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Having a memorial for a loved one after their passing is an important part of the grieving process. It’s a time to honor them, share memories with family and friends, and say goodbye. Some families find that there’s no better place to hold this personal event than at home, but knowing exactly where to start the planning process — especially amid the grief of a loss — can feel overwhelming.
This guide will help you plan a beautiful, meaningful home memorial service for a recently departed loved one. Proceed with patience and plenty of support. With a little time and the right planning, you can hold a service that will allow your family to come together and say goodbye.
Choosing a kind of service: Memorials vs. Funerals
The services and items you’ll need in planning a home memorial will vary depending on the kind of service you’ll have. Your loved one may have left instruction on their final arrangements, but if not there are two main options: memorials and funerals.
Memorials usually involve a group of family and friends coming together to mourn the loss of a loved one. There may be photos of the departed, flowers, and at least one eulogy, often from a surviving spouse, parent, or sibling. Some families also choose to have a religious or spiritual figure speak. The loved one is typically represented by a large photo, collection of photos, wreath, or if they’ve been cremated, their urn.
Food and drink are often incorporated into memorials, and can be organized in just about any format that works for you and your loved ones. Some memorials will offer light refreshments like water, coffee, crackers, cheese, and mini sandwiches. In other cases, the memorial is a potluck where family and friends are invited to bring a dish to share. Alcohol isn’t required, but it’s commonly offered — typically a basic wine selection is sufficient. Leftovers stay with the host or are given to the immediate family of the deceased (if the memorial is held at someone else’s home). For large memorials, it might be worth the expense to hire a caterer to provide finger foods, utensils, and drinks.
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The location of the memorial within the house is entirely up to you; one convenience of a home memorial is that you can tailor it to be exactly how you want. Some families even choose to have a backyard service if the weather permits. The living room, den, or formal dining room are all good options, but ultimately it will depend on the space available in the house. You’ll need adequate room for your guests to chat amongst themselves before and after the service, seating for the formal eulogy or service, and places for people to set their food and drinks. Finally, there should be some kind of a dedicated space where the speakers will be clearly seen and heard, usually close to the visual representation of the deceased loved one.
Seating doesn’t necessarily have to be anything formal — though you can rent extra chairs if you have the space and finances to do so — and many people manage by bringing all the chairs in the home to the memorial space. Neighbors and other nearby family and friends will likely be able to bring over extra chairs if needed. Arrange them facing the speakers’ area, and do your best to leave clear pathways for guests.
Flowers are somewhat traditional for memorials, but can be quite expensive. A floral wreath with your loved one’s photo is often more than enough to create a beautiful and personal tribute and won’t cost too much, especially if multiple family members pitch in. If you do choose to buy additional floral displays, don’t be afraid to deviate from the normal white arrangements. A home memorial allows you to really personalize the experience, so consider choosing types and colors of flowers that will bring happy memories of your loved one: the peonies your mother carried on her wedding day, tulips the color of your brother’s prized ’67 Mustang, or the roses your grandmother grew in her garden, for example. Keep in mind that though they make a lovely addition to a home memorial, flowers are completely optional — often those that are sent by loved ones with condolences are enough to create the desired effect.
Another option in lieu of flowers is to collect money and donate to a charity that was near and dear to the deceased one’s heart. This donation can be made in the memory of the person who died to honor a cause that was meaningful to them.
Large memorials may require a more advanced sound system. Some families like to play their loved one’s favorite songs (the volume level really depends on the tone of your memorial, but usually you’ll opt for the quiet side) or other calming music to soothe their guests before the service. Having a microphone and speaker set-up will make it easier for your eulogists to be heard, and even better if you have some kind of podium or raised step for them to stand on.
If finances are tight, you’ll likely be able to find a neighbor, family member, or friend who will have access to equipment you can borrow. Don’t be afraid to ask around; your loved ones will be hoping to lend a hand at this difficult time, so let them.
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A funeral will require all the same considerations as a memorial, with the addition of handling the viewing. You’ll need to coordinate with a funeral home (to help prepare the body) and cemetery (for the burial) directly after your loved one’s passing; you don’t have to make any final planning decisions right away, but letting them know your situation and potential needs ahead of time can save you some time and stress later. Additionally, you’ll need to consider how much space you’ll need for the casket within your home memorial space. Utilize resources like Funeralwise.com to research how to plan a funeral and funeral etiquette.
Traditionally, families have purchased caskets directly from a funeral home or casket showroom, but options have increased in the last couple decades. Shop wisely, but don’t get too caught up in worrying about finding the “perfect” one. Your loved one wouldn’t want you to fret over it, and no one at the memorial will be focused on anything but their grief.
Though there are some individual facilities that handle body embalming and preparation, many families choose to work with a funeral home for these arrangements. You’ll need to provide an outfit for your loved one to be laid to rest in and any specific grooming details (hair styling, lip color, painted nails, etc). The funeral home will also request photos to use as reference so that the departed appears as natural as possible.
You should contact the funeral home soon after the passing of your loved one so as to keep the remains properly preserved. Determine a clear schedule and discuss plans for transportation. Make sure you’ll have the necessary assistance to physically move your loved one to and from your home, and clear a path through the house to make transport easier. Plan to have your loved one arrive half an hour to an hour early; you’ll want everything else to be set up so that you can direct the funeral home workers and troubleshoot any issues quickly.
You’ll also need to talk to the funeral home about what will happen to the remains after the memorial. If they will be buried within a few days of the funeral, the facility may agree to hold the remains until then and help transport them to the cemetery. Planning a burial service with the cemetery (and coordinating with the funeral home) will be a completely separate process, but you should plan on keeping the cemetery informed of all final arrangements. If your loved one opted for cremation, funeral home employees may pick up the remains after the memorial and take them directly to be cremated.
Seeking Additional Help
One of the most important parts of planning a home memorial is asking for help. Again, those close to you will be eager to help out in any way that they can, but often it’s enlisting their assistance in the smallest tasks that makes the biggest difference. If trusted family and friends are offering to provide child care or meals while you plan the memorial, accept it. If neighbors offer to help pick up family from the airport while you meet with the funeral home director, say yes. You’ll be able to focus on your planning and be more effective, and that accomplished feeling will likely help you relax more in your downtime.
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Family and friends are extremely helpful when it comes to referrals, so ask around about funeral homes, cremation specialists, caterers, and florists. If you don’t have a necessary item for the memorial — like a podium for the eulogists or an easel for a photo display — ask friends, neighbors, and nearby relatives if they have anything that will suffice. It might be helpful to plan as much as you can, then create a master list of everything you still need and send it to loved ones who may be able to help. Emailing tends to be the preferred method of communication, but for quicker conversations it might be better to opt for a group text with specific loved ones who can pass on the information to others.
Social media is another helpful way to not only reach out to loved ones for help, but also keep everyone informed about the memorial. Creating an event or memorial page on Facebook can be a constant point of reference for friends and family no matter how far away they are. Most families elect a designated loved one to post updates and respond to questions, ideally someone with social media and tech savvy.
It’s important to remember that depending on the situation and the loss, there will be some people you should avoid burdening with favors. The spouse, children, and parents should be asked to do as little as possible outside of voluntary involvement; don’t shut them out of the planning process if they want to contribute, but be willing and prepared to help them make some of the major decisions as needed. If there is some kind of written document (be it a will or other personal document) that details your loved one’s final arrangements and wishes, ask to have access to it while you plan the memorial so you don’t have to constantly ask questions.
The truth is, planning a memorial for someone you love is never easy. Holding the event at home can make the grieving process feel less detached and allow for a much more personal experience. Keep in mind throughout the process that no minor detail, be it the material of the casket or the number of flowers, is worth fretting over. Putting your loved one to rest is about so much more than the physical details, so channel your energy into creating a loving environment for everyone to say goodbye.