Q. What’s the difference between a funeral and a memorial service? I plan to attend a memorial service for an old college classmate, but I’ve never been to one before. What should I expect?

A. Memorial services have become more and more common in this country, and in a way are a sign of the times. A memorial service is held without the remains present. Perhaps there are no remains, as in the case of some 9/11 victims or soldiers killed in combat. Or the body may have been donated to science, or the deceased may have died halfway around the world in another country. In some instances, the family simply cannot bear to see the body or the casket.

The service is often held within a week of the death. These days, however, it can even be postponed for a long period of time for the sake of the family’s convenience. This may be the case especially if mourners must travel a great distance to attend. Some families decide to wait for a particularly meaningful holiday to hold the service.

The memorial service itself is more informal than a funeral, and people can mix and mingle and exchange recollections of the deceased. If you don’t know many attendees, feel free to approach someone else standing alone, introduce yourself, and ask, “How did you know Steve?” The person is likely to be grateful to have someone to talk to.

Realize, too, that the occasion honors the deceased and is a chance to celebrate his or her life. Some friends and/or family members speak; music may be included. A ragtime band played at one memorial service, and a folk singer also performed. Other services may feature someone playing the deceased’s favorite music on the guitar.

There may be a memorial register to sign, where you can include a brief comment if you wish, such as, “Natalie will always be in my heart.” Or you may receive a memory card on which you can write about the person, as in, “Bob got me my first job. He was always looking out for other people. I’ll never forget him.” Or try something like, “Jane was a great bridge player, yet always gracious and patient with others’ mistakes. We had so many good times together.” In the days and months ahead, the family will read through those cards and feel comforted by your recollections.

If you have a question for Florence, please email her at fisaacs@florenceisaacs.com.


Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes a.... She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a new blog for bereaved spouses and partners.


Image: Flickr Creative Commons / Wolfiewolf  


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