a Memorial Service More Meaningful

Funerals are an important marker for everyone involved in the deceased’s life. It serves as a confirmation of the death, important in moving through the denial inherent in grief. It gives us something to “do,” and reminds us of the support that is all around us. It can give meaning to loss, simply through sharing memories of the deceased. Learn more about navigating the grief process in Grief Is a Journey: Finding Your Path Through Loss.

The most effective funeral rituals are personal, highlighting the life and unique contributions of the person who died. Eulogies, video and photograph presentations, and other personal narratives about the deceased can help do this. Most people, like Sanders, live in a variety of worlds, and mourners can need to speak to the multiple identities of an individual. My students know me one way, my colleagues have a different perspective, and my family sees still another side. Participatory and personal funerals are inclusive, making everyone feel that they are truly part of the ritual.

You have to remember that funerals should not be used as opportunities to resolve personal issues if you have a highly ambivalent relationship with the person who died. Colleen had such a relationship with her mom. For thirty years her mother, Eileen, had been a weekend alcoholic, functioning well in her work as a nurse but bingeing on weekends. After she retired, she drank constantly, which led to her early death. In her eulogy, Colleen openly and angrily addressed her issues with her mother, which shocked both Eileen’s coworkers as well as many of the patients who had come to pay their respects. Some things are better left for close confidants; a therapist; or even a small, private ritual.

To have a meaningful funeral, you may need to translate these rituals so everyone understands their importance or symbolism. In an increasingly diverse society—spiritually and culturally—we cannot assume that all attendees will recognize the significance of the stories, music, or other parts of the service. When Deborah’s husband died of ALS, the service ended with the song “Singin’ in the Rain.” Gil was an engineer by vocation, but a bluegrass musician by avocation who played with a local band. One of the band’s inside jokes was that one of their regular gigs was an open-air concert hosted by a large outdoor flea market. Since both the market and the open-air concert were “weather permitting,” the band would open with a bluegrass rendition of “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine.” After being diagnosed with ALS, Gil told his wife, “We learned to sing in the sunshine, now we will have to learn to sing in the rain.” Sharing that story with those attending the funeral ensured that the meaning of the song did not get lost.

It’s important to know when to seek support after a loss.

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