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Memorial services

Planning the service

Once the preserve of the very grand, or famous, memorial services have become an increasingly popular way of celebrating the life of an individual.

It is quite customary for a funeral or cremation to be a small and private affair. Then, usually several months after the death, a much wider circle of acquaintances attends a memorial service to celebrate, as well as commemorate, a person’s life.

If a very large number of people is expected to attend, in the case of a public figure or even a private person who had a large circle of friends, it is customary to place an announcement in a national or local newspaper. Traditional wording for a memorial service announcement might read:

DEBRETT – A memorial service for Mr John Debrett will be held at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, on Tuesday 20th October, at 11am.

In the case of major public figures, a notice may be placed in the Court Circular or Registry pages of one of the newspapers asking people planning to attend to apply for admission tickets. These will rarely be refused but are both a security measure and a way of assessing numbers.

Even for a smaller service an announcement is a good way of spreading the news. Otherwise the telephone, word of mouth or social media can be used, or cards and letters may be sent.

If you do receive a card then reply. However, people can, and do, attend memorial services without having been invited and without letting anyone know. This is particularly the case in larger London churches.

Conventionally, memorial services were held under the auspices of the Church, although increasingly they can be entirely secular affairs, and may be held within a variety of venues, from halls to theatres, hotels and pubs to beauty spots. Families may choose a place that was particularly meaningful to the deceased or one that works well from a practical point of view.

Services usually last between 45 minutes to an hour. Memorial services are almost always held in the late morning. Generally, people are expected to disperse after a memorial service and make their own arrangements. Occasionally there is some kind of reception or more often a family lunch, to which people are specifically invited. In some cases, especially with a younger person’s memorial service, a group of friends will organise an informal gathering.

Format of the Service
There is no established rite for a memorial service in the Book of Common Prayer and families are free to create a service, incorporating prayers, readings, hymns, music and addresses. Old orders of service are often kept as mementoes so referring to them can be a useful source of ideas for structure and readings.

The family or, in some cases, friends of the deceased, can all contribute to the format of a memorial service. They can make their own suggestions for readings, music, speakers and so on, and liaise with the priest, vicar or celebrant to reach an agreed format. Roman Catholics will opt for a memorial mass for the repose of the person’s soul, rather than a celebration of their life. However it will be a less solemn occasion than a funeral. For informal and non-religious services the family may simply devise a programme.

The seating at a memorial service is as for a funeral. So, in a traditional church setting, the front pews on the right-hand side are usually reserved for family and close friends. The front pews on the left-hand side may be reserved for prominent individuals from an institution or representatives of the deceased’s profession, or for family. The immediate family are the last to enter and the first to leave, and the congregation stands for both their entry and departure. A royal representative will enter just before the family and, again, the congregation should rise.

Dress Codes
Conventionally, dress is sombre – dark suits and black ties for men, dark clothes for women – but unbroken black is not necessary. At a very grand service, traditional morning dress may be worn, in which case most women would wear formal day dress with hats. However, if the person being commemorated and their family are informal characters, it is not necessary to adhere to a strict dress code.

Service Sheets
As with a funeral, a full order of service is printed. More light-hearted elements, such as photographs and passages from favourite authors, may be included and it is very much seen as a memorialising of the individual’s life and tastes.

With the initial shock and despair of bereavement behind them, mourners are generally more able to contribute to, participate in – and even enjoy – the service. Frequently, recollections and speeches are affectionate and amusing, and laughter is not considered inappropriate or embarrassing.

Newspaper Reports and Obituaries
Cards to fill in are often provided in pews or on seats so that the family will know who has come.

In the case of a person of note the broadsheets sometimes send reporters to take names. Lately, however, they are inclined to ask the family to organise this for themselves, which may mean hiring someone who is familiar with titles and precedence to take names and be responsible for getting them to the paper for a deadline as the report will be run the following day.

It is the newspaper’s editor’s decision as to whether a memorial service will be recorded on the Court Circular page, and family should liaise with them, though editors may already be aware if the service has been announced in their paper’s pages. It is also up to the paper whether the person gets an obituary. These may appear many weeks or even months after a death. Some families may want to designate a member to assemble the salient facts, but families need to accept that modern obituaries are not always eulogies.

Inscriptions & Memorials

Inscriptions, for example on plaques and memorials such as gravestones, usually include all forenames and the surname. Postnominal letters denoting orders, decorations and degrees may also be included. For a peer, all of the forenames are included, with or without the appropriate prefix. If the prefix is used, it is generally given in full, such as ‘The Right Honourable’ as oppose to ‘Rt Hon’. A peer’s surname and the territorial designation can also be used. A peer or baronet is sometimes numbered, for example: John Andrew Robert Buxton Cavendish, 11th Duke of Devonshire, KG, MC, PC.

It is a matter of choice as to whether coats of arms are to be displayed. If there is any doubt about their accuracy, reference should be made to the College of Arms or, for Scottish families, to the Lord Lyon King of Arms.

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