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Creative tributes in place of a traditional memorial service

By Rachel Dissell
How can friends and family share memories when the pandemic makes large gatherings difficult? Getty Images

There’s a reason people huddle around photo displays or pore over pictures in printed programs at funerals.

The collective reminiscing helps mourners consolidate and preserve their memories, and realize the death is final and real, said Diane Snyder Cowan, director of grief services at the Hospice of the Western Reserve in Ohio.  

Even with restrictions on gatherings, there are more ways than ever to share pictures and stories and to create keepsakes. 

“People are creative, people are resilient and people need to grieve,” Snyder Cowan said. 

The act of creating

Memorial projects have been a standard part of bereavement counseling and support groups for decades, said Bill Hoy, clinical professor of medical humanities at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. 

“Now, they might have a high-tech edge,” he said.

But it’s the act of assembling the printed photos in an album or memory box or placing them in a virtual slideshow that can help process the loss of a loved one, Hoy said.

“It gets our hands involved in grief,” he said. “It puts actions to emotions.”

Boombox is one option for creating a custom memory box that includes printed photos and short letters with memories. It also offers a digital option, which includes a link to share with friends. 

Wooden Creations Inc. designs custom chests and boxes to store memories and keepsakes after losing a loved one. 

Involve family and friends

Making a collage or tribute can be done around a dining room table or by virtually sharing photos and memories. 

LifeWeb 360 allows friends and family to collaborate to create a multimedia scrapbook with photos and tributes that can also be ordered as a physical scrapbook. 

Meanwhile, many funeral homes are offering a private service called SendHugs or VirtualHugs. Families receive a private link to share with friends and loved ones, who are guided through the process of recording a video memory for the family to keep. Some families combine the memories into a tribute video.

Let memories bloom

Plant a memorial garden as a place to sit and reflect.

The garden can be simple, with a small bench or an engraved stone. Or it could be more elaborate with a fountain or lights and lanterns and wind chimes. 

Consider flowers such as the bleeding heart, a symbol of unconditional love and compassion, or forget-me-nots, which signal remembrance and true love, Snyder Cowan said. 

Find design inspiration here and here

Food is love 

Make a loved one’s favorite meal. If you can cook together, great. If not, share the recipe among family and friends and eat together virtually. It also works with a favorite cocktail or dessert. 

After her mother died, Snyder Cowan said she and her siblings started celebrating their mom annually by sharing her favorite sweet treat: a hot fudge sundae with chocolate ice cream. 

“It was a way to keep her memory with us,” she said. 

A lasting tribute

Commemorative tattoos are becoming huge, according to Julia Ellifritt, director of education and community outreach at Cornerstone of Hope, a bereavement center with three Ohio locations.

Most common are a loved one’s name, along with birth and death dates. Others depict a loved one’s likeness or their favorite animal or flower. See some examples here

Studios increasingly are offering commemorative or ritual tattooing with ink combined with a small amount of cremation ashes, as an expression of eternal love. 

Engrave Ink provides a collection kit and uses medical-grade equipment to create small bottles of black or white ink to be used for tattoos. 

Cremation Ink offers an array of colors. 

“It’s a lasting way to keep the memory of someone with you,” Ellifritt said.

There are other creative ways to memorialize a loved one, Snyder Cowan said. 

She’s seen families create collages from sympathy cards, make memorial candle holders or lanterns, or even write and record songs. 

Taking a day to volunteer for a cause that was meaningful to the loved one, such as at an animal shelter or food bank, can also be a powerful way of honoring their memory. 

“It doesn't matter whether a loved one’s memory is celebrated through art or music or an act of kindness,” Snyder Cowan said. “If  what you do has the intent of honoring someone who died, it is meaningful.”

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