Planning In-Person Memorial Services When Restrictions are Lifted

Dozens of tea light candles, lit.

When restrictions on gathering are lifted, many congregations will have several memorial services they will need to schedule and hold. This can be an intense time for your congregation's lay memorial service team, ministers, music directors, and administrators/building managers. Some advance planning to get systems in place will serve you well.

  • Develop a Memorial Service Guide. This sample memorial service guide, from Winchester Unitarian Society in Massachusetts, is given to the bereaved to help in planning the service and reception. This sample planning sheet is used by the same congregation so that the minister, music director, administrator, and lay planning team can get the information they need for each memorial event.

  • Recruit and convene a Memorial Services Team. This team, usually all volunteer, will attend to the logistics of the service and reception: receiving and arranging the catered or potluck food, receiving and arranging the flowers, making coffee and tea, directing traffic in the parking lot and helping guests find their way, serving as ushers and greeters, guiding guests to the restrooms, and more. What are the logistics involved in services and receptions at your congregation? Can you create a spreadsheet of the tasks and roles involved, and orient your whole team to them? And can this team take turns serving at the various services, so they can share the load?

  • Develop Relationships with Local Mortuaries and Funeral Homes. As death approaches, some families will not know who to call to pick up their loved one’s bodies. If the congregation can provide a few recommendations of mortuaries or funeral homes, it will be a kindness to the bereaved in their time of great loss. Further, if the mortuary or funeral home has a role to play in the service, having a relationship in advance will increase your ease of collaboration.

  • Develop Relationships with Trusted Caterers. When families are devastated after the loss of a loved one, sifting through long lists to find a memorial service caterer can feel overwhelming. If you are able to provide a list of caterers that have done a good job at the congregation’s events in the past it can also ease the family’s burden.

  • Train Your Memorial Services Team in Safe Food Handling. When we are able to gather in person again, COVID-19 and other viruses will still be with us. Contact your local health authorities to find out about best practices training for all who handle food and beverages in your congregation.

  • Invest Some Time in Diversifying Your Memorial Service Readings. In Unitarian Universalism, every memorial service is individualized for the person who it honors. However, we often use similar closing words, opening words, prayers, and readings from service to service. Knowing that you may be conducting far more services this year than in a usual year, take some time to build up your readings so that you aren’t repeating the same words at each service (unless, of course, it’s an intentional tradition.)

Having some of these logistical things squared away can help the memorial's leadership focus on ministering to the bereaved and comforting them in their grief. It is going to be a long journey of healing, with many members of our congregations feeling loss painfully and acutely. Let us surround them with our loving support as we create meaning services to remember their dear friends and loved ones.