How to Conduct Your Own Memorial Service for a Loved One

In western society we have an organised funeral immediately, or relatively quickly, after the death of a loved one. However this is too soon for most people to work through their grief, especially if the death was sudden. Such a 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 to 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” 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 major impact on how our emotions manifest. The shock of a sudden and unexpected death can mean the grief process is almost bypassed, and the emotions not given a chance to be accessed, let alone be expressed.

Then there are global issues, such as the current coronavirus pandemic. COVID 19 has affected everyone on the planet and has taken (and continues to take) many lives, in some instances very quickly, and often with the patient allowed very limited contact with family and friends towards the end of their lives. Additionally, and understandably, to minimise transmission of the virus, the number of funeral attendees has been restricted in the UK (as in most countries), depriving people from being able to pay their respects in person.

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 difficult to take but when it seems senseless, of no fault of the deceased, based on circumstance, colour of skin, sexual orientation, faith or just bad luck, there is an inherent disbelief, a lack of understanding, outrage and anger at what has happened, all of which overshadow and undermine the grief process of those in mourning.

For all and any of the circumstances around the loss of a loved one, conducting your own memorial service, or passing over ceremony, can offer great solace. 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 you and, in the case of a group ceremony, also for those you have invited, to go fully and openly into the depth of their felt grief. It is not meant to be a celebration of the life of the deceased. This can be done at another time in another ceremony.

If the deceased was religious, or if there are 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 do not feel qualified, or possibly feel scared, about conducting our own memorial service or passing over ceremony for a loved one, thinking that we may get it wrong or be disrespectful, especially when there is such a well established industry around such matters.

There is however no reason why you cannot hold your own ceremony for a loved one in any way you see fit. The below outline is a suggestion that you may wish to use, but I strongly advise that however you conduct your ceremony 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 closes the ceremony, thereby providing a form of closure.

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 are having to let their memory go totally, or are saying goodbye forever, let alone be free of all of the emotion or feelings surrounding your loved one. The pain may well endure, the grief still be 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 the love you had for the deceased. Of course, you’re loved one will not be forgotten and 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 their own take on how to prepare 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 really matter.

Plan and prepare for your ceremony. Pick a time and day, and choose a suitable space to conduct the ceremony, ideally a private space and one where you feel comfortable releasing any emotion. Either indoors or outdoors is fine.

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 personal items, such as clothing, shoes, jewellery, etc., and one photograph, to represent the person you are holding the ceremony for.

The following may seem a little macabre but I suggest positioning their possessions as if the deceased was laying 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 normally 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, just lay a sheet over the rolled up blanket, pillows or cushions, and place a surrogate pair of shoes 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. Its 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 be feeling 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 a ceremony.

When you are ready to start the ceremony you should “open” the space. This 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, religious or spiritual leaders, angels, 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 offer an invitation to 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 in shifting the emotions of this life, the powerful emotion of 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, just offer up a humble request to the universe or for that which is outside of your consciousness (maybe just your subconscious), to be present with you today for this ceremony. Allow any wording to come from the heart. As it is the intention that matters, however the words come out will be fine. If you are unsure prepare something to say beforehand and have it ready on a sheet of paper. Even though you are conducting this ceremony by yourself, try to say any words out loud and not just 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 our consciousness.

Now is the time for the main body of the ceremony and for you to speak from the heart about your loved one. In fact speak your words to them, 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. By pretending they are there, or they are listening, whether you believe they can hear or not, psychologically brings you closer to them, or to the memory of them, thus creating a more personal and authentic ceremony. This in turn can make for a deeper release. Talk freely with them, chat about whatever comes up. Even seemingly banal things if they come to mind. There is no need to rush.

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 certain bird or animal in your garden, hearing a specific noise from outside 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 at any time you feel like you want to cry, sob, wail or collapse, do so. This is the time, and an ideal chance for such a release of emotion; a 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 or a short wooden stick 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 mp3s or videos online that could be used. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WqrBfyCQ0lQ&ab_channel=BiacsiAdam)

Having a wooden staff or stick for support and grounding is also useful as it is something natural to hold, giving a strong 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 and you may release emotion around their passing. Not only people but maybe also pets that have passed. There may even be emotions around wider issues such as the pandemic, habitat loss, species loss, pollution, disease, famine, natural disasters, etc. Allow whatever that wants to come up to be expressed and released.

When you feel you have released as much as possible, tell your loved one that 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 just 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 a bird of prey, maybe an eagle, in your visualisation of their spirit or soul moving on. Visualise the eagle coming 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, just as you opened space at the beginning, at the end of the ceremony close the space. 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, be they family members in spirit, ancestors, God, other deities, spirit animals, gurus, ascended masters, angels, etc. 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 just 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 out 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.

Alternatively having something to eat or drink, or going for a walk in nature are 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 ceremony, removing all the items. Try and do this with a lighter heart and with a feeling of gratitude. It is difficult to let go of a loved one’s treasured belongings but try to keep only a few items. 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 you feel 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. However if the intention was there, then 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

If you wish to hold a memorial service or passing over ceremony with other people I strongly advise conducting one on your own first to familiarise yourself with the process and provide the opportunity to tap into your own grief.

Invite those you wish to attend and inform them a little of the process, 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. However you are holding the ceremony so whatever feels right needs to be communicated.

On the day of the service prepare the space where you are going to conduct the ceremony, using the rolled up blanket or similar to represent the body and place their objects and photograph appropriately. Keep one particular object for the ceremony itself. Have water and tissues handy.

When all your guests have arrived make them as comfortable as possible with what is about to happen. When it comes to ceremony, it is hard to please everyone due to the variety of beliefs, but it is the intention and an open heart that matters. Let them know this is a safe and loving space to show and release their emotions.

Open the space as you choose to. The same method as used in the individual ceremony is fine.

Smudge or burn incense and light a candle. Play some background music, but remember this is not a celebration of the life. This is a ceremony to provide a space for those present to release, to let go and move through the grief process. So the music should be soft, soothing, maybe even sad. This is a space to go into the sadness, into the grief and 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 right for the group is fine, even if it is just calling to the universe.

Start the process yourself, thereby showing the others what to do, by placing the object you have kept back on the representation of the body, and speaking 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 to say what they have to say. Give everyone time to say as much as they wish, again speaking as if the deceased was in the room. Also allow them the space to release. I suggest that if anyone does begin crying, sobbing or wailing, or even if they collapse on the floor, allow them the space to do this without consolation. It is only natural that we want to console someone who is grieving, and clearly in emotional pain. We want their pain to stop. We don’t like how their pain is making us feel, it holds up a mirror to the grief we may be struggling to release from our own hearts. But by going to them, by 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 very 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 be used to distract people’s minds and help with grounding during and after the sharing and release.

Once all present have had their time to speak, give everyone a final chance to say something. Often by being in the ceremonial energy and witnessing family members 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 simple, short and repetitive, so that all present can join in easily. Ideally do not to use words, as these convey a certain 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, Great Spirit or God.

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

Give thanks to those present for coming, for being open to what has just happened and to feel proud for being part of a beautiful ceremony honouring a loved one.

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 out of their feet and going deep in to the earth whilst taking a few balancing deep breaths.

Clear the space 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 ones personal objects, perhaps saving only a few keepsakes, is cathartic and can be done when the time feels right. As previously mentioned, love is about letting go, not holding on.

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

The Loss of a Baby or Child

An individual memorial or passing over ceremony can be conducted for a baby or child, in a similar way to that outlined above. Of course there are likely to be a wider 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, the shattering thought of a life not lived, a potential not even begun to be fulfilled and the opportunity to raise a child to adulthood and pass on wisdom and knowledge taken away. 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 for each parent to be there for one another and to understand more of the other’s perspective, as often the mother and father 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.

The loss of a child through abortion or miscarriage is clearly also traumatic, particularly for the mother, who may have had to face such a loss in private, possibly even alone. There is no reason why a memorial service can be held for this loss. Carry it out in a similar way 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. Often a name may come to the parents once a child is born, a different name from what they have imagined or decided upon beforehand.

Gravestones, Memorials and Scattering of Ashes

The use of a gravestone, memorial plaque, planting of a tree or any other way of remembering and honouring the deceased, are all personal and entirely up to the individual and family wishes. However I would say that it is best to avoid forming a shrine to the deceased. This 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 often many photographs. Clearly any comfort that can be taken by the parents and family by tending the grave is what is most important, 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. To let someone go (whatever their age) with love is to set them free. Holding their memory in your heart is enough. Conducting a memorial service or passing over ceremony as outlined above may help with this.

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

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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 helped, and given you an idea of what you can do yourself, and for yourself, above and beyond a traditional funeral, further honouring your beloved and helping with your own grief process.

With much love

Trevor Cowan

www.ShamanicHelp.org