Finding Joy in Planning My Mother’s Memorial Service


My mother passed away during the pandemic. She didn’t die from Covid-19. But because she died during the height of last year’s lockdown, we could not pay proper tribute to her life in the days and weeks following her death.

One year on, we are finally able to plan her memorial service. And although I knew this was coming – my siblings and I had discussed, and then discarded, the idea of doing a Zoom funeral – I was dreading the planning process. It felt like this ominous thing on our collective To Do list that would be both sad and stressful.

How wrong I was. Planning my mother’s memorial service has been the best thing to happen to me in this past year. Here’s why:

My mother is always present in my life. Pictures of her are strewn across my house. I wear her jewelry and read her books. And if I ever get so busy that I stop processing those reminders, she will come back to me in my dreams, to remind me that she’s still here. 

But her presence is now tenfold. As part of the service, my siblings and I are pulling together old photos of her for a slideshow. Not just the ones we have from more recent years – with her grandchildren and the like– but much earlier ones.

My mother began her career as an actress. I have newspaper clippings and headshots dating from the 1950s, when she first started acting on stage in Chicago and then New York.

She also had an incredibly strong circle of female friends with whom she raised children, played tennis, and was politically active. I’ve unearthed several photos of that group of women as they aged and supported one another across the decades.

We’ve also begun amassing music and readings to suit the occasion.

My mother really came into herself in the 1960s. So there will definitely be some American folk music on tap. We’re talking “If I Had a Hammer” and all that good stuff. “Goodnight Irene” was one of her faves.

But she also loved The Great American Songbook – artists like George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. And she adored the old musicals like Oklahoma!, West Side Story, and The Music Man. There’s something really evocative about trying to narrate someone’s life in song.

My mother was also an avid reader of poetry. So we are also in the process of digging through the many volumes of poetry she left behind in search of appropriate passages. These days, I frequently find myself thumbing through the likes of Mary Oliver, Pablo Neruda, and Michael Blumenthal.

Finding a poem that hits the right note to capture someone’s life is quite hard. My sister and I have made it a personal challenge to do so.

If I’m honest, I’m also loving this process because it feeds my inner project manager. Although each of us is taking the lead on different aspects of the planning, I am the point person pulling together the many different threads. And this suits me perfectly.

I’m one of those people who needs to organize someone or something at least once a day or I go insane. But in my career as a communications consultant, I don’t do nearly as much project management as I used to. So I am absolutely thriving on all of the deadlines, reminders and task lists that go along with project management.

Above all, however, what’s been most joyful about planning this memorial service has been the opportunity to work closely with my siblings. I once wrote a post about the things a parent leaves you when they die. I was referring to rather more concrete things in that post, like how to water flowers, or why it’s useful to always bring a book along wherever you go.

But my mother also left us a legacy of the importance of family unity. She was the center of both our immediate family and our extended family. She threw all the birthday parties and graduation parties and holiday parties. It was terribly important to her that all of us saw one another regularly.

In her absence, I think I feared we might have nothing left to hold us together. I was wrong. So thanks, Mom, for that, too.

Have you planned a memorial service? What was the experience like? Would you say you had fun or was it more a stressful kind of obligation? Did you learn something new about the deceased person while planning the memorial service? Please share your story.

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