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How to Plan a Celebration of Life

Celebrations of life are growing in popularity. Many families are choosing to celebrate the life of a loved one who passed away rather than focusing on the mourning and loss at a funeral. If you’ve never planned one (or even attended one), here’s what to know when it comes to celebrations of life.

What is a celebration of life?

A celebration of life service is a type of memorial service that is intended to memorialize the person who passed away and celebrate their life. Celebrations of life are focused on celebration and joy as a primary mood rather than a more formal event with a somber atmosphere.

How long should a celebration of life be?

On average, you should expect a celebration of life to last around an hour to an hour and a half. Remember that celebrations of life can all vary in length of time, especially if you consider different cultural and personal touches that would inform the service.

What happens at a celebration of life?

A celebration of life is very similar to a memorial service in terms of sections of the service itself. Here’s what a typical celebration of life program/outline would look like:

  • Welcome & seating. This is when attendees are welcome to the service and seated, if applicable. You can set up tables and have assigned seating, have random seating with tables and chairs, or you can have guests stand if it’s a shorter celebration of life event. (Although if you have older attendees or others who would benefit from seating, it can be a good idea to provide some sort of seating even at a standing event.)

  • Toast / opening passage or reading. Opening with a toast is a good way to set the tone of the event. If you’re scheduling a toast, let the toaster know well in advance and be sure to emphasize that it’s a celebration of life. The toast should try to evoke a sense of joy and celebration in the audience to get the event started.

  • Scripture or reading. Families often select favorite readings, songs, passages, or other verses to be read at a celebration of life event. Popular passages and verses are usually from the Bible, other religious texts, or favorite texts from the person who passed away. This is a good time to share a note or piece of writing that a close loved one wrote about the decedent as well.

  • Celebratory activity. A celebratory activity can be anything from releasing lanterns to a memory jar reading to a short slideshow featuring some favorite pictures and favorite moments from a loved one’s life. You can find more celebration of life ideas further down in this article.

  • Closing passage or reading. Many families have a closing passage or reading to close out the end of the celebration of life. This could be in the form of a reading from a favorite book, a quote from a favorite piece of work, a passage, a reading, a song, or even a secondary toast to signal the end of the celebration.

  • Food and refreshments. Food and refreshments are typically shared at a celebration of life during the event. (As opposed to a funeral where a reception is held following the funeral, celebrations of life have the food and refreshments served throughout the event.) You can hold a reception afterwards if this is more your speed, but there is more flexibility when it comes to a celebration of life and when the food and beverages are being served.

Planning a celebration of life

What to know when planning a celebration of life

Planning a celebration of life is very similar to the steps you’d take to plan a funeral, in that many of the components and considerations are the same. Here are some things you’ll need to consider or keep in mind when planning a celebration of life.

  • Where is it being held? Celebrations of life can be held in a lot of different places, including really beautiful outdoor areas. Consider places that were special to your loved one, such as nature spots, community spots, places to picnic or places they spent a lot of time. If none come to mind, some unique ideas include public parks, wildlife sanctuaries, botanical gardens, beaches, hiking spots, lakes, rivers, or other natural spaces. Indoor ideas include favorite pubs or bars, restaurants, community centers, clubs and art galleries.

  • How many attendees do you expect? The size of the gathering you’re expecting will influence the space you’re able to budget for and reserve. During COVID-19, many indoor and outdoor facilities are restricting the amount of people that can attend. It’s a good idea to set up a livestream of the memorial service so that those who can’t attend can still join in the celebration.

  • What kind of celebratory activities do you want, if any? There are many different types of celebratory activities you could have at a celebration of life. It can make the event feel more special if you choose to incorporate one of these activities as it’ll help connect others over the loss of a loved one. Some ideas include a lantern release, a memory jar, a slideshow with videos submitted by all the attendees, a candlelight vigil, a meaningful reading or song, or any honorary activity you think reflects the personality of the person who passed away.

  • Will you hold a reception or have food throughout the service? Receptions are common after memorial services take place and are a comfortable way for your loved ones to support each other after a loss. At a celebration of life, you could either have time set aside at the end for a short reception, offer a buffet-style bar that folks can grab from throughout the service, or set up each table with an assortment of foods and drinks. During COVID-19, restrictions and regulations may be in place that will restrict you from holding a normal reception, so you’ll need to check with your state and city’s regulations before deciding on what to do. (For example, instead of having a buffet, you may need to have individually packaged or packed to-go boxes.)

Ideas for celebrations of life

Celebrations of life can be as creative or complex as you’d like -- there isn’t a set of rules for how every celebration of life should go. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Release lanterns

A lantern release (you can find eco-friendly lanterns online) is a beautiful and visually appealing celebratory activity to include in the celebration of life. Gather all attendees outside in an open space and have each of them release a provided lantern into the sky at the same moment. During this time you could have someone do a reading, ask attendees to share memories, have a moment of silence, or play one of the decedent’s favorite tunes.

Gather in a favorite park

Many public parks have picnic tables, grills, and other seating available to those attending. Public parks usually let the public host parties or rent spaces for relatively inexpensive prices. If there’s a local park that you and your loved one frequented or a space you think would be nice, hosting a celebration of life there would be a great idea. Hosting a celebration of life at a park also gives the younger attendees a chance to play while the older attendees can join each other in remembering a life well lived.

Go to a botanical garden or arboretum

Botanical gardens are wonderful places to host a celebration of life and are excellent choices for those who loved nature. You could have the walkthrough of a botanical garden as a single part of the celebration of life (that you are mostly hosting elsewhere) or you could speak with the botanical garden’s office directly and see if they offer reservations for the garden.

Hold an online celebration of life

During COVID-19, many families have had to hold online services rather than in person services and a celebration of life is no exception to this rule. If your state or city has strict COVID-19 restrictions in place (and even if it doesn’t), holding an online celebration of life is a safe and popular alternative to an in person gathering. Ask attendees to join your Zoom meeting, or join you on another streaming platform, at the designated time and hold a completely online celebration of life. Before you get started, you’ll want to create a memorial website as a landing page for your virtual celebration of life.

Head to a favorite pub or bar

Bars and pubs make excellent choices for celebrations of life, especially if there’s a local favorite or spot that your loved one frequented. Ask your friends and family to gather at the chosen bar, share a few drinks in your loved one’s honor, and share in a celebratory activity (such as a group toast, drinking game, or just some memory sharing).

Theme the service around your loved one’s life

Life celebrations are memorial services that are fully customizable, which means they’re a great opportunity to show off and incorporate some of your loved one’s personality. If your loved one was passionate about the fishing or being out on the water, you could hold the service on a boat; if they adored living creatures and animals, you could rent a farm or do a group zoo tour as part of the celebration of life; if they were passionate about food and culinary arts, request that guests bring their favorite foods to cook to the gathering or go to a cooking class together; many aspects of your loved one’s life can be incorporated into their celebration of life.

What to say at a celebration of life service

Whether you’re asked to speak at a celebration of life service or are just attending, knowing the right thing to say at the event can help you feel more comfortable. Here are some suggestions on things you might say or quotes you might include, especially if asked to speak or write down your thoughts.

What to say at a celebration of life ceremony as a speaker

Speaking at a celebration of life can feel like a high stakes position due to the nature of the event and the high emotion the audience can have. Here are some things to keep in mind if you’re asked to speak at a celebration of life:

  • Include your favorite memories or cherished moments. Sharing a special story that shows how important and vibrant the person who passed away was can be both healing and a solid reminder to those around of all the love and joy that someone shared during their life. Describing some of your favorite memories is also a great way to illustrate the personality of the deceased and how much they meant to you (and everyone around them).

  • Make the moment about them. It’s important to get across that the deceased was important to you, but even if they had a massive impact on your life, avoid making the moment about you and your life. Focus on their qualities, their life, their impact on others, and how they affected you, but make sure they’re the main character in all of your memories.

  • Keep the stories celebratory. Do your best to stay clear of memories or stories full of sadness or despair and make sure your reading or speech evokes a feeling of joy and love in the audience. Celebrations of life are meant to celebrate the life of a loved one, they aren’t meant to hold a somber atmosphere. Try to be cognizant of how your story might affect others and keep the mood as light as one can after losing someone.

  • Check in with the family before the event. If you’re the type to write out a speech before giving it, it may be a good idea to pass the draft along to a few close family members to ensure it has the family’s approval before the big day. This is especially true if you’re sharing a sensitive or potentially embarrassing story.

What to say at a celebration of life service as an attendee

Here are some celebration of life saying to get your started when speaking with loved ones or the family at a celebration of life.

“I know that [name] would’ve been so honored and overjoyed at this wonderful celebration of life you’ve set up. [He/she] is smiling down on you today and would’ve been so, so proud.”

“One of my favorite things about your [father/mother/relation] was [his/her] passion for ___.”

“One of my most cherished memories with [name] was ____.”

“I was just thinking about the time that [name] & I were at [place]. We had so many great memories there and so much fun together. I remember how [he/she] used to ___.”

“[First name] would constantly talk about how proud they were of you and everything you’ve become. I truly hope you know how much you meant to them.”

“This is a beautiful celebration of a life lived to the fullest, [he/she] would have loved this.”

“I just wanted you to know how important [name] was to me and my family. They lived an inspiring life and they would feel so honored to have been recognized by all of those you’ve invited here. [He/she] was an amazing [man/woman/person].

“Thank you so much for letting me join you and yours in celebrating [name’s] beautiful life. I’m so grateful to have shared in these memories with all those [he/she] loved.”

“Please reach out to me at any time if you need help, someone to talk to, or if you’d just like to share some stories about [him/her]. I’m always here for you.”

Weaving in personal details or specifics will help your condolence come across as genuine and thoughtful, rather than as a platitude or generic saying. Giving a generic condolence may feel more comfortable and less emotional, but the family will almost always appreciate knowing how their loved one impacted the lives of others. Including your favorite personality traits, stories of accomplishments, stories of overcoming hardship, favorite funny stories, or memories in your condolence can help illustrate that to the deceased’s loved ones.

Celebration of life quotes

If you’re more comfortable leaving the wordsmithing to someone else, you can always include a favorite quote or famous quote in your condolence. You can incorporate these quotes in a condolence message you leave in an online memorial as well. Here are some celebration of life quotes to consider:

“Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” - Matthew 25:21

“Be brave and never hesitate to explore everything life has to offer.” - Unknown

"When a great man dies, for years the light he leaves behind him lies on the paths of men." - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

"A person's true wealth is the good he or she does in the world." - Nazr Mohammed

"You are gone, but thank you for all these soft, sweet things you left behind. In my home, in my head, in my heart." - Nikita Gill

“They will come back, come back again, as long as the red earth rolls. He never wasted a leaf or a tree. Do you think He would squander souls?” - Rudyard Kipling

“A life well lived is a blessing and example to all.” - Unknown

“If we have been pleased with life, we should not be displeased with death, since it comes from the hand of the same master.” - Michelangelo

“To die completely, a person must not only forget but be forgotten, and he who is not forgotten is not dead.” - Samuel Butler

“As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so a life well-used brings happy death.” - Leonardo da Vinci

“Many people will walk in and out of your life, but only true friends leave footprints in your heart.” Eleanor Roosevelt

“The comfort of having a friend may be taken away but not that of having had one.” - Seneca

“Immortality … a fate worse than death.” - Edgar A. Shoaff

“Life is stressful, dear. That’s why they say ‘rest in peace.” - David Mazzucchelli

“Death is nature’s way of saying, ‘Your table is ready.” - Robin Williams

celebration of life invitations,

Planning a celebration of life isn’t easy, but it doesn’t have to be too difficult, either. Creating a memorial website is a great way to stay organized while planning a celebration of life. You can communicate important event information, link to your livestream, collect memories and condolences, send out celebration of life invitations, and more.

Create a memorial website

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Last updated February 23, 2022
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