The short answer to the question about the difference between a memorial service and a funeral is that the funeral service takes place in the presence of the decedent’s body, which is in a casket, while the memorial service takes place without the body present. Other than that primary distinction the two services are similar, in that both are intended to celebrate the life of the deceased. There are some differences, however, most notably in the location and level of formality employed with each respective service.
For different reasons, ranging from financial considerations to timing issues, families will often just opt for one or the other. Let’s take a closer look at the specific details and characteristics of each service, though, as each family must make the very personal decision for themselves about whether to have a funeral service and a memorial service, or decide between the two.
Traditional funeral services are typically formal services calling for formal attire. The services are typically held at a funeral home, church, or graveside. The family decides whether to have an open casket or a closed casket, but the body is present during the service. The service is often followed by a graveside service where the deceased is interred.
A funeral service is generally scheduled within a week of the death and the proceedings themselves follow a fairly structured format. This can include a viewing or visitation of the body followed by a formal funeral service, and ending with a procession to the graveside for viewing of the burial.
While every funeral service varies because it is such a personal event, there is a general outline that is typically followed. Steps in a traditional funeral service include the following:
- Reading of a Psalm or poem (read by the presiding head, such as a minister)
- Reading specific to the deceased – another poem or statement of his or her beliefs (read by a family member)
- Eulogy (read by a family member)
- Pause for reflection (lead by the presiding head)
- Closing reading or prayer (read by the presiding head)
Memorial services are not necessarily held at a funeral home or church, and are less formal and structured than a funeral service. In fact, they are often held at the home of a family member, or another comfortable location, such as a clubhouse.
Unlike the more strictly regimented scheduling of a funeral service, where timing is more important, the timing of a memorial service can vary as well. Often, it is held right away, preceding the funeral. Sometimes it is held directly after the funeral, so that mourners can meet to comfort one another and celebrate the life of the deceased. Sometimes, though, the memorial is scheduled weeks later so that people who must travel from distant locations have time to make arrangements.
In the most relaxed and informal memorial services, mourners will generally arrive at various times between the scheduled hours, and they will typically share memories of the deceased among themselves. Sometimes, though, the family of the deceased will ask if anyone would like to make a statement about the deceased. This is done in an open forum setting, which allows as many people as would like to speak an opportunity to share their thoughts.
At a memorial service, food is often provided, sometimes in a potluck style, where attendees are encouraged to bring a dish, snack or beverage to share. Sometimes, however, the family furnishes the food and drinks. This information will be provided in advance to those who plan on attending the memorial service.
While a memorial service is generally less formal than a funeral service, there is still proper etiquette that should be adhered to, such as what to wear. In the case of a memorial service, suits and dresses are not necessarily ‘required’, but street clothes should be eschewed in favor of business casual wear.
The primary differences between funeral services and memorial services are in the presence or absence of the body of the deceased and the formality and structure of the event. However, the goal of both services is to celebrate the life of the deceased. So, regardless of whether the family chooses to hold both a funeral service and a memorial service, or one or the other, the life of the decedent will be honored and celebrated, and that is what really matters.