Celebrations of life are on the rise in North America. Yet, ask a funeral director exactly what one is and well, you’ll get a response much like this: “Whatever you want it to be!”
That leaves a lot of room for options, personalized details and so much more.
But planning a celebration or life or even a more personalized funeral is a lot like planning a wedding in 3 days, while you’re depressed.
That’s not ideal, and it is where Christina, founder of New Narrative, can come in to help. Christina comes from a decade of event planning. It was her uncle's passing, and her sudden need to plan his funeral, that made her realize just how detailed and difficult it can be –– and how little help there is outside of funeral directors.
So, she started New Narrative to help people plan better funerals and celebrations of life, and worry less about the logistics so they can focus on their grief, seeing all the folks who loved their person, and celebrating their loved one’s life.
Here’s how it all works.
Dani: To start, could you just tell us a little bit about yourself?
Christina: So, my name is Christina and I'm based in Vancouver, BC. So for those of you who aren't super familiar with Canada, no problem! It's like the top left of Canada, so on the West coast.
I've had New Narrative for almost three years now, and I have a decade of experience in the events industry.
I've worked for caterers, for rental companies, for wedding planners, event planners. Onsite, offsite, behind the scenes.
Then, four years ago, we had a loss in my family.
And when that happened, my mom was like, “OK, we're going to have a memorial and Christina is going to do it! She knows exactly what to do. She has the experience.”
We knew we wanted something a little different because the person we lost, my uncle, was this amazing guy. He was an atheist and didn't fit the traditional mold.
So, of course, I sprung into action getting together the caterers and speakers, doing a master of ceremonies script, and just making sure the day went really smoothly so that the rest of my family could be there with each other and be with our communities.
Afterwards, I thought, “Thank goodness my family had someone like me!” And then I started wondering what happens when families don't have an event planner, or they don't have someone who wants to do it because you just lost somebody.
It's the next thing you have to do, and who really wants to put on a memorial event?
You work with a funeral director and they take care of a lot of the details that need to be taken care of, sure.
But, if you want something different, or if that's not the place where you feel most comfortable, if you want to do something separately, or you just need some help –– what do you do?
I started New Narrative to be that help for families.
Over the last three years, since I started, I've helped with some amazing celebrations of life –– from an 80s memorial to a 500 person celebration that happened last year for a musician. For the musician, he had a bunch of musician friends and his family really wanted the event to be festive. We ended up having five jam bands happening!
And I had it all planned out. The ceremony was from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. The band started at 3:30 p.m. At 5:30 p.m., the big jam band started. Then, dinner started a bit later.
With dinner, families are visiting with each other and you don't want to worry about whether there's not enough food on the tables, or if the lights are too low, or the music isn't playing, or if the slideshow did a little blip.
That’s what I do. I worry about all of those things for them.
Dani: All of those details really, really matter. It almost sounds like planning a wedding!
Christina: Someone told me recently that planning a memorial is like planning a wedding in three days when you're depressed. And yeah, it is like that.
The thing that I've been saying since the beginning is, "Losing someone sucks." It sucks the big one.
And I find it really important for me to keep talking about the fact that I don't want to discredit anybody's loss. I'm not trying to promote parties, or say you have to have a party, but I also think that there's definitely space for a family honoring the life that somebody lived.
For example, I was working at a funeral home last summer and was assisting with a Catholic ceremony. I was reading the little program at the end, and it was like, "Oh, mom loved the casino and Frank Sinatra, and loved dancing."
And as I was reading that, all I could think about was if this funeral had a little more personality.
Would it have been nice to have somebody wheeling up the casket to “My Way” by Frank Sinatra? I don’t know. I don’t know if the family would have wanted that, but it seemed like if she loved Frank Sinatra and dancing, it could have been nice.
Or, you don't have to have a funeral in a casino, but there are little touches that you can bring into these ceremonies to make them feel really special –– like the places the person loved.
It’s about paying attention to the details: the type of flowers, the music. Just making it all very personal.
Dani: It sounds like funeral planning or celebration of life planning can get overwhelming quickly!
Christina: Absolutely. Even just thinking about who you want to invite is hard!
I've helped so many clients determine their guest list. Here’s a hint for folks: if you're stuck with the guest list, I would say put your person's name in the middle and then:
- Do a branch for your immediate family.
- Do a branch for your extended family.
- Do a branch for your friends.
- Then, do you have kids? Do a branch for them and their friends.
- And were they part of any associations or clubs, or a yacht club or a church, or did you go for weekly Bingo nights? These are all people that you can reach out to and that you should consider when you're doing this event.
Funeral directors are particularly good at helping with this part, and they just do so much incredible work for families. Where I come in is similar to when you got a big event at a venue –– and you get the venue manager to make sure that everything works within the space. That’s the funeral director’s job.
Then, my services can compliment that. It’s the event planner side of it.
I’ll help guide your family through these guest lists, or help figure out a budget for an in person event, or just help out on the day-of to make sure you don’t have to work about anything like cleaning up or if the good is coming out when it needs to. Whatever.
Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of funeral directors who do this fantastically well, too. But funeral directors aren’t always event planners, nor do they necessarily want to be.
Dani: When is the right time for folks to start planning a funeral or celebration of life. How does that work?
Christina: Well, the first person most of us have to call is a funeral director. I know some amazing directors who will take you through the steps to start thinking about a memorial service, or a celebration of life, and talk to you about your ideas. That’s one way –– the reactive way.
Or, you could start planning before. I’ve even done it! I just have a Google Doc with all the ideas I have for my own memorial, the vision, the vibe.
For instance, for my memorial, I want a crying corner!
Dani: What is a crying corner?
Christina: A crying corner is a special corner of the room where all of my devastated friends and family can go to cry and be with themselves. Clearly because I was a person who did so many incredible things, so many incredible things for the world, and you'll obviously be sad! So, you have to go there and cry a little bit.
And my mom loves the idea so much!
Dani: How do you even begin to have this conversation with friends or family members?
Christina: The time that we're in right now with COVID-19 and the pandemic, there really is no better time to talk to your parents or friends or family members about end of life. It's so easy right now! It’s in our faces.
You just have to say something! With COVID, you can go from completely healthy to the ICU in some cases within a matter of hours.
So it shouldn't be surprising to anyone if you just said, "Hey, I know with what's going on I'm really concerned, just in general. if this happened to you, what would you want?”
That could be a perfect segue into having some tough conversations.
Dani: How does one have a virtual funeral?
Christina: There are quite a few approaches that people are taking that I've seen.
The first one that I think a lot of people would be most familiar with is the video conferencing option.
Now there's a difference between live streaming and video conferencing.
Live streaming is just one camera, so it doesn't have participation from everybody. Compare that to something like Zoom, where you have everybody tuning in and participating. That’s a video conference.
My amazing colleague Allie at LifeWeb360, the two of us just created a PDF for funeral directors and families on how to navigate all of the technical behind the scenes stuff that needs to get done for virtual funerals, and also explaining the difference between certain forms of technology so folks can make the best decisions for themselves.
Other things that are really important with hosting a virtual funeral are:
- Setting a date and a time
- Doing some outreach to make sure that everyone that you want to have involved is able to login or stream in, including elderly folks or people that have intermittent access to wifi in remote areas.
- Then just having somebody, like a technical director, to man the technology while you're doing your program. It's important that your master of ceremonies is not the technical director, because imagine if I was the MC, and right now if I had to do something with my phone or if our connection was weird –– I’d have to focus on fixing that instead of helping to move the conversation or the event along.
- Having a schedule for different people, and knowing who goes first, second, third and fourth to speak. Are there any performances? What is the schedule for that?
- Another option is that funeral directors are, if you want, streaming a camera to the caskets, and in the home, they're having these tiny intimate events and just having a camera there and letting people tune in from anywhere.
In the same way you would prepare and plan for an in-person funeral or celebration of life, it’s the same for a virtual one too. You can use a Google Doc to share their favorite music, textures, and images.
There are just so many elements that you can bring into a virtual world that shows off their personality and who they were. I think that’s helpful for everyone.
Dani: It is so fascinating to think of your funeral as something so unique and personal –– something to leave your family and friends with.
Christina: Absolutely. I once did a memorial service for a younger gentleman. His cancer had returned. His brothers handed me his phone before the ceremony and said, "You can play whatever is on his Spotify."
So, I looked at the Spotify account. There was a playlist that was called “Happy Music.” So, I opened it, took a look at the songs, and thought, “This will be great!”
It was Diplo, The Killers, Nicki Minaj, and others. All I could think was, “This is probably his spirit. The music that we're going to play is just going to be so indicative to the kind of guy he was.”
And it was! His brothers loved it. And you know what?
It was still a sad and emotional day, even with Nicki Minaj playing. The personal details don’t negate the grief.
There's space for grief and for loss, because loss sucks. And still, you live your life, and your loved one’s live their life. Why wouldn't you want to celebrate all of the achievements? If someone was an artist, let’s get their art up on display! If someone loved to read, let’s make sure we have some kind of bookmark folks can go home with.
It doesn’t need to be extravagant, but just these little touches and details can help in a way you don’t even realize until they are there, and you are seeing this full life of the person you loved lived out in everyone who attends.
And, for the family, you can actually experience the day instead of worrying about the logistics. At funerals or celebrations of life, you have people there you haven’t seen in 10 minutes and others you haven’t seen in 10 years. People show up. Worrying about the logistics takes you away from getting to be there with them.
That's where the big value of bringing in an event planner, whether it's weddings, or memorials, or a baby shower, or whatever, really comes in. You get to be there and to experience it.
Dani: Do you have any resources or anything that you could point folks to for more information?
Christina: Yep, so the two PDFs that I was mentioning earlier are on my website –– here. I also have something up called Ask Me Anything. It’s a sort of digital consultation where for one hour, I am at your beck and call.
We can talk about your event, whether you're a funeral director or a family member. We can talk about how to get people integrated on Zoom, or little touches that you want to include or ceremony offerings.
I'm also partnering with a good friend of mine, Megan at Seeking Ceremony, and we can do custom ceremonies for folks right now.
The idea is to keep people connected, because even through loss, there are still ways that you can all contribute to a project, then host your event later with the results of that project, for instance. For example, a playlist, or a collage, or a write-up.
I understand that Zoom can be a little difficult, especially now. So, I can do tech support, and ceremonies, and whatever's needed right now, because there's a lot to take into consideration.