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Published Wednesday, Jul. 14th, 2021
If you’ve been asked to perform a funeral, memorial service, or wake for the first time, you probably feel honored -- and a little overwhelmed. Helping friends and family remember a loved one is an important job that requires patience, compassion, and understanding.
To help you get started, here are answers to some common questions, including who can perform a funeral or memorial service, how to plan one, and what to wear the day of. These tips will be useful for ordained ministers as well as friends and family members who are asked to participate.
(Get ordained online with AMM here.)
The role of a minister / officiant at a funeral or memorial service is to help friends and family honor the life and death of a loved one. Ministers give friends and family an opportunity to mourn in whatever way they need to in order to heal. They do this by practicing compassion, listening carefully, and showing up prepared, ready to deliver an authentic and meaningful eulogy. Being able to gracefully navigate last minute changes, difficult emotions, and unexpected mishaps is also essential.
Ministers with experience officiating weddings might be surprised to learn how similar and valuable their skills are when conducting a funeral or memorial. While anyone can perform these rites, qualities like compassion, service-mindedness, public speaking, organization, and composure make ordained ministers uniquely qualified.
Compassion, service-mindedness, public speaking, organization, and composure
are essential qualities for performing a memorial.
All of these terms are common, but what do they really mean?
Memorial services are remembrances of the deceased. Bodies, caskets, and cremated remains are not present at memorials. They’re often held before or after a formal funeral or burial (or in place of a funeral service). These ceremonies are usually a mix of formal and informal elements, and can be solemn occasions or celebrations of the deceased’s life. Anyone can lead a memorial service.
Funeral services are usually formal and typically include a burial or cremation, although a funeral service might take place a day or two before the burial. Bodies, caskets, and cremated remains are present at funerals. For this reason, they almost always take place at a funeral home, cemetery, or columbarium. Because they tend to be formal, funerals are most often performed by ordained ministers and other clergy.
Wakes and viewings are informal events that allow friends and family to mourn a loved one in the presence of others. Bodies, caskets, and cremated remains are present at these events. They’re often held at the deceased’s home but sometimes take place at a funeral home. Different cultures have different traditions for wakes and viewings. For example, ancient Celtic and Irish wakes were long parties that took place over a full night. Anyone can lead a wake or viewing.
Every culture has its own traditions for memorials, funerals, wakes, and viewings.
Ministers with experience performing other rites, especially those who have worked as wedding officiants, might be surprised by how similar planning a funeral or memorial ceremony can be. But if you’re new to these skills, don’t worry, they all get easier with practice. Remember, there’s a reason you were asked!
First, meet with the deceased’s friends and family. A helpful place to begin is determining what the tone and feel of the ceremony will be. Will it be a lighthearted celebration of life, a quiet time to grieve, or something else?
It’s useful to ask what the family likes (or doesn't like) about funerals or memorials in general, and which of those elements they’d like to include or avoid. Decide if it will be formal or informal, religious, spiritual, or non religious, and if they want to include any special readings, scripture, or music. Ask if other friends and family members wish to speak at the ceremony, and how long they want the service to last.
Then, learn as much as you can about the deceased: What favorite memories do they have of the deceased? What were their proudest accomplishments and happiest moments? What music or hobbies did they love? What was their sense of humor like? How did they live their life? If possible, ask family members to bring photos to your meeting (or other objects that remind them of their loved one) to help them share memories and to give context to the ceremony.
Before the end of your meeting, make sure you know where and when the service will be held, and who will be your primary point of contact moving forward. Ask how they prefer to be contacted -- compassion is key!
Next, use all of the information you’ve gathered to draft a eulogy and ceremony script. Your script will include what you plan to say at the service and other important details, like the names and order of others who will participate (either by reading poems or scripture, performing music, or simply speaking from the heart).
Your first draft will probably need some work -- that’s ok! Read the eulogy out loud to hear how it sounds when spoken. Edit and practice as needed, until your delivery is smooth and natural.
Share an early draft with your point-of-contact for feedback. Make changes as needed and continue practicing. You don’t need to (and shouldn’t) memorize the speech, but the words should feel familiar and comfortable to you before the service.
Make a copy (or two) of any readings that are selected for the ceremony. Having your own copy is helpful because you’ll know the approximate time each person needs to speak, and you’ll have a backup copy to share in case they forget theirs. Anything you can do to make their day easier is important.
They may ask you for suggestions of what to say or read. An internet search for appropriate scripture, poems to say goodbye, or heartful songs will give you many options, and you can even consider something written by the deceased’s favorite author or musician. Some people might enjoy reading works written by the deceased themselves, including letters.
Plan to show up early -- at least 30 minutes early. Allow yourself plenty of time to help prepare for the service. Seeing you calm and collected before the ceremony will give the family peace of mind.
Ask yourself, How can I best show up for the family while honoring the deceased?
The most important thing to remember on the day of the service is that you’re there to help facilitate healing and remembering -- in whatever way the friends and family choose.
Ask yourself, How can I best show up for them while honoring the deceased? This should be the guiding principle behind your delivery and tone, and it will also help you in your interactions with other guests.
Whether you’ve been asked to prepare something upbeat and funny, more like a party than a funeral, or a formal sermon with a long period of prayer and silence, it’s best to show up as your authentic self. Stick to your script, don’t read too quickly, and take your time.
Be yourself, be respectful, and be prepared, and you’ll do a wonderful job.
When deciding what to wear to a funeral, consider the level of formality and always err on the side of caution. It’s better to be slightly overdressed than underdressed, because this will convey more respect. This goes for ministers and guests alike.
Some nice slacks, a dress shirt, tie and jacket, or dress pants with a trendy blouse and / or a blazer will usually work. Solid black is traditional, but if it’s just too dark or somber for the event, opt for grey or navy, with minimal prints or colors. Neck ties should fall just to the top of the beltline, and your shoes, belt, and other accessories should match or compliment each other.
Helping loved ones honor the memory of someone they’ve recently lost is an amazing opportunity and gift. There will certainly be a few tears, and hopefully a few smiles and some laughter, too. If you approach the day with patience, compassion, and understanding, you’ll be in the best position to write a meaningful eulogy and to create a space for celebration and healing.
We spend a lot of time talking about wedding ceremonies here on the American Weddings blog. This makes sense... Wedding ceremonies (and wedding officiants) are awesome! And they’re our primary focus and passion.
But AMM Ministers don’t just marry people. When they choose to, their roles can extend much further, supporting their communities in important ways, and celebrating not just new beginnings, but endings, too. This deserves to be highlighted!
Ordination through American Marriage Ministries gives our ministers all of the same rights and protections held by ministers ordained through traditional brick-and-mortar churches.
As an AMM Minister (or Reverend, Pastor, or Officiant, whatever title you choose), your right to conduct religious ceremonies of all forms is protected by the religious non-establishment clause of the first amendment. While many of our ministers only conduct wedding ceremonies, others also conduct baptisms, funerals, baby blessings, and other meaningful rites.
Learn more about what it means to be an AMM Minister by visiting our FAQ page.
There’s no ‘take-two’ when it comes time for a couple to say ‘I do’-- Wedding officiants only get one shot to perform a perfect wedding ceremony.
Give yourself the tools and training you deserve to succeed as a wedding officiant, so that you can stand beside the lucky couple with complete confidence on their big day.
Updated April 2022
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