What to Say at a Memorial Service

Michele Meleen
burning candle for memorial

If you aren't sure what to say at a memorial service, it's best to do a little research first. Memorial services, much like funerals, allow mourners to express their sentiments and pay their respects to the person who has died. When asked to speak at one of these ceremonies, you are given a unique opportunity to publicly express your thoughts and feelings about the deceased.

About Memorial Services

Memorial services are held in lieu of funerals and many times in addition to them. They are held without the deceased person's remains actually there. The person may have been buried already or there are no remains to bury or cremate. A typical memorial service is held within a week of the individual's death, however, it can be delayed for various reasons such as:

  • Family wants to wait for a special holiday like a birthday or anniversary
  • Many of the mourners live far away and need time to travel
  • Family is too grief-stricken to handle the memorial service so soon after the death

While funerals are traditional in nature, memorial services are more casual or informal. People are at ease and not as grief-stricken as they are at a funeral or burial. Mourners are free to mingle and chat with loved ones and friends.

A Celebration of Life

Similar to funerals, memorial services are a celebration of the deceased person's life. Music is played and family members and friends take turns reliving memories. A slideshow or photo collage is displayed with images of the individual and his or her family and friends. Slideshows are usually played with the loved one's favorite music in the background. Memorial services are not normally solemn events and attendees leave with a full heart.

What to Say at a Memorial Service

Prepare yourself to speak before a memorial service. This event will be an emotional time which can make it difficult to find the right words.

Write Your Thoughts Down

Never speak at a memorial service unprepared. You may feel you know what to say, but when the time comes, you could be overcome with emotion or grief that you will forget. Take some time and organize your thoughts. Ask friends and family members to share memories as inspiration. You can also look at old photos, videos or letters for ideas. Take all this inspiration, then write from your heart. Make drafts and put final thoughts on note cards you can fit in your pocket or purse.

There is no universal phrase which makes grief-stricken people feel better, so try for words to show you care or can be helpful in some concrete way. Make statements about the person you are talking to or the deceased, not cliché phrases or things about your experience with grief.

  • Sadness
    I'm sorry for your loss, it won't be easy, but you won't be alone.
  • You'll always have your memories of him to make you smile.
  • I can't take your pain away, but I can be here to talk or reminisce if you want.
  • She was a great person who added so much to every life she touched.
  • Take time to cry and to remember the happiness you felt with him around.
  • I'm not sure what to say, I just want you to know I'm here for you if you need me.
  • I can't honestly say it will get better, but I know it will get a little easier as time goes by.
  • All these people paying their respects are a testament to the kind of man he was.
  • I wish we were together under different circumstances, but I'm glad we're together.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Whether it's in front of a mirror or with your best friend, practice what you are going to say. Videotape or record yourself so you can hear what you sound like and how you look. Make sure to stand up straight and look at your audience. If this is what makes you nervous, pick a spot or two in the room and keep those as your focal points. This is especially important if you're speaking to a group. Whether you were selected to write and or read the main tribute, or eulogy or the service includes an opportunity for members of the crowd to share personal memories, practice what you're going to say. Keep your memory brief to allow time for others to share and start with a phrase like:

  • When we were kids...

  • The first time I met...

  • My favorite memory of John was...

  • I knew Jane as an (insert adjective) person, this one time...

Use Visual Aids

This may sound like something you would use while giving a speech in English class, but visual aids do help. Books, photographs, or even a favorite baseball cap are good visual props and give you something to talk about. Remember, your speech will inspire others to talk about the deceased person too.

Specific Words to Say

When words fail you, try these tried and true tips for coming up with something to say should you be asked to speak at someone's memorial.

Poems and Sayings

You can also read a few funeral poems or recite a some of the deceased person's favorite prayers or quotes during your memorial speech. While this ceremony is a celebration of life, it is also a time to say goodbye. Reading and hearing inspirational words can help not only you but those in attendance with their grief journeys. If you like, copy the poems and hand them out at the service as keepsakes. Remember that Memorial service readings are typically short and sentimental.

Multicultural Sayings

While the expression of grief is a largely personal experience, it can also be culturally expressed. In some cultures, death is viewed as a sad loss while in others it is a joyful awakening. Before offering any words specific to a particular culture, be sure you fully understand their meaning and typical context. Include culturally appropriate blessings or quotes in formal speeches. When offering words of comfort, consider phrases that are more celebratory or avoid getting too personal.

  • giving a speech
    The Buddhist focus on reincarnation warrants a peaceful phrase like, "I offer this good deed (name specific deed you have done) in the name of (deceased's name)."
  • "Her spirit is one with nature," might be appropriate for a Native American service.
  • A customary donation is required at Chinese wakes where you might say, "My deepest respects are paid."
  • In traditional Italian rituals, loved ones help the deceased leave the earth so you could say, "May he go forth from this world in peace."
  • Hindu cultures view death as a part of life, not a sad loss so an acceptable phrase is, "I wish her soul finds its next destination."

Words of Love

A memorial service is the last chance to say goodbye or celebrate the deceased as a group. Take the opportunity to share your thoughts and feelings with other as a means of remembrance and healing. Whether you wrote down what you're going to say, or you use a suggestion or the words of famous writers, what you say at a memorial service will be appreciated by grieving friends and family if you speak from the heart.

What to Say at a Memorial Service