Planning a Celebration of Life Checklist

A celebration of life tells a very special story. A thoughtfully planned event highlights a loved one’s unique personality, passions, gifts and accomplishments. It may unfold as a lively party or a relaxed gathering. It can be big and bold, simple and sweet, or somewhere in between.

When planning a celebration of life, your imagination is the only limit. And when you partner with Dignity Memorial® planners, you’re working with experts who create personalized events with attention to detail. Thoughtful touches, including music, a beautiful display of photos and personal items, and a memorable message that highlights your family’s traditions, values and faith are complimentary offerings to every family who plans with us.

The following checklist can help you organize a celebration of life, but many families prefer to leave the planning to us. When you choose a Dignity Memorial provider, we take care of everything for you—so you can focus on what matters most: remembering a special someone.

There are many things to consider when planning a celebration. It may help to have a checklist to keep track of to-dos and other important information.

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How to plan a celebration of life

Planning a celebration of life is an opportunity to create a unique event to honor a loved one. Every element can be personalized, whether you want to have a big crowd or an intimate gathering, a sit-down dinner or a casual potluck, a DJ or a jazz band—it's all completely up to you.

Here are the steps to a one-of-a-kind celebration.

1. Set a budget

Determining how much money you’d like to spend for the event at the start of planning will help you navigate the many options for a venue, catering, decor, invitations, keepsakes and other special touches.

No matter what your budget, you can create a meaningful event. Many creative approaches—from themed dress to favorite music—cost nothing and can help guarantee a memorable celebration.

2. Pick a date

Though funerals often take place very soon after a loved one passes away, the timing for a celebration of life is flexible. It may take place weeks or even months after a death, at a time that’s most convenient or most meaningful for family and friends.

For example, if you have an annual family reunion, you might schedule your loved one's celebration then. If your loved one was passionate about skiing, you might organize a ski-themed celebration during the winter. Some families hold a celebration on a loved one's birthday.

3. Find a celebrant or officiant

A funeral director, officiant or certified celebrant can help masterfully orchestrate a loved one’s celebration of life.

A celebrant is a planner trained to work with a family to create a memorial tailored to the beliefs, lifestyle and preferences of a loved one. A celebrant knows just what to do to create a gathering filled with emotion and memories. Experienced at highlighting the details of a special life, celebrants have both the skills and resources to showcase a loved one's personality and passions.

When a celebrant isn't available, a funeral director, member of the clergy or other officiant may organize key moments of the celebration so a loved one's family and guests can focus on the event and one another.

Seated guests listen to a celebrant speak at a funeral reception

4. 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. When the time comes for people to share, it's good to enlist someone as the master of ceremonies for the event. Having an emcee to serve as the host keeps the celebration moving and ensures that everyone who wants to share gets that opportunity.

5. Choose a venue

Many funeral homes have celebration of life centers or large, flexible reception spaces that are easily transformed into anything from an English garden to an Irish pub. However, some families opt for another location, such as their own backyard, a country club, a restaurant or someplace their loved one held dear. Our planners, arrangers and certified celebrants can work with the venue of your choosing.

6. Pick a theme and consider design

Whatever your loved one's passion, whatever meant the most, whatever was synonymous with your special person, the service location can be designed to reflect that. A theme can be something as simple as a favorite color or a hobby. A remembrance table filled with photos and mementos helps set the tone. Flowers always liven up a room. From there, the imagination is the limit.

Our professionals can create an understated, elegant design for a loved one who favored subtle touches over bold statements. Or they can deck out a room in hot pink, put down a dance floor, hang up a mirror ball and turn a space into an over-the-top Barbie disco. We've turned a reception hall into an art gallery, held an afternoon tea in a flower-festooned courtyard, and turned an event center into a cruise ship.

Decorated reception room and a beautiful table displaying memorabilia for a celebration of life

7. Plan the room or location arrangement

Creating a welcoming space for friends and family to gather and celebrate the life of a loved one isn't difficult. Just think about how you want guests to interact. Though chairs may be arranged in rows for a funeral, seating for a celebration of life works best when it fosters connections among guests.

Round tables with chairs encourage people to gather comfortably in groups. Picnic tables might be enlisted for an outdoor event. Depending on the theme, you might also incorporate seating groups of plush furniture.

8. Decide on attire

Black is traditional funeral attire, but not so with a celebration of life. Celebration of life attire may give a nod to the event's theme or the person being celebrated. So could the season. Maybe all guests don team colors or a custom tee. Maybe everyone wears a pop of red or a floral pattern. Some celebrations might call for costumes. Shorts and sundresses are appropriate for a summer barbecue. Leather pants and jackets might feature heavily in a celebration for a biker.

Whatever the case, make sure to inform guests about special attire in advance.

9. Build a guest list and send invitations

When deciding on a guest list, enlist family and close friends from various chapters of your loved one's life to help. You may also want to reach out to your loved one's work colleagues or cohorts from cherished activities for additional names to add to the invite list.

For a celebration of life, invitations are extended to friends and family, whether through printed cards or electronic means, just as one would for any gathering. This detail becomes particularly valuable if the celebration is scheduled weeks or months in advance, allowing guests ample time to save the date and make necessary travel arrangements.

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10. Plan for food and drinks

Once you've determined an approximate number of guests, you'll want to consider the food. Sharing a meal or raising a glass with family and friends brings comfort and joy. Most Dignity Memorial locations offer food and beverage catering through a local partner. Some offer an expanded beverage option that includes alcohol.

If Dad loved Chinese takeout, surely egg rolls are in order. If your family marks every special occasion with pasta, we can handle the lasagna. If your uncle had a signature drink, be sure to serve it at his celebration of life. If Mom had a beloved cookie recipe, our caterer can bake a huge batch to share with guests.

11. 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 stir memories and foster interactions 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.

To help select the right music for a celebration of life, think about the songs your loved one regularly enjoyed, perhaps while driving or relaxing at home. Songs that were meaningful to a loved one are a great way to personalize a celebration of life.

You can also be creative about when music is played. You might cue certain songs to help guide your guests’ experience or provide musical accents after important moments, like a toast or dove release.

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12. Order favors or keepsakes

Meaningful keepsakes—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 love of rubber ducks, we'll see that every guest gets one for the car ride home. These kinds of little touches make an event particularly memorable for guests.

13. Pick photos for a tribute video and items for display

A tribute video helps tell a loved one’s story. When you choose a Dignity Memorial provider, you can choose a memorial package that includes video production. You may also choose to create a video for a celebration yourself. Either way, you'll want to collect photos and video clips from family and close friends.

Some families play the tribute video on loop during the celebration. Others save it for a designated part of the event and make a toast or special introduction.

You may also wish to collect some of your loved one’s prized possessions for display at the celebration. These may include items related to their work, hobbies or interests. We've curated displays from collections of coffee mugs, quilts, maps, trophies, tools, fishing gear, teddy bears and so much more.

When personal treasures are shown alongside cherished photos, flowers and other mementos of a life, they help convey the essence of a special person.

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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