When You Can’t Hold a Service Right Away

Author: Alan Wolfelt

Tips for Planning a Future Ceremony and Following Through

The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have affected grieving people in many difficult ways. At a time when you needed extra support from friends and family, you may have been separated from them altogether. You may have struggled even more to rebuild meaning and purpose in your life, if your options for exploring and connecting were hampered. And if anyone you care about died during the pandemic, social-distancing and travel restrictions likely severely limited the funeral ceremony and gathering of mourners, or postponed them altogether. This unfortunate situation may have compounded your existing grief. 

Personalized, full funerals are so important because they help people embark on a helpful mourning path. They give us a structure in which to accept the reality of what happened, remember the person who died, share memories, support one another, express our feelings, and begin the process of finding meaning in life and death. On the other hand, when no ceremony is held, mourning is often never adequately initiated and can create long-term difficulties for families and close friends. They have a much harder time fully acknowledging the reality of the death, which is an essential need of mourning. They also don’t receive the crucial public affirmation and social support a funeral provides.

If you’ve been forced to postpone a full ceremony after a death, know that it is never too late, and I hope you’ll consider planning one now to be held later. This article will help you, your family and friends plan a future ceremony and work together to follow through. 


clocks and red rosePhoto courtesy of  Pexels/Pixabay


Planning Now for Later

Many families who’ve experienced a death during the pandemic are choosing limited or no ceremony and promising themselves they’ll have a memorial service at some point down the road. Human nature being what it is, though, many of these possible ceremonies will never happen. To ensure they will, I recommend making specific plans now, or as soon after the death as possible. 

The goal is to capture the family’s and friends’ early ideas about the future ceremony and share responsibilities — and accountability — among several people. Writing the plans down makes them even more concrete. 

For example, I know a family whose patriarch recently died. This man had numerous friends and acquaintances. He also loved ice cream. The family held a closed, family-only funeral in their Catholic church — an excellent start and more than many families have been able to do — and announced in the obituary that they would be inviting the community to an ice-cream social later this year. 

Will they actually have the ice-cream social? I don’t know. I sure hope so. But I do know that conceiving of the ice-cream social idea itself makes it more likely, as does promising that specific future event in the obituary. Now this family has an image of a certain type of gathering in their minds, and their community members do too. Talk of it is bound to continue, and that can create the momentum the idea will need to blossom into reality. 


Gathering Specifics

The more specific you can be in your ceremony preplanning, the more likely everyone is to assist in the follow-through. Whether you’re a family member of the person who died or a friend of the family, you can help in the following ways. 

Start by initiating a conversation about what kind of ceremony and gathering  you’d like to have in the future. You may  want to hold a full, traditional memorial ceremony in a place of worship. Or you may want something less formal, like the ice-cream social idea or a cars-and-coffee event for a car buff or a garden gathering. The possibilities are endless. 

  • If the obituary hasn’t yet been posted, you can include mention of this specific event in the obituary. This helps spread the news and keep everyone engaged. 
  • Think about a venue for the event and note some specifics, such as location ideas; and, if it’s a public place, venue contact names and phone numbers. 
  • Consider who might lead the ceremony. If the family isn’t already affiliated with a church or place of worship, look into independent celebrant options in the community. Whether it’s a religious officiant, a lay celebrant, or a family host,    you can jot down this person’s name, phone number, and email address. And then —  this is key — have someone make an initial contact with the celebrant to stay on course. 
  • Based on the life of the person who died as well as the passions and talents of family members and friends, think about appropriate music, readings, memorabilia displays, and more. Write them down. 
  • Brainstorm who could help with parts of the ceremony, such as the eulogy, readings, a tribute video, or refreshments. The greater the number of people who feel invited to be part of the future   experience, the better. In fact, inviting those helpers now, even if the ceremony is months away, makes the planning start  to gel and helps everyone feel committed to and part of this important event. Add a few notes about this, and also  write down ideas about who to invite to the ceremony. 
  • Think about a future date that might work for the memorial service. Having a prospective date on the calendar and in everyone’s minds makes the concept real. Even if you can’t pinpoint an exact date, you can probably envision a month maybe even which part of that month. Sometimes a special date might pop up in the conversation, such as a birthday or anniversary, that would make a suitable  ceremony date. 
  • Make copies of what you have written down and give one to each person who might be part of the ceremony in some way. Also be sure to notify primary guests about the plans and possible dates so they can begin to make arrangements  to attend. 

Of course, not only are meaningful funerals and memorial services rites of initiation of healthy mourning, during a pandemic they can also be something for friends and family to mark on their future calendars and look forward to. Right now we all need hope, which is an expectation of a good thing that is yet to be. The ceremony to be held in the months to come will create hope for the hugs, stories, laughs, tears, and listening that will take place when everyone gathers. Yes, the occasion will also be sad, but, most of all, it will bless everyone who attends with love and support.

Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a longtime TAPS supporter and member of the TAPS Advisory Board, serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and has written many books that help people mourn, including Healing Your Grieving Heart After a Military Death (coauthored with Bonnie Carroll, TAPS President and Founder) and Creating Meaningful Funerals: A Guide for Families. Visit centerforloss.com to learn more about grief and to order Dr. Wolfelt’s books.