10 Alternative Funeral Services to Consider

End-of-life care educator and grief worker

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Traditional funerals and memorial services are not the only way to celebrate a life. Atypical celebrations of life are becoming more mainstream. And other non-traditional burials are growing in popularity.

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You have options when it comes to a celebration of life. You might opt for a living funeral. Or decide you want a party thrown in your honor. It's important to talk to your family and friends and share what kind of service you’d like.

Here are some unique ideas to consider.

1. Home Funeral 

In many cultures and religions, hosting a wake in the home is traditional. It can take a little getting used to, but the tradition dates back centuries.  If your loved one died at home, you can hire a funeral home to prepare the body. Or you can do it yourself.

A home funeral creates an intimate experience with death. If you don't mind having people at your house or the home of the deceased, consider taking this route. Pick a day and invite people to come and go rather than setting a time. It that way, a home funeral is like a traditional wake. Or you might plan a ceremony with a set date and time. Hosting a home funeral allows you to operate on your timeline. And it creates a more relaxed atmosphere.

If you're burying your loved one, you can host a casket decorating party. If the casket is cardboard or wood you can draw on that. If they're being cremated, you might consider purchasing an urn for people to paint a message on. Or let people write notes and cremate them with your loved one’s remains. 

ยป MORE: Avoid extra stress while you grieve. Never miss a step with our post-loss checklist.


2. Virtual Funeral

Travel, family conflicts,  illness (or pandemics), and other problems may get in the way of all of the deceased's loved ones attending the funeral.

Some family members decide to hold a virtual funeral for those who can't make it.  In most cases, families choose either an online-only or hybrid (online and in-person) funeral. 

Tip: We recommend GatheringUs's virtual funeral planning service to help you with logistics, tech, and day-of-funeral production.

3. Tree Planting Ceremony 

If your loved one enjoyed nature, consider hosting a tree-planting ceremony. You can do this at home or in a public park. Planting a tree symbolizes rebirth and growth. It's a great way to memorialize a loved one. If your loved one was cremated, consider adding some of their ashes to the dirt you use. Turning to nature in times of sorrow can help you find peace and solace. Death is a part of life and nature is the best teacher for this life cycle.

Plan a small ceremony as you break the ground and plant the tree. Your guests may want to help by contributing some soil and saying a few words. If you are planning to have memorial cards, you can order plantable cards to give to the guests. Placing a tree plaque is also a nice permanent memorial to go along with the budding tree. 

If this type of ceremony feels too short, invite guests to stay and have a picnic after. If the weather is too cold, hosting a lunch at a restaurant is an easy alternative.

If you decide to plant a tree at a park, make sure you get permission first. 

4. Go to the Cinema 

For a movie lover, this is a fun alternative service. Invite friends and family to the big screen for a celebration of life. Pick a movie that your loved one enjoyed. Show it on the big screen. Before the movie, you can play a memorial slideshow of your loved one.

Ask the movie theater to set up a small stage or podium where you can welcome guests and say a few words. On each seat, you can place your loved one’s favorite candy and a memorial card. The memorial card could be movie-themed and say "The Life of [name] - Starring [Name.]"

If you want to add a personalized touch, you can design a movie poster in memory of your loved one. If you have the budget, make copies and pass them out to your immediate family. They can frame the poster and keep it as a memorial piece.

5. Picnic in the Park

A picnic is a great way to celebrate the life of a loved one. You can choose a park or arboretum and then rent a pavilion or bring pop-up tents. Decorate the outdoor space. Try to find decorations in your loved one’s favorite colors.

Serve their favorite foods and beverages. And invite people to bring a dish or dessert to share. Set up a memorial table with pictures, memorabilia, and a guest book for people to sign. Playing yard games or hiring a band to play will add a nice touch to this alternative service.

Do you want a non-traditional funeral?

Let your loved ones know. Create a free Cake end-of-life planning profile and share your wishes instantly.

6. Sea Burial 

For a burial at sea, you can rent a charter boat or yacht and head out to sea on a sunset cruise or water tour. Being out on the open water to watch sunset can be very peaceful.

If you do not have access to the ocean, consider a boat tour on a river or lake. If your loved one was cremated, you can have an ashes ceremony. During the ceremony, you can give a short eulogy and then throw the ashes into the water. After the ceremony, invite each guest to share a few words about your loved one. 

7. Garden Party 

If your loved one had a green thumb or a deep appreciation for gardens, you might host a garden party. Send out an invite. Encourage people to dress in their garden best. Have the event catered or invite everyone to bring a dish to share. If you plan on having alcohol, consider hiring a bartender or having a self-serve bar. 

On the tables, place an image of your loved one. Include fresh cut flowers for the centerpieces. You might also place blank cards at each table for people to share their favorite memories. During the party, you can encourage the guests to share their memories out loud.

The guests can either keep the memory cards or place them in a jar. Use these memories to create a memory book. Include photos of the party. They can be a reminder of how you celebrated the deceased.

8. Memorial Gala 

Host an evening gala in honor of your loved one. Invite guests to dress in their finest clothes and be ready to dance. You can have a formal dinner served. Or opt for a buffet style.

At the entrance of the gala, consider placing some memorial poster boards and a guest book. Hire a band or create a playlist of your loved one’s favorite songs fit for a funeral.

Reserve time in the afternoon or evening for memorial toasts. Invite the guests to share memories and the things they appreciated about your loved one. This is an elegant way to celebrate a life. 

9. Tea Ceremony

Many cultures consider a tea ceremony one of the best ways to honor someone. Tea ceremonies are usually performed for births, weddings, and other special occasions. But more people are beginning to perform them in lieu of a funeral.

Rent a local tea room or community center and have a tea service catered. Ask close family and friends to bring something that symbolizes your loved one. You can create a memorial table (an alter) for the items. Offer prayers and blessings over the alter. Make sure you return these items to the guests at the end of the ceremony.

Instead of a traditional ceremony, you could share a eulogy. Afterward, invite people to share some words. A guest book and photo collage would also be a meaningful touch. If they had a favorite flower, you might add those to each table as well.

10. Sports Sendoff 

Some of us have deep ties to sports teams or sports in general. If your loved one was a sports fan, consider hosting a golf tournament or tailgating at a football game. Both high school and college stadiums will honor people before the game or at halftime. You can have t-shirts made with your loved one's favorite number. This is a unique way to celebrate your loved one by watching their favorite sport. If you opt for a tournament, host a lunch afterward and share some memories from the event.

If desired, this event can become an annual memorial in honor of your loved one. You can also turn the event into a benefit for a cause, donating to your loved one's favorite charity. Both of these options are a wonderful way to honor the memory of your loved one.

Do Something Meaningful

The ideas above won’t resonate with everyone, and that's okay. The idea of hosting an alternative funeral permits you to choose how you want to be celebrated. For some, a living funeral might be the best option. This provides you with the opportunity to be present at your celebration of life. Others may want a traditional funeral or memorial service with an alternative after-party.  

Whatever you might decide for your end of life services, be intentional in your planning. Death is an important part of life. Take time to talk and think about death. It can be difficult, but it will help you become more aware of the options available to you.

It doesn't matter how silly or strange your idea might seem. All that matters is that it means something to you. Don't be afraid to share your alternative funeral ideas with family. It's important to share openly and remind them that it's your choice. Write down your services plans and include as many details as possible.

For some, planning their funeral service may seem scary. While for others, planning a funeral for themselves and others is liberating. Remember that this service is a celebration of you. Make it something meaningful and memorable for those who love you.

If you're looking for more unique funeral ideas, read our guides on strange funeral traditions from around the world or about the different types of funerals.

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