My 6 Rules for Planning a Memorial Service

Here are some guidelines for honoring those who have passed away.

By Ted Kruckel July 12, 2012, 2:22 PM EDT

Apple’s event for Steve Jobs is emblematic of the new style of “produced” memorials. Doesn’t this setting capture him? Fresh. Innovative. Egomaniacal.

Photo: 2011 Apple Inc. All rights reserved.

A close friend of mine, Julie McGowan, died in May. Julie, the former publisher of Travel & Leisure and Food & Wine magazines, has been mentioned and quoted in this column numerous times. She was a Yale brainiac whose fierce intellect was always on the front burner.

When her sister Kelley casually asked me if I had any ideas of locations for her memorial service, I immediately dashed out a thousand-word essay of places I liked (you’d do the same, right?), with links and pictures. The family told me, nicely, words to the effect of “O.K., really great, we’ll take it from here.”

Of course I was overcompensating—that is my go-to behavior when close ones die. I’m not sure which stage of grief that is. I don’t even know how many stages there are, and I can never remember the names, so maybe that’s why I feel like I’m always doing or saying the wrong thing in the various steps of the death, dying, and remembrance dance.

But those of us in the event business always have more than our fair share of duties in this arena, so we simply step in.

Here are a few observations I’ve made in honoring and memorializing the dead.

There Is No Right and Wrong
Anyone who says otherwise does not get the whole idea and should be avoided in this process, if possible.

Funeral Homes Are Not Churches
They make a profit by selling you and charging you for as much as they can. One of their best tricks is getting you into that casket room and showing one nicer casket after another. The upselling on everything, from prayer cards to limousines, can be outrageous. Don’t decide on the spot, get the estimate in writing, and give the decision makers a little time, even if it’s only an hour or two, to decide what they want.

Duh, Make a Budget
Everyone is always horrified by how much a funeral or memorial service ends up costing. And despite what I wrote above about mortuary price gougers, the fault is often with whoever helps plan the event because they didn’t do a budget that captures all the costs. There are the obvious funeral home and catering costs, but the coroner’s fee? Death certificates? Church musicians often get paid above and beyond the suggested donation for hosting the ceremony. By sitting down and capturing all the costs in advance, there will be fewer surprises, which sting worse during these occasions.

Who Puts on a Show Without a Dress Rehearsal?
You don’t have to make each speaker read through every word. But you should have a run-through (maybe that sounds better) so everyone knows where to stand, how the microphone adjusts, and what the podium looks like.

I spoke at my uncle Barry Geoghegan’s funeral last year, and I made the mistake of not checking out the staging more carefully beforehand. It was a proscenium-style setting with wide aisles and elaborate stairs—so much farther to walk than I had realized. The stroll made me nervously rattle my papers. Why hadn’t I thought to put them on one of the lectern shelves? When I finally got my rhythm and was able to look up at the crowd and make eye contact, everyone was so far away. I’m nearsighted, so I don’t need glasses to read, but I wish I had worn them since I had the speech mostly memorized and the eyeglasses would have helped me connect in a more meaningful way. A simple walkthrough helps calm the jitters.

Bring the Person to Life
She’ll be buried soon enough. The best memorials make you feel as if the person were right there beside you. A few months ago I attended a service for Charla Krupp. She was a best-selling author, a Today show contributor, and a famous magazine editor. Our friend and former colleague Martha Nelson pulled triple duty by serving as the M.C., a eulogist, and a central organizer for the Alliance Franc╠žaise-staged event that included two live songs by Charla’s high-school pal Christine Ebersol, a slideshow, a video presentation, and speakers including Katie Couric. Whew.

But what was really great about the event was that it seemed to capture her whole life: the stories from high school when she was an endlessly peppy cheerleader, her obsession with telling her friends to wear Spanx on dates and interviews, her success and determination as an author, and her brazen pronouncement at age 39 that she would be married by 40 to an as-yet-unidentified man. Miraculously, as if by Charla’s sheer force of will, Time critic Richard Zoglin seamlessly stepped into the role of a lifetime, and their Bridgehampton summer home became a V.I.P. entertaining mecca. And her perky countenance in the program cover, which I kept looking at again and again, made me feel as close to her as if she were still alive.

Even If the Company Is Paying, Please No Commercials
The risk you run by getting professionals to help edit, stage, project, and otherwise create content for a service is letting it get too slick. Even if Larry tripled sales three years in a row.

If showing photos from business events, pick the ones with no step-and-repeats. Avoid phrases like “built the company into what it is today,” or “While Rachel may be gone, there’s a whole team of us ready to step into her shoes.” You know what I mean.

Dedicated to Julie Ann McGowan.

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