More and more, people are choosing to honor a loved one with a celebration of life as opposed to a more traditional, somber funeral. But what is a celebration of life? How is it different from a funeral? And what’s the etiquette around this new type of tribute? Read on for everything you need to know about how to plan a celebration of life with substance and style.


What Is a Celebration of Life?

Well, it can be many things, and that’s the key. A celebration of life is a more personalized way of paying tribute to the uniqueness of the person and the life they’ve lived. It can absolutely incorporate religious and cultural traditions, but often highlights values, preferences and even the personality of the individual being honored. 


So What’s the Difference Between a Celebration of Life and a Funeral?

When we think of a traditional funeral, we may think of a grey day, a hushed room or solemn house of worship, a formal celebrant, ancient music and black-clad mourners exchanging sorrowful condolences. And of course when we lose someone we love, there is enormous sadness and grief--that is a given. For many people, that tradition and the mood that accompanies it is part of the process of grieving. But as the name implies, a celebration of life focuses more on honoring the joy and gifts--and even the personality or style--of the person who has died. It is a celebration of all they were, and what they mean to us as family and friends. We are celebrating the life as opposed to simply mourning the death.


What If You Can’t Have a Celebration of Life Right Now Because of COVID-19?


Celebration of Life Etiquette and Planning

Etiquette for a more traditional funeral is often guided by religious or cultural norms and can vary greatly. In that way, a celebration of life can be similar in certain ways or very different. Many celebrations of life feature themes that relate to interests the person held, whether gardening, sports, culture, food, or a spiritual or cultural practice. 


Planning a celebration of life starts with thinking about who the person was and how they lived. It’s possible they may have shared some important details or preferences that you can take into account. Were they outdoorsy? A theater lover? Relentlessly witty? Committed to their community? These attributes can help you create a theme or mood that everyone who knew and loved this special person will recognize and feel connected to.


When Can You Have a Celebration of Life?

You can choose to honor your loved one immediately following the death, as you would with a traditional funeral. The body or remains may be present as you prefer, or you may wait until travel arrangements and more detailed plans can be made for a later celebration. It’s less about timing and more about the spirit of the celebration you want to host.


Can We Have a Formal Funeral Service Followed by a Celebration of Life? 

Absolutely. If the person’s traditions tend toward a more structured ceremony, that’s just fine. Host a wake, a shiva, even a funeral home visitation, graveside burial commemoration or religious service in a house of worship. You can always add another less formal tribute afterwards, immediately following or on an anniversary or special date. A celebration of life vs. a funeral can be a chance to honor them in a more personal way, with details they loved that may fall outside of traditional services. 


I Want a Celebration of Life, Not a Sad Funeral.

If you happen to be planning in advance for yourself, you’re not alone. Studies show that even young people imagine a celebration of life for themselves because they want people to laugh, sing, dance, tell stories--and remember them with positivity and joy. Our advice: start by thinking about the mood you’d like to create and write down a few adjectives that would describe it. Then fill in with details and elements.


Whether you’re planning for someone else or pre-planning for you, here are some elements to think about.

  • Music. Music is such a personal detail. Make a farewelling playlist that reflects favorites, and remember that there may be different parts of the celebration. You may want a different mood as people are arriving or during a service, or even as people mingle afterwards. It can be ethereal, nostalgic, or downright funky!
  • Speeches. You can choose to plan a more organized program of speakers at a celebration of life, or host a storytelling circle around a campfire. You can read poems or jokes or quote favorite passages. The way you arrange your speeches will help set the tone for the whole gathering, so give it careful thought.
  • Food and Drinks. Let the food and drinks you’ll serve be inspired by the theme of the event and by the favorites of the person you’re honoring. Did they love fried pizza? Were they obsessed with chocolate or donuts or picnics or the finest Champagne? What was their food personality? Let that guide you in choosing unique and delicious refreshments that will make everyone say, “this is exactly what she would’ve wanted.”
  • Decorations and Flowers. Celebration of life decorations should complement any theme or mood you’re creating. If the person was an avid gardener who always had colorful fresh blooms in the house, work with a local florist or a group of friends to add some lush arrangements or pretty bouquets. If they were obsessed with scented candles, place some in an entryway. If they loved a particular sports team, break out the jerseys and pennants and throw a tailgate in their honor!
  • Attire. If you’re wondering what to wear to a celebration of life, anything’s possible. If you’re the planner, keep in mind that people are often unsure about what to wear to a non-traditional event honoring someone’s life. They don’t want to appear disrespectful, so they may err on the side of dark and somber. They’ll absolutely appreciate any guidance about dress code, especially if the event is outside of the expected. Chances are, many will be open to whatever you suggest and will love having that as a point of connection at the gathering. All white, black tie, Hawaiian shirts, shorts and Crocs--whatever it may be, just make sure it matches the spirit of the celebration.


What to Say at a Celebration of Life

As an attendee, knowing what to do when you greet the family of someone who has lost a loved one, even at a joyous tribute, can seem confusing. Just remember to be yourself, and tailor your comments to the mood that your hosts have created. Even though it’s a celebration of life, you can absolutely convey that you’re sad or that you miss the person, but you also may want to have a happy or joyous memory on hand or a witty quote of theirs you remember from days past. Most important is to make your comments personal and positive. If possible, avoid cliches like “they’re in a better place.”


Celebration of Life Ideas

If you’re ready to plan and looking for ideas for creating an unforgettable tribute to a one-of-a-kind person, the Farewelling editors have put together some wonderful inspirations. We hope they’ll help you as you celebrate the beautiful life of your special one.