Celebration of Life: Meaning, How to Plan

A celebration of life is an event to honor someone who has died. It's usually less formal than a typical funeral.
Dalia Ramirez
By Dalia Ramirez 
Published
Edited by Tina Orem

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A celebration of life is an event to honor someone who has died. It can be held instead or in addition to a funeral, but it’s typically less formal and more of a positive atmosphere than a mourning ritual.

Celebrations of life are often held in more casual settings, such as homes and parks, rather than places of worship or funeral homes. You can also plan a celebration of life somewhere personal to the deceased, such as a favorite sports or music venue. You might even hold one virtually if it’s not possible for all of the bereaved to come together into one space.

Here’s what to know about celebrations of life and how to plan one for a loved one.

What happens at a celebration of life?

A celebration of life is usually less structured than a funeral or memorial service, so the events can vary widely depending on the preferences of the deceased and their loved ones. Activities may include:

  • Speeches or shared stories about the deceased.

  • Reading of a passage from a religious text or beloved book.

  • Special activities related to the deceased’s hobbies.

  • Balloon or lantern release.

  • Cultural and location-specific practices such as a “paddle out” ceremony, a traditional Hawaiian tribute where mourners swim into the sea on surfboards.

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Funeral vs. celebration of life

The main difference between a funeral and a celebration of life is the formality of the event and whether the body of the deceased is present. Here are a few more key differences:

Funeral

Celebration of life

Timing

Within a week after death.

Any time; can be months or years after death.

Dress code

Formal.

Informal.

Tone

A traditional mourning ritual.

A positive commemoration.

Location

Funeral home or place of worship.

Park, home or other significant location.

Though funerals are more traditional than celebrations of life, both events commemorate the death of a loved one and provide a meaningful, supportive ceremony to help the bereaved grieve the deceased.

How to plan a celebration of life

  1. Respect the deceased’s preferences. You can preplan your celebration of life just like you can preplan your own funeral, including setting aside funds and detailing how you’d like to be remembered in your will. If you’re planning a celebration for a loved one, take their final preferences into account.

  2. Consider the needs of the mourners. Celebrations of life are highly unique to the deceased and their loved ones, so review the attendees and think about what location, level of formality and types of activities would be most appropriate and meaningful.

  3. Set a budget and determine how the celebration will be funded. The deceased may have set aside funds in a payable-on-death account for a funeral or celebration of life, or their loved ones may collaborate to pay for the event. Celebrations of life can be much more affordable than funerals, as they can be hosted at a home or public park and don’t include as many formal elements. You’ll have to handle burial or cremation separately, though.

  4. Choose a venue. You can hold a celebration of life in a home or backyard, public park or beach, or a space personal to the deceased and their loved ones. Make sure that all attendees can access the venue and note where you’ll put food and decorations.

  5. Set a date. You can hold a celebration of life shortly after death, but you can also wait as long as desired, depending on the needs of the deceased’s friends and family. They’re typically held after the deceased’s remains have been taken care of through cremation or burial. Consider out-of-town loved ones, religious holidays and venue availability when setting a date.

  6. Invite loved ones. This is a private event that can be as big or as small as desired, but celebrations of life typically include family, friends and colleagues. You can require RSVPs to prepare for food and venue limits.

  7. Plan activities. Celebrations of life usually include guests telling favorite stories about their loved one, but they can also include themed activities related to the deceased’s hobbies. You could create a playlist of their favorite songs or read a passage from their favorite book, for example.

  8. Set up the venue with food and decorations. You can have a celebration of life catered or held in a restaurant, or you can request that guests bring dishes for a potluck. Decorations may include photos of the deceased or items relevant to the theme or to their life.

Frequently asked questions

A celebration of life can range in cost depending on venue, food and activities. It can be free if you hold it at home and don’t purchase food or decorations; it can cost much more if you rent out a venue, hire catering services or buy tickets to certain activities.

Yes, celebrations of life are often held in addition to a funeral, perhaps to consider out-of-town guests or to commemorate the life of the deceased in a more positive way.

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