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What's the Difference Between a Funeral and Memorial Service?

A memorial service and a funeral are often used interchangeably as terms, but they technically mean two different things. Many families are turning to delayed memorial services and cremations due to the restrictions put in place on funerals and in-person gatherings. Knowing the difference between the two can help you coordinate with your family and funeral home to determine which type of service is right for you.

Memorial service vs. funeral definitions

The definitions for a funeral and a memorial service are essentially the same, since the two service types are very closely related.

Memorial service definition: “a commemorative service of worship held for a dead person.” (Merriam-Webster)

Funeral definition: “a ceremony connected with the final disposition of a corpse, such as a burial or cremation, with the attendant observances.” (Wikipedia)

What’s the difference between a funeral and a memorial service?

The primary difference between a funeral vs. a memorial service is the presence of a body. During a traditional funeral, the body is usually displayed in an open or closed casket. Memorial services do not have the body displayed or present.

Here’s what a typical funeral service outline may look like:

  • The viewing, wake, or visitation. The viewing is usually for those close to the deceased to have an opportunity to view the body before the funeral. The body is displayed in an open casket and mourners are able to view and pay their respects.
  • The funeral itself. Funerals can vary in terms of content, but generally include prayers, hymns, a eulogy, and other readings as chosen by the family.
  • The burial or committal. The burial or committal is when the body is placed into its final resting place. A few words or last prayer is usually said at this moment.
  • The reception. The reception usually takes place at the family’s home or other special venue and involves food and drink. The reception is a place and time for the attendees to share their condolences, comfort one another and share in remembering the life of the deceased.

Here’s what a typical memorial service outline may look like:

  • The service itself. Memorial services are not hard structured events like traditional funeral services. A memorial service can be held in a formal setting, such as a funeral home or church, or it can be held somewhere such as a public park or favorite community space. Memorial services generally include sharing opening remarks, singing songs, reading the eulogy, and other readings or sayings as directed by the family.
  • The reception. Since memorial services do not have viewings or the burial, the reception may be a part of the overall memorial service itself. If not, the reception is a time for food and drink to be shared by attendees. During this time, stories and memories are shared, as well as condolences for the family.

A memorial service, by definition, follows the general pattern of a funeral closely save for the presence of a body. Memorial services can be held in any scenario and are often used for families who had a direct burial or cremation, a cremation where there was no visitation, or if there is no body to display.

What about celebration of life services?

A celebration of life is a type of memorial service that generally has a more uplifting, joyous and celebratory atmosphere. It's focused on celebrating the life and achievements of the person who passed away and is not a ceremony focused on the grief, loss, and pain of losing an individual.

Memorial services during COVID-19

Memorial services can be useful during COVID-19 due to the restrictions many states have put on large in-person gatherings. Many funeral homes are restricting the amount of people who can attend in-person services and put other restrictions in place that prevent traditional funerals from happening as they have in the past. A memorial service is a good alternative, as it allows you to hold a gathering outdoors, which lowers the risk of transmission. Holding an outdoor memorial service in a large park can provide you with enough space to socially distance, but still remember your loved one through a memorial service.

Additionally, you can always choose to hold a memorial service after the pandemic subsides and states open back up. Memorial services are meant to be held without the body present, making it a good alternative and choice for families who weren’t able to have the funeral they’d initially planned on holding.

In general, memorial services and funerals are extremely similar and sometimes folks may mistake them for exactly the same thing. Attending a memorial service can feel a little less structured or formal, but that depends on the organizer’s chosen tone of the event. Funerals tend to be structured, formal, and somber events.

Whether you decide on a memorial service or a funeral, both events require lots of planning and organization that can easily overwhelm families in mourning. Starting a memorial website is free, takes very little time, and can help you stay organized when it comes to your event planning process. Keep track of RSVPs, message attendees, leave a link to the livestream, and provide important information all in one place.

Create a memorial website

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Last updated February 25, 2022
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