A Quick Guide to Celebration of Life Service Etiquette

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Most people know what to expect when going to a funeral. They know they are expected to wear dark-colored dress clothes. They know that the body may be present at the time of the event. They know that they are expected to sit quietly during the service and listen to the music, prayers, readings, and eulogy.

Even if you only have been to a few funerals in your lifetime, most people have a basic understanding of funeral etiquette based on limited experience and what they see on TV and in the movies. 

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You may have no experience attending a celebration of life service. Events like this are difficult to pin down because there are no hard-and-fast rules that describe what happens at one of these services. 

A celebration of life could be the only service for the deceased or it could be an informal event that follows a formal funeral. It may or may not be at a house of worship. More than likely, the body or cremains will not be present at the celebration of life, but that is not necessarily true. The event can be religious in tone or it can be secular. It could be held days, weeks, months, or a year after the individual’s death.

Since the structure of celebration of life services does not follow a regular pattern, it’s difficult to come up with rules for behavior. This means that a lot of the etiquette will need to be learned on the fly. Here are some general celebration of life etiquette guidelines to get you through the event. 

If you need some help navigating the entire complicated process of loss, including planning or attending a service, check out our post-loss checklist.

Who’s Usually Invited to a Celebration of Life?

If you are organizing a celebration of life for your loved one, you have a lot of decisions to make. One of the most significant decisions is whether you should have a public or private event. Your guests may find themselves in the position of knowing someone who died and trying to determine whether they are “invited” to the gathering. Here are some things to consider. 

As the host

“Celebration of life” can be another term for a funeral. If this is the case, you may publicize the events just as you would any other end-of-life service: By placing an obituary in a newspaper, asking the funeral home to share details of the event on their website, and sharing the time, day, and place on social media. This means that the event will be public and anyone could show up to the event. 

If it’s not your intention to have a public event to celebrate the life of your loved one, you can simply state, “The family will be celebrating the life of __________ at a private event.” Don’t share the details of the event if you do not want the general public to attend. 

You may consider holding a celebration of life on the anniversary of your loved one’s death. If this is the case, you may want to send formal invitations to the event. You could limit the guest list to just family or invite close friends of the deceased as well. 

As the attendee

If you are wondering whether you are “invited” to a celebration of life, here are some clues. If the event’s details (time, date, place) are included in the published obituary, then you are free to attend the event. You need to wait for an invitation if the obituary or funeral home website says that a private celebration of life will be held at a later date. 

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What’s the Mood at a Celebration of Life?

Most families choose to have celebration-of-life services to share happy memories and stories of the deceased. Instead of focusing on saying “goodbye” or on the afterlife, most of these events allow attendees to show gratitude for that person’s life. 

This doesn’t mean that no tears will be shed at a celebration of life. After all, a person whose life was worth celebrating will be missed by family members and friends. 

If you attend a celebration of life, follow the tone of the immediate family members. If they are full of smiles and laughter, then rejoice with them. If they are more subdued and reflective, then save your funny stories for more private moments. 

What Do You Wear?

If you are hosting the event, you set the stage on what to wear for the celebration of life. You can communicate this in several different ways. 

People will assume that they should wear dark, dressy clothes if the celebration of life is being held in a religious building or funeral home. Most would wear more casual attire if the event is held at a local restaurant or bar. 

If you envision your loved one’s celebration of life as a lighthearted event and don’t want to see a room full of people in dark clothes, you need to articulate those instructions in the obituary or funeral home website.

Simply add the instructions, “The family requests that those who attend wear casual attire” or “In honor of Mom’s favorite color, we would like the guests at her celebration of life to wear red.” or “You all know how much Bob loved the Cubs. Wear your Cubs jerseys to honor this great man.”

How Do You Offer Condolences at the Ceremony or Reception?

Some people feel awkward offering condolences to families who have lost a loved one. After all, what can be said to alleviate the pain of the situation? The good news is that most people understand this and will accept a big hug as an offer of sympathy. 

Instead of advising you on what to say, let’s talk briefly about what not to do when offering condolences.

Pay attention to timing 

Avoid offering condolences immediately preceding the celebration of life ceremony. Most of the time, the family will spend this time reflecting on a loved one and it may not be the best time for you to start a conversation. 

Be aware of others who want to speak with the family

At most funerals, everyone in attendance wants to opportunity to express their sorrow to the family members. If there is a long line of people behind you, make your comments brief.

Don’t make comments about your experiences with loss

Even if you are grieving over the loss of someone you love, don’t compare your pain with someone else’s. Avoid comments like, “I know how you feel” or “You’ll get over it.”

Stay on an appropriate subject

If family members choose to host a celebration of life ceremony, they probably want to hear funny or positive stories about the one they lost. They want people to share their memories of the deceased. The family members don’t want to hear about your recent vacation, illness, or home improvement project. 

Do not discount the healing power of a good hug

If you are close to the family member, he or she understands that sometimes there is nothing to say. Simply saying “I’m sorry” or offering a hug may be enough.

Do You Bring a Gift or Flowers to a Celebration of Life? 

Most of the time, people avoid bringing gifts or flowers to funerals and other end-of-life ceremonies. Handing a gift to one member of the immediate family may feel awkward when others in the family are gathered. There may not be a good spot for the recipient to place the gift and opening presents after you lost someone feels wrong. 

If you want to send flowers, most etiquette guides suggest that you have the florist deliver the arrangement to the funeral home or church before the event. If you want to give a gift, such as a figurine or a photo frame, consider dropping it off at the person’s house days or a week after the funeral. 

Look to the Members of the Immediate Family to Guide Your Behavior

Much of the advice that we have given you is similar to what you would read regarding funeral etiquette. This is because some families have celebrations of life that are “happier” than traditional funerals, but they are still somewhat formal services.

If you are invited to a celebration of life with a more party-like atmosphere, look to the immediate family members on how to behave appropriately. If they are laughing over stories of the deceased and having a good time, then so should you. 

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