Memorial Service vs. Celebration of Life: What’s the Difference?

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In the funeral industry, different words have similar meanings. For example, while some people may refer to a professional in the industry as a funeral director, older people may call the same person an undertaker.

One of the lexicological differences that you may have noticed is how different people refer to an end-of-life service. In your early life, you may have only heard the term “funeral” be used for such a service. Then you may have started to hear the term “memorial service” to describe a particular type of funeral. Most recently, you may also have noticed that some choose to call the service “celebrations of life.”

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Let’s discuss the nuances in meaning between the two terms, so you know how to label your loved one’s service. Knowing the difference between a memorial service and celebration of life will also help you understand what to expect when you attend one for a friend or extended family member. 

Tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, organizing their memorial or celebration of life may not be the only cause of stress. Handling their unfinished business can be overwhelming without a way to structure your process. We have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.

What’s a Memorial Service?

A memorial service is an end-of-life service. While the term may be used interchangeably with the word “funeral”, some use the words “memorial service” for a specific type of funeral. 

While both services honor the deceased, the body or cremains are sometimes not present at a memorial service, but they typically are at a funeral. This is not a hard and fast rule, as sometimes a memorial service may be held in the presence of the deceased’s cremains.

What’s a Celebration of Life?

A celebration of life typically is a less somber occasion than a funeral or a memorial service. The focus at a celebration of life tends to be sharing happy memories of the deceased. This does not mean that there are no tears shed during the service, but they tend to be less formal occasions than a traditional funeral.

Most of the time, a body is not present at a celebration of life. The cremains may be placed near a photograph of the deceased, or they may be absent from the service as well. 

Memorial Service vs. Celebration of Life: 5 Differences to Know

Unless the funeral is held at a religious institution, or the body is present, few rules must be followed when planning a service. Even though there are many funeral traditions in your community, many of these are simply based on social expectations. 

Some families feel comforted in hosting a traditional service for their loved one. They may plan a memorial service or funeral that is identical to those that have been given for members of the older generation. 

At the same time, those who work in the funeral industry have noted that more personalized funerals are gaining in popularity. The more traditional services are typically called “funerals”. Between the “funeral” and the highly personalized “celebration of life”, one would find a “memorial service”.

Here are some differences between a memorial service and a celebration of life. Please know that the differences between these services may be negligible or non-existent. 

1. The attire for a celebration of life is generally more casual than the typical attire for a memorial service

Most of the time, people wear dark, somber colors to a funeral or memorial service. Typically, mourners wear dressy clothing even though less formal attire has become acceptable over the years. 

Before attending a celebration of life, you may check for instructions regarding what to wear. Sometimes family members may ask attendees to wear clothing that supports a particular team that was the favorite of the deceased. You may also be asked to wear a specific color to show support for a particular disease or condition. 

The location of the service may also give you an indication of appropriate attire. A “funeral” held in a Catholic Church may require you to wear dark, dressy clothes. But those clothes would not be suitable for a “celebration of life” held at a biker bar.

When in doubt, talk with someone within the inner circle of the immediate family to find out the appropriate attire. 

2. A memorial service may be more structured than a celebration of life service

You may hear traditional hymns and readings from the Bible at a Christian funeral. A celebration of life may simply be a time for friends and family to gather to share memories.

In fact, some celebration of life services may feel more like a party. Look at this article for celebration of life party ideas

3. Memorial services may focus more on the deceased’s faith, while celebrations of life may be more secular

Again, we are making general statements regarding the differences between the two types of services. Families with strong religious beliefs may still host celebrations of life for a family member who died.

4. A celebration of life tends to focus on the joy of having had an opportunity to know the deceased. A memorial service tends to focus on the sorrow of having lost the individual to death

You may hear lots of laughter during a celebration of life. Laughter may not be as appropriate at a memorial service.

Of course, even though a celebration of life is typically more lighthearted, this does not mean that friends and family members are happy about the death of the individual. 

5. A memorial service may be held at a funeral home or religious institution while a celebration of life may be held anywhere

Planning an end-of-life service where the body is not present allows a family to get creative on the location of a service.

Some families choose to have a celebration outdoors, or others may prefer a restaurant or bar. To accommodate large groups, other families want to hold services in civic buildings. 

What Kind of Funeral Do You Want to Have?

How do you envision your funeral? Do you want a traditional funeral held at your church? Do you want an open-casket visitation and a closed-casket service? Do you want a minister to lead the service? Do you want those gathered to sing your favorite hymns? What kind of flowers do you want to be draped on your casket, and where do you want to be buried?

Perhaps, you would instead prefer a memorial service. Maybe you want your cremains to be placed in an urn near your photograph. Perhaps you want the service to be at a funeral home with a mixture of secular and religious music. Maybe you want your spiritual leader to lead the service, but you also want your friends or family members to share memories with the audience. Perhaps you want your cremains to be sprinkled in a memorial garden.

Or you might want to have a celebration of life. You may wish for your friends and family members to gather together in the back room of your favorite Italian restaurant. You want your favorite foods to be served—including your favorite cannolis. Perhaps you want those gathered to hear old standards sung by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Maybe you want your cremains to be placed in a columbarium niche near your parents’ remains.

Regardless of what type of funeral you want, you need to make sure you share your plans with your friends or family members. If they don’t know whether you would prefer a funeral, memorial service, or celebration of life, they may choose incorrectly. 

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