A celebration of life is an event held to honor the life of a loved one, typically focused on positive aspects of their life. This event may be less formal and structured than a funeral or memorial service, and is often considered to be – as the name suggestions – a joyful celebration rather than a ceremony dedicated to mourning.
A celebration of life is generally held in a casual setting like a park or somewhere special to the deceased, rather than at a church or funeral home. Depending on the location, attire is often more relaxed, and people are encouraged to speak and share stories of their loved one. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many funeral and memorial events are being held virtually or live streamed so loved ones can participate in the service from their own homes.
There are many wonderful ways to honor and remember your loved one. Some families choose to host a celebration of life instead of a funeral. Others have a funeral, then hold a celebration of life weeks, months or years afterwards to continue honoring their loved one, or to include others who weren’t able to attend a previous ceremony.
If you choose to host a celebration of life, you may be wondering the best way to honor them. To spark some inspiration, we offer nine ideas you can use to celebrate the life of a loved one:
1. Choose a Meaningful Location
If you’re unsure where to hold the event, consider hosting the celebration in or nearby a place that was especially meaningful or symbolic to your loved one. This can add an extra layer of connection to the event, and make it even more special.
2. Invite People to Share Stories
Sharing stories is an amazing way to keep the memory of your loved one alive. Whether it’s a story that makes people laugh or makes people cry, these memories have the power to help heal broken hearts and bring everyone together.
To prepare people, ask in the event invitation that people reflect on some of their favorite memories, and if they feel comfortable, share them during the celebration.
3. Collect Photos
Photos can be a great idea to share at this event, and to have as a keepsake afterwards. You can source more photos from friends and family by creating an online group photo album, in which you invite multiple people to add photos to a folder.
You can then use these photos to share a slideshow at the event, or create a physical photo album for your loved one’s closest friends and family.
Here are instructions for creating and sharing a collaborative album in Google Photos. Bonus: it’s free.
“I have been a part of an event that I and many others couldn’t attend, so the families requested photos and cards and put together a Shutterfly book which they shared online (and made available for purchase).”
4. Play Their Favorite Music
Music can be a powerful tool of healing, and can bring you back to some special memories. Create a playlist of their favorite songs to play at the celebration and share with others afterwards. Similar to the suggestion above, you can create a shared playlist where friends and family can add songs they know their loved one enjoyed.
5. Ask for Letters
Having written memories to look back on can be very healing. Ask those invited to the ceremony to write a letter about their loved one. These can be given to those closest to said person: their spouse, children, siblings, best friends.
“Capture in writing what they meant to you. I received several letters from relatives, and friends when each of my parents passed. I even received a letter from a cousin who told me my parents financially supported him during his college years and what it meant to him to have them by his side. I had no idea. My parents kept it to themselves to respect his privacy. The letters are in a shoebox and once a year or so I pull them out and read them. Their legacies live on through these special letters.”
6. Start a Group Prayer or Poem
Consider sharing a special poem or prayer dedicated to your loved one. For example, you could start a group poem that gets everyone involved:
- Prior to the event, ask those invited to write a short 5-10 word memory or response to a simple writing prompt (e.g. “You made me laugh when…”, “What I learned from you…”).
- The collective responses are put together to make a lovely poem. The day of the celebration, the poem can be read as part of the ceremony, providing everyone with a chance to contribute.
You can also dedicate a prayer in your loved one’s name, as Pat shares below:
“My 96-year-old neighbor died this past December and her funeral was postponed once due to a snowstorm, and again for coronavirus. To honor her memory and her strong Catholic faith, many of us have committed to say a rosary in her name every Friday until her Mass of Christian Burial can be rescheduled.”
7. Establish Your Loved One’s Memorial
You can use this celebration to reveal or create a memorial for your loved one. For example, you could donate a tree in their name and plant it at their place of worship, at the park (with city approval) or a loved one’s backyard. Through nature, their memory will live on and remain something tangible you can see for years to come.
“The Vern Tree: When Vern, a good friend of mine, passed away after a long battle with lung disease, his wife got permission from St. Paul City Parks to decorate a large pine tree in Como Park. We called it the Vern Tree. His wife asked all his friends to make ornaments that reminded them of Vern. Then we all met in the park on a cold morning and decorated the Vern tree. The ornaments ranged from objects, like a chunk of Alaskan cotton (he was from Alaska), pictures, to printed short memories. We had hot chocolate and music and people shared stories. it was a fun outdoor celebration and we felt like Vern was with us the whole time.”
“Plant a memory garden – after 20 years my dad’s garden is still going strong at church. Create a memory bench. Make memorial candles. Build a small memorial crafted from rocks. You can add it to your garden or at the corner of your lot. Frame something written by the loved one who passed. Create a quilt or blanket from their clothing – I have a small quilt my mom created from some of my grandmother’s dresses. I framed it many years ago and it hangs in my bedroom. Attend to their grave site. Bring flowers, bring a plant, offer to help the family keep up the grave site by pulling weeds, or watering the plants and keeping things tidy. Write a prayer and create memorial cards with it and share it with their family and loved ones. Something especially nice to do on an anniversary (their passing, birthday, wedding).”
8. Start a Memorial Fundraiser
Memorials and services to remember your loved one can be quite expensive. Not everyone may be able to afford the ideas they had in mind. To help with the costs, you can start a fundraiser using a free platform like GoFundMe to raise funds for the memorial or event.
If this sounds intimidating, don’t worry. These donation request templates will help you get started.
9. Record the Celebration
Some people may be unable to attend the event, or perhaps find it too emotional or challenging to fully enjoy. Whatever the reason, having the celebration live streamed and recorded allows family and friends to participate in the special day in the comfort and privacy of their own homes.
A recording is something you can rewatch or replay, and may provide a sense of comfort in hard or lonely times. As Dennis shares below, sometimes the feeling of being together is just as helpful as actually being together.
“I grew up without my mom. My best friend’s mom Jane, growing up, really took me under her wing and was my “mom” until the day she died in late July 2015. She spent almost her entire professional life working as an art therapist, mostly kids who had trauma in their lives, and was passionate about helping others. There was no funeral, but a public gathering at the local art museum in Billings, MT. I helped my best friend and his wife pack up her office, her home, and her life. At the ceremony, lots of folks talked…but not everyone could come to this specific place at the time, so I recorded the audio of the event and made it available to others to download. In the end, I think sometimes it is about the feeling of being together…than actually being physically together.”
If you are hosting the entire event virtually, one idea is to enable meeting breakout rooms (like Zoom Rooms) after the service for family and friends to talk and connect.
What Are Your Celebration of Life Ideas?
We hope these ideas will help you honor your loved one’s memory and celebrate their life with their closest friends and family.
We’d like to know your thoughts as well. What’s been helpful for you when celebrating the life of a loved one? Please comment your thoughts and ideas below: