What is a celebration of life ceremony?
Like a funeral, a Celebration of Life ceremony honors an individual after his or her death. As the name suggests, attendees emphasize celebrating the life of the deceased instead of mourning their passing. A Celebration of Life (CoL) helps people grieve but also encourages people to focus on the positive aspects of the life lived. Loved ones may share memories and stories, console each other, and just spend time being together with their grief.
CoLs can range from understated informal gatherings to outrageous choreographed spectacles.
While CoLs have a distinct feel and contemporary approach, the functions they serve are also similar to other more “traditional” rituals surrounding death. Funerals, memorial services, and celebrations of life all serve to help the bereaved family, and their community, publicly acknowledge the death of one of their own. These ceremonies, in whatever form they take, support the grieving family by surrounding them with caring friends, co-workers, and neighbors. Finally, these rituals mark the transition of the deceased from one social status to another, and the ceremonies help us acknowledge and come to terms with that reality.
Is a CoL right for me or my loved one?
If a traditional funeral or memorial service feels too formal or structured, consider a Celebration of Life ceremony. For those who don’t belong to a religious community or prefer a lighter approach to their final farewell, a CoL can be a great choice. However, it needn’t be either/or: CoL elements can often be incorporated into a more traditional service, or the CoL can even supplement a traditional service at a separate time and location. However, traditionalists may view the dignified funeral as solemn rather than celebratory, so make sure your decision fits the preferences and personality of the deceased. But for nontraditionalists, CoL’s are an option that can allow you the flexibility to create an event that is the perfect final sendoff for your loved one.
How is it different than a funeral?
Unlike a typical funeral, the celebration of life ceremony can be held weeks or even months after a death. Generally, the body is not present a CoL (although cremated remains sometimes are).
Another major difference between most funerals and most CoLs is the level of personalization. Below we will share ideas for beautiful and creative CoLs, but the sky is the limit. Another differentiating characteristic of CoLs is often the emotional “tone” of the event. A CoL is rarely an entirely somber affair. Ideally, there will be lots of laughter and storytelling mixed with tears and sadness. By focusing on the joy that the deceased brought to others, the atmosphere is often more relaxed and celebratory than a funeral.
Creative ideas for celebrating a life
Celebrations of Life are not constrained by the social expectations or religious guidelines that traditional funeral services tend to have, so you can let your imagination run wild in order to plan the perfect service as unique as the person you are honoring.
For example, some celebrities have shown special flourish with their grand farewells! The ashes of journalist Hunter S Thompson were blown into the sky from a cannon mounted on a 150 ft tower topped by a two-thumbed red fist -- the symbol of Thompson's free-wheeling, gonzo journalism. Thompson's friend Matt Moseley told the BBC before the funeral that it would be "the grandest celebration... on the planet". Friends were instructed to remember him afterward with the “clink of ice in whiskey.”
There is an unlimited number of choices when it comes to personalizing your event. Many people create a tribute movie or slide show and display photos around the venue. Your choice of music and readings can also be highly personal. Would a theme be appropriate?. A sky lantern release, a group motorcycle ride, a book drive, or a group walk are all ideas that have been used to add a personal touch to a CoL. Remember, there are no rules.
Don’t forget to consider unconventional locations: if the deceased was a film lover, consider renting a theater for your celebration. Choose how you will decorate the venue: If you are having your celebration at an outdoor location such as on the beach or at a park, it may not be necessary to have decorations at all. Welcoming friends and family into your own home for a CoL is another common option. At-home services offer the greatest flexibility in terms of length, timing, and personal touches. They can range from a short program to an all-day celebration of life. If considering this option, take into account the size of your home, food preparation, and cleanup, and be sure to enlist the help of other friends and family.
The following additions to a Celebration of Life can add an extra personalized touch as well:
- Memory Table: Think about your loved one’s hobbies and passions. Gather some of the key things that were important to your loved one. At the entrance to the venue, have the items displayed on a large table. Display photos, scrapbooks, and personal items about your loved one.
- Video slideshow: A video slideshow outlining the deceased person's life is can be a meaningful addition to the CoL. Include photos and/or video from all stages of life, if available. Consider making copies of the slideshow to hand out to attendees as a keepsake.
- Guest scrapbook: A guestbook for attendees to sign with thoughts and wishes for the family is a common item at a funeral, but you can make the book even more expressive. Ask young children to contribute by drawing pictures or helping to find photos, or encouraging guests to sign the book. Or guests can write a note on colorful card stock or index cards to the family or share their favorite memory of the person who died. These can then be placed in a special memory box or bag and kept for future generations to read.
- Keepsakes: Mementos distributed at celebrations of life (such as seed packets for a gardener) help mourners remember their loved ones after the service is over.
How do I plan a Celebration of Life?
The steps of planning a CoL are similar to other gatherings that commemorate life events, although emotion will likely loom large as grieving unfolds. Though the logistics will likely become complex, try to keep this big picture in mind and the spirit of your loved one in your heart as you move through the planning process. If you are planning your own CoL, you may be wrestling with some different feelings as your mortality is brought into stark relief. In both of these cases, take time away from the planning for self-care and be sure to delegate roles to others.
Below is the series of steps I recommend for the planning process:
- Get clear on your vision: What sort of gathering would best honor this person’s life? Brainstorm ideas and reference creative options in this blog piece and elsewhere online. What would you like the overall tone to be? What would you like attendees to do together? Decide if the gathering will be small and intimate or wide open to the larger community. The service can be as informal as a picnic in a park, or as formal as a wedding. Consider any wishes of the deceased, and especially the preferences and finances of family members.
- Determine the function this event will have in the overall funeral process: Will it stand alone or be part of a more traditional funeral? If there are other events (a wake, church service, or graveside ceremony, for example), think about how the CoL will meet the needs of mourners.
- Consider cost: Celebrations of Life are typically less expensive and simpler to arrange than a traditional funeral. Do-it-yourself CoL’s can be done for almost no cost, or they can be elaborate functions costing many thousands of dollars. There are many opportunities to save money by doing things for yourselves. And most importantly, remember that money spent is never an indicator of how beloved someone was.
- Decide on a date: CoLs often have the added benefit of being scheduled at a convenient time--even weeks or months after the death. Confirm the availability of the desired venue and key participants. Remember that a long lead time may be necessary to accommodate any out-of-town guests who must make travel plans.
- Identify a venue: The location will affect the tone, cost, and capacity of your event, as well as the amount of external support and structure provided. Venue options include function rooms, funeral homes, beaches, parks, private homes, and public meeting spaces. The choice of location should be both meaningful and convenient, taking into account practical matters like bathrooms, parking, accessibility, set up, clean up, and technology access.
- Organize the order of events: Many people choose to have more structured events such as speakers and music followed by some type of activity and then a reception. For CoL’s with some formal elements, a printed program is helpful to the guests and makes an excellent keepsake. If there will be time set aside for open reminiscing, you may wish to have a designated emcee to keep things on schedule if needed.
- Select speakers: If the event will have a formal speaking portion, identify people who would like to contribute stories, testimonials, or poems. Someone close to the deceased may wish to share a brief summary of that person’s life, celebrating pivotal events, important relationships, and special memories. Another option is to select a funeral celebrant--experienced speakers who work with family members to create and lead memorial services. The role of a celebrant can range from giving the entire service, to helping facilitate sharing by other participants.
- Invite guests: You will want to start communicating with attendees as soon as you have settled on the date, time, and place, adjusting the size of the invitation list based on the capacity of the venue and the desired group size. A newspaper announcement or Facebook posting can reach a large number of people quickly, although may not be preferred if the event cannot accommodate the public. Individual phone calls, letters, and emails are more personal, and a “telephone tree” can save time. Evites can be a great way to extend individual invitations, track RSVPs, and communicate up-to-date information while still limiting the information to invitees only.
- Musical memories: Selecting music that was meaningful to the deceased is a way to honor and recognize them while also evoking memories in attendees.
- Refreshments that reflect a life: Choose food and drinks that were favorites of the deceased--or recreate recipes they loved to make.
- Theme attire? If your loved one was fond of a particular musical artist, film, or set of characters you could request that attendees dress in costume. Generally, the location (and sometimes the time of day) will drive the dress code. As the folks at Legacy Navigator say, “Overall, it’s a dress-up occasion that doesn’t take itself too seriously” --and they mention a service where the decedent’s hunting buddies all showed up in camo.
Make your wishes known
Cake is a perfect platform for helping to determine your preferences and then communicate them to those who need to know when the time comes. We never know when that time will be, so specify how you’d like your life to be celebrated by creating your free Cake end of life plan while you have the chance. Whoever is charged with planning your CoL will be grateful you did!
Jasmine Tanguay, Legacy Facilitator & Funeral Celebrant
Jasmine is a funeral celebrant and life-cycle sustainability strategist, currently crafting a green legacy blueprint course called Completing My Circle. She is the founder of A Sustainable Legacy, working to help folks align their final outcomes with their deepest values and greatest gifts. She advises clients and conducts workshops on a variety of DIY legacy and deathcare topics. Jasmine also curates the website FullCircleLife.org which examines the connected cycles of life and death,and homesteads with her family and livestock in Southeastern MA.