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How to hold a memorial ceremony


Here are some ideas for organising a memorial event to celebrate the life of someone you’ve lost. 

By Hannah Jackson-McCamley, Funeral Celebrant

Hannah is an experienced celebrant who specialises in unique services that truly reflect the person that has died and the needs of those left behind. She is passionate about people, music, literature and travel and is training to be a psychotherapist.

What is a memorial ceremony?

While a memorial honours the life of a person who has died, it tends to be a much more joyful and uplifting event than a funeral.

The ceremony can be as simple or extravagant as you want. I’ve led very formal events, casual and relaxed ones. The tone is set by the person being remembered and the people attending. 

Memorials don’t have to be expensive or involve lots of work. Always ask for help – many people like to be involved and show that they care. 

Here are some ideas to think about (these might be useful for planning a funeral too):


  • Should the memorial coincide with unveiling their headstone, their internment or scattering of the ashes?
  • Consider specific dates, like a birthday or anniversary, or set a new date for marking their life every year.
  • Could you come together to plant a tree instead?
  • Is there a time of year that feels special? If you want to host the service outside, don’t let the weather ruin your plans!

Tone and structure

  • Think about what you want from the memorial. Was the funeral difficult, too formal or not reflective of your person? Did many people not make it?
  • Even a celebratory day can be emotional and you might feel extra pressure if you’re leading everything. Ask a confident friend or relative or engage a celebrant to help you lead the event instead. 
  • Was the person you are commemorating quite formal, or more relaxed? Let this guide who you invite, tributes, music, dress code and venue. 
  • Do you want a more formal memorial like a funeral, with a eulogy and tributes?
  • For a relaxed event, gather people together over drinks, dinner or a picnic. 
  • Do something completely different – a hike, a road trip or a gig that your person would have liked. There is no right or wrong way to do this.

Venue and decorations

A memorial doesn’t need to be sombre – let your loved one’s personality guide you. 

  • Hold it anywhere that feels meaningful – at home, in a garden or the woods, a  favourite park, beach or restaurant.
  • Can you put up pictures and decorations in the venue, play music, make speeches or do a slideshow, with the privacy and time you need?
  • Decorate using their favourite colour or flags from their favourite sports team (avoid plastic and take your rubbish with you if you’re outdoors).

Speeches and tributes

  • Do you want speeches or tributes, prepared ahead of the ceremony or spontaneous?
  • Inviting different speakers can help build up a colourful picture of your person.
  • Tributes can include a short video, a photo slideshow, singing or live music, lighting candles, digging a hole for a tree together – be as creative as you like.
  • Create a picture wall, message board or memory book and invite people to contribute.


  • Memorials tend to be non-religious, without prayers. Something simple like lighting candles, playing music or passing the urn at an internment can feel very poignant. 
  • Create your own ritual – ask everyone to wear something that reminds them of your person or share an activity that feels meaningful, like cooking together, sewing a quilt, or singing.
  • Bring photo albums to help guests break the ice and share memories.


  • Music is great for setting the tone. Create a playlist for when people arrive and after the ceremony, to accompany a slideshow or video, or for quiet reflection during the ceremony. 
  • Choose music that brings you comfort and reflects the person you are honouring.
  • Music can tell a story; play tracks to chart your loved one’s life and explain the meaning afterwards. 
  • Set up a shared online playlist and invite guests to contribute special tracks.
  • Invite talented guests to play music or sing – this can be a nice way for children to contribute.

Food and drink

  • UK receptions are often held in places serving alcohol. Decide if this feels right for your memorial. 
  • Do you want a sit down meal, a buffet or canapés? Consider your budget and the tone. Could guests bring a dish that they or your person loved to share?
  • What food did your person love? If they loved desserts, why not just serve desserts – what a treat!
  • Afternoon tea can be a nice option, perhaps with bubbly as a toast? 
  • For a picnic, ask everyone to bring their own food and drink.


This isn’t a wedding so an email will do fine. You could include a picture of your person, plus:

  • Details about the ceremony, location, timings, parking/transportation, what to expect including tone and dress code, and any contributions towards food and drink, photos, messages and music for a shared playlist.
  • You can create simple designs and layouts using Canva.

Whatever you decide, the most important thing is to feel that you are memorialising your loved one in a meaningful way that brings you and your family comfort as you navigate life without them.