How to conduct a memorial service for a loved one

In Western society, there is an organised funeral immediately or relatively quickly after the death of a loved one. This is often too soon for most people to work through their grief, especially if the death was sudden. The funeral serves a purpose, of course, but the immediacy of its occurrence, the formalised ritual, any religious influence and the relatively impersonal nature of the ceremony may not feel right for truly expressing one’s grief.

Holding a separate, deeply personal memorial service (or passing-over ceremony) for someone you love makes it far more applicable to you and your relationship with the person. Such a ceremony provides a space where the grief process can be entered into more fully without your guard up or, as is often the case in the UK, with a stiff upper lip and keeping the emotions under check, especially in the case of men. Some people may feel they never grieved properly for a loved one. Maybe they didn’t want to express their emotions at the time, did not have a chance to grieve fully for one reason or another or felt they had to be strong for the rest of the family.

The circumstances surrounding the passing of a loved one also have a significant impact on how our emotions manifest. The shock of a sudden or unexpected death, a suicide, homicide or tragic accident can mean the grief process is almost bypassed and the emotions not given a chance to be accessed, let alone expressed. Of course, even the passing of someone naturally from old age can still be difficult and surrounded by grief.

Then there are global issues, such as the coronavirus pandemic that began in 2020. Covid-19 affected everyone and has taken (and continues to take) many lives, in some instances very quickly, often with the patient allowed limited contact with family and friends towards the end of their life. Additionally, and understandably, to minimise transmission of the virus, the number of funeral attendees was restricted in the UK (as in most countries), depriving people of being able to pay their respects in person. Even if people could attend, there were probably still specific Covid guidelines to follow and an underlying concern about being around others in a group situation, however slim the chance of infection, thus further distracting the attendees from being fully present in the ceremony.

Other large-scale losses such as disease, war, famine, genocide, ethnic and religious cleansing, natural disasters, etc., all lead to the loss of lives in devastatingly traumatic ways. All loss of life is hard to take. But when it seems senseless or of no fault of the deceased – based on circumstance, colour of skin, sexual orientation, faith or simply bad luck – there is inherent disbelief, a lack of comprehension and understandable anger at what has happened. All of which overshadow and undermine the grief process of those in mourning.

Conducting a memorial service can offer great solace for all and any circumstances around the loss of a loved one. There is no time frame for holding such a memorial. It can be relatively soon after the formal funeral or years, even decades, after your loved one has passed. The service can be either individual or with a group, but I suggest trying the individual ceremony first to familiarise yourself with the process and give yourself the opportunity to tap into your own grief, allowing the release and the expressing of any emotion. In both cases, the ceremony is conducted predominately for the people present, not the deceased. By that, I mean the ceremony is for those present to go fully and openly into the depth of their grief. It is not meant to be a celebration of the deceased’s life. This can be done at another time in another ceremony. If the deceased was religious or had certain beliefs to be honoured then, by all means, incorporate them in some way but do not feel that the ceremony has to be led by these beliefs.

As individuals, perhaps we feel uneasy or unqualified to conduct a memorial service for a loved one, thinking that we may get it wrong or be disrespectful, especially when there is such a well-established industry around funerals. There is, however, no reason why you cannot hold your own ceremony for a loved one in any way you see fit, but I strongly advise that it should consist of a beginning, a middle and an end. Ending a ceremony is especially important psychologically, as this draws a line under proceedings and formally concludes the ceremony, thereby providing a sense of closure. Below is a suggestion that you may wish to use. Both the individual and group memorial services follow a similar outline.

· Prepare the area ready for the ceremony.

· Open the space.

· Conduct the memorial service.

· Close the space.

· Give thanks and ensure everyone present is grounded.

· Clear the area of personal items.

As a note, conducting such a ceremony doesn’t mean that you have to let their memory go totally or are saying goodbye forever, let alone be free of the emotions or feelings you have for your loved one. The pain may well endure, the grief still present, but it is my hope (and experience) that you will be lighter and more comfortable in your own feelings, knowing that you have held a sacred ceremony based upon your love for the deceased. Of course, your loved one will not be forgotten and will forever live on in your memory.

Individual Ceremony

The ceremony described here has its roots in the natural world and my shamanic training. As far as I know, it is not an appropriated sacred ceremony. As every culture and society has its own take on preparing a loved one for whatever lies beyond this life, there is no right or wrong way to carry out such a ceremony. There is also no need for any religious or spiritual beliefs to conduct such a ceremony. Intention, respect and love are all that matter.

Plan and prepare for your ceremony. Pick a time and day, and choose a suitable space for the ceremony. Ideally, a private space and one where you feel comfortable releasing any emotion. Either indoors or outdoors is okay. The dress code is entirely up to you. Dress up if you like, wear black or be casual. Whatever you feel comfortable wearing is OK. Collect together a few of your loved one’s personal items, such as clothing, shoes, jewellery, etc., along with one photograph. The following may seem a little macabre, but I suggest positioning their possessions as if the deceased were lying down. Use a rolled-up blanket, pillows or cushions covered with a sheet or similar to represent the body and adorn it with their clothes. Place shoes at one end, jewellery where it would usually be worn and put the photograph near the head area. An actual photograph or one on a phone or tablet is fine. If you do not have any personal items, lay a sheet over the rolled-up blanket, pillows or cushions, and place a surrogate pair of shoes at one end and the photograph at the other. There’s no need to go into too much detail here, just enough to evoke the sense that their body is in the room.

Don’t forget a glass of water and a box of tissues. It’s worth preparing for some emotion to come up, and in doing so, you are subconsciously telling yourself that shedding tears is OK. In fact, during this preparation process, you will probably feel very emotional anyway. Go into the emotion as it comes up. Cry. Release. You don’t have to save up the emotion for the ceremony itself. This whole process is for you to go as fully as possible into your grief, allowing emotion to come up and be released whenever and however it manifests. In a way, this process started as soon as you decided to conduct the ceremony.

Before you begin the ceremony, open sacred space. Opening space marks the beginning of the service, recognising the space as being ceremonial (for the duration of the ceremony), and is a way to say, “I am here, and I am ready to hold this ceremony for my loved one.” However you wish to open space is fine, as it is the intention that counts. Some suggestions are to either say an opening prayer, invite the spirit of your loved one to be present, call to the directions (north, south, east, west, below and above), connect with God, Goddess, angels, spiritual leaders or spirit animals, or ask for ancestors and other loved ones in spirit to come and be with you.

There is no right or wrong here or a necessity for any belief in the afterlife to do this. It is the intention that holds the power, not the reality of the situation. The intention is to invite those unseen (and energies unseen) to be present with you at this ceremony and comes only from a place of love. You are asking for help shifting the emotions of this life, the powerful feelings surrounding the loss and passing over of a loved one. It should feel both respectful and comforting. At no time should there be a fear of ghosts or anything supernatural. Only ever love.

Alternatively, offer up a humble request to the Universe, or for that outside of your consciousness (maybe your subconscious), to be present with you today for this ceremony. Allow any wording to come from the heart. Whatever words you use will be fine, as it is the intention that matters. If you are unsure, prepare something to say beforehand. Even though you are conducting this ceremony alone, try to say the words out loud and not only in your head. Burn some incense, smudge (the wafting of smoke from smouldering sacred plants or wood) or light a candle if you are drawn to. Play background music if you wish. Create an atmosphere that feels right for you.

So, you have prepared the space, set the scene and asked for help from whatever lies outside of your consciousness. Now is the time for the main body of the ceremony and for you to speak from the heart about your loved one. Speak your words as if they can hear you. Say what you want to say to them. Maybe say things that were not said when they were alive. Clear the air, get everything off your chest. Speak as if you were having a conversation with them, with their spirit. Pretending they are there or listening, whether you believe they can hear or not, psychologically brings you closer to them, thus creating a more personal and authentic ceremony. Talk freely with them and chat about whatever comes up. Even seemingly banal things if they come to mind. There is no need to rush, so spend as long as you want with this. Accept it will be a one-way conversation, but be open to signs of a response, an acknowledgement from the Universe for your humble ceremony. Maybe seeing a specific bird or animal in your garden, hearing a certain noise, or even seeing a particular image or programme on TV or the internet later that day. Do not get caught up in a two-way dialogue unless you are comfortable with your psychic abilities.

If you feel like you want to cry, sob, wail or collapse, do so. This is the chance for a release of emotion and the clearing of any emotional blockage. Feelings of embarrassment may surface by this show of emotion, but as you are conducting the ceremony alone and in private where nobody else can see or hear you, these feelings should pass quickly. Be brave. Go as deep as you can. Tap the throat, heart or belly areas with your fingertips to aid the release. You can also try drumming or rattling (a steady medium-paced beat) to give a background pulse to help occupy your mind and drive the release. If you don’t have a hand drum or rattle, there are audio files or videos online that can be used instead. Having a wooden staff or walking stick for support and grounding is also helpful as it is something natural to hold, giving a solid connection to the earth.

Many emotions can come up, and perhaps not only around the person you are holding the ceremony for. Others who have died may come to mind, as may a pet or beloved animal, and you may release emotion around their passing. There may be emotions around broader issues such as the coronavirus pandemic, habitat loss, declining species numbers and extinctions, pollution, disease, war, famine, natural disasters, etc. Allow whatever wants to come up to be expressed and released.

When you feel you have released as much as possible, tell your loved one that it is time to send them on their way. At this point, you may want to drum or rattle and visualise their spirit being taken away into the ether. Maybe chant or sing, and say “goodbye”, “thank you”, “I love you”, or any other parting words you wish, words to help send them on their journey beyond this life. There is no right or wrong here. If it comes from the heart, then it is right. Feel as though you are helping them on their way, letting them go to wherever and whatever lies beyond.

This intention of sending them on their way reinforces any similar soul flight that may have occurred since their death. Even if you (or the deceased) have no belief in an afterlife, speaking out loud helps shift the emotions, more so than only thinking the sentiment. The act of sending them on their way as best you can is a potent symbol of your love. It can often provide some level of closure. As a suggestion, try using an eagle (or similar bird of prey) in your visualisation of their spirit or soul moving on. Visualise the eagle flying down and lifting your loved one up and away into the sky, reuniting them with the Universe/God/Great Spirit.

Do your best to set them free and let them go a little more in your heart.

When you feel ready, close the space, signifying the end of the ceremony. This is done simply by thanking those unseen that you invited when you opened the space for coming and being present with you throughout the ceremony, whether you felt their presence or not. If you called in the directions, turn to face each one and give thanks. Give a final thank you to your loved one, knowing that you have done your best in sending them on their way spiritually. Spend a few moments in gratitude for what has transpired and feel proud that you have completed a beautiful ceremony honouring your beloved.

Afterwards, ensure you feel grounded and back in the present moment. A simple way to do this is to imagine roots coming from the bottom of your feet into the earth and connecting you to the planet. Feel balanced. If you have one, hold a wooden staff or stick, and feel the direct connection down through the wood into the earth. Having something to eat and drink or going for a walk in nature are also good ways to ground yourself.

As soon as possible after the ceremony and when you feel able to, clear up the area where you have been conducting the memorial, removing all the items. Try and do this with a lighter heart and a feeling of gratitude. Be careful not to create a shrine, as this is holding on rather than letting go.

If, on reflection, you feel there was more to be said or that you didn’t do something correctly, you can always try writing a heartfelt letter to the deceased and posting it to the Universe or burning it ceremonially. Alternatively, hold another memorial service at a later date. That said, if the intention was there, one ceremony should be enough, even if it was not exactly how you wanted it. Undoubtedly it was as it should have been.

Group Ceremony

Before holding a memorial service with other people present, I strongly advise conducting one on your own, to familiarise yourself with the process and provide the opportunity to tap into your own grief. When the individual ceremony has been completed, choose an appropriate date for the group ceremony and invite those you wish to attend. Inform them of the general outline of the service, asking them to bring one object that reminds them of the deceased. Also, advise them on what to wear. People often default to black, but whatever people feel comfortable wearing to such an event should be fine.

On the day of the service, prepare the space where you will conduct the ceremony. Use the rolled-up blanket or similar to represent the body and place the objects and photograph appropriately. Keep one particular item for the ceremony itself. Have water and tissues handy. When all your guests arrive, make them as comfortable as possible with what is about to happen. When conducting a ceremony, it is hard to please everyone due to their various beliefs, but all that matters is the intention and an open heart. Let them know this is a safe and loving space to show and release their emotions.

Open the space as you choose. The same method used in the individual ceremony is okay. Smudge or burn incense and light a candle. Play some background music, but remember this is not a celebration of the deceased’s life. This ceremony provides a space for those present to release, let go and move through the grief process. So any music should be soft, soothing and maybe even sad. This is a space to go into the sadness and grief to release it, not to mask or avoid it. As with the individual ceremony, invite God, Great Spirit, ancestors, the directions, etc., to be present. Whatever feels suitable for the group is fine.

Show those present what to do by starting the process yourself. Place the object you have kept back on the representation of the body and speak your words to your beloved. Talk from the heart. Then invite each person, in turn, to come to the body, place down the object they have brought and say what they have to say, speaking as if the deceased were in the room. Give everyone time to say as much as they wish and allow them the space to release. I suggest that if anyone begins crying, wailing or even collapses on the floor, allow them the space to do this without consolation.

It is only natural that we want to console someone grieving and clearly in emotional pain. We want their pain to stop. We don’t like how their pain makes us feel as it holds up a mirror to the grief we may be struggling to release from our hearts. But, by going to them, holding them or comforting them only acts to interrupt and stop their grief process. If you feel you must do something, tell them they are being extremely brave and now is the time to go deeply into the grief. Often one person’s courage to lay bare their emotions can be a trigger for others present to do the same. One person’s crying gives another permission to cry. So expressing these emotions is both cathartic and helpful to the group. Only if deep emotional releasing is prolonged and becomes too much should anyone be helped and comforted. You have to be the judge of this. Drumming or rattling with a repetitive beat can distract people’s minds and help with grounding during and after the sharing and releasing.

Once all present have had time to speak, give everyone a final chance to say something. Often, by being in the ceremonial energy and witnessing family members or friends open up, others can become confident to speak freely and from the heart.

Conclude the ceremony by singing or chanting, sending the energy or spirit of the deceased on their way and saying goodbye. Keep any chant or song short and repetitive so everyone can join in easily. Ideally, do not use words, as these convey a specific meaning and not everyone’s interpretation will be the same. Try singing or chanting from the heart and see what notes come out. As with the individual ceremony, ask those present to visualise the spirit of the deceased being taken away to the heavens, maybe by an eagle, to be reunited with the Universe, the ancestors, Great Spirit or God.

Allow the energies of the ceremony to settle with a few seconds of quiet contemplation.

Give thanks to those present for coming and being open to what has just happened, and to feel proud for being part of a beautiful ceremony honouring the deceased. Close the space and thank those unseen, be they ancestors, Great Spirit, God or the Universe for being with you today. Encourage everyone to ground themselves, imagining roots coming from their feet and going deep into the earth while taking a few balancing deep breaths.

Once the ceremony is formally closed, it is a good idea to share some food and drink, gather around a real fire or go for a walk together so everyone can chat, relax and feel more grounded.

When ready, clear the room and remove all the items and possessions as the ceremony is now over. Do not leave the objects in place to become a shrine. Giving away your loved one’s possessions, perhaps saving only a few keepsakes, is cathartic and can be done when the time feels right. Love is about letting go, not holding on.

The loss of a baby or child

Losing a child is painful, whatever the circumstances, and the grief felt must be unimaginable to those who have not been through such a traumatic event. Some comfort may be found in conducting an individual memorial or passing-over ceremony. Of course, there is likely to be a broader range of emotions felt, such as a deeper sense of injustice, a more pronounced feeling of loss, tremendous guilt (whatever the circumstances of the death), acrimonious blame or the shattering thought of a life not lived. It is also not the normal order of things. A child should outlive their parents.

I would suggest that any memorial is carried out with both parents present instead of individually, as this allows each parent to be there for one another and to understand more of the other’s perspective, as the mother and father may differ in their grief and how they show it. Then, if wanted, a larger ceremony can be undertaken with more family members. To represent the child, use something small (maybe a doll or teddy bear) wrapped in a blanket. Again use a photo and place any sentimental objects on or near the blanket. Carry out the memorial in a similar way to the individual or group ceremony outlined previously, again with the primary intention of working through the grief from such a tragic loss.

Losing a child through abortion or miscarriage is clearly also traumatic, particularly for the mother, who may have had to face the tragedy in private, possibly even alone. There is no reason a memorial service cannot be held for this loss, conducted similarly to the loss of a child ceremony, using a small doll/teddy (or whatever feels right for you) wrapped in a blanket to represent the unborn life. Also, I suggest not giving a name to the child if it was never met in life, as parents may change their minds on a name once the child is born. This is, however, a personal choice.

Gravestones, memorials and the scattering of ashes

The use of a gravestone, memorial plaque, planting of a tree or any other way of remembering and honouring your loved one are all personal and entirely down to the individual and family wishes. However, I would say that it is best to avoid forming a shrine to the deceased, which is often the case when it comes to the loss of a baby or child. Many small graves in cemeteries are elaborately decorated and adorned with children’s toys, playthings and photographs. Clearly, any comfort the parents and family can take by tending the grave is paramount, but be careful not to let it become a shrine over time. How much time is enough is up to the individual, and each parent or family will be different, especially when there is peer or family pressure, guilt or shame.

Scattering ashes is personal and can be carried out however you see fit. By all means, create a ceremony around the process, but saying a few words or even simply being in a loving state of remembrance when you scatter the ashes is enough to honour your beloved.

Letting someone go (whatever their age) with love is to set them free. Holding their memory in your heart is enough but conducting a memorial service or passing-over ceremony, as outlined previously, can be cathartic and help those affected move on.


It is my sincerest wish that you feel able to honour your deceased loved one in any way you see fit, whenever and however they may have passed.

And it is my hope that what I have written has been useful, and given you an idea of what can be done above and beyond a traditional funeral by, and for, yourself, further honouring your beloved and helping with your own grief process.

With much love

Trevor Cowan