How to Plan a Celebration of Life

Losing a loved one is a difficult emotional experience, but a funeral doesn’t have to be somber memorial. Plenty of people would rather be remembered with a party, and a celebration of life is an upbeat alternative to a traditional funeral. It brings friends and family together for sharing and caring with favorite food, flowers, music, decor and more.

Whatever your loved one's interests or personality, a well-planned celebration of life is a customized event informed by the things that made a person special. It's a personal and uplifting occasion where tears and laughter are equally welcome.

What makes a great celebration of life? Here we outline the essentials for planning a beautiful and fitting tribute. You will learn:

Traditional funeral or celebration of life?

There are two basic types of memorial services: a traditional funeral and the more modern celebration of life.

A celebration of life is a bit like a party with a purpose—and that purpose is to remember a loved one in a personal, festive or fun way. The location can be a funeral home with a reception space, a place of worship, a family member's house or a place that was special to the loved one being celebrated. Sometimes a casket is present, but often a celebration of life takes place weeks or months after burial or cremation.

Celebrations of life can be modest or elaborate. Some retain the elements of a more formal occasion, while others are very casual. A more traditional family might include some of the more traditional elements of a funeral and supplement them with a few festivities. By contrast, some secular families want a huge and literal party, while others want an intimate, easy, no-ritual reception. It's all a matter of personal preference.  

Modern funeral homes are often designed to host contemporary celebrations, with groups gathered together at round tables, as opposed to sitting in pews, and food and beverages shared at catered receptions. Other indoor venues include restaurants, bars, and private homes. Beaches, parks, farms, and shady spots among the trees are also lovely places to host celebrations. Really, anyplace meaningful to the person who has passed is fair game for a celebration of life.

The point is for guests to be together for community and healing conversation. They laugh, talk, remember, cry and comfort one another. The events are often themed to showcase a passion—and they always are intended to help guests reflect on good and cherished times while making a wonderful new memory. 

Rather than a religious leader, a funeral celebrant, family member, friend or other individual might oversee a celebration of life. Services usually reflect the beliefs of the person being celebrated—whether religious, secular or spiritual in nature.

Dependent on religious or cultural beliefs, a traditional funeral service usually lasts a short time, say an hour or two. A celebration of life can also be held in an hour—though if you wish to include food, drinks, music and more, it often lasts longer.

A woman in a fuschia dress performs a dance at an outdoor reception.
Beautiful outdoor table setting with an urn, portrait and flowers.
Imagine book

Imagine funeral planning differently

A celebration of life should be a one-of-a-kind event that speaks to what makes a person special. Everyone has a story—and a million tiny things that make them unforgettable. Imagine: A Memorial Inspiration Guide is filled with ideas for creating a beautiful remembrance for yourself or a loved one. Download Imagine to begin planning a memorial like no other.

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Essentials for planning a celebration of life

A celebration of life tells the unique story of a loved one. There are certain elements to any great story. They can include a funeral celebrant, a meaningful venue, favorite music and more.

What’s a funeral celebrant?

A funeral celebrant is trained to work with a family to create a personalized memorial tailored to the beliefs, lifestyle and preferences of the family's loved one. They know just what to do to help plan a gathering that feels joyous and memorable. Experienced at teasing out the details of a special life, they have both the skills and the resources to create an event that showcases a loved one's personality and passions. Read more about funeral celebrants.

What’s a good venue for a celebration of life? 

Many funeral homes have celebration of life centers or large, flexible reception spaces that are easily transformed into everything from a garden to a golf green. However, some families opt for another location, such as their own backyard or someplace that their loved one held dear. Either way, our planners, arrangers and certified celebrants can work with the venue of your choosing. Contact us for more information.

Guests at a tailgate memorial are talking, grilling and eating.
Olinger Funeral & Cremation - Crown Hill Pavilion of Reflection Patio
Life Well Celebrated® Display in Celebration Hall at Serenity Funeral Home

What about celebration of life decorations?

A theme typically informs the decor, and that theme can be something as simple as a favorite color or a hobby. A remembrance table filled with photos and mementos may set the tone. From there, the imagination is the limit. Our professionals deck out a room in hot pink, or put down a dance floor, hang up a mirror ball and turn a space into a disco. We've even transformed a reception space into an art gallery and held an English tea in a flower-festooned courtyard.

What do people wear to a celebration of life?

Black is traditional funeral attire, but not so with a celebration of life. The theme might dictate what people wear. So could the season. Maybe all the guests don team colors or a custom tee. Maybe everyone wears a pop of red. Some celebrations might call for costumes. Shorts and sundresses are more appropriate for a summer barbecue than suits and heels. Whatever the case, make sure to inform your guests about the attire that is expected in advance.

What kind of food is served at a celebration of life?

Food and drink is nearly always at the center of any kind of celebration, and a celebration of life is no different. Sharing a meal or raising a glass with family and friends brings comfort and joy. Most Dignity Memorial locations offer catered receptions from a local provider. In some cases, families may bring in their own food and drinks. If Dad loved Chinese takeout, then surely egg rolls are in order. If your family marked every special occasion with food from a certain Italian restaurant, we can handle the lasagna. If your uncle had a signature drink, be sure to serve it at his celebration of life. Learn more about catered receptions.

Catering display at Geo. H. Lewis & Sons Funeral Directors

What’s the best music for a celebration of life? 

It's said that music makes the world go round. It can certainly help create an uplifting and inspiring atmosphere. Plus, playing a loved one's favorite songs can help stir memories and foster connection among guests. Some families hire a single musician. Others ask for a six-piece band. A DJ feels right for certain celebrations, and a personalized playlist keeps costs down.

Are there readings, prayers and eulogies at a celebration of life?

A celebration of life can include these elements, but it's more likely that what you'll see and hear are guests telling funny stories about happy times, or touching memories of the loved one who was lost. In these looser settings without a typical "run of show," it's good to assign someone to be the emcee for the event. This ensures that everyone is given an opportunity to share their story, without any one person dominating the conversation.

What are celebration of life mementos?

Small takeaways—tokens of remembrance—are a nice final touch at a personalized gathering. If Dad was an avid golfer, send guests home with personalized golf balls. If Mother was the world's greatest cook, have her recipes laminated and presented in pretty recipe boxes. If Aunt Betty was known far and wide for her chocolate chip cookies, we'll see that every guest has a half dozen for the car ride home. These kinds of little touches make an event particularly memorable for guests.

celebration of life fishing hooks and golf balls

Ready to get started?

Speak with a Dignity Memorial planning advisor today.

A few celebration of life ideas

Every celebration of life is unique, and a certified celebrant is specifically trained to learn about a loved one and then design an event like no other. Below are a handful of ideas, but our planners have hundreds of others:

  • An easy afternoon at father's favorite fishing hole, with a fish fry to follow.
  • A puppy party and adoption event for the impassioned animal lover.
  • A star-gazing party with a sparkler sendoff for everyone's favorite astronomer.
  • A barn dance for the man who was the reigning two-step champion of the county.

No matter what direction the event takes, a celebration of life is always special.


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