Planning a Memorial Service

Death is inevitable for all of us, but when you have a frail elderly or terminally ill loved one you know the time will come sooner rather than later.

My experience is unique in some ways, but I know in many other ways it is the same as others. My Mother ‘Joyce’ entered aged care 15 years prior to her death.  She entered a very active but confused lady suffering from Alzheimer’s. You may have had heard Alzheimer’s referred to as ‘The Long Farewell’, which was certainly in Mum’s case. To watch her decline over the 15 years was heart breaking. Her last 5 years were spent in a vegetated state and she still managed to linger on for another 2 weeks after they called me to say my Mother was failing fast. Each day the staff would say, “She wouldn’t last the day”, but Mum just kept on going. She had no other underlying health issues other than Alzheimer’s. So, we sat there day and night waiting for her to take her final breath. During this very ‘Long Farewell’ I had a lot of time to plan and think about how I could honour Mum at her final farewell. 

Mum chose to leave this world during the longest and strictest lockdown in the world due to Covid19. At the time due to government restrictions we were limited to only 10 mourners at a funeral. Mum had lived a full but difficult life. So, we felt she deserved to be honoured and her life celebrated by more the 10 people. The decision was made to plan a Memorial Service to be held at some stage in the future when the restrictions where to be finally lifted. We eventually had Mum’s service 4 months after her passing.

When planning a Memorial Service, time is on your side. You have had time to grieve and still grieving of course. However, planning a Memorial Service can be a time for healing as well. I know by the time Mum finally passed away I was physically and emotionally exhausted and the thought that if we were to have had a funeral soon after her death it would have been even more distressing, as it must be in so many cases.  When you have had the time to plan a Memorial Service a lot of stress of the death may have past. A Memorial Service is a beautiful time to gather with your family and friends to really celebrate and reflect on your loved one’s life.

We met with Michael Cox from Gardenia Funerals a few days after Mum’s death. The first thing Michael asked was “What would Mum like?” The family agreed, Mum would love ‘an occasion’. So the answer was clear a Memorial Service at a later date.

On the day of Mum’s cremation only 8 family members met at the gates of the crematorium and followed Mum in the hearse to the carpark and said our final farewells as we stood in torrential rain with garden flowers, a champagne toast and chocolates. Mum would have loved all of this!

PLANNING THE MEMORIAL SERVICE:  There was no rush, as we were still in very strict lockdown. As Mum had had such a ‘long farewell’, over the years I had plenty of time to think about what we could do to honour Mum. 

If your ailing loved one is capable of making decisions (which Mum was not), ask them to tell you what they would like for their final farewell. I have had friends who have had their declining loved one’s plan their entire farewell. This is wonderful as most of the hard work is already done for you. However, sadly this not the case in most circumstances!  So, just sit and reminisce and get a feel of what music they like, what their favourite colours are, their favourite flowers and just generally ask what they like in life. Most importantly let them talk of their past while you are taking mental notes which could be used for a eulogy or planning purposes. Sadly, I did not have this time with my Mother as her mental capacity started to fail 17 years prior to her death. So I drew on the memories I had of my Mum, as did my sister.

When you can see your loved one starting to fail, I feel it is important to do your research as to who you would like to handle their final journey and establish a good working relationship with that company. I found Michael Cox from Gardenia Funerals by chance at a friend’s funeral 4 years prior to Mum’s death. We were travelling a lot at the time and we really needed to have arrangements in place in case Mum passed away while we were overseas. Fortunately this was not the case. We had several false alarms along the way, so over this time I was in contact with Michael on numerous occasions to ask many questions. By the time Mum passed away I had recommended Gardenia Funerals to numerous family and friends. I found them so personable and professional, which is certainly what you need in your time of grief. Also, their guidance and reassurance was second to none when we decided to have a Memorial Service. Their support does not end at the burial or cremation.

PHOTOS: Going through all the old photos can be a very arduous task, mentally and physically draining especially immediately after someone has passed away. We had gone through most of Mum’s photos about 5 years prior to her death and the majority had already been scanned by the time we needed them. We also asked other family members to send us any photos they had, in particular very old ones of Mum with her parents and brothers. By gathering and sorting all the photos and getting these ready for a Memorial Service it can be a very therapeutic and healing process. Not as stressful as it could be trying to sort through photos in a week or so for a standard funeral. 

MUSIC: Choosing the music for the Memorial Service was also a very therapeutic and healing process. Going through music which you feel is appropriate can be very emotional, especially if your loved one has recently died.

I was in the car about 10 years before Mum passed away when I heard the song ‘For Good’ (Because I Knew You) from the musical ‘Wicked’. Listening to the words of the song I decided then and there this would be a song I could use for Mum’s service when the time came.

I am also very fortunate to have a talented daughter to help record myself singing the songs ‘Smile’ and ‘We’ll Meet Again’. I always wanted to do this as a final dedication to Mum as she loved to hear me sing. We actually did this recording 3 years before we needed it!

Other pieces of music I chose well in advance too because I knew Mum’s favourite artists from her era. For the rest I just sat and listened to snippets of lots and lots of songs and music which I thought would be suitable. Nothing too sad, but moving at the same time, reflecting on what Mum would like. Mum loved going to the ballet.  So the obvious choice for the arrival of the guests to the service, the music was a selection from her favourite ballets. However, I wanted the nicest arrangements so it was just a matter of going through Spotify or YouTube until I found the right ones.

Once the photos and the music were all selected, my daughter arranged the audio visual ‘A Time to Remember’. However, Michael and his wonderful tech team can produce this for you.

SPEAKERS: Ask your family and your loved one’s friends if any would like to speak. It is not easy to get up in front of people especially at such an emotional time. Never be offended if they refuse.

The Celebrant you choose should try not to repeat what the other speakers are saying. So it helps to know what the Celebrant and the others have prepared in advance.  We were fortunate our celebrant was a family friend which gave Mum’s service a very personal touch. I wrote Mum’s ‘time line’ out for the celebrant. My sister did a eulogy touching on events in Mum’s life not covered in the time line. The three grandchildren reflected on Mum’s life in 3 different ways. My daughter who lives in the US prerecorded a song she wrote dedicated to Mum. My son wrote his eulogy as a letter to his Nannie and my nephew spoke from the heart. But I must admit all 3 grandchildren prepared there presentations at the last minute before the service!

My contribution and dedication to Mum was of course the songs and the final reading. It was poem I had found many years ago knowing that I would read it someday as a parting gesture to my Mother.  ‘Two Mothers Remembered’ by Joann Snow Duncanson. 

As it was, all speakers chose very different ways of reflecting on Mum’s life which added to a very pleasant variety of celebration.

CATERING: With a conventional funeral service it is a guessing game as to how many to cater for, unless of course if it is invitation only as it was with Mum’s Memorial Service. This was mainly due to the fact that we were unsure at the time that the government could once again bring in density restrictions. We kept the guest list to 50 which was the perfect number for the venue we chose, the South Melbourne Lifesaving Club. Like most events we over catered even though we knew how many were to attend. I researched several catering companies but found most of their costings were about the same. We decided on ‘Urban Foodies’. The food was very good but the 2 attentive staff they provided on the day were better than excellent.

FLOWERS: This for me is a very important and personal thing to get right for a funeral or a Memorial service. A coffin sheath is of course the obvious choice for a funeral. But for a Memorial service we thought once again, what would Mum like? We chose 4 arrangements, all in white, pink and mauve tones, all Mum’s favourite colours. The 2 large arrangements were placed on the ‘Memorial Table’ and the other 2 were placed on the food tables. I arranged the flowers through ‘The Flower Shed’ in Footscray who were ever so helpful. They delivered them to Gardenia Funerals on the morning of the service for Michael to bring to the venue.

MEMORIAL TABLE: Initially at the thought of having to arrange this made me feel very sad as Mum had been in care for such a long time and most of her beautiful clothes had long gone to charity. Fortunately I had kept several pieces of her most prized possessions. There didn’t have to be a lot of things on the table as it would have looked too cluttered. The obvious things for the table were photos of Mum. One in her 60’s, one aged 17 and one when she was aged 5. Mum loved to wear scarves. So of course there had to be one of her beautiful scarves added to this was her favourite shoes and handbag, a prayer book given to on her 8th birthday, a book for a grade 3 class award, and a ballroom dancing exam critique. There was my daughter’s christening gown which mum had made from remnants of my wedding dress, Mum was a beautiful sewer. We displayed a cardigan she had knitted, along with a few pieces of Limoges porcelain which Mum loved to collect. A cup and saucer as she always loved her ‘cuppa’ and a chocy. Mum’s favourite chocolates were scattered around the table. There were 6 Ikea candles of various sizes representing her 2 daughters and 4 grandchildren. These were lit at the beginning of the service by the respective family members to the song ‘Today I Light a Candle for You’. They were extinguished at the conclusion of the service by the 6 great grandchildren to the song ‘Goodnight Sweet Heart’. All these treasured momentos of Mum’s, along with the lovely flowers, made a touching tribute to Mum and her presence was felt.

The day went off beautifully. Everyone there had been touched in some way by having known Mum or knowing of her. It was live streamed around the world to many family and friends who could not attend. Gardenia Funerals sent me a wonderful edited copy of the service to look back on.

The day was very warm but comfortable inside the venue. South Melbourne Lifesaving Club is situated on the beach front of Beaconsfield Parade, South Melbourne. The view is stunning across the bay. On the day of the service we were treated to an amazing sound and light show as a massive storm swept through Melbourne!

Finally, I cannot thank Michael Cox and Gardenia Funerals enough for their wonderful support and professionalism during this long process. Hopefully by my writing this article I have helped someone plan a Memorial Service. Just remember when planning such a service, time is on your side and it certainly does help the grieving and healing process.

FOOTNOTE: One additional thing we did do or should I say, my idea and my husband produced it, was to take all the photos used in the ‘Time to Remember’ and make them into photo books. We did 6 copies, 2 for the daughters and 1 each of all the grandchildren. We did this as we realised most of the photos had been kept in an old shoe box and many were a collection of other people’s photos. So now the whole family, have a beautiful photographic memory of their beloved Mum, Nannie and Joycey to most.