Celebration of Life vs. Funeral: How Are They Different?

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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. 

Celebration of Life vs. Funeral: Overview

To understand how a celebration of life vs. funeral compare, you’ll have to know a few facts about the typical tone, activities, and location of both types of memorials. 

Celebration of life ceremonies are exactly that: celebrations. Funerals, on the other hand, are typically far more somber and serious. That being said, it's possible to attend a joyous funeral.

You can partake in many types of activities in a celebration of life. You’re only limited by the confines of your or your loved one’s creativity. You also don't need to have a viewing of a body or visitation with a celebration of life. Funerals typically pull from a traditional list of events and activities, including viewings. 

One final difference between celebration of life ceremonies and funerals involves their location. It’s rare but not impossible to have a celebration of life ceremony take place at a funeral home. Funerals almost always take place at a funeral home or house of worship. 

However, both events intend to honor the life of the deceased person and provide a safe, healing space for friends and family members to connect with one another. 

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. 

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

Similarities Between a Celebration of Life and a Funeral

We’ve spent much of this post discussing how celebration of life ceremonies and funerals differ. However, it’s worth calling attention to the similarities between both of these types of memorials. Hopefully, too, this will help you decide which event may be right for you or a family member if you’re ever faced with having to make a decision. 

They’re memorials

Both celebration of life ceremonies and funerals can be classified as memorials. You can have one without the other, or you can even have both if it makes sense for your family’s situation. Furthermore, both events can be places to honor your family’s traditions and even make space for new ones.  

They’re safe places

Both celebration of life ceremonies and funerals are safe places. This means that both events should, ideally, not be places of judgment or excess stress. They should both provide a caring, healing environment for everyone involved. Both can celebrate life and practice gratitude just as both can provide a place to cry and be vulnerable.  

Both provide healing

Naturally, both celebration of life ceremonies and funerals should further you and your loved ones on your healing journey. They may take some time and effort to plan. However, once the date actually arrives, you should find solace in knowing that you’re honoring your loved one and laying him or her to rest in a dignified way or that’s reflective of their wishes. You should be able to look back on this date and know that you set aside sacred time to process this significant life change.

Exhibit community

Any type of gathering — whether it be three people or 300 — shows community. Both celebration of life ceremonies and funerals should make it clear that you have people in your circle to get you through this difficult time, and vice versa. Even if you haven’t interacted with the attendees in a long time, events like these are a way to bring everyone together, if even not under the happiest of circumstances. Both of these events can warrant the sharing of stories, prayer, poems, speeches, music, food, and, of course, love. 

They both honor the deceased

Furthermore, both of these types of memorials include the people who have been impacted by your loved one at some point or another. This gathering of friends and family are all there (or should be) to help you honor your loved one in a way that’s just not possible while alive.

They both honor the deceased's friends and family

Likewise, celebration of life ceremonies and funerals honor the deceased person’s friends and family. They provide a dedicated time and space for you all to grieve, witness any other emotions involved, as well as continue to heal. Dealing with death can be incredibly difficult, and no one should have to go through it alone. 

Both events aren't limited

Even though we’ve discussed many different facets of celebration of life ceremonies and funerals, both events have an unlimited scope in terms of planning and execution. This means that you can truly make them your own. Whic ever event would best honor your family and your loved one, you’re able to tailor them to do so. For example, celebration of life ceremonies can certainly have elements of seriousness and stoicism, just as funerals can have receptions or parties after them. 

How to Choose Between a Celebration of Life or a Funeral

When choosing between a celebration of life ceremony and a funeral, it’s important to know that neither choice is wrong. Any effort on your part to honor your loved one and bring your friends and family together is admirable and will prove crucial to your healing journey. 

Consider your loved one’s wishes

If you were fortunate enough to have a close relationship with the deceased person and have discussions about death, as difficult as they may be, perhaps he or she shared some wishes with you about their memorial. It’s not uncommon for people to consider end-of-life planning while they’re alive. 

Even if they weren’t as specific as, “I’d like a celebration of life ceremony,” perhaps they said something along the lines of, “I want people to have a party when I’m gone.” This is a sign: a celebration of life would best suit your situation. You can feature your loved one’s favorite foods, music, activities, and more.

On the other hand, perhaps you’d describe your loved one as being more on the traditional side. Furthermore, if religion was a big part of his or her life, a funeral may be far more sensible. That said, you can always have a funeral and then a more relaxed reception or event afterward with your loved one in mind.  

Think of your budget or other restrictions

Both celebration of life ceremonies and funerals can be held successfully even on a tight budget. However, with the expectation of the help of professionals and the use of a funeral home, it’s safe to assume that funerals will cost more than celebration of life ceremonies. 

Celebration of life ceremonies are much more unstructured and do not really have any predetermined expectations. You can always have a celebration of life ceremony or related event while you save to have what you and your family feels is a proper funeral. 

Furthermore, you may also have other restrictions beyond your budget to consider. If the celebration of life ceremony you envision can’t occur right now for whatever reason, perhaps a traditional funeral with the help of mortuary professionals is more doable.

Keep in mind you and your family’s needs

Though it’s important to prioritize your deceased loved one’s wishes, it’s still important to honor your grief, too. If a large celebration isn’t feasible right now, maybe a funeral makes more sense. You shouldn’t feel obligated to uphold any wishes or expectations for any extended family or friends — plan what will work best and help your immediate circle the most. 

In addition, it’s not out of the question that some individuals on your potential guest list may not fully understand the concept or goal of a celebration of life ceremony. You don’t have to invite them or anyone incapable of enjoying the event. Likewise, anyone who isn’t satisfied with your plans doesn’t have to attend. 

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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