Planning a Memorial Service or Celebration of Life

Over my years as an event planner in Ireland, I’ve been honoured to become part of my clients’ lives. I’ve shared in their happiest moments, such as weddings, birthdays, and baptisms. And I’ve also been called on to help them celebrate their loved ones when they unfortunately pass away, by planning funerals, memorial services, and celebrations of life.

The first time I was asked to do a funeral and memorial service was about thirteen years ago. It was for a very old client, a very well known businessman in Ireland. I had worked with his whole family at different stages. He knew he was ill and dying, so he approached me to plan his funeral and memorial himself. It was an honour and a privilege to be asked.

Since then, I have been asked to plan one or two memorials each year, usually for families I have worked with previously. Most are akin to small state funerals, so I have to liaise with the police, local authorities, etc.

In Ireland, we are known to do death particularly well. We like to treat it as a celebration of life, frequently with a lively wake. Unfortunately, this has not been possible during the time of Coronavirus, where large gatherings are impossible. So I do think that many families will throw a much bigger memorial celebration later on. Meanwhile, they have time to think about the type of service they would like, and the details they will include to remember their loved ones. For example, which music they would like played, which prayers (if any) they might like said, and so on.

If this is something you’re dealing with at the moment, I’m so sorry. Losing a loved one is always heartbreaking, but it must be especially difficult at the moment. To help you, I’ve put down a few of my top tips for planning a meaningful and memorable celebration of life.

You aren’t alone

Planning a memorial service isn’t something you have to do alone. And, while I work closely with the funeral directors, my role has always been a different one. I act as a central point of contact between the family, the florists, musicians, the press, and media (when relevant). In many ways, it’s similar to my role as a wedding planner. It allows the family to hand all the coordination over to me at what is already such a difficult and stressful time.

Consider the seating carefully

That first funeral I planned was at home in a small family chapel, but the memorial was very large. Over a thousand people attended from all over the world, including dignitaries, presidents, and other heads of government. I had to update my knowledge of seating etiquette, and it showed me how important seating is at a memorial.

When creating the seating chart, it’s important to take into account the different aspects of someone’s life, and seat guests accordingly. If you’re dealing with a particularly large headcount, consider creating a second space with video feed. We have often done this, especially where there has been a live broadcast of a funeral mass.

Include a book of condolence

A common feature at a funeral or celebration of life is the book of condolence. At two different memorials, we had areas for guests to sign this, creating a lasting gift for the family. You can also use this opportunity to really stamp your loved one’s personality on the tradition. For example, one person had been involved in the aviation business. We had the undercarriage from an old plane set up in the tent and encouraged all his friends to sign and place messages on it. His children proudly displayed it later, as an homage to their father. Another client was an art collector, so I hung a blank canvas and placed a pot of lipsticks and black sharpie pens beside it so guests could leave their messages.

Select meaningful flowers

Flowers always add warmth and beauty to an event, and a funeral or celebration of life is no exception. Choose flowers that are meaningful to your loved one. For example, you could include their favourite flower varieties or colours, or the flowers of their birth month or the place they were from.

Include those who cannot attend

Even when large gatherings are allowed again, some people may not be able to attend or might be uncomfortable doing so. This is especially true for elderly people who are at higher risk but will want to celebrate the life of their friend or family member. One option is to webcast the memorial service, so they can attend virtually. You could also invite them to share their favourite stories or memories, and play them as part of a tribute video.

If you would like to talk to us about helping plan a funeral, memorial service, or celebration of life on your behalf, do get in touch. I hope we can help make this difficult time one of happy memories.

Slán go Fóill,


Image by John Ryan Photography