What Exactly Is a Celebration of Life?
I was recently asked this by a family member at our funeral home, James Reid’s. It was in the context of reviewing the first anniversary of her father’s death. Her family had held a “standard funeral,” as she put it, for her father. A month after the funeral she’d found in some papers a small note that said, “I’d like to be cremated, and no service.” This had made the daughter feel bad that she hadn’t followed—because she hadn’t known—her dad’s wishes. The bad feeling had lasted about a week; I was glad that it hadn’t made her feel too guilty. She clearly would have followed her father’s wishes, but that small note was tucked in with some papers she didn’t find in time.
We had talked for a year about her grief process, which was part of the “standard funeral” package she’d chosen. I told her that our talks were a happy part of her not knowing her father’s wishes. She was glad for them. She said it was important to feel what we feel. I asked what the funeral was like, and she said it was really good and that maybe a hundred people had come. Her father was almost ninety, so you might think not many would come. He had volunteered very actively and those colleagues, most of them younger, came, as well as most of the daughter’s work friends and family.
She thought that he was a private, quiet person, and likely didn’t want a service because he didn’t want to be on show or make a fuss. “Did you have the casket opened?” I asked. “No, though we saw him first and he looked really good, better than he had at the hospital. We had the casket opened during the family time in the room, but had it closed before people came in.”
She hadn’t been to a Celebration of Life but had heard of them. “What is a Celebration of Life?” she asked. It was a good question and one I wanted to answer simply and directly, as her question was posed.
I said, “It’s a gathering that brings people together when someone dies without having to be too sad.”
Does this make sense to you? Celebrations of Life have been common for decades now, and over this time there has been a great opening up of funeral etiquette. Whatever works for a family is what should work and does work. So I wonder, was my answer helpful, that a Celebration of Life is less sad than a funeral?
Other variables of course are important. Often a Celebration of Life has a more fluid structure than a funeral, like a cocktail party with a few speeches. They happen regularly in our Celebration Centre which is set up like a living room around fire places and tables of food, with an altar of photographs and perhaps the urn in the bay window. If the Celebration of Life is a structured, sit-down event, as we hold them in our chapel, it is full of personalized tributes in words, music and pictures. Yet funerals are often personalized and down-to-earth. I feel the essential difference is the approach to the death itself.
A Celebration of Life is just that, a celebration. It is intentionally aimed towards appreciation, gratitude, and the life lived. The fact of the death of the person is made less of than at a funeral. Thus, the tone is less sad—in general. The tone will be set by the Celebrant and speakers and music and guests, and these are influenced by the circumstances of the death.
Finally, one more thought to share that I said to this thoughtful daughter: Celebrations of Life are a way to help accept that a death has happened. Whatever you call it, gathering together when someone has died is invariable psychologically helpful.