The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust death loss into a worldwide spotlight, making private grief part of a public conversation and complicating individuals’ mourning experiences tremendously. For persons who have been bereaved during this year, one of the most difficult aspects of losing their loved one has been grappling with restrictions due to health and safety measures when making the often already-challenging choices for funeral services and memorial planning. Travel mandates, gathering limitations, and mask orders have been integral in helping to prevent the spread of life-threatening illness, but they have also radically changed components of funerary services that we historically took for granted.
“The Right Choice”
Since the pandemic began, some families have chosen to hold small, private services for their loved ones, frequently embracing innovations in professional streaming services for virtual attendees. Others have elected not to have a service, either because planning it within restrictions felt too overwhelming or in hopes that the pandemic would soon be over and a more traditional service could then be planned.
Over this past year, I’ve witnessed extensive frustration amongst bereaved persons who struggle with making the “right choice” in planning funeral services for their loved ones in these difficult times. Beginning in March, I advised grievers to try to reframe their thinking from finding “the right choice” into making the “right choice for you,” while including technological means of adapting to restrictions. By May, when it became clear that this public health crisis was not going to be resolved within a few months, I also began encouraging grievers to think instead about making the “right choice for now” and then the “right choice for later.”
Additionally, I always tell grieving families that regardless of the service they planned during this year – a private burial, a small funeral with virtual attendees, or no service at all – it is never too late to hold a memorial service for their loved one, regardless of whether or not they already held a funeral.
Why Do We Hold Memorial Services?
There are a number of reasons that funerals and memorial services are integral parts of our cultural response to death. These services:
- Encourage individuals’ acceptance that the death has occurred;
- Recognize the changed nature of survivors’ relationship with the deceased;
- Provide comfort through participation in religious or secular rituals;
- Allow members of the community to bear witness to grief and offer support;
- Promote bonds between survivors through the shared gathering experience;
- Pay tribute to the life, qualities, and attributes of the deceased;
- Facilitate survivors’ meaning making in their grief.
Traditionally, the primary difference between a funeral service and memorial service has been the absence of the body of the deceased at a memorial service. Often, memorial services have been led by a celebrant, whereas funerals are traditionally associated with facilitation by a religious leader. However, choices in memorial services are virtually limitless – including but not limited to choosing a member of the clergy, a celebrant, a family member, or a friend to lead the service. There is no “time stamp” on holding a memorial service; they can be planned any time after the loss of a loved one.
Will Memorial Services Become More Important Than Ever?
My short answer to the above question is yes. Even the best-planned small funeral service during the COVID-19 pandemic can leave survivors feeling that they did not do enough or that they did not get enough from the service they had planned. Especially for those who elect not to have a funeral during the pandemic itself, there may be a sense of feeling incomplete or stunted in the grief journey.
Recently, the National Funeral Directors Association released the results of their 2020 Value of a Funeral Consumer Study, and the compiled survey responses were compelling. Many of the findings underscored the challenges that I discuss above and also implicated the importance of having memorial services in the future, including the following responses.
Of people who attended a funeral virtually over the last year:
- Many found less meaning in their participation in the service;
- Some felt less connected, both to the deceased and to their family and friends in attendance;
- Nearly half indicated that the experience wasn’t as positive as attending a service in person.
Of people who were able to attend a service in person:
- Many believe that viewing their loved one made the grief journey easier;
- They felt the service provided more meaning in commemorating the life of their loved one;
- Most felt more connected to the deceased and to their friends and family in attendance.
Of people who had no funeral service:
- 74% feel that it is important to have a funeral or memorial service;
- 38% wish they had held a service when their loved one died.
This data reinforces what those of us who work with survivors have believed for a long time – that coming together in love and loss, engaging in ritual and paying tribute to our deceased, and grieving together are invaluable responses to bereavement.
If you have lost a loved one during this pandemic and any of these findings resonate with your experiences, I hope that you will reflect on the benefits of planning a memorial service for your loved one in the future.
Holding a Memorial Service in the Future
Because it is never too late to plan a memorial service, choosing a date in the future to hold a service can ease some of the burden of current pandemic restrictions while affording you the time to plan a more personalized and detailed experience than you may have been able to undertake immediately following the death.
Particularly following a sudden or unexpected death loss, survivors must plan services while dealing with feelings of shock and numbness, often leading to them feeling that they did not have the time or ability to do full justice to their loved one’s life. Planning a future memorial service, whether or not you held a private funeral following your loved one’s death, can alleviate these feelings and lessen other complications of responding to grief at this challenging time.
The following are some questions to ask yourself when planning a future memorial service. These suggestions are by no means exhaustive, but when thinking about ways to plan a memorial, you may wish to consider:
- Who do you want to include in the service? Decide whether the service will be open to the community or by invitation.
- Also think about who you wish to lead the service – a religious leader, a lay celebrant, a member of the family, or a friend of the deceased?
- Will there be formal eulogies or will all participants be invited to share remarks and memories?
- What personalized touches and details of the service are important to include? Playing favorite music of the deceased, including a video slideshow or clips of home movies, setting up a memory table, and creating photo collages can all provide memorable detail to a service.
- What rituals are most valuable to incorporate? Think about the benefits both of traditional rituals, such as reciting prayers, giving eulogies, and lighting memorial candles, and of more creative options, such planting a tree, building a cairn, or creating remembrance keepsakes at the service.
- Where will the service take place? Memorial services can be formal or informal events. They can take place in the funeral home, a house of worship, or literally anywhere else you choose. Based on the type of service you wish to have and what, if any, funeral you were able to hold, decide which setting is most meaningful as a tribute to your loved one.
- When do you want to hold the service? Planning a memorial service in the future can help attain agency in grieving during a restrictive time, but there is no certainty as to when these restrictions will be lessened if you are planning a large service. Do you wish to hold the service on a special date, such as an anniversary of your loved one’s death or their birthday?
- At what time of day should the service take place? If you are planning to gather in a public or natural outdoor space, consider the symbolism of choosing a sunrise or sunset service.
- Why do you want to have the memorial service? Talk with your family about your unique purposes in holding a memorial service and your goals for the service. If it is the first service following the death, you might have more traditional aims for the service. If it is a means of gathering for the first time since the funeral service, your aims in planning a memorial may be different.
Because planning for a memorial service can be done over more time than planning a funeral service, even the act of preparing for the service can be part of your grief work. Take time in thinking about what type of service you would like to have. Talk with your funeral director about your wishes and work with them to plan a service that is best for your family. Perhaps the most moving services are those that truly celebrate the life of our loved one, commemorate the personal value of the deceased’s relationships with survivors, and recognize the importance of support for survivors. While the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged so much in our mourning rituals, planning a memorial service in the future can help us to direct our mourning with meaning, purpose, and creativity, while paying tribute to our dead and moving forward with our grief.
Free Planning Guide
To get started, download this free planning guide: Planning a Service in the Future, available on the Remembering A Life Free Resources page.
Have you experienced a loss during the pandemic? Share Your Story.
About the Author
Sara Murphy, PhD, CT, is a death educator, certified thanatologist (Association for Death Education and Counseling), and suicidologist. She is a faculty member at the University of Rhode Island and conducts workshops on death, dying, and bereavement nationwide for professional organizations, schools, and community groups. Dr. Murphy is also a bereavement and suicide consultant and the author of the booklet, Grieving Alone & Together: Responding to the Loss of Your Loved One during the COVID-19 Pandemic, a free resource available to grieving families and helping professionals published by the Funeral Service Foundation. She can be reached at SaraMurphyDeathEducator@gmail.com.