Celebration of Life vs. Funeral: 10 Differences Explained

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Though death and sadness often go hand-in-hand, many feel compelled to pay more attention to the positivity, love, and happiness a deceased person brought to their life. All of these feelings can be expressed, recognized, and shared with other loved ones in what’s known as a celebration of life ceremony

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You may be wondering how to know which is right for different circumstances — a celebration of life or a funeral — or, perhaps, you’d simply like to know how these ceremonies differ. We’ll discuss the key differences below, though you may experience even more if you attend one or the other. 

What Happens at a Celebration of Life?

A celebration of life is fairly self-explanatory (a celebration of someone’s life!), though every celebration is likely very different. A celebration of life serves as an important way not only to reflect joyfully on a deceased person, but also to show respect through this joy.

Celebration of life ceremonies may include lively music, activities, food, attire, and more, all in a unique setting. The setting of choice probably won’t be a funeral home at all, but it may take place at another spot sacred to the deceased person, such as a house of worship, a natural park, or even their family home. 

ยป MORE: Grief is never linear. This post-loss checklist is here for you.

 

What Happens at a Funeral?

Funerals are meant to honor a deceased person, just like celebration of life ceremonies. However, as we’ll discuss, funerals differ sometimes dramatically. This all depends on the deceased’s wishes as well as the wishes of their closest family and friends. 

Funerals may also have very specific cultural traditions that the grieving family chooses to practice. You may be interested in reading more about Hindu funeral traditions or Hawaiian paddle-out ceremonies

As a guest of a funeral, there are some elements of funeral etiquette you should be aware of. These are typically very different from celebration of life ceremonies. That being said, not all funerals are somber or serious the whole time. 

At funerals, there is also an expectation for respect. Though smiling, laughing, and reflecting on happy memories spent with the deceased person are more than allowed, there is a delicate time and place for them.  

Differences Between Celebration of Life and a Funeral

We’ve briefly outlined a few differences between celebration of life ceremonies and funerals, but here we’ll get into specifics. If you’ve never been to a celebration of life ceremony or a funeral and have no idea what to expect from either, this will provide further insight. 

What to wear

Celebration of life ceremonies may have a themed dress code, a lax dress code, or no specific dress code at all. That being said, you should still plan to wear the basics — a top, bottoms, and shoes — unless the event is taking place at a beach or park and specifies otherwise. 

Celebration of life ceremonies, or even funerals, for that matter, may ask that you wear a color special to the deceased person, dress like a specific decade, or represent a specific sports team. In most cases, however, funeral attire is fairly customary.   

Etiquette

Even though celebration of life ceremonies are more relaxed — even loud and happy — you should maintain similar etiquette to that of funerals. It’s not appropriate to be late to celebrations of life or use that time to steal attention from the deceased person in any way. 

Furthermore, making jokes or remarks about the deceased person takes a high level of understanding and respect, and you shouldn’t use this as an opportunity to speak ill of them, even if you’re “just kidding.” 

Some people may also misconstrue the term “celebration,” and mistake it as a way to celebrate that someone has passed away. Even if this person were in pain while they were alive, Celebrations of Life are meant to highlight how special the deceased person was to those who loved them, as well as their accomplishments throughout their life. 

Setting

Celebrations of Life are not limited to any specific location. They will likely take place somewhere that’s either important or convenient to the family or loved ones organizing the event. 

There really aren’t rules for what would make a location out of the question, unless it were somehow disrespectful to another group. For example, a cemetery would be an inappropriate place for a “celebration.”

Timing

Another aspect that differentiates celebration of life ceremonies is that they can take place at any point after a person passes away. This allows the grieving family more time to plan as well as more flexibility for those who can attend. 

Celebration of life ceremonies also differ from funerals because the deceased person’s body is typically not present. If they are there, it may be their ashes in an urn, for example. 

While you can expect funerals to adhere to a set schedule, the schedule of a celebration of life ceremony is up to the family. It may last an entire day or a few short hours, and may involve a list of activities or freedom to simply enjoy other guests’ company. 

Budget

A great thing about celebration of life ceremonies is that there are few expectations. Of course, if there are, money can be spent on things meaningful to the people organizing it (like good food, drinks, or entertainment). While funerals can also be affordable with proper planning, there are many necessary expenses that aren’t cause for celebration. 

Celebrations of life can also be more of a group effort than funerals. While it’s customary to send or bring flowers to a funeral as well as bring food to mourning families, Celebrations of Life can allow a whole group to come together for one person since there are fewer restrictions. The homemade or even eclectic feel of it all will make it that much more special.

Emotional tone

Perhaps the biggest difference between celebration of life ceremonies and funerals is the emotional tone. This doesn’t mean funerals can’t have joyful, happy moments. Likewise, Celebrations of Life can also have sad, somber moments. 

However, when preparing yourself to attend a celebration of life ceremony, you should go into it with positivity and a smile on your face. You should expect to feel grateful to have known the person you’re celebrating and be grateful that you’re alive to do so. 

Activities or traditions

Depending on the setting, a celebration of life ceremony may feel like any old party. However, party or not, it’s a gathering meant to honor a specific person. At a celebration of life ceremony, you may play games, a sport, enjoy music, cook and dine together — just about any activity that the deceased person would want to see his or her loved ones enjoying. 

It’s also important to note a further aspect of the etiquette you should adhere to at both funerals and Celebrations of Life. Unless the deceased person and his or her family encourage it (no judgment) it’s probably not the best place to overdo it on any alcohol or influences that may be present. 

Tip: Some families give out small gifts or tokens to attendees. Take a look at our list of celebration of life party favors or funeral favors for some inspiration.

Music

The music at funerals isn’t typically something you’ll listen to in the car, gym, or any other place, for that matter. That being said, some people may have specific requests for music and other aspects of their funeral. 

If the person honored at a celebration of life ceremony had a passion for music, you can expect these artists or genres to be played — probably loudly, to be quite honest. Everything you expect about music at a funeral will likely be challenged at a celebration of life. While music at either type of ceremony may not be your taste, it’s still important to remain respectful and enjoy yourself anyway. 

Attendees

Because celebrations of life don’t require booking a funeral home or accommodating a limited number of people, you may expect more attendees.

On the other hand, the deceased’s family may feel that the celebration of life should be an even more intimate event and only invite those who truly understand (and who are open to having a good time). 

Décor or theme

Just like any party, a celebration of life ceremony may adhere to a specific theme. If the deceased person loved a particular part of the world, a movie or TV franchise, a notable decade, a sports team — anything — this may make for a meaningful and appropriate theme. 

Check out more celebration of life party ideas here

Remembrance May Not Have Rules 

While we’ve discussed plenty of guidelines and differences between Celebrations of Life and funerals, you shouldn’t feel limited. Remembering a loved one may not need (or shouldn’t need) to follow any rules. 

Grieve, mourn, laugh, cry, or yell as much as you need to. These ceremonies are simply ways to do so together so that healing can occur together as well. Find more important end-of-life planning resources on Cake. 

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