Or perhaps what’s needed is more depth. In February of last year, Christina Mevs’s uncle, a professor and activist, died suddenly from complications of AIDS. It wasn’t until the end of last month, some 14 months later, that Ms. Mevs, 32, an advertising strategist, and her family held an in-person service for her uncle, as well as for her grandfather and aunt who had recently died of Covid-19, in their hometown Niagara Falls, N.Y.
During the intervening period, she gathered a wealth of information about her uncle’s past, particularly his work with the AIDS advocacy group Act Up. She read interviews and news articles, watched archival videos and interviewed his friends and students — research that ended up playing a central role in how she wanted to eulogize him. “I was really able to glean so many new insights for how he tirelessly worked for the AIDS community,” she said.
Take your time.
Earlier this year, Janice Marie Johnson, a director of ministries and faith development for the Unitarian Universalist Association, began planning a large online memorial service for her twin sister, Hope, who died of lung and heart disease at the end of November. She hoped for it to take place on March 28 — Palm Sunday, a day Hope had loved. But sifting through old photos and mementos, alone, at the beginning of this year “became too difficult, too painful,” Dr. Johnson said. She, her daughter and her niece decided to delay the memorial service until the summer, and instead, at the end of March, they gathered in Baltimore to look at photos, talk and raise a toast to Hope. In the meantime, Dr. Johnson has also been collecting her thoughts in a journal.
“Had the service been earlier, I wouldn’t have remembered some of the nicknames, some of the twin language, so many memories that I’m taking the time to explore,” Dr. Johnson said.
Consider selecting a day that means something to you or your loved one. But as restrictions are lifted and demand increases for officiants and venues, it may get more challenging to book, so don’t sweat the date too much. And remember there’s no such thing as preparing too far in advance, according to Sarah Chavez, the executive director of the Order of the Good Death, an organization that provides education and resources about death. She likened planning a memorial service to other major life events: a birthday, childbirth, wedding or new job.
Create alternative rituals.
Because so many funeral traditions involve the body — bathing, dressing and burying — it can be hard to envision what a service might look like in its absence. If a burial has already happened, Ms. Chavez recommended creating another centerpiece to structure a ceremony around. “It could be really helpful to create a focal point as a substitute for the body,” she said.
This might mean erecting an altar with photos and candles. Or, set aside a garden plot where friends and family can plant and tend to flora in a person’s memory. Memorials can also accompany the unveiling of a headstone or the scattering or burying of ashes. Though Dr. Johnson was unable to return her sister’s body to Jamaica — during the pandemic, repatriating the bodies of the deceased has proved difficult — she plans to bury Hope’s locs, which were cut off after her death according to tradition observed by her Jamaican and Ethiopian family, at their family plot in Kingston in June.