Pluses of Planning Your Own Memorial Service


I have three leaking heart valves and am in acute heart failure. My mitral valve leaks the most. In May a world-famous surgeon is going to replace my mitral valve with a pig valve. Several weeks before surgery I met with my primary care physician. “You need to be prepared,” she advised, “and not be surprised by something from left field.”

When I returned home I made a mental checklist of preparations. Updated will—checkmark. Advanced directive—checkmark. After surgery help—checkmark. Then I started thinking about my memorial service. What did I want? The answers to this question rattled around in my mind for several days.

Yesterday I planned my memorial service. The components describe eight topics: flowers, program, music, hymns, reading, minister’s remarks, reception, and facts for my obituary.  

The arrangements section asks for two display tables, one to display the books I’ve written, the other for newspaper articles about my books. I also asked family members to create a photo montage and display it in the commons.

For flowers, I asked for a display of African violets, one of my favorite flowers. I have had violets in my kitchen for decades. Seeing the buds grow and bloom makes me happy. Flowers for the front of the church and the reception table will be chosen by family members.

Robert Frost’s poem, “Take Something Like a Star” is one of my favorites. I asked for the poem to be included in the memorial service program. This poem has been set to music. Since I was a choir member for about 20 years, I asked the choir to sing Frost’s song.

After our daughter died my husband and I donated money to the church for a commissioned song in memory of Helen. Composer Elizabeth Alexander wrote the music for “We Will Remember Them” and I asked the choir to sing it. Choosing hymns was easy because I have my own hymnal. I left the reception food up to family members.

Before I started writing the plans I wondered if I would burst into tears. That didn’t happen. As I discovered, planning your own memorial services has three advantages.

First, you are easing the burden for family members. Instead of worrying about the plans and spending hours on them, your loved ones may turn to your written plan.

Second, making a written plan helps you face your mortality. None of us are going to get out of life alive. If you are awaiting serious surgery, as I am, you may as well plan the service you want.

Third, you are giving service participants advanced notice. I sent the plan to family members and the minister of our church so he could alert the co-directors of the choir and the organist.

Compiling facts for my obituary was the most meaningful part of my plan. I listed the organizations I belonged to, boards I’ve served on, and offices I’ve held. Reading the list was satisfying. I felt like I reached my goal—to live a giving and meaningful life.


About the Author

Harriet Hodgson has been an independent journalist for 35+ years. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists, Association for Death Education and Counseling, Minnesota Coalition for Death Education and Support, and World Speakers Association. Hodgson is a Forum Moderator/Writer for and author of eight grief resources.