Memorial services you've attended: what worked, what didnt?
April 9, 2018 7:37 AM   Subscribe

My family is trying to plan a memorial gathering for my recently departed grandmother. We are not having a traditional (or religious) funeral, but my mom would like to have some kind of short service, and we are trying to figure out what that could look like.

Sadly, my grandmother began to suffer from pretty severe dementia several years ago, and so did not still have community ties when she passed. The attendees will primarily be family (2 kids, 4 grandkids, 6 great grandkids, a few spouses. Possibly 3-4 other people.) My parents are local, everyone else will be traveling there.

My mom is on the fence whether she'd like to have a short service at a chapel in town, before having everyone decamp to her place for food and visiting. If we were to go this route, how would we pad it out to more than 10 minutes? She doesn't want to have a lengthy service from a minister who didn't know my grandmother, and my grandmother hadn't attended church in many years. My grandfather's funeral was comprised mostly of people giving remembrances, but he passed at a time when he and my grandmother both had lots of neighborhood friends, and so there were more people there. We can have her children and grandchildren speak, but that will only occupy a few minutes. My grandmother was cremated, so there won't be a visitation.

Another option is to have a similar sort of event but have it under an outdoor tent in my parents' yard. The pros are that, since everyone wouldn't have to be transported to a destination, the service could be shorter and could transition seamlessly into visiting. The cons are that everything would be at my mom's house and that might be more stressful for her.

Those are our snowflakes, and if you recognize any of them and can say "in that scenario, this worked great" or "for the love of all that's holy don't ___", that's great. I'm also interested in what you found memorable about memorial services you've attended. What made it great? What just didn't work?

We aren't necessarily looking for it to be very somber - she had a long productive life, and even though the end was sad, my mother cared for her well. So we would like to focus on remembering the good, even though of course there will be sadness.
posted by telepanda to Human Relations (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
She doesn't want to have a lengthy service from a minister who didn't know my grandmother

I can confirm this is awkward and uncomfortable.

Were I in your situation, I'd lean towards just having an opportunity for people to give remembrances during the visiting and not even make it a separate event.
posted by Candleman at 7:58 AM on April 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

Music can be used for this. Favorite songs of the deceased are played (recorded music or live) at many funerals.
posted by bunderful at 8:00 AM on April 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry for your loss.

Among the two funerals I've attended in the last five years, the first was awful. The priest who'd never met the dead 96-year-old religious-cynic embarrassed everybody and made it impossible not to laugh during the ceremony. (One of the man's daughters insisted on a religious officiant, and nobody else had the patience to argue.) Then we arrived at the cemetery, and soldiers who couldn't even pronounce the man's name gave a pointless speech that the fellow would have almost certainly made fun of before tripping over their own boots on the way out in true television-sitcom fashion. The stilted wake, seated at long tables in a restaurant afterward was unpleasant for everyone. Everyone there honored the man's life, but his funeral embarrassed us all. He'd surely have spent the next three days complaining about it and lambasting the priest if he'd been there.

The second funeral was fantastic. There were no professional officiants and no chapel. Friends and family were all invited to give a short talk, in a room filled with photos and artifacts and quiet live music. There weren't too many speakers, but the short ceremony felt real and moving. A somewhat distant older relative filled the role of MC so the speakers could walk off and cry when needed. She gave a 10 minute summary of the person's life with lots of specific detail before calling speakers up. The unorganized cocktail-party wake that began immediately afterward was dignified and joyful and went on for several hours.

If it were me, I'd go with the outdoor tent option and spend the preachers fees on nice brandy and catering. Or, if having the event at home is stressful, is there a park or a friend's house within walking distance? (If you are having an event at home and can afford it, do consider hiring catering and perhaps a cleaning service. Not making close relatives do the dishes afterward is worth a lot.)
posted by eotvos at 8:14 AM on April 9, 2018 [6 favorites]

When my mom passed away after a long decline from dementia, we gathered at my brother and sister-in-law's house. Most of her friends had already passed or where too ill to attend. We had created a slide show of pictures of her throughout her life, I had some letters of remembrance from a few friends/neighbors who couldn't attend, I spoke, my sister-in-law spoke and her caregiver spoke so we had a range of stories about her. It was very informal, we had snacks and drinks. It was handled as an open house of about 4 hours total. People dropped in, some came early and stayed for the whole thing. I learned some new things about Mom, and I feel like we said a proper goodbye. With my dad, we had a graveside service with remarks by a pastor who didn't know him at all (Dad had been raised Catholic, but didn't practice) but that was what my mom wanted. I didn't find it nearly as satisfying.
posted by agatha_magatha at 8:15 AM on April 9, 2018

I just want to say some ministers are really great at this. The priest who buried my mother came over for what we thought of as a pastoral care visit, but when he spoke about her at the funeral, he had taken what we said and really did an excellent job. He had never met her, but you would never have guessed that.
There was also the minister who buried my grandmother. He spoke about her many grandchildren, then said that we would all go to hell and never see her again if we didn't accept Jesus.
So religious officiants can really vary.
posted by FencingGal at 8:19 AM on April 9, 2018 [8 favorites]

The attendees will primarily be family (2 kids, 4 grandkids, 6 great grandkids, a few spouses. Possibly 3-4 other people.)

I would skip it and have a food-and-friendship gathering somewhere. That's not enough people to ask for voluntary speakers, and family doesn't generally need to rent a venue to talk to each other.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:28 AM on April 9, 2018 [4 favorites]

The best* funerals I’ve been to have been officiated by UU ministers - they seem to talk with the families and use the stories that help paint a picture of what made the deceased a unique person. I have walked out of funerals for strangers kicking myself for not having made an effort to get to know the deceased. (I sometimes get pulled in to sing for funerals whether I knew the person or not).

*I have to admit my sample is skewed - most funerals I’ve been to have been officiated by Pentecostal, Baptist or UU ministers.
posted by bunderful at 8:32 AM on April 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

My grandmother recently passed after a long fight with dementia and we had a visitation at a funeral home. There were very few people who could attend, and just two of my cousins and I stood up to give short remembrances. One thing that was really nice is that during the days before the service, my mom and I went through all my grandmother's photos to pick out about 200 for a slideshow that they had set up to run on the walls. There were four different screens showing different photographs, so people moved around to look at and discuss the different sets. One thing that I hated is that we weren't allowed to play the non-religious music that we would have liked. Afterwards, we all went to a pizza place and just caught up and shared funny stories.

If I could do it over again, I would have just asked to rent out the room in the back of the pizza place and brought in the boxes of pictures so we could eat, talk, and look through it all together.
posted by galvanized unicorn at 8:34 AM on April 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

I know you say she didn't have community ties when she passed. But are you 100% sure that she doesn't have any left? Sometimes people come out of the woodwork for funerals. Is it possible that her friends from 15 years ago are still alive and live in the same town? If it is indeed possible, that would be an argument for having a ceremony in a public place, so that those people feel welcome too.

And just because it's in a public place doesn't mean it has to be long. Add a couple songs to stretch the 10 minutes to 20 and you're good.
posted by MangoNews at 8:44 AM on April 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

Things that worked: for my mother's memorial service a few of her longtime friends shared thoughts and memories from their early adult years together. The minister leading the service was also someone who had known her for a long time. Since my mom's poor health meant I had a very limited adult relationship with her it was nice to hear those stories and to see that people loved and valued their connection to her.

Things that didn't work: I once saw a Bible literally thumped at a funeral along with some general haranguing about fire/brimstone/come to Jesus. It was weird and felt attention-seeking, even more so because the deceased had a Jewish background.
posted by 4rtemis at 8:57 AM on April 9, 2018

One of my atheist friends passed, and her daughter decided to have a ceremony at a non-denominational chapel. She gave a eulogy, and so did her uncle, my friend's brother, he also read a poem. We all sang two songs together that my friend loved, and there was a singer who performed a beautiful classic aria. My friend was a gardener, and wanted a proper burial so she could become one with the nature she loved. So we all walked out into a wonderful forest cemetery and saw her into the ground. There was a gathering after that at my friend's house, but I couldn't be there, my impression from talking with the daughter later was that it was very warm and good for all.
People definitely came out of the woodwork, the chapel was filled to the last seat with several people standing.

Recently a relative died, and because she spent her last years in a foreign country, she had no connection to any parish here. She also wanted to have her ashes scattered on the sea. Her children chose to have a memorial service at the church nearest the eldest child's house, and had long conversations with the pastor up to the service. It was a bit weird, but the children clearly felt it was a good help to have the church and the pastor handle it all, rather than arrange everything from scratch, and it was very comforting. Again, there were tons of people that my (distant) cousins had never heard of or met before, people who remembered my relative from a long time ago and wanted to pay their last respect.
posted by mumimor at 9:47 AM on April 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

I like wakes better than funerals. Each has their purpose, and I value both. (Am Catholic, raised in Minnesota, so part of a big family; now living in New England married into a smaller family, but of the age where friends' parents are starting to go.)

For someone who doesn't want a funeral, I would fall back to the wake's combination of "saying a few words" -- eulogies from whoever is moved to speak, maybe a short prayer/poem, whatever means most to the family -- in between longer periods of standing around and telling stories about the deceased. If you're lucky, the wake is loud and social and joyous, like a cocktail party without booze. (God grant me a wake so loud that it gets my mourners kicked out. I want LAUGHTER, people!)

Have a slideshow looped on a laptop over in one corner where folks without stories to tell can gather wordlessly. Have some boards up with pictures.

Use the tent, or rent a hall if you don't have enough bathrooms. Have food at one end of the place, like the collation after a funeral. That way you get the best parts of the whole series of events without the funeral service. Also provide tissues and mint and hand sanitizer, in little baskets all over.

I am so sorry about your grandmother; take this chance to improve your store of memories about her. Keep some paper with you over the next few days and write down prompts of the best stories you hear about her: if things slow down you can use them to get a conversation going. Also write down any questions you think of about her: no better time to ask than when everyone is most primed to talk about her!
posted by wenestvedt at 10:12 AM on April 9, 2018

If the event really is as small as you say (and I bet more folks would show up if they know about it), then set aside a little time to go around and ask everyone to say one thing about your grandma that they want to share.

Last year we did this at Thanksgiving dinner (about my father-in-law, who died back in May) and some of the stories were wonderful -- and from really surprising folks. The next week at a gathering of high school friends we did it before raising a toast to someone's just-deceased dad, and no eyes were dry. Again, it's easy, anyone can opt out if they wish, but it really helps turn the mood toward celebrating what's important to remember about her.
posted by wenestvedt at 10:16 AM on April 9, 2018

At my FIL funeral, a DIY affair with no minister, each family member was invited to bring a reading - a prayer or poem that was meaningful to the reader. One person made a list of what people were bringing and put it in order. (Also did a check for length/advised on appropriateness.) People offered whatever felt right to them. One of the moving parts for me was a son and grandson reading the 23rd Psalm, alternating lines in English and Hebrew. Another was a poem which was known to be a favorite of the deceased. Overall, the individual choices added up to give it sanctified feeling without getting into formal religion. Even if some weren't what the deceased would have picked, they were important to the person offering it and so added depth and meaning to the event. This would be separate from sharing stories and memories.
posted by metahawk at 10:55 AM on April 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

When my grandmother passed, my family went through all of our pictures of her and pulled our favorite ones and put them into a slideshow. My grandpa stood up for about 10 minutes talking about the pictures and sharing stories about her and her life. I felt it was a really nice way to keep things from being too somber; he shared a couple of sad things but mostly happy things and a lot of funny stories. It's what I remember most strongly from her funeral.
posted by brook horse at 3:43 PM on April 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

When my father passed away the main things that were featured were photos (lots and lots of photos), music and people who actually knew him standing up, in front of everyone, speaking about what he meant to them. It didn't have to be a large crowd to be meaningful. And then food. With photos and music playing in the background. And everyone talked about him and swapped memories. It was lovely, really.
posted by h00py at 5:31 AM on April 10, 2018

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