Celebration of Life: 20 Surprising Things You Can Expect

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Let’s be honest, the image of a traditional funeral doesn’t bring up too many happy thoughts.

You’re probably now visualizing people sitting around in black listening to mournful eulogies and prayers.

But have you ever asked, why does the loss of someone have to be so sad and morbid?

Well there’s a growing movement of people who question this.

And they want to acknowledge a loved one’s passing through a celebration of life.

If you’re planning a celebration of life or attending one, we’ll go through everything you need to know.

What is the difference between a funeral and a celebration of life?

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Where the atmosphere of a funeral is formal and somber, a celebration of life is more casual and upbeat.

The focus is on positive memories rather than mourning.

Laughter and jokes (which may seem out of place at a funeral) are completely appropriate at a celebration of life.

While a funeral is usually held in a church or a funeral home, a celebration of life takes place in a more relaxed environment.

The event is commonly held in a home or in an outdoor location, such as a beach or a park.

The timing for a celebration of life service may also be more flexible than with a funeral. The event may happen immediately after a loved one’s death or burial. But it could also take place days, weeks, or months later.

A celebration of life is a great option if you want to go for lighthearted…rather than heartbreaking.

But of course, you still may have some questions.

After all, everyone knows what to expect at a funeral. But a celebration of life is much less scripted.

Here is some information on the nuts and bolts of a celebration of life service.

Celebration of life etiquette

True, it’s not as formal as a funeral. Yet there are certain norms that you can plan on.

What happens at a celebration of life service?

Don’t be surprised if this event feels more like a party than a funeral.

Also don’t be surprised if typical religious conventions and formats seem to have gone out the window.

You can expect a mood that is joyful and relatively unstructured.

There may be music, dancing, laughing and reminiscing about the loved one.

What is appropriate to wear?

Appropriate attire for a celebration of life depends on a number of factors.

The location of the service, the hour of the day, and the activities planned should all be considered in the choice of an outfit.

In general, attire should be more casual than what you would wear to a funeral service, but still conservative enough to show respect.

Skip the traditional black and go for something bold and colorful instead.

Jeans, dresses and flowy blouses are all acceptable attire.

Women should keep accessories simple and avoid anything flashy or excessive.

If outdoor activities are planned, sneakers or running shoes are best.

Should you send flowers?

It’s a perfectly appropriate act of sympathy to send flowers directly to a bereaved family member.

However, a celebration of life has a different feel than a funeral.

At a funeral, it is normal to see many large and formal flower arrangements.

But these don’t really suit the mood for a celebration of life.

While sending flowers to the home of a bereaved person is always a thoughtful gesture, you might want to avoid sending an arrangement to the celebration of life unless they are specifically requested.

Celebration of life donations

Making donations to a cause that the deceased person cared about is a meaningful way to remember them.

You can ask people to donate to or volunteer at a favorite charity of the deceased person. Donations could take the form of a charity run or bike ride so that people can enjoy time together engaged in an activity that was meaningful to their lost loved one.

A scholarship fund or the planting of a memorial tree in your loved one’s name can also be wonderful ways to celebrate their life.

Planning a celebration of life

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What’s the most important rule about planning a celebration of life?

Well…the rule is that there are no rules.

Each celebration of life will be unique depending on the person’s individual qualities.

While this can be freeing, it can also be overwhelming. Where to start?

Here are the things you need to think about to plan a meaningful celebration of life.

  • Decide what the service will be like. Will it be held in conjunction with a traditional funeral? Or will it stand on its own
  • Determine when and where it will take place. Of course, you can opt for a traditional venue like the funeral home, but you are also free to consider more creative alternatives. Think about places that were special to your loved one, maybe a favorite park or even a restaurant. Keep in mind the needs of out-of-state friends and family that will need to travel to attend
  • Make a budget. This will be an important factor in determining many aspects of the service, from decorations to the number of people that you want to invite. After all, you don’t want to spend time planning a service only to find out that you can’t afford it.
  • Decide who will attend. The number of guests you want directly influences decisions such as food and venue. Write down a list of names and add to it as needed.
  • Choose someone to run the service. A minister or priest is an excellent choice if your loved one had a strong religious faith. Otherwise, a non-denominational celebrant can help you work out the small details which might be overwhelming otherwise.
  • Decide who will speak. Sometimes, close family members may volunteer to speak at the service, or you may reach out to ask those who were closest to your loved one to share an anecdote or a story. If you’re comfortable, you might even consider opening it up to anyone who feels moved to speak. Make sure you give some guidance as to what kinds of things you would like people to share.
  • Create an outline. Write an order of service to ensure that any desired readings, music or activities are included.
  • Decide what group activities will take place. Feel free to think outside the box here. A balloon release, a boat ride or even a movie viewing could all be fun ways to honor the departed.
  • Choose decorations. These are not required, especially if the service is outdoors. However, a memory table or a slideshow can be a moving tribute.
  • Arrange the catering. Though not a requirement, you may want to provide some refreshments, or possibly a meal. This depends on the time of day and your budget. There are many creative solutions, from a hired caterer to a potluck dinner.

A typical celebration of life program

As we’ve pointed out, there’s nothing typical about a celebration of life. Each one is truly unique.

However, it’s helpful to have a guideline to follow, so you don’t have to “reinvent the wheel.”

Here’s a structure that can work well.

Initial gathering

As people are arriving, allow them an informal time to enjoy conversations and memories.

While this may be the most unstructured part of the celebration, it’s also the most important.

It gives people a chance to unwind and share special moments together remembering the deceased.

In fact, it’s perfectly OK if this is the entire celebration.

Food and drinks

You may choose a catered plate of finger foods, a potluck meal in your home, or a gathering at your loved one’s favorite restaurant.

If having a sit down meal, consider using place cards so that people will know where to sit. But this is by no means a requirement.

The point is to give guests a chance to relax and enjoy each other’s company.

A toast and speeches

At some point during the meal, the host may make a celebratory “toast” to the deceased.

This is the appropriate moment to invite guests to make speeches in memory of your loved one.

Remind guests that speeches at a celebration of life are lighthearted, funny or joyful. Appropriate reactions are smiles and laughter.

Tears can be saved for a funeral or memorial service.

A group activity

This is a good time to share an activity that memorializes the deceased.

There are a wide variety of possible activities. A bonfire, singing, or a tree planting are all great options.

Be cautious about activities that might be harmful to the environment, such as balloon or butterfly releases.

Concluding the event

Take some time to say goodbye to the guests as they leave. Or mark the conclusion of your celebration by playing a special song for guests to listen or dance to.

Some Celebration of Life Ideas

If you’re still stumped for ideas, here are a few.

Whatever you decide, remember to personalize it to your loved one.

Also, these don’t have to be confined to one specific day. Some of these ideas can be used months or years later on a birthday, an anniversary, or any other special day.

  • Share stories. Encourage a mix of poignant as well as funny memories.
  •  Play a slideshow or video of happy times in the deceased person’s life, or fun things you did together.
  • Ask guests to bring photos and other mementoes of your loved one to the service.
  • Ask guests to contribute items to a memory box or scrapbook. This can make a wonderful remembrance to look at any time you want to honor your loved one’s memory.
  • Make a memorial donation of some of the deceased person’s belongings to a charity. This is especially appropriate if your loved one was a collector of any kind. Vintage clothing, jewelry, or art pieces can be wonderful donations to local museums.
  • Hold a candlelight service. The light of candles gives a gentle and spiritual mood to any remembrance.
  • Have a butterfly release. But do your research carefully to make sure the company uses safe, ethical practices that keep the butterflies from being harmed.
  • Do a night release of a sky lantern carrying your loved one’s name and a special message to them. You can also release several lanterns to memorialize different friends or family members you have lost. Be aware that in some states you are required to get a permit for a sky lantern release. Also check that the lanterns you use are biodegradable and won’t harm wildlife.
  • Establish a scholarship fund in your loved one’s name to a local school or university. This is ideal if your loved one was an educator or an advocate of education.
  • Display a bouquet of your loved one’s favorite flowers on his/her birthday or “angelversary.” The display could be in your home, your place of work, or place of worship.
  • Create a unique social media post to mark an anniversary. Add photos, quotes or a brief story to make it more meaningful.
  • Showcase one of your loved one’s favorite quotes on a chalkboard or fabric display at the celebration of life.
  • Make a playlist of your loved one’s favorite songs to play at the celebration. It can be background music as people arrive, or you can make it a focal point of the service in some way.
  • Put a sealed bottle in the ocean with notes to your loved one inside. This can be done privately and individually, or you can have guests read them out loud. Include an email address in the bottle and see how far your memories go.
  • Ask guests to write a special memory on a rock and put it in a memorial jar. These can be read out loud at the ceremony. They can also be scattered at a lake or a park, or displayed as part of a memory garden.
  • Engrave a piece of jewelry with the loved one’s signature or a loving message from them.
  • Plant the seeds of your loved one’s favorite flowers or vegetables. When they grow, you can think of your loved one every time you enjoy them.
  • Craft a memory quilt out of the person’s clothing. This gives you a priceless remembrance that can be used every day or lovingly displayed.
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