It is always a tragedy when a student passes away. Regardless whether it was unexpected or followed a long battle with illness; the cause does not make it any less painful.
Since commencement is typically the last official gathering before graduates start a new chapter in their lives, it can also serve a final opportunity for the graduating class to pause and remember those who are unable to be in attendance with them. Below are four common ways that schools and universities across North America memorialize students who have passed away.
1. Include an "In Memoriam" section within the commencement program.
2. Hold a moment of silence during the ceremony.
One of the most common ways to memorialize students who passed away while they were a student is to hold a brief moment of silence during the ceremony. Often these remarks are as simply as, "We'd like to pause to honor one of our very own, who is not us to celebrate with us today. I'd like to ask everyone to please rise for a moment of silence in memory of ______, who passed away last year."
3. Invite the student's family to the stage to receive the student's diploma or certificate.
Different educational institutions have different policies for the awarding of degrees or diplomas posthumously. Many award posthumous degree or posthumous diplomas automatically after a student's passing, or upon recommendation from faculty, while others necessitate a certain percentage of educational requirements for the degree or diploma to have already been completed. At the very least, a certificate of accomplished is conferred.
If the student is eligible for a posthumous degree, diploma, or certificate, consider inviting the family to the commencement to be recognized on stage with the diploma. This is often a very touching moment at commencement.
This likely goes without saying, but it would not be appropriate to have a parents or family members walk in line with the other graduates to the stage. Instead, this recognition should be a separate part of your commencement ceremony, ideally occurring before all other graduates are individually recognized.
If you are a GradImages client, please let us know if any parents or family members will be receiving the diploma of their loved one posthumously. We will make certain our photographers capture this moment. Those images will of course be made available to the family at no cost.
4. Reserve seats in prominent locations on the ceremony floor to memorialize the students.
Another great way to memorize students who have passed away is to reserve a special seat in honor of them during the commencement ceremony. There are three keys to making this special:
- Reserve the seat in a prominent location, such as the first row. For a college or university commencement, if the memorial chair is for an undergraduate student, and undergraduates are seated behind graduate students, then perhaps consider locating the chair next to a center aisle.
- Make sure to mention the purpose of the chair, either during the ceremony before a moment of silence, or printed in the "In Memoriam" section of the commencement program.
- Do something to make the chair noticeable when viewed from the audience. For example, place a bright white cover over the chair, along with a single rose:
Finally, as an example, a student passes away during his sophomore year. The question is whether he should be memorialized at that year's commencement, or whether the recognition should be two years later at what would have been the conclusion of his senior year. There is no right answer to this question; different schools have different policies. However, there's nothing wrong with doing both. For example, at the commencement following his passing, holding a moment of silence and/or include him in an "In Memoriam" section of the commencement program. Then during the commencement for what would have been his graduating class, reserve a memorial seat and/or invite his family to receive his diploma posthumously.