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Your Guide to Planning a Celebration of Life Ceremony

Death has no rules, so why should funerals?

It’s the 21st century and death doesn’t deserve our respect. Historically, rigid Victorian mourning rituals provided a perfect background for outpourings of sorrow and grief. It is also true that society has generally enforced mourning to be the “true” way to show respect for the memory of a loved one. For the majority of history and across geographies, traditional funerals have held a prominent place in handling loss and grief. These antiquated customs did serve a purpose, at some point in time.

But for a younger generation who are digitally native, educated by the internet, and who have watched countless movies dealing with the subject of death, the traditional ways to mourn the departure of a loved one feel anachronistic. This generation instead chooses to celebrate the passing of a loved one in a joyful manner – and for good reasons. While the inherent human need to mourn the dead hasn’t changed, the way in which we commemorate their memory has evolved.

What is a celebration of life ceremony?

Rather than hold a solemn and elaborate funeral, a celebration of life ceremony is an opportunity to recognize and celebrate the memory of the deceased. The emphasis is on celebrating life, not submitting to death and dwelling on it. A celebration of life ceremony is a wonderful opportunity to bring back the deceased where they rightfully belong – as individuals with lives, quirks, personalities, tastes, emotions, memories, and stories.

The harsh reality is that death wins all the time, everytime. It’s unavoidable and inexorable. Traditionalists would counter that taking part in a celebration of life underplays death, but that is exactly the point. In a celebration of life ceremony, the loss is not trivialised. Instead, the celebration is a way to belittle death itself. These ceremonies are different than traditional funerals in their level of depth, tone, and personalization.

What happens at a celebration of life ceremony?

A celebration of life ceremony can happen in conjunction with a traditional funeral service or can be held as a stand alone event after the funeral has taken place. There are no hard and fast rules for what happens at a celebration of life ceremony. Sometimes they can take place months or years after the passing of a loved one.

In the case of direct cremations, the celebration of life is generally held once the cremation is completed and the ashes have been returned. But the main difference is that a celebration of life ceremony supplants the traditional mournful mood with a joyful one. What comes as a surprise to those who have never attended one, is that at a celebration of life ceremony, one will find laughter, storytelling, and joyful reminiscing. And that is exactly the point.

What are some celebration of life ceremony ideas?

One would likely opt to hold the celebration of life ceremony in a place of special significance to the deceased. This can be a home, a community centre, a pub, or any other place that was meaningful to the deceased. As with any social gathering, sufficient space is a requirement to entertain  the people that will be present. Other ideas include:

  • Planting a tree: This idea is especially relevant to NEO Cremations, as we operate a 200% carbon offset program via our tree planting charity partners.
  • Hosting a themed gathering: Since a celebration of life ceremony resembles more a birthday or an anniversary rather than a funeral, many people opt to hold a themed party;
  • Organizing a barbecue: This is a great idea if the person to be celebrated was a relaxed and easy-going individual who enjoyed socialising, drinking and good food. A barbecue is a wonderful tribute, and you can even serve their favourite food and drink;
  • Arranging a joyful scattering of ashes: Ashes can nowadays be scattered in so many original ways, be it being sent into space, released from a drone, scattered on top of a mountain or in a river or stream. The options are almost limitless;
  • Fundraise: Holding a fundraiser in the name of the deceased is a way to keep their memory alive. Collecting donations to give to a favorite charity or sponsoring a scholarship in their name are just two of many ways to incorporate charitable giving in a celebration of life ceremony.
What should you wear at a celebration of life ceremony?

The majority of us know what one is expected to wear at a traditional funeral service, but dress codes at a celebration of life ceremony are different. There is no set dress code, and one would assume that wearing black and/or somber clothings would be discouraged.

Lively colored clothing is highly recommended. Casual is accepted. Many families will choose to have a themed gathering. If this is the case, you may be asked to wear a uniform, a sports team jersey, or even movie costumes. The possibilities for dress codes at a celebration of life ceremony really depends on the personality of the individual who is being celebrated.

Steps to planning a celebration of life ceremony
  • Set a budget: Although being preoccupied about finances during the passing of a loved one seems insensitive, it is important for you to understand what are your financial constraints, if any. Some may even want to set up crowdfunding pages to help out with overall costs; 
  • Estimate attendance: Guesstimating how many people will attend the celebration of life ceremony is difficult, but you want to make sure the location you choose has capacity to host everyone;
  • Choose date, time, and location: When planning the ceremony, you are not limited to any specific location. Some examples include a pub, someone’s home, or even a woodland site;
  • Choose who will speak: You may want to ask specific people to speak at the ceremony. You will need to provide them with a guideline on the type of anecdote they will need to share, not unlike a wedding ceremony;
  • Finalize activities you want to include: The best thing about these ceremonies is that you can customize them in any which way you want. Think about things indicative of the deceased. Maybe they enjoyed gardening and you want to incorporate a tree planting activity. The point is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
Don’t forget to celebrate!

A celebration of life ceremony shouldn’t, at its core, be a gathering to commiserate and be sad. If anything, this is a great chance to encourage a healthy dialogue and storytelling, some emotional and some humorous, to stress the point that the memory of the person who has just left is to be cherished and celebrated despite the grief that is felt.

Nick Weinstein

Lead Funeral Specialist

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