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How to plan a memorial service during COVID-19 (October 2021)

During the peak of the pandemic, interacting with anyone outside your nuclear family was only advised in essential situations. Offices and entertainment venues closed, and events like weddings and birthday parties were not advised. Families were also forced to make many changes to funerals and memorial services during COVID-19, from hosting online gatherings to canceling their plans entirely. 

Today, we may be reflecting on COVID-19 and preparing to move forward, but spikes in cases and new variants are preventing a return to total normalcy. End-of-life traditions by nature typically involve close human contact: hugging and kissing, sitting closely, and finding comfort in the company of those you love. Holding a memorial service while social distancing or taking other precautions, therefore, involves quite a few changes from what you might normally do. Here are key considerations to plan a memorial service at this time. 

How to host a memorial service during COVID-19

1. Know the latest guidelines

The CDC issued updated guidelines for large gatherings in August 2021. This page also contains many resources for those planning gatherings, such as considerations for vaccinated and unvaccinated people and what to do when you’re expecting a mix of both at your service. You can also see a list of all the latest guidance on the CDC website. The website USA.gov has information on where to find vaccines and testing sites if your guests are interested. 

2. Consider travel restrictions

Before the pandemic, it was common practice for relatives to fly from other parts of the country or even the world to attend major life events like weddings and funerals. And at its peak, it seemed travel restrictions changed every day, especially for international travel. Today, the CDC is easing many travel restrictions, and many countries are also allowing travel to and from the United States. Read the latest CDC guidance on travel to determine if your friends and family members will be able to attend your loved one’s memorial service during COVID-19.

3. Check state and local regulations, and check with the venue

As many areas see an increase in COVID-19 cases due to new variants, states and cities continue to introduce rules for private businesses and gatherings. However, these laws govern only minimum requirements for businesses — as private entities, they are free to implement their own rules above and beyond the law. Check with your venue on their rules for memorial services during COVID-19, for example, vaccination, masks, size of gatherings, and requirements for any staff you may hire, such as catering. 

4. Host an alternative memorial service

The pandemic affected every area of our lives, so it should come as no surprise that COVID-19 is changing attitudes around end-of-life care and planning, as well. Virtual memorial ideas gained popularity and acceptance as people realized they are convenient, affordable, and allow even distant relatives to attend. Or host a memorial service at home, where you may have more control over rules and regulations. 

5. Consider a smaller gathering

Holding a memorial service while social distancing is difficult no matter how many guests attend, but making your gathering smaller can help. Small gatherings allow for more space between guests and fewer opportunities for mixing between households — and can also make logistics like parking and refreshments easier. Add a virtual element such as a livestream so that guests who can’t attend in person will feel included. 

6. Hold your service outside

Current CDC guidance holds that outdoor gatherings may be safer than those indoors. While this may not be possible in the winter months, consider holding events outside if you can. Alternatively, host a memorial service in a well-ventilated indoor location with good air filtration to minimize the risk of guests getting sick. 

7. Plan a future gathering

Memorial services during COVID-19 will likely still be somewhat restricted for the near future. If you’re not able to plan a memorial service the way your loved one would have wanted, you can always host another event. Consider holding a celebration of life, tree planting, or butterfly release on your loved one’s death anniversary or birthday. While it may be difficult to plan because we don’t know where we will be in a year or even in a month, you can start coming up with ideas now. 

The need to host memorial services while social distancing certainly created new challenges for end-of-life planning, but friends and family members found new ways to memorialize their loved ones. Today, funeral and memorial services are beginning to return to normal, but it is still important to know the latest guidance and take precautions where necessary. With planning and creativity, your memorial service during COVID-19 can be just as beautiful as a traditional service. 

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