Memorial vs. Funeral: What is the Difference?

Memorial vs. Funeral: What is the Difference?
When a person dies, you may be invited to their funeral or memorial. It may not be clear what the difference is. Find out in this memorial vs funeral post.
5 minute read

When someone dies, you may be invited to attend their funeral or their memorial. However, sometimes it is not clear what the difference is when it comes to between a memorial vs funeral. In this article, we'll define each end-of-life event and explain the difference.

Funerals and memorials have much in common, they are both end of life events held after someone has died. Each is a ceremony where people gather to share a common loss. A funeral tends to be more solemn and formal. A memorial can be less formal and still provide and opportunity to gather and remember the deceased person.

Both a funeral and memorial serve to do three things:

  1. Support the bereaved family and close friends of the person who died, by surrounding them with caring friends, co-workers, and neighbours.
  2. Publicly acknowledge the death of a person in a community.
  3. Create an outlet for people grieve the death of a friend or family member.

Memorial vs funeral: The biggest difference

The biggest difference between a funeral and a memorial service is that the presence of a body in a casket or coffin. At a funeral, the body is present. At a memorial service, it is not. However, in some cases the deceased person's ashes may be present at a memorial event.

What is a traditional funeral?

A traditional funeral service is usually associated with religious practices and is often led by a cleric or member of clergy. Attendees are generally passive observers who reflect the on the person who has died and the loss of them.  It is typically comprised of four components. Each one is a separate event and may include family, close friends and additional guests or a subset of these people:

  • The visitation or viewing: This event is where the body of the person lies in state inside a casket. It is an opportunity for close family and friends to see the person (or visit with their remains in a closed casket) the last time before they are buried or cremated. At a viewing the casket is open. A visitation is an event with a closed casket. Roman Catholic sometimes refer to these events as a "wake". See more about this in: What is a wake?
  • The funeral service: A funeral service is a separate event that is lead by a religious leader or cleric. It is a structured event commonly held in a church, temple, synagogue or other house of worship. A service can also be held in a chapel at a funeral home. Family, friends, colleagues, and neighbours may invited. Sometimes attendees are limited to people very close to the deceased person.
  • The committal service: This event is where a casket is buried in cemetery or placed in a mausoleum. Ashes can also be buried or scattered or placed in a columbarium or niche in a committal service. A committal service can also be held at a crematorium. Attendees can witness the placement of the body in the crematory retort. In some cases a facility may allow family to push a button to start the cremation process. Close family and friends mostly attend committal services, but the scope of invitees can be widened based on family preferences.
  • The reception: A less structured and more informal social gathering of mourners after the funeral or committal service, usually held at a hall or a family home. As this is a social gathering, it is a good opportunity for invitees of all kinds to visit and pay their respects to the grieving family.

Funerals tend to be a series of events, as described above, with a beginning, middle and end. Each part of the funeral is centred around the deceased person's body (i.e., burial or cremation) and each has different intentions and traditions.

Generic use of the word 'funeral'

The term "funeral" can be challenging to describe because the meaning can vary drastically between different cultures and societies. It may refer to how the body is handled after death; for others, it can mean a series of elaborate celebrations or parties held in honour of a deceased. More traditionally, as defined above, it can be a structured multi-event process that has religious practices and events built-in.

In general, funerals can be viewed as ceremonies, celebrations, practices, or observances connected to the final disposition for or held in honour of a person who has died. In most cases, it will involve burial or cremation and the body or ashes are usually present during the activities.

What is a memorial?

A memorial event is a ceremony or party where family and friends get together to memorialize the life of a loved one who has died. This is typically held without the body or casket present. Although, in some cases, cremated remains in an urn may be on display during the activities. Nonetheless, because it is not as time-sensitive as a burial, memorials can be held weeks, months, or even years after death. Attendees can varying from close family and friends to co-workers and colleagues of the deceased person and even people who were not that close but want to pay their respects and celebrate the person who has died.

While ashes can be present at more formal memorials, often they are not. They may have been committed or scattered at a prior event.

A memorial is usually more upbeat than a traditional funeral, but it can also have somber moments. Often it is a mixture of both. The most important thing to keep in mind is it is an opportunity to remember someone who has died and celebrate their life through activities, music, food, decorations, and more.

A memorial service is also usually less structured and is led a celebrant or master of ceremonies. It can sometimes be referred to as a celebration of life event. Memorial services also provide for each attendee to participate to some level.

Purpose of a memorial and funeral

Funerals and memorials serve virtually the same purpose, but it is achieved in slightly different ways.

In general, both funerary events are a way to honour or remember a loved one that has passed away.  They allow family and friends to say their final goodbye to their loved one. And it allows them to do so in a safe and supportive space where mourners can feel and express their emotions freely.

Funerals and memorials can also help ground attendees. The events remind attendees about the inevitability of death and the uncertainty of life . They can also serve as a marker for the end of  life with the deceased person and the beginning of the next part if life without them.

Timing and location of a memorial vs a funeral

As mentioned above, memorials can be held virtually anywhere and at any time. Common locations include funeral homes, reception areas, the home of a family or friend, church, community hall, etc.

Funerals will often be held shortly after death, especially if burial is chosen due to preservation concerns.

Much of the services are also handled by funeral homes. However, families can opt to control many aspects on their own with a home funeral. Nonetheless, many of the elements are held in designated areas. For example, the visitation is likely to be a funeral home, but the graveside service will likely be held at the cemetery.

Have a question about funerals, cremation or end of life choices? Ask us.

Here at Eirene Cremations, our team is available to answer you questions about end of life events, cremation, and everything related to funerals. Contact us via email at support@eirene.ca or see our contact page for additional options. To make immediate arrangements for someone who has died or to discuss preplanning arrangements, click here.