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What Is a Celebration of Life and How to Plan One?

A Celebration of Life is a very personal way of saying “goodbye”. It puts emphasis on life rather than death. It centres around acknowledging the deceased one’s legacy and remembering the love and joy they brought to their family’s and friends’ lives. Even though 54% of Brits say they would opt for one (according to a survey done by ICM), many people still wonder “What is the difference between a Celebration of Life and a funeral or a memorial service?” As opposed to a traditional funeral the body of the deceased is not present at a Celebration of Life – however, the ashes might be if scattering them is part of the ceremony. The main difference to a memorial service is the atmosphere and level of personalisation. Instead of a sombre event that focuses on grief and sorrow, you can expect a celebration or party.

Why would you choose a Celebration of Life?

Many people find traditional funeral rituals too rigid and impersonal. A Celebration of Life offers an alternative that can be as unique as the person who has passed away. It also allows for ultimate flexibility and freedom in regard to planning the event. Sometimes people choose to have both: A funeral with a traditional service, followed by a Celebration of Life. Oftentimes, though, people forgo the funeral altogether, for example when they opt for direct cremation, and hold the Celebration of Life as a stand-alone event. It could either be that the deceased expressed the wish to be remembered that way or that their loved ones prefer something unconventional that truly reflects the personality, interests, and passions of the family member that died as well as the life they lived.

How to plan a Celebration of Life?

There is no right or wrong way to plan a Celebration of Life. It can be an intimate gathering or a lavish party. It can be religious or have religious elements (e.g. prayers or hymns) but doesn’t have to be. The beauty of it is that there are no rules. The choices you have are only limited by your budget. This freedom can feel overwhelming. Remember: You don’t have to organise it all by yourself. Don’t hesitate to ask for help.

When planning a Celebration of Life yourself, you might find the following questions helpful: What would have been meaningful to the person who died? How would they have wanted to live on in the memories and hearts of their loved ones (maybe they did express specific wishes)? Which atmosphere would you like to create/what tone should be underlying the event (e.g. upbeat, joyful, positive, celebratory, casual)? Celebrations of Life tend to revolve around the good times people had with the deceased and the happy memories that were created together. It often includes laughter, dancing, singing, storytelling, and other activities that would have mattered to the person who died.

A little note on the side: Yes, it is called a celebration. Nonetheless, it’s absolutely okay and only natural for feelings of sadness to arise. A Celebration of Life doesn’t want to deny the reality of the loss and the grief that it brings.

Budget: How much does a Celebration of Life cost? That really depends on your budget. Ask yourself what you can reasonably afford. This will narrow down your choices regarding the number of guests you invite, the location/venue, decorations, etc.

Who will attend? Make a guest list. It really depends on the budget as well as the personality of the deceased how many people you invite. The number of guests will affect the location you choose or the venue you want to book. At least an estimate of how many people will attend is also important if you intend to serve refreshments.

Where? You can have a Celebration of Life at a church or funeral home. However, people usually choose a more relaxed environment. The choice of location is usually based on the interests and passions of the deceased. Maybe they loved the great outdoors. If that’s the case their favourite park or beach might be perfect. You could rent a venue – for example, a pub or a theatre if they were movie enthusiasts. Other options include community centres, club houses, or simply at home.

When? A Celebration of Life can be held weeks, months or even years after the death. You could choose a meaningful date, for example, the birthday of the deceased or their anniversary of death. Maybe they had a favourite month or season of the year?

Order of service: The Celebration of Life can but doesn’t have to include structured elements. If all you want to do is give people an opportunity for an informal gathering to share stories and remember the person who died, that’s completely fine. If you’d like to have something akin to an order of service, it should outline the event. You might also want to include photos, music/songs, poems, readings, jokes, quotes, speeches, as well as planned activities like dancing, singing, movie viewing, etc.

Dress-code: “What to wear to a Celebration of Life?” is one of the most frequently asked questions. It is very helpful for guests if you let them know about the expected dress-code in the invitation. Depending on the life, style & personality of the person who died, you might want to consider a theme (e.g. the 70s, Biker, Hippie). If they had a favourite colour or favourite piece of clothing (e.g. dungarees, baseball cap, leather jacket), you could encourage guests to consider that when dressing for the occasion. What people wear will also be based on the location, the season, the weather, and planned activities. Usually, the attire is more colourful and casual than at a traditional funeral. 

Invitations: If you want people to join the Celebration of Life, let them know and spread the word. Sending out invitations – whereas that would be unusual for a funeral – is one way to do that. You could also simply call people or create a post on social media. In any way, it should include any special requests you might have (what to wear & what to bring or prepare, e.g. a quote or anecdote to share, a photo or video or song, an item that reminds you of the person that died, food,…) and let people know what to expect.

Who will speak? You may want to choose someone to officiate the Celebration of Life. This can be a celebrant, a family member or a close friend. It could be one person who gives a eulogy or a number of selected people who share anecdotes. Some families opt for an open mic where anyone who’d like to gets to share their memories of the deceased. Give your guests some guidance around what you’d like to be shared (e.g. light-hearted, funny, joyful).

Music: It’s popular to create a playlist with the favourite songs of the deceased. You could ask family members and friends who play musical instruments to contribute a piece or song or hire a live band.

Group activity: If your loved one was passionate about gardening or nature; you could choose to decorate or plant a tree or seeds at their Celebration of Life. Maybe they were a biker and a selected group would like to take a tour to one of their favourite places? Maybe you want to gather around a bonfire because the deceased really enjoyed camping? Another beautiful idea is writing down wishes or memories or quotes on a whiteboard, ribbons that get tied into a tree or pieces of paper. The latter could for example be put in a bottle that gets thrown into the sea. Dancing and karaoke could be appropriate as well.

Catering: You don’t have to provide food and drinks. If the person whose life you are celebrating was a foodie, though, this might be an important part of the event. You could hire a caterer or ask everyone to bring their favourite dish to have a potluck buffet. Other options include but are not limited to a picnic, a BBQ, or maybe cooking together at the event.

5 unique Celebration of Life ideas:

  • Ask people to contribute to a memory box or jar or to help put together a scrapbook. 
  • Donations: You could donate money to a charity or cause that meant a lot to the person who died. If they owned a lot of books, you might want to consider donating them to a school library. Or maybe you want to set up a scholarship fund at a local school or university. You could also buy gifts and donate them to a nursing home or hospital.
  • Craft a memorial quilt from the deceased one’s favourite clothing and/or old photographs that get printed on fabric.
  • Create a recipe book with their famous creations or their favourite meals.
  • Put together a tribute video in which people who were close to the person that died share their favourite memories.

There’s no script for a Celebration of Life. It’s entirely up to you and your family to decide what’s suitable and what feels appropriate.

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