Part II: Tips for Planning a Memorial

Last week in Part I of this series, we looked what families yearn for in their memorial ceremonies. What they want and what they don’t want. This week, let us turn to the logistics of Planning a Memorial Ceremony. The Who, What, Where, How?  Here is my list of:  8 Things to keep in mind when planning a Memorial, Celebration of Life or other Ceremony of Remembrance.1. Where?  Find the right place.  Think outside the box (no pun intended).  The spaces at most Funeral Homes are pretty traditional. However there are cemeteries (in Vancouver Mountain View and First Memorial in North Vancouver) that have beautiful spaces designed to suit large and small gatherings.  Hotels can offer conference rooms that can be set up with round tables.  I’ve even done memorials in restaurants, as well as cocktail style in a formal lounge. What about at a vineyard or wine tasting space?

2. Who? Who should lead, write, or create the ceremony? Do you want a professional Funerl Celebrant to guide you? Or can Uncle Bob wing it perfectly fine? (Honestly, I do NOT recommend the latter. I’ve been to a few ‘Uncle Bob’ ceremonies and felt worse afterwards because there was no emotional flow, no cohesiveness, and a whole lot of depth got missed.)  My recommendation is to google Funeral Celebrants in your area. These are people like yours truly, who are trained specifically (and usually feel called) to do this work. You can decide on the degree of their involvement, but it is a wise idea to seek professional support here. Stay tuned to Part III of this series where I go into this in more detail.

3. Food and Drink. Would you like to serve food to your guests?  What about coffee tea or even wine?  I find that buffet style receptions just don’t seem to go well.  There is usually a lot of food waste because most people aren’t quite in the mood to chow down. However, hor d’oeuvre style receptions seem to flow really well, and they are easier too!  Think about choosing little appetizers or small bites of larger meals that your loved one enjoyed, e.g. bite-sized mac n’cheese balls.

4. Seating. In the past month alone I performed two ceremonies where guests stood or were seated at bar height chairs around small round tables, much as one would for a cocktail party. The atmosphere was intimate and immediately said, ‘this is going to be extraordinary!’  On the other hand, many people choose rows of seats facing forward. This allows them to see the speakers but also to  have some privacy to their emotions. My experience is that seating is wise if the mood is one of a deep grief. It’s hard to stand when you have little strength.

5. Amplification:  A ceremony professional should speak in a voice that is trained for public speaking, is well modulated, and is well suited for projecting into large spaces. For gatherings of under 80 people, I rarely use a microphone. At a recent ceremony where there were over 300 mourners, many in overflow spaces and even listening to speakers in the parking lot, amplification was a MUST.  As for family/friends invited to speak during the ceremony, my experience is that 99% of people cannot project beyond a couple of rows, if that.  Even when they are used to public speaking, addressing a room full of people when one is grieving is extremely difficult. Please ensure they have amplification!  Additionally, make sure you provide a microphone of the sort that picks up sound from several inches away. Avoid microphones that require the speaker to speak so close it is as though they are consuming it.That is awkward too.

6. Music. This is a wonderful element to introduce in a memorial ceremony. I love it when there is music playing to guide people in and get settled. It’s also lovely to play a favorite song or two during video or photo montages that run during the ceremony.  Choose the music that accompanies  video portraits carefully. I recommend two songs: one to begin that is slower and more melancholy. And the second to be one that uplifts. Otherwise it is hard to recover any lightness of being. Think about having music play during the reception… choose songs that the person loved to listen to. Avoid overtly sad music. The ceremony is done and guests will appreciate being able to mingle and share stories that are more uplifting. The tone of the music should both reflect and encourage this. Designate someone to make sure they know how to use the electronic system at your venue!!! Yikes… I can tell you a story or two about that!

7. Video. I always cry and laugh when I watch videos my clients put together of their loved ones. Such a slice of life. People in times of family celebrations like weddings, the births of children, but also doing the most ordinary of things. Often is the ordinary day to day things that we miss the most! See my recommendations on musical accompaniment in #6 above. Videos seem to give people permission to smile and laugh through their tears! Gets me every time, and I often have never met the person.

8. Things to showcase. Kids and teenagers enjoy putting together photo boards. I also encourage families to bring items of daily life that belonged to their loved one, e.g. gardening gloves, a favorite hat, a refereree whistle, watercolours and paintbrushes, craft objects e.g. stained glass and the like made by the deceased, aprons, recipe cards… that’s a good one for a cook by the way: copy recipe cards and make them available for people to take away. You can even make some of cookies a baker was known for.

There are  many more things to keep in mind when planning the logistics around a memorial ceremony.  I don’t want to overwhelm you. Let’s keep it simple, because with the right support — it can be!

Join me next week for Part III of Tips for Planning a Memorial, Celebration of Life, or other Ceremony of Remembrance. I’ll be talking in more depth about the WHO. Finding the right person to create a ceremony that truly honours your loved one and also help you begin to embrace life without them in it.

Michele Davidson, Master Celebrant & Seeker of Meaning

Modern Celebrant

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