"Birth is an opportunity, life is a blessing and death is a celebration." ~ Andrew Mwangasa.
As America has become more transient, increasingly laid back, and less religious, our views regarding death are slowly transforming.
More people are choosing cremation over a traditional burial due to costs, changing views about the environment, and jobs that leave families spread across the country.
The baby boomers (1946-1964) are in their final third of life, and they are leading a quiet revolution in the way we approach death in our culture.
This generation is diverting funeral ceremonies away from the ritualistic, somber celebrations we know into personalized, more meaningful celebrations infused with a little fun and humor.
What is a celebration of life?
A celebration of life is an informal memorial service that celebrates and honors a loved one who has passed in a meaningful, personalized, and non-traditional way. It allows participants to rejoice in the joy, love, and humor their loved one gifted to their lives.
Unlike a traditional funeral, a celebration of life is not rooted in traditional customs, liturgy, or symbolic rituals. The focus of the event is solely on the deceased and their endearing qualities, achievements, interests, and values.
A celebration of life can be experienced like a biopic with pictures, videos, and storytelling depicting the life of the departed.
Funerals tend to be dour affairs with prescribed etiquette; whereas, celebrations of life are usually more lighthearted and casual.
Most funerals take place at church which necessitates a serious, somber tone. A celebration of life can occur anywhere from a backyard, to a park, to a beach which lends itself to a more relaxed atmosphere. Whereas funerals generally take place within a week of a death, celebrations of life can occur at any time – even several years after losing a loved one.
What should I wear?
Because the mood of a celebration of life is usually upbeat, one might experience music, dancing, singing, laughter, eating, drinking and storytelling. A celebration of life can, indeed, mimic a party.
Along with its lack of structure, the attire at a celebration of life is usually less formal than a funeral and will depend on the time, location, and activities planned for the event. For example, the family may request particular attire based on a themed celebration such as a beach, club, black-tie, or sporting event.
If the dress is unspecified, it is acceptable to avoid the color black and opt instead for bright or vibrant colors. Women, however, should still dress modestly and avoid short skirts, low-cut tops, or excessively garish jewelry. Men can wear jeans and other casual attire but should avoid t-shirts with inappropriate sayings and/or graphics.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the dress code if the invitation is unclear. Most friends and family will be happy to provide guidance.
Should I send flowers?
There is no need to send flowers to a celebration of life. Instead, send them directly to the family, or ask if the family has a legacy project in the form of donations to raise money for cause the person loved. Because the mood and atmosphere is different from a funeral, formal flower arrangements may seem out of place, and your funds and thoughtfulness can help in other ways.
How do I plan a celebration of life?
Planning a celebration of life is similar to planning a party. It is important to have a budget in mind. A budget can help determine the number of people to invite, the cost of the venue and catering, as well as any extras such as decorations and activities.
Below are some budget items to consider:
The celebration of life venue.
- Room Rental
- Security Deposit
- Insurance Coverage
Celebration of life food and beverage.
- Bartender/Server Labor Fees
- Tax and Service/Gratuity Fees
Celebration of life audio and visual.
- Screens and Projectors
- Internet Access
- Other Specialized Equipment
Third party vendors.
These services are provided separately from the host and are specific to the theme of the event. It is important to keep a running record of these expenses as they can add up quickly.
- Linens, Table Skirting, and Chair Covers
- Tents, Staging, and Amusement Attractions
- Physical Items Not Provided by Venue
- Labor and Delivery for Setup/Teardown
- Accent Lighting
- Flowers and Centerpieces
Celebration of life favors.
- Bookmarks, prayer cards or thank you cards
- Fact cards about the deceased
- Keychains, pocket charms, picture frames, or engraved pens
- Engraved champagne flutes to toast the deceased
- Flower seed packets or succulents
- Candy tins, recipe cards, coffee or tea satchels
Celebration of life entertainment.
This could include a DJ, acoustic guitar or piano player, or singer/songwriter to sing or play the deceased’s favorite songs.
It is important to budget for 5-10% above the expected cost in case an expense was forgotten or there were unanticipated expenses.
Do I want a theme?
Decide whether or not there will be a theme. Did your loved one have a specific appreciation for the beach, camping, dancing, sports, music, art etc.? The list of possible themes is endless, and with a celebration of life, one has the freedom to choose a theme that best reflects their loved one’s interests.
What location should I choose?
Choose a location and time that reflects the theme. If there is no theme, you may want to choose a favorite restaurant, or if the deceased was casual consider having a backyard barbecue.
Although many people prefer alternative venues, traditional locations like funeral homes are perfectly acceptable.
Be sure to provide lodging options for people who are traveling from out of state.
Who should attend?
The guest list varies directly with the budget. Start a guest list with family and close friends. From there, think about coworkers, neighbors, and friends from sports teams, volunteering, social media, or other hobbies and interests.
Who should run the service?
If your loved one was religious consider their pastor or priest. A non-denominational celebrant can also be hired for the service. Another option is to hire an event planner or consider a company specializing in personalized memorial event planning. The event can even be run by designated family members.
Is there an order of events?
Celebration of life ceremonies are as unique as the individual who passed. With that said, below are a few guidelines that work well.
- Initial gathering: While people are arriving, provide people with the opportunity to socialize and share memories.
- Meal or drinks and appetizers: Whether the event is a catered sit-down affair, buffet style, a pot-luck, or hors d'oeuvres being passed, sharing a meal brings guests together and allows them time to relax and converse.
- Toasts and speeches: During the meal, a family member may offer a toast to the deceased. At that time, the host may also invite guests to tell a humorous, lighthearted, or inspiring story about their loved one.
- Group activity: After guests have finished eating, a group activity is a wonderful way to include everyone in a final farewell to the departed.
- Concluding the event: Thank your guests for attending, and offer them a token to remember the deceased. Take time to personally bid farewell to friends and family.
Who should speak?
Those who were closest to the deceased may offer to speak. It is also acceptable to reach out to those who knew them best and ask if they’d be willing to say a few words.
Some families will leave the platform open, so that anyone can join in with a story or anecdote. It can also be cathartic for children to share a poem, reading, or story about their loved one.
Should I include an activity?
Think about the interests, personality, or passion of the person who is being honored. Then, invite guests to participate in the selected activity.
- Create a board of quotes that reflects your loved one’s personality.
- Write a favorite story about the deceased. The individual stories can later be put together as a memory book for the family.
- Include karaoke, and sing your loved one’s favorite songs.
- Share a favorite picture of the deceased
- Toss wildflower seeds into a field, blow bubbles, release lanterns, or light candles in memory of the deceased
- Play a game of soccer, baseball, basketball, or any other sport your loved one enjoyed. This could also include a card or board game.
- Host a group run, walk, or even motorcycle ride.
- Organize a book drive.
- Give away the deceased’s favorite books if they had a love for reading.
- Volunteer at your loved one’s favorite charity.
- Set up a memory stone station by setting up a table with rocks and markers. Guests write their names and a note on the stone to pay tribute to the deceased. The family can keep the stones in a garden or place them someplace that was meaningful to their loved one.
- Create and then play a trivia game about the deceased. Ask questions on individual slips of paper. For example, what was Uncle Bob’s favorite movie? What’s your favorite joke that Uncle Bob would tell? This game is sure to bring up fond memories of the deceased along with a few chuckles.
- Host an open mic night; whereby, anyone can share a story about the deceased at the microphone.
How should I decorate?
If you are inside, make the venue personal. Consider using the deceased’s favorite colors as a color theme. If they had a collection or favorite hobby, display it.
Make it festive with balloons, and display pictures of favorite memories. Use their favorite flowers as centerpieces along with small bowls of their favorite candy or treats.
Gather items that were important to your loved one and place them on a table. Hang a map and use push pins to reflect their travels, or hang postcards from their adventures.
Should I cater the event?
This depends on your time and budget. If money is an issue, it would be fun to host a potluck with the deceased’s favorite foods or choose to have an hors d'oeuvres hour.
Should you choose to cater the event, considering ordering from your loved one’s favorite restaurant or hosting the celebration of life at a familiar local restaurant. Offer the deceased’s signature drink as a refreshment or include a dessert table with all of their favorite treats.
Celebrating Your Loved One’s Life
More people are celebrating those who have passed in meaningful and personalized ways. Celebration of life ceremonies deviate from tradition by rejoicing in the life of the deceased rather than focusing on the loss.
With each life’s ending, we have the opportunity to revisit their journey here on earth, express gratitude for the way in which they touched our lives, and celebrate as they pass on to their next adventure.
Let’s embrace and celebrate their departure and honor the life they have left behind.
With a small shift in focus from suffering to new beginnings, we can transform our view of death as tragic, devastating, heartbreaking, and miserable to one of acceptance, understanding, resignation, and maybe even beauty, as we come to recognize that life is an endless circle of beginnings and endings.
If we have faith that energy is eternal, then we know that our departed loved one has metaphorically moved on – to a new chapter filled with endless and exciting adventures. Let’s celebrate.
“Now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” ~ C.S. Lewis