A Step by Step Guide For Planning
A Memorial Service or Celebration of Life

There are many reasons to plan a memorial service, rather than a funeral.

Many people feel the traditional funeral leaves them cold. Often funerals are spiritual, but little is tailored to the memories and life of the deceased.   

The family does not necessarily need to hear their beloved "is in a better place."  And nowadays, many people do not have a minister or a church affiliation.  Or have you ever been to a funeral when the minister says, "I never knew the deceased, but I'm told..."  or called them by the wrong name.  

I have seen people living a life sentence of regret after the funeral, as they simply held a generic service, with no attempt to celebrate the uniqueness of their loved one. 

Instead, the family needs to be able to illustrate how important the deceased's life has been, and how much their life mattered.

A memorial service can take everyone on a journey of the deceased's life.  Poignant and funny stories are shared.  Story telling becomes paramount. 

A memorial service allows you to design a service that is exactly the way you want to say goodbye to your loved one, and celebrate their life.  Everyone needs that sacred moment when family and friends gather and remember the deceased.  

Planning a memorial service, the right way, can ensure it is a unique personalized tribute.

The following guidelines will help you prepare a hallmark lasting legacy of your beloved.

Planning a memorial service should consider your desire to celebrate the life of your loved one - as well as sadly, recognize their death. 

A memorial service allows for flexibility in time and planning.   It may take place several days after the date of death or several weeks. You're in control, allowing family and friends to take any amount of time to adjust to the new reality of death. However, if family have gathered from across the country, it may be preferential to have the service as soon as possible.   Unlike a wedding that can takes months to plan, you may have only a few days to coordinate a memorial service.

With our step by step plan, you can plan a unique, memorable tribute to your loved one.    

When someone you love becomes a memory,
The memory becomes a treasure.

The logistics of planning a memorial service begin with determining the  appropriate time and date of the event.  However, before the date can be finalized, one has to confirm the location of the service.  

The Memorial Service Venue

Often, the simplest  option often for a location to hold the memorial service is the funeral home.  

Some of the advantages to this venue is that the sound system and video projection is provided.  They will run the music and video for you.  There is a microphone and podium for speakers.  

However, more and more people are turning to destination settings for a more memorable service.  Many beautiful facilities such as; gardens and greenhouses, museums, arenas, clubhouses, theaters, parks, lodges, aquariums, wineries.

Private event rentals are perfectly suitable for a remembrance of life.  The key is to try to select a location that is symbolic of the deceased.

After arrangements have been made to secure the venue on a given date, the following specifics and details of the memorial service needs to be decided. 

How Long Should It Be?

The length of the service is determined by how much you want to include in it.  Typically a service lasts approximately an hour. It is better to have guests wanting to hear more, than having them wish the speakers would finish.  I have been to a funeral where several speakers pretty much recalled the same stories, with no time limit to the length of their speech.  After a while, it became very redundant.  

Contrast that with another funeral, where each speaker was given a time limit and coordinated with the other speakers as to what particular part of the deceased's life they would discuss.  The result was a beautiful presentation that lovingly portrayed the life of their loved one.   

Short and poignant speeches are better than long and rambling, but it does take advanced preparation.


The obituary needs to be written and can be posted in a local newspaper, social media sites, or the funeral home website.  Some choose to use all of these options, others only one or two.  See how to write an obituary, using our obituary template.  

Invitations and notifications to friends and family of the memorial service can be done informally through email and phone calls, through an obituary in the newspaper, social media websites, or with formal paper invitations.  On-line invitations such as e-vite are an option.

Note, if the location for your memorial service is not yet confirmed, one can still publish an obituary, as people need to be made aware of the death.  Simply state; the memorial service will be held at a later date.

Funeral Handout Program

A funeral program handout needs to be created to give to guests as they arrive for the service.  The handout usually consists of the outline of the service, along with the name, date and death of the deceased.  It may also include the obituary, or a favorite poem or reading.  See What to Include In a Funeral Program. 

Funeral Photo or Video Tribute

It is very desirable to have a Powerpoint or video tribute video.  How to create a Video Tribute.

Memorial Service Music

Music  played or performed should  be a tribute to the deceased.   Music provides quiet background.  Or consider  a playlist of favorite songs of the deceased,  playing while guests find their seats, and at the conclusion of the service as people leave.  

Often in a memorial service one or two songs are played during the service. Some people select hymns, if they want a spiritual element.   If possible, let the audience know that the song selected was important to the deceased and explain why.   

A  song should be played in the background of the funeral video tribute of your beloved’s life.

Perhaps live jazz or bluegrass was a favorite in which a local band could be obtained.

Another option is to perform a favorite song by a soloist.

See many more music ideas.

Planning The Memorial Service Decor

A guest book and pen are required for visitors to sign as they enter.

I have found a  sign like this helps  encourage people to share their memories in the guestbook or on note cards:

(I recommend you have a few friends or family members fill out few of these cards.  Often guests do not  want to be the first to write something.)

An easel is often required for holding a framed photo of your loved one.


Flowers and decorations are often a very personal choice. Flower arrangements can be made from the favorite flowers or colors of the deceased. Or flowers from regions, such as the tropics, could be used to represent the deceased love of travel.  Typically, the family orders a bouquet or arrangement of flowers for the service. 

Flowers For The Golfer

Consider candles.  It can be a very tasteful addition to the mood.  Some like to have each of the family members of the deceased come to the front of the service venue and light a candle or lantern, in memory of the deceased. 

A Remembrance Table

Memory Table
Memory Table

A table of memories is a wonderful way to personalize the service.  I have seen a wonderful variety of items that people have included on the memory table.  Photographs, hobbies, pictures of pets, awards for work, sports or community service, favorite books and sayings, writings or creations of your loved one, recipes, sports jerseys, and items related to work. 

One can also hang photos above the memory table.  

Thinking Outside The Box;

Did your loved one like bubble gum?  Or cotton candy? Pina coladas or chocolate chip cookies?  Why not add a fragrance oil to the table to remind people of a favorite thing of the deceased.  Smell is our strongest sense. Amazon has a variety of inexpensive fragrance oils to choose from for the memory table.  I have seen the table decorated with candy canes, chocolates or lollipops in memory of the deceased's favorite candy.  Or given as a takeaway gift.  (see below.)

Another option is to place on the table, a bottle of the deceased's favorite perfume, lotion or after-shave, with a note inviting guests to put a little on their wrist.  (The room is filled with their signature fragrance.)

Planning The Memorial Service

Ushers or Greeters:  It is optional, but it is nice to have greeters at the door as people enter.  You can ask family members, close friends, or neighbors if they would be willing to be a greeter.

Determining how structured the actual memorial service will be, is a key decision.

There are three important rules for planning a beautiful memorial service.  The service itself, should encompass three things;

  •  first, establishes the significance of your loss, and how much they will be missed.
  • second you want to establish the significance of the person who died.  Their life.  What they did.    Share their stories. 
  • third, establish their social significance.  You want to know other people loved them too.   That their life touched people.  That they had tremendous value.

"I did not come to comfort you, only time can do that.  But I did come to say how deeply and tenderly I feel for you in your sorrow."         - By Your Side

It is preferable to have  a Master of Ceremonies,  who can be a friend, family member, Funeral Celebrant, or even the funeral director.  If specific people will speak and musical selections will be played then a scripted program will be appropriate.   The Master of Ceremonies needs to  have a copy of it.

Often guests are given as they enter, the Service program that outlines the program along with a photo or two of the deceased.  It is a nice keepsake for the guest to take home with them.   Funeral Service Bulletins.

Typically, to begin the service, the Master of Ceremonies  enters the room and asks people to stand (if they are sitting) or take their seats if everyone is standing.  The family then comes in and sits in the front row. 

A poem or reading is a lovely way to open the service, followed by acknowledgement of the deceased and naming each family member by their name and their relationship to the deceased.The following is one of my favorite opening poems for the funeral or memorial service.   It immediately acknowledges the death, and the pain of the survivors, setting the tone as to why everyone has gathered together.

A Death Has Occurred  

A death as occurred and everything is changed.
We are painfully aware that life can never be the same again,
That yesterday is over,
That relationships once rich have ended.

But there is another way to look upon this truth.
If life now went on the same,
Without the presence of the one who had died,
we could only conclude that the life we remember 
made no contribution,
filled no space,
meant nothing.

The fact that this person left behind a place
that cannot be filled is a high tribute to this individual.

Life can be the same after a trinket has been lost,
but never after the loss of a treasure.

By Paul Irion

This is then an appropriate time for a video tribute.  The tribute should consist of 35 to 50 pictures, depending on the length of the song; three to five minutes.

The Master of Ceremonies will introduce the speaker or speakers, as each one speaks. 

This can be one person speaking the entire time, for ten to fifteen minutes.  Or you may choose three to five people each speaking three to five minutes, about various aspects of the life of the deceased.  It could be a family member discussing their youth and growing up, a close friend, and a business associate. 

Eulogy help.  If more than one speaker, The Master of Ceremonies should review speeches ahead of time to make sure there isn't duplication.  He or she should also be available to help speakers if they are overcome.  ( It is important that each speaker has their speech printed.)  And sometimes family members will write a speech and ask the Master of Ceremonies to read it. Click here for a downloadable Eulogy Template.

Interspersed between the speakers can be one or two songs, that were favorites of the deceased.  Poems and readings  or quotes are suitable as well.  The key is that all of these items should work towards telling your loved one's life story. 

A custom personalized remembrance poem written about your loved one is very popular. 

If the gathering is more like an open house with mingling and conversation, the family can gather the attention of the attendees quite simply and ask for tributes and respects be paid by those who wish to speak.

(I am not a fan of this open mike concept.  Sometimes no one has prepared anything to say, and there is an awkward silence.  Other times, people stand up and start rambling with very little thought put into it.  Sometimes they talk more about themselves then the deceased! )

My recommendation for this type of informal format, is to ask people who were special to the deceased, ahead of time,  if they would be willing to say a few words - 3 to 5 minutes maximum.  If they do not feel capable of it they can decline, but if they do, they then have time to prepare a story or two.

These tributes can also be made personal by reading some writings of the deceased including blog or Facebook entries, reciting a favorite poem or reading.

Spiritual touches can be added by family members lighting a candle in memory of their beloved.   The music can be favorite hymns.  Many times people request the 23rd Psalm. 

It is important to remember that in planning a memorial service it can be exactly what you want and what you think your loved one would have wanted.  There really aren't a lot of rules...

Finally, a wonderful addition to the closing of the memorial program is with a memory takeaway.   It can be something as simple as a ribbon to wear in memory, a packet of memorial seeds, an angel shaped book marker.

Sample Memory Takeaways

a personalized golf ball or golf tee, a small teddy bear, a recipe card of a favorite dish, (use Avery printable recipe cards),that is handed out to attendees, along with a favor tag, printed with the message "I'll blow kisses to heaven from my heart to yours."


Another option is to hand out personalized wristbands.  Some add the name of their loved one on the band, and a sentiment such as "rest in peace" or "always in our hearts", or the name of your loved one and then  on the other side a favorite phrase or oft-spoken "tagline"  that your loved one used to say.  Some are use as a way of shedding light on a disease, or for a foundation the family has started in honor of the deceased.

Available on Amazon

The service is often ended with a prayer or a poem.  


Lantern Release

I have attended services where Dove balloons or helium balloons are released at the end of a memorial service, but I urge you to reconsider this.  It is a very heartfelt symbol in saying goodbye, however it can dangerous to birds.  If you really must, then please only use biodegradable products. 

I have found these lanterns, shown above,  are all-natural and environmentally safe,  and come with a marker to write a love note to enclose in the lantern release.  Their release creates a wonderful highlight for family and guests at the end of the service.

The Memorial Service Reception

Many memorial services offer a reception afterwards

A menu should be based on the likes of the deceased.  If the deceased was particularly fond of dessert a selection of desserts could be offered, along with  tea and coffee.

If they loved champagne, or wine, and the budget allows it, then that might be something to  offer guests.   

If you are planning toasts at the reception, then the deceased's  favorite alcohol could be served;  for example the lover of  scotch could be toasted with one shot glass provided for every guest.

If serving alcohol be sure to check with the venue as to their liquor license. 

Jennie loved cupcakes - so cupcakes were served at the reception that followed her memorial service.


For most of our life we have everything scripted; weddings, dance routines - everything except funerals or memorial services.   My words of wisdom in planning a memorial service is to ask yourself, 'how does everything fit together to tell the story of your loved one?'

I wish you the best in planning your memorial service.  Lastly, within a few weeks after the service, it is appropriate to send thank you cards to friends and family who have sent flowers, gifts, or in any small way helped you during this time of need.

Downloadable Booklet

After many requests, I have produced a downloadable guide for Planning A Memorial Service, in an easy-to-read format with room to make your own notes.  Immediately available for $5.00 via Paypal or Credit Card.


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