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September 16, 2020 Beyond The Dash

5 Ways to Honor a Deceased Loved One at a Wedding Reception

Incorporating a memorial tribute into a celebration, with tact

5 Ways to Honor a Deceased Loved One at a Wedding Reception
Your wedding is one of the most important days of your life, but if a loved one has passed, it may be necessary to acknowledge the loss in a memorial tribute. (Getty Images)

The death of a loved one can leave an entire family shattered. But life goes on, and over time more positive family gatherings will become milestones. "The first wedding without Sue" or "the first Father's Day without grandpa" will mark the beginning of a new reality that no longer includes the one who has passed.

Many families take the opportunity to pay tribute to the one who has passed on these milestone family occasions. At a wedding, it may feel disingenuous to celebrate with no acknowledgement of one who has passed — particularly if that person was an immediate family member, such as a parent or sibling.

Planning a tribute

There are several considerations to make before including a memorial tribute in a wedding celebration. It is important to proceed with an abundance of caution and sensitivity when planning an acknowledgment of a deceased loved one. 


  • The engaged couple should be the ones to plan the tribute.

Weddings are family events, but they are primarily to celebrate love and commitment between two individuals. The death of a person who 'should be here to celebrate' cannot — and should not — be ignored. It's healthy to acknowledge the pain of grief and its effects on the lives of those who mourn. However, the decision to include the dead in a wedding celebration should never come as a surprise to the happy couple. Let them lead the tone and format of their own wedding day, and never blindside the immediate family with an unexpected reference to a death. 

  • Celebrate life, and keep it positive

A wedding marred by a recent death should not become a second funeral. Paying tribute to a deceased loved one at a wedding should be positive and upbeat, even though it will undoubtedly be emotional. Ultimately, a wedding is a chance to celebrate the newly wedded couple, not a time to linger too long on death. 

Keep the celebration positive and upbeat — remembering a beloved relative should not come at the expense of the couple's happy day. (Getty Images)

Here are five ways to honor a deceased loved one at a wedding or other celebratory event.

1. Include the deceased in a speech or toast

It is customary to acknowledge and thank the many people who contributed to the celebration, including close family members, friends, and others who helped the happy couple grow their relationship. When a loved one passes away before a wedding, many families choose to pay tribute to the deceased in a speech or a toast. Some families even pause for a moment of silence to remember.

A speech tribute at a wedding reception is one of the most common ways to acknowledge a loved one who has passed, particularly when the deceased was a parent of the bride or groom. Mentioning their death and its impact is a moving way to pay respect to their life. 

2. Share photos and memories

A more interactive way to recognize the death of a loved one at a wedding is to display photos or other physical reminders of them. Because they cannot be there in person, having concrete reminders of times spent with the deceased can be comforting. A photo station or video tribute also allows guests to individually remember on their own time during the reception, which can alleviate pressure on those who are still mourning. 

3. Save a place for your loved one

Mourners tend to be split on the practice of laying out a table setting for someone who has passed away. For some, this practice honors a loved one who ought not to be forgotten. For others, an empty place setting is an empty, bleak reminder of the deceased person's absence. Many people save space for the dead at family events, such as Thanksgiving or Christmas, but whether a spot will be saved at a wedding is a decision that should be left up to the wedding couple. 

4. Fill their roles

No one can fill the shoes of a loved one who has passed away. However, certain milestones and traditions can be fulfilled on behalf of a deceased loved one. For example, a mother may walk a daughter down the aisle in lieu of her father.

While it may feel wrong to break traditions, allowing loved ones to step into roles the deceased might have embodied can be healing. One beautiful example of this happened at a 2015 wedding, in which a bride's brother ensured she got to have a father-daughter dance:

"In 2015 Kaley's Dad David suddenly passed away from heart disease. Kaley had a very special bond with her Dad. She always looked forward to the day that he would walk her down the aisle and dance with her at her wedding. She was his little princess. Kaley's five brothers wanted her to still have that opportunity. They surprised her with this song that paid tribute to their Father."


5. Keep the focus on celebration

Ultimately, a wedding is a celebration! While it's healthy and appropriate to acknowledge a recent death that has affected the marrying couple, too much emphasis on questions like, 'What mom would have wanted', or, 'What it would be like if dad were here', take away from the special day. Celebrate their lives, and the support, love, help, and lessons they gave along the way. 

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