How to Plan a Celebration of Life | GoodTrust
They say there are only two things we can be sure of: Death and taxes. But, there's a third thing we can all be sure of, too. After death, people linger on as stories and memories. That's why we have celebrations of life. Here, we'll discuss what a celebration of life is, how it differs from a funeral, the steps for planning one, and a few creative ideas for what to do for one.
What Is a Celebration of Life?
A celebration of life is about the joy of having known someone, not the sadness of having lost them. Therefore, at one of these events, the atmosphere tends to be light, with loved ones sharing stories of their time with the person who has passed.
In other words, it isn't supposed to be sad. Tears may be shed, but the point is remembering the person as they lived, not as they died.
Celebrations of Life vs. Funerals, Memorial Services, and Wakes
Funerals, memorial services, and wakes are usually somber occasions. While there may be some laughter and sharing of fond memories, the fact of the death tends to prevail.
Some choose to have a wake, funeral, or memorial service, and a celebration of life, while others choose to do only one or two of these events. However, if all of these events are held, the order and situations tend to be:
1. Wake: People can view the body before any formal events; usually reserved for close family and friends.
2. Funeral or Memorial Service: Somber event open to a larger group (though not necessarily open to the public); often involves an official religious ceremony if desired.
Funerals typically have the body present, while memorials don't.
A burial or release of ashes may occur afterward, with some or all guests invited.
3. Celebration of Life: Lighthearted event focusing on stories of the person's life; usually held at a home, event space, or similar.
The decedent's body is usually at the funeral and wake but not the memorial service or celebration of life.
Additionally, obituaries often include dates for anything more public, like the funeral or memorial service. However, wakes and celebrations of life are often left off, as those tend to be more intimate.
How to Plan a Celebration of Life
You can plan your own celebration of life if you want, just as you can plan your own funeral. However, you could also leave a set of ideas or leave it entirely up to your loved ones. Either way, the steps to planning a celebration of life are largely the same.
Below is a list of decisions to be made and a suggested 10-step order in which to take them.
If you get stuck on a step, remember, your loved one may have left behind their preferences in their will. Make sure to consult it while you’re going through the process below.
Note: If you're planning the event for your loved one after their death, we suggest making this a group project. Choose a close family member or friend to help you out, as they may know of different wishes or loved ones than you do. Plus, even though this is supposed to be a comparatively happy event, it may be overwhelming.
1. Decide Who to Invite
Unlike a funeral or memorial service, to which many people from all parts of the deceased's life are typically invited, a celebration of life tends to be reserved for only closest friends and family.
Making a guest list first can help you choose a location based on the number of guests. However, you could also choose a location first and have that help determine how many people to invite.
2. Choose a Location
Pick a place to hold the event. Perhaps have a couple of locations in mind if your first choice is booked for your intended timeframe.
You could consider a place that was important to the deceased or an event or meeting space, depending on your needs. For example, you choose the deceased's or a loved one's home, a favorite restaurant or bar, a church basement, a state park, or even a unique location like a library meeting room if they loved reading.
Talk to any potential locations about their rules, costs, and other expectations before making a final decision.
3. Determine a Theme (If Desired)
Once you have chosen a location and understand what they allow, decide if you want to theme the event. (Ideas below!)
Consider things your deceased loved one adored, like a TV show, book, hobby, band, or color. Then, if you want to, you could theme the event around that—seeing things that made the person unique could bring smiles to people's faces.
Using this theme, you can choose foods, decorations, a dress code, and more. Of course, if you opt against a theme, that's okay. You can plan this like you would any other party.
4. Hire Vendors
If you want to hire vendors for the event, such as a caterer, bartender, or photographer, do this as early as possible.
Vendors aren't necessary for this type of event, though. It can be as formal or informal as you want. It could even be a potluck!
5. Decide on Food and Drink
As mentioned, you can have this event be as formal or informal as you want, including the food.
If you choose to have the celebration of life in a restaurant or bar, determine if you need to have a pre-fixed menu for your group size. For example, in an at-home situation, you could have people sign up to bring certain types of food or drinks or order in from a restaurant. Or, you could have a fully catered affair.
There is no wrong way to do this, but if you have a theme or your loved one particularly enjoyed a particular type of food or drink, you could ensure those are incorporated.
6. Send Invitations
Invitations can be sent in the mail or via email. If you've chosen a theme, you can theme the invitations around that.
Remember, this isn't a funeral. The invitation can be a celebratory one. Make it clear what the event expectations are, such as attire (casual vs. formal or even costumes) or if a donation bin for a favorite charity will be available.
Ask for RSVPs so you can finalize plans accordingly.
7. Ask People to Speak (If Needed)
If you plan on having official speeches at the celebration of life, ask the people you'd like to speak if they'd be willing and able to do so. Make it clear this is optional, and it shouldn't be treated like a eulogy. Instead, to use a wedding comparison, they should think of it more as a best man or maid of honor speech where they share happy memories of their beloved friend or relative.
8. Create a Playlist
What's a party without music? You could use your loved one's Spotify, Pandora, or other music account to create a playlist, or ask people to respond with a song they want to be played as part of their invitation RSVPs.
9. Pick Photos for Display
Find pictures of the deceased with their loved ones or in fun situations. You might opt to display the pictures as a slideshow that plays throughout the celebration of life.
Search through their social media, such as their Facebook page and Instagram to find pictures. Ask people to mail or email you pictures of the deceased to be included in the slideshow.
You can also create digital memories by posting these photos or videos online for others to see. It's even possible to animate a favorite photo of them to make a static image come to life.
10. Enjoy Remembering Your Loved One
Once the party has begun, it's time to relax. Even though you're technically the host, you should be sure you take some deep breaths and enjoy speaking with the other people who loved the person you all miss so much.
If these 10 steps sound like a lot, you could hire an event planner or divvy up the responsibilities between multiple people.
8 Unique Celebration of Life Ideas
Celebrations of life should be customized to reflect the life the person lived. However, even with that in mind, you may find yourself stumped—even if you're planning your own.
Here are eight ideas you could use as jumping-off points for planning a celebration of life. Most of them can be altered slightly to meet the personality and age of the one you're memorializing, but above all, remember: This is about them, no one else, so make it as unique as you can!
1. Establish a Day in Their Honor
At the celebration of life, you can establish a yearly day in your loved one's honor. This could be their birthday, death day, a day near their favorite holiday, or even a day that combines their lucky numbers.
Tell people that every year on that day, they should do something special to remember that person. It could be a random act of kindness, donating to a charity, or simply drinking a can of their favorite soda. Anything to remember them will do!
2. Go All-In On a Theme
A celebration of life should celebrate exactly who your loved one was, and that could mean making it a bit unusual.
Did they love Halloween and throwing costume parties? Have a costume party! Were they a superfan of a sports team? Theme the entire event around that team. Consider going to a game if possible, too, and see if you can get some recognition for them at the event. Was prom one of their favorite memories? Have everyone come dressed in prom attire! Were they a member of a fandom? Theme everything around that! (If you don't know much about the fandom and can't find someone in your life to help, consider joining a social media group for it—chances are people will be happy to provide ideas.) The list of choices goes on and on.
Throw the kind of party they would be thrilled to attend. Don't worry about what others would find "appropriate."
3. Host a Celebration of Life Scavenger Hunt
A scavenger hunt could be a fun way to celebrate someone's life. Put people in teams and have them travel the area to take photos or gather things the person loved.
When the hunt is done, you can choose to have a winning team or not. But, all teams should get some prize to remind them of the day. Additionally, find a place to post all the photos and share with all participants.
4. Have a White Elephant Gift Exchange
White elephant gift exchanges are fun events where participants each take turns opening gifts, with the opportunity to swap with another person if they want their gift. At the end of the exchange, everyone ends up with a gift to take home. White elephants are usually filled with laughter and conversation.
For a celebration of life, you could ask guests to bring gifts that remind them of the deceased. Before commencing, make sure everyone is familiar with the rules of white elephant exchages.
5. Crowdsource a Celebration of Life Memory Book
Have everyone at the event write a memory of the loved one in a book. This could be cathartic for them and a great way for their remaining family members to remember and know exactly who this person was.
You could ask folks who can't attend to email memories to you so you can include them as well. Note: This doesn't necessarily need to only include kid-friendly stories, even if the book is intended for their children. Perhaps have a way for them to mark pages with more grown-up stories.
6. Hold an Auction
You could host a silent (or not silent!) auction to raise money for a charity the deceased loved, an educational fund for the children in their lives (their own, grandkids, nieces/nephews, etc.), or to help the family cover medical and funeral expenses.
Ask loved ones to offer their skills and auction off things like homemade cookies or artwork, a few hours of babysitting or dog walking, or even just a high five.
You could, of course, host a fundraiser or have a collection box out for this purpose. However, an auction is a creative way to raise money and doesn't pressure anyone to give money they may not have.
7. Make It a Birthday Party
You don't need to host a celebration of life immediately after a funeral or memorial service. Even if it's months later, you can host a birthday party for your loved one, with all the trappings of a typical party.
Gifts could be donations to the loved one's family or a charity. Bring a cake with candles to be blown out by the wind, all attendees while holding fans, or, if they agree, the deceased's spouse or children.
If they would have enjoyed a pinata, pin the tail on the donkey, or similar, go for it!
8. Use Their Bucket List to Celebrate Their Life
If your loved one had a bucket list, use the celebration of life to complete the items they weren’t able to get to. Whether it’s taking a vacation or skydiving for the first time, completing your loved one’s bucket list items is a great way to continually celebrate their life. You could make it an annual event, where each year the loved one’s close family and friends gather to check off another item.
Celebrations of Life: A Bit of Light in the Darkness
Planning a celebration of life should focus on the joy someone brought, not the sadness of their departure.
If you’re planning your own or helping a loved one plan theirs, use a digital legacy service to make wishes and preferences known. From storing a list of invitees to naming a charity you’d like donations to go to, GoodTrust provides all the features you need to prepare a celebration of life.
Plus, you can ensure all of your digital accounts are protected after death, so your loved ones don’t have to worry about stolen information or finances.