Retirement Planning, Elder Law, and Senior Finance

3/5/2021 | By Annie Tobey

Funerals traditionally emphasize sorrow and grief. We wear black, sing dirges, mourn. And, of course, we weep. We realize that the deceased is gone from our lives. But death is inevitable, and those who believe in an afterlife hope that their loved one is now in a better place, done with earthly suffering. Rather than focusing on our loved one’s absence, what if we were to create a celebration of life vs a funeral?

What Is a Celebration of Life?

A celebration of life remembers and honor’s a person’s days on earth. At a celebration of life, family and friends mark the person’s accomplishments, remember their personality, likes, and dislikes, and share memories. The celebration, the positive memories, can help loved ones turn from tears to smiles. Although it doesn’t end the grief, it can serve as a helpful salve in the healing.

A celebration of life can be incorporated into a funeral service or it can be a separate event entirely. If your religious leaders are uncomfortable with the idea, plan a celebration separately. If the funeral is likely to attract an abundance of acquaintances or members of the public, plan a second gathering and invite close friends and relatives.

The Advantages of Cremation vs Burial

12 Ways to Put Together a Celebration of Life vs a Funeral

A celebration of life can take many forms – no rules, just whatever enables an appropriate celebration for that individual. Consider that your loved one might be watching, enjoying the spectacle vicariously! Then ask: what would they enjoy? (If the answer is that they didn’t like having a fuss made over them, then consider that this for you and others who need to remember!)

A celebration of life reflects the deceased’s personality and preferences. Your strait-laced cousin wouldn’t appreciate a boisterous party and your heavy metal guitarist uncle wouldn’t enjoy a quiet service of hymns. These 12 ways to create a celebration of life can help personalize the event.

1. Plan the format.

A celebration of life can range from an informal gathering to a planned ceremony or virtual video gathering. You can have a party, host a house concert with the loved one’s favorite local band, hold an open house, etc.

2. Hold it in a meaningful place.

What spaces were especially meaningful to your loved one? If they were a consummate outdoors lover, consider renting a park shelter. Did they like gardening? Rent a space at the local botanical garden. Were they a member of a fraternal organization or other club or a church? Consider the club space or church fellowship hall. Other ideas are an art gallery, brewery or winery tasting room, marina, pub, museum, a friend’s or family member’s home, etc. You might even be able to hold it at the loved one’s home.

3. Create a memory table.

Request that attendees bring items that represent something special about the deceased – photos, sports trophies or gear, album covers, theatrical playbills, a coaster from a favorite restaurant, book, poem, quote, cartoon, etc.

4. Gather items for a scrapbook or memory box.

Memory table items that people are willing to part with can be made into a scrapbook or memory box afterwards. These could become priceless family treasures, for a mourning partner to relive moments or for grandchildren to better know a grandparent in later years. (If you plan to do this, be sure people label what they want returned from the memory table and take it with them when they leave.)

5. Offer opportunities for spoken tributes and toasts.

When it comes to hosting a celebration of life vs a funeral, shared personal stories are still very important to include. Whether you plan a formal service or an informal gathering, you can provide time for folks to share their favorite positive memories of the deceased. These can be serious, touching, humorous, etc., just not hurtful. Those who don’t want to ad-lib their memories or present them to the crowd can write them out for someone else to read. Others can choose to read short excerpts from favorite authors, poems, or inspirational speeches.

Not only do these tributes give people a chance to reflect on the loved one’s life, listeners may even learn something new.

6. Play favorite songs.

Create a playlist of favorite songs. Don’t worry if the playlist includes an odd assortment of music that you’d never ordinarily put together, like hymns and oldies, heavy metal and nature songs. This is about celebrating the person’s diversity, not about putting together the perfect party!

7. Present a slideshow.

Compile photos and videos of the deceased into a digital presentation. This can play in the background on a smart TV during the celebration of life. You can even request that attendees send images ahead of time to be included in the presentation.

8. Serve favorite food and drink.

Whether you provide these foods or go potluck, the table may be filled with an odd assortment of food, not a well-planned menu. But that’s OK! If appropriate, the spread could also include favorite craft beers, spirits, or wines.

9. Have a theme for your gathering, in décor and/or clothing.

Both the decorating and guests’ clothing can reflect the person’s life and favorites. Examples include:

  • Colors: highlight the favorite color with streamers and serving ware and suggest that guests can wear those colors
  • Favorite sports teams: decorating in team colors and swag and wearing jerseys and other gear
  • Hobbies: equestrian clothing and décor such as saddles and riding boots
  • Best decade: dress and decorate with a theme such as the ’70s
  • Vacation destination: beachy décor and dress, Hawaiian shirts and leis
  • Culture or heritage: kilts, plaids, or dashikis
  • Career: stethoscope and other medical paraphernalia
  • Famous person: performer, actor, or historical figure
  • Holiday: Independence Day

10. Host a band or other performer.

If your loved one enjoyed a local musician or band or a cover band that highlights their preferred music, book them for a house concert. A loved one with a sense of humor might appreciate knowing that a stand-up comedian or clown at the celebration of their life will make friends and family members laugh! (Keep in mind that these are paid gigs, not a free benefit for a fan.)

11. Offer “party favors.”

Take-home memories can be created or they can be shared from the loved one’s possessions.

Creations – do-it-yourself or purchased – could include personalized wine, Pilsner, or Old Fashioned glasses; small potted plants or succulents; mini bottles of flavored sea salts, spice blends, flavored olive oil, or aromatherapy essential oils; or sachets. Order seed memorial cards, packets of the person’s favorite flower or vegetable seeds, or seedlings and ask people to plant them in honor of the deceased.

Although you’ll probably want to save family heirlooms for family members, friends might appreciate taking home a coffee mug, serving dish, knick-knack, or other small token to remind them of good times together.

12. Hold a pre-celebration sporting event.

Start off the celebration with an appropriate sporting event: a softball game, a group run or walk, a touch football game, etc. By holding the activity beforehand, you can ensure that those who can’t participate in the event can still celebrate their lost friend or family member.

A celebration of life vs a funeral can encourage fond shared memories rather than sadness. While it won’t wipe away the grief, it can still help friends and family members be grateful for the good times

Annie Tobey

Annie Tobey has been a professional writer and editor for more than 30 years. As editor of BOOMER magazine, she explored a diversity of topics of particular interest to adult children of seniors. When she’s not writing, she can be found running the trails or enjoying a beer with friends.

Annie Tobey