Memorial Service Etiquette

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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 a nontraditional venue for a number of reasons. For example, if the deceased was involved in the arts, it may be held at a gallery.

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.

What to Expect

When you attend a memorial service, you should 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, research beforehand or ask someone in the family if there is anything specific that you need to know.

Since the service 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 30 minutes but may run longer if there are readings or speeches, or if the person was well known.

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 or a charity close to their 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 the person's 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.

Timing of 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 months after the person passed away. 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. The ideal attire is something similar to what you would wear to a funeral unless you are requested to do otherwise.

Men are typically safe to wear a dark suit, button-front shirt, tie, and dress shoes. Women should wear a conservative dress, skirt and blouse, or pantsuit. No one should wear flip-flops, short shorts, jeans, or "athleisure" wear, which are not appropriate attire for a memorial service.

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 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 about 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 place 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, 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:

  • Turn off your cell phone before you arrive.
  • Sign the guest book.
  • Be careful what you say to the family of the deceased. If in doubt, don’t say it. This is one of those times a warm handshake, a gentle hug, and a few words are all you need.

Tip

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 their wishes, even if it’s a small amount. Most charities will send an acknowledgment to the surviving family to let them know you donated.