What is a Memorial Service?

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A memorial service is an organized event designed to honor and remember the person who has passed away. Unless this is a celebration of life, a memorial service is typically subdued. That means that people should dress conservatively and keep their voices down during the event.

Anyone can organize the service, but traditionally, it is arranged or sponsored by a close family member or friend of the deceased. It is often held in a church, synagogue, chapel, or other place of worship. But some people choose another venue for a number of reasons. For example, if the deceased was involved in the arts, it may be held at a gallery.

What to Expect

When you attend a memorial service, you are expected to arrive on time and find a seat before the event is scheduled to start. If you have a conversation with someone, use hushed tones. 

A religious memorial service will likely follow the traditions of the faith of the deceased. If you aren’t familiar with the customs of the religion, it’s always a good idea to do research beforehand or ask someone in the family if there is anything specific that you need to know.

Since this is held days or weeks after the funeral, the body of the deceased won't be present. Instead, you are likely to see a framed photo or an urn that serves as the focal point of the ceremony.

Most memorial services last about 20 to 30 minutes but may last longer if there are readings or speeches. Also, if the person was well known, it may last longer.

Difference Between a Memorial Service and a Funeral

While a memorial service is similar to a funeral, there are some marked differences. Most of the time, the body or ashes are present during the funeral but not at a memorial service. A funeral is typically held soon after the person’s death. A memorial service can be held many days or even weeks later. 

Memorial Service Location

A memorial service may be held anywhere that is convenient to those in mourning, while most funerals are held at a funeral home, place of worship, or the gravesite. If the deceased had a special place he or she visited often or a charity close to the heart, the memorial service might be held there.

In some cases, the body of the deceased may be moved to a family plot in a different town from where his or her friends live. Then there may be a separate memorial service for those who are not able to attend the funeral in the person’s hometown.

When to Hold a Memorial Service

Memorial services can be held whenever it is convenient for those who plan or attend and can be days, weeks, or even sometimes months later, after the person passes away. The attendance is generally greater when it is held soon after the person’s death.

Memorial Service Attire

Black is the traditional color of mourning, but you may wear any subdued color that doesn’t call attention to you. The ideal attire is something similar to what you would wear to a funeral unless you are requested to do otherwise.

Jeans and "athleisure" wear are not appropriate attire for a memorial service. Men are typically safe to wear a dark suit, button-front shirt, tie, and dress shoes. Women should wear a conservative dress, skirt, or pantsuit. No one should wear flip-flops, short shorts, or other things you would wear to the beach.

There are exceptions to traditional memorial service attire. If the survivors prefer to have a less dreary ambiance, the attendees may be requested to wear something brighter or more festive.

After a Memorial Service

The person or family planning the memorial service may choose to hold a reception. This is similar to a funeral reception because it gives people an opportunity to share their experiences with the person who has passed away. It provides a more casual environment for those remembering the deceased to communicate with each other.

The reception may be held in the same location as the memorial service or at another location that can accommodate all of those in attendance. It may be a stand-up reception with light refreshments or if it’s held at a restaurant, a sit-down dinner.

Some post-memorial service receptions are held in a person’s home. This is often accompanied by a potluck buffet. The person hosting the reception may ask you to bring food, but even if it’s not requested, there is nothing wrong with bringing something. If the food you bring isn’t needed for the reception, leave it for the host to have later.

Additional Memorial Service Etiquette

There are some additional etiquette guidelines you should follow when attending a memorial service. Here are some of them:

  • Turn off your cell phone before you go.
  • Arrive on time. You don’t want to disrupt a memorial service by showing up late.
  • Sign the guest book.
  • Be careful what you say to the family of the deceased. If in doubt about what’s on your mind, don’t say it. This is one of those times a warm handshake, a gentle hug, and very few words are all you need.

Memorial Donation

If the deceased had a passion for a charity, you may be asked to make a donation in that person’s memory. It’s always a good idea to honor his or her wishes, even if it’s a small amount. Most charities will send an acknowledgment to the surviving family to let them know you donated. 

Memorial Services for Animals

When attending a memorial service for a beloved pet, don’t make light of it, even if you don’t understand the purpose. Remember that people love their animals and consider them part of the family. Obey the general guidelines for any type of memorial service and follow the lead of the host.