How to Plan a Celebration of Life

Losing a loved one is a difficult emotional experience, but a funeral doesn’t have to be a somber event. 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 to share stories, reminisce and honor a loved one with favorite food, flowers, music, decor and more. A celebration of life can be simple or grand, but it's always a customized event informed by the things that made a person special. At this very personal and uplifting occasion, tears and laughter are equally welcome.

Dignity Memorial® providers are experts in life celebrations. We know just what to do to capture the details that made a loved one unique in the world and design a gathering that deeply reflects the life lived.

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

Imagine book

Imagine funeral planning differently

A funeral or memorial service should be a one-of-a-kind celebration. Everyone has their own unique story. How do you want to tell yours? Imagine is a book full of ideas for creating a beautiful and unforgettable remembrance for yourself or a loved one. Download Imagine to begin planning an unforgettable tribute today.


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

Essential checklist for planning a celebration of life

Here's how you can get started planning a celebration of life.

1. Find a funeral celebrant

A funeral celebrant is a planner 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 create 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.

2. Choose a special venue

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.

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

3. Consider the decor

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.

4. Think about what people should wear

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.

5. Plan for food and drinks

Food and beverages are 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 catering through a local partner. In some cases, families may bring in their own food and drinks. If Dad loved Chinese takeout, surely egg rolls are in order. If your family marked every special occasion with pasta 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.

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

6. Choose the right music

It's said that music makes the world go round. It can certainly help create an 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.

7. Designate an emcee

A celebration of life can include readings, poems or prayers, but it's more likely that what you'll see and hear are guests telling funny stories about happy times or sharing touching memories of the loved one lost. In these looser settings, 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.

8. Order favors or keepsakes

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

Plan every detail

Let Imagine: A Memorial Inspiration Guide inspire your perfect service.

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 design an event like no other. Our planners have hundreds of celebration of life ideas, but here are a few to get you inspired:

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

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

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