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Designing Your Own Memorial Service

Dear Friends,
I was 19, maybe 20 years old sitting in my college classroom following the instructions of my professor.

“Write down the names of the three people you love the most on the three slips of paper in front of you.” I write down “dad,” “sister,” and “best friend.” Then we are to pass the paper to the front of the room. The teacher proceeds to burn the papers and tell us that our most beloved have died. I couldn’t and wouldn’t let go. I was angry. I hated this exercise. I was only 19 and hadn’t yet experienced the death of my beloved grandmother, let alone two generations younger. I wasn’t prepared for this exercise. This was part of my intense class on Death and Dying. Fifty hours in the study of death, grief, and cultural services to honor those who pass.

Our next exercise would be to plan our own memorial service. We were to chart it out. Where would we hold it? I decided on the Episcopal Church I had been a part of since I was 5 years old. Who would be the minister or officiant of the service? I chose the minister who two years later would officiate my wedding. Who would sing? And, what songs? My best friend was a trained Opera singer with a magical voice so I chose her; the one I couldn’t let go of in the death exercise. I maybe chose a few others. What songs would you have sung? I chose hymns and a pop song from the day (Bonnie Tyler, Madonna, Michael Jackson, I don’t remember the artist). What would I want read? Who would I want in attendance? What photos would I want shown? What gift or momentum would I want to leave behind? Like the A student I was, I worked diligently on my memorial service.

This exercise would become a regular practice of mine when I became a single mother. By then my grandmother had died, and I became responsible for a beautiful soul of a girl, now woman, who I didn’t want to burden with decisions she wasn’t ready or able to make. So each year, around the new years and before tax time, I would read what I had prepared the year before and update it to the present time. I added one thing to my college assignment of preparing my service. I left letters to those who meant a lot to me and told them so. With my daughter’s letter I would include a gift. I did this faithfully for twenty years. I told my daughter and sister where this was kept so they could access it when the time came.

My daughter has children of her own now. It has been ten plus years or so since I have sat down and updated my service. I am feeling it is time. I attended one of my best friend’s memorial service this past weekend. She had not prepared her own service. Therefore, the lens my friend was portrayed through was a narrow one. This experience brought me into rethinking what I’ve learned about memorial services.

First of all, I invite each one of us to throw out the idea that honoring a loved one ought to last one hour to 90 minutes. My friend’s service was two plus hours. John McCain’s over three. Aretha Franklin’s close to 10. When we have had the privilege of being touched by timeless love; a half day or longer as a tribute seems fitting.

Second, today many people aren’t churched and so their venue may be a home, favorite restaurant, outdoor spot, or destination. I participated in one Facebook memorial service where people posted videos, photos, and memories.

Third, a minister may not be the person who officiates the send off. We live in a highly creative time where we are aware that we get to make it up to match our Soul and represent ourselves. The intention of a send-off is to collectively taste the energy of the person who has left the planet and to feel the resonance amplified in community. It is an honoring of what was, like the period at the end of a sentence. And it is to give permission to express love publicly as love is the currency of a well-lived life.

Fourth, many people create their own family with a collection of friends who are their support team and witnesses. Memorial services are still geared toward “family” as the primary grievers. In planning your own service, how will you give your friends the weight they deserve for who they’ve been in your life?

I would love to hear from you, and your ideas about your own service.

I send you love,



Stay tuned … Reverend Bonnie will host an experiential night at Scottsdale Center for Spiritual Living, Wednesday, September 19th.

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