Did you know that end-of-life ceremonies like funerals and memorial services don’t need to be sad? In fact, you may have noticed there’s been a major cultural shift in the way we treat death. Instead of wallowing in sadness, you may choose to approach end-of-life ceremonies as an opportunity to remember your deceased loved one with joy.
Our Picks for a Celebration of Life
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A celebration of life service is an event that focuses more on how a person lived than on how he or she died — and you can have a celebration of life ceremony in addition to, or in lieu of, a funeral. A celebration of life party isn’t all fun and games — there are still tears and grief.
But people who attend may share positive stories and memories of the deceased. Instead of wearing all black, people often wear cheerful colors. A celebration of life ceremony gives you the opportunity to explore that aspect of mourning.
Tip: For more information regarding funeral planning and all of the other challenges that come with the death of a loved one, check out our post-loss checklist.
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Sample Celebration of Life Service Program
Similar to a celebration of life invitation, you’ll want a program to help guests know what they can expect from the service. A program typically includes a brief biography of the deceased before an itinerary of events. The program communicates who will deliver a eulogy, perform readings, or sing a hymn, and the order of events. Programs may also include words to hymns so that guests can sing along.
Once you're done customizing your program, you can print it on stationery paper with an elegant design like this Gartner Studios one.
“Celebration of Life”
(Include a photo of your deceased loved one.)
Sally M. Jenkins
January 5, 1971 – December 1, 2019
Sullivan Brothers Funeral Home
1234 Main Street
Sarasota, FL 34236
Order of Service
Celebrant: Reverend Ann Smith
Entrance Music: “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor
Welcome and Introduction: Mark Jenkins
Eulogy: Alice Jenkins
Hymn: “I Watch The Sunrise” by John Glynn
Reading: Excerpt from William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”
Reflection Song: “Angels” by Robbie Williams
Prayer: Psalm 23
Poem: “She Is Gone” by David Harkins
Exit Music: “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum
You can include the same obituary you ran in a local newspaper or posted online in this section. You may add additional information or pare down the information to make sure it fits in the allotted space. An obituary will look something like this:
On December 1, 2019, Sally Jenkins passed away after a long battle with chronic illness. She was 49 years old.
Born in Sarasota, Florida, Sally was a gifted artist who won awards for her paintings of Florida landscapes. She owned her own art gallery where she showcased her own work as well as the work of other Florida artists. She served as a mentor for up-and-coming artists and ran free art workshops for underprivileged teens.
In recent years, chronic pain and fatigue left her restricted in her mobility. She said looking back at her paintings helped her feel more connected to the Florida landscape she loved so much. She took comfort in knowing her gallery would continue to be a refuge for Florida artists even after her death.
Sally is survived by her husband Mark and daughter Alice. At a future date, her family will invite friends and family to scatter Sally’s ashes in the natural Florida environment she loved.
“I Watch The Sunrise” by John Glynn
I watch the sunrise lighting the sky,
Casting its shadows near.
And on this morning, bright though it be,
I feel those shadows near me.
But you are always close to me,
Following all my ways.
May I be always close to you,
Following all your ways, Lord.
Celebration of Life Program Outlines or Templates
Unlike funerals and memorial services, there can be a lot of freedom in putting together a celebration of life service. Celebration of life services are all about celebrating an individual, and that means paying tribute to the kind of person they were. The last thing you want to do is put together a celebration of life that the deceased would not have liked.
They may even include a virtual component (read more about virtual funerals here), allowing attendees to log in, view the service, and interact with other online and in-person ceremony guests.
Tip: We recommend GatheringUs's virtual funeral planning service to help you with logistics, tech, and day-of-funeral production.
If you’re not sure quite where to begin, selecting content is a good start. Refer to our lists of celebration of life songs and celebration of life quotes. There, you can find selections that appropriately honor the deceased.
We’ve included a few ways you can organize a celebration of life service. At the end of the day, let your knowledge of the deceased guide you as you plan his or her celebration of life service.
Many people opt for celebrations of life because they allow for a more informal vibe. This sample lets you explore a less regimented service.
2 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Greet guests as they arrive and allow them to mingle. You can point them to a guest book where people can sign in and write a message or share a memory with the deceased’s family. Set up ample seating areas where people can gather in smaller groups within a larger space. This allows for a sense of intimacy even if you’re expecting a larger crowd.
You don’t have to opt for a fully catered affair, but you can still make food and drinks available. Appetizers and finger foods will be easier to manage logistically. Hire one or two people to ensure that appetizer trays stay full and people know where to find them so you don’t have to be tied down to the area. Beverages could be just water, iced tea, and soft drinks, or you could have a table set up where people can pour themselves a glass of wine.
3 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Gather everyone’s attention and propose a toast to the memory of the deceased. At this point, you can also invite people to share a brief memory or story about the deceased. You can coordinate with a few of the deceased’s closest friends and family members ahead of time, so they can present something they’ve prepared. Feel free to leave the microphone open for other guests to get up and speak as well.
4 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Ask attendees to join you in the yard for a ceremonial farewell. Releasing eco-friendly balloons or paper lanterns is a beautiful way to symbolize letting go of the deceased. Remind people to sign the guestbook on their way out if they haven’t already. Playing a few songs that the deceased loved can help signify the end of the service.
Not everyone is comfortable with an open-ended ceremony. This sample shows a little more about what a more regimented and scheduled celebration of life looks like.
2 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Host a brief reception to allow people to arrive and mingle. There’s no need to serve food, but having drinks on hand is a nice touch.
Bring people in to be seated. Depending on the way you want the ceremony to feel, chairs can be neatly lined up or gathered in more informal groupings. You may hand out programs so that people have a point of reference for the upcoming service.
2:45 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Opening remarks: The host thanks everyone for attending and introduces the celebration of life ceremony. This reminds people that the service will have a joyous feel. If the decedent was religious, the host may lead people in prayer or invite a celebrant to do so. That aspect can be skipped in a secular service.
Eulogy: A family member or close friend often delivers a eulogy. In a celebration of life ceremony, it’s appropriate to use humorous stories in tribute of the deceased to keep the mood light and joyful.
Reading: A friend or family member can share a reading to honor the decedent. It may be the lyrics of a song the decedent loved or an excerpt from a favorite book. An effort should be made to choose material that is lighthearted and uplifting.
Moments of reflection: Here, you can invite a few guests to share brief stories about the deceased. They shouldn’t be as long as a eulogy, but they should provide a new perspective on the deceased’s character.
Reflection song: Here, you can play a song that the deceased really loved. It’s a lovely touch to have someone play and sing it live if possible. If not, a recording is acceptable as well.
Prayer: If the deceased was religious or spiritual, you can have a brief prayer or religious reading like “The Lord is My Shepherd.” This can be skipped in a secular service.
Exit music: It’s always important to end on a high note. The song that signifies the end of the service should be upbeat and up-tempo. Some examples of a great exit song are “Beautiful Day” by U2 or “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone (The Cup Song)” by Anna Kendrick.
More Help Planning Your Celebration of Life
Overall, a celebration of life service can provide comfort to friends and family members of the deceased. It helps remind you that the world doesn’t stop turning and that after dark times there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
If you need more help planning your celebration of life ceremony, check out our guides to the best non-religious funeral songs, our celebration of life party ideas, and uplifting funeral songs.