Celebration of Life Etiquette Guide

Written by: Adam Binstock

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Time to read 7 min

Differences between a funeral service & celebration of life

A typical celebration of life event is essentially an uplifting tribute to a person’s life, whereas a funeral is more about laying the deceased’s body to rest.  With a funeral, the body or ashes are present, however, with a celebration of life ceremony, it is not, and your options are more flexible since the event is not as formal as a traditional funeral.

What to expect at a celebration of life service?

Some celebration of life events are similar to traditional funerals, or it can be completely void of any traditional customs. It is up to close family members what they want to include and what not – whatever feels right to celebrate the life of the family member who has passed away.

Who is usually invited

A Celebration of Life ceremony can be a more casual, inclusive event than a traditional funeral. However, who is invited often depends on the wishes of the organizers and the nature of the deceased's relationships.

 Here's a general list of who might be invited:

Immediate Family Members: Spouses, children, parents, and siblings of the deceased.

Extended Family Members: This can include aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, nieces, and nephews.

Close Friends: Friends who were an integral part of the deceased's life are usually invited.

Colleagues and Co-Workers: Depending on the person's career and professional relationships, it might be appropriate to invite current and past co-workers or business partners.

Neighbors and Community Members: Depending on the deceased's community involvement, neighbors, fellow church members, club members, or other community members might be invited.

Healthcare Providers: If the deceased had a close relationship with any healthcare providers, such as doctors, nurses, or caregivers, it might be appropriate to invite them.

Friends of shared interests: If the deceased was part of a club, team, or group based on shared interests or hobbies, members of these groups might be included.

Mood & Tone

In most cases, the family members of the person who passed on wishes to have a celebration of life event with happy stories and uplifting decorations like memory tables

Instead of emphasizing on saying goodbye, it is rather an event where the life of the person is celebrated and remembered. 

This doesn’t mean that there will not be any tears or sadness because the attendees are bidding farewell to a beloved friend or family member. 

When you attend a celebration of life ceremony, it’s best to be sensitive to the tone of immediate family. If they act reflective and subdued, be respectful and save funny stories for a more appropriate time.

Timing

While traditional funerals usually take place shortly after a person's death, whereas a celebration of life can happen weeks or even months later, allowing more time for planning and for distant attendees to arrange travel.

Location

There are various things to think about when selecting the venue. For instance, the size of the venue – will it be big enough to accommodate everyone, especially if you’re considering a publicized event? Is there enough parking space as well as handicap parking and is the venue wheelchair friendly? Can the venue accommodate all aspects of the event – socializing, religious segments, service, group activities, etc? Is it available at the date you wish to have the event?

Duration

Duration of the event depends entirely on the host and family of the deceased person. The ceremony can last for only an hour or sometimes stretch over the course of an entire day. In some cases, it can even be a weekend celebration affair.

Celebrant, Officiant, or Host

Another thing to contemplate is who will be leading the event. If the deceased was a spiritual or religious person, the officiant will most likely do a traditional service that is personalized according to the deceased’s wishes.

Speakers

If a eulogy is included, it must be decided who will be the speaker that delivers it. The following guidelines are usually followed with a eulogy:

  • Keep it brief – around 5-10 minutes.

  • Stay focused and begin by sharing a brief history of the person’s life, including standout relationships, professional history, achievements and interests.

  • Make it personal by mentioning two prominent qualities of the person, share one of your favorite memories or stories relating to the person.

  • Close with a beautiful poem, song, or quote that was noteworthy to the individual.

  • Highlight a few positive facets of the person’s life.

  • You can include a written version of the eulogy for attendees to take home and treasure.

Food & beverages

You have different options for providing the food and beverages. You can hire a caterer or full-service venue to take care of it, or you can engage the help of family and friends to make homemade food and snacks. A special touch would be to choose some of the deceased’s favorite snacks and foods. Contingent on the time, you can choose a full meal or simply appetizers and light snacks. Due to the nature of a celebration of life event some even choose a venue with a bar.

Music

To make the occasion a truly special one, you can choose celebration of life songs that had special significance to the deceased person. You can hire musicians, a DJ, or compile a playlist that can play in the background while guests socialize.

Unique Activity Ideas

With a celebration of life event you can include unique activities like reading from the person’s favorite book, praying, or any other activities that you feel are appropriate for the occasion. You can also ask for suggestions from family and friends during the planning initial gathering phase. A few fun and less traditional activities include things like:

  • Sharing a specially prepared meal with a few of the deceased’s favorite foods.

  • Listening to a playlist with carefully selected songs.

  • Crafting a memory tree.

  • Watching a selection of the person’s favorite movies.

Celebration of Life Dress Code

Celebration of life dress code

Adults

Because it is a celebration event, it’s not necessary to stick to the traditional black attire associated with funerals. The dress code can be a bit livelier and more casual, unless the family has chosen a specific dress code. As far as color scheme goes, you can wear colors like yellow, blue, red, green or pink. Wearing jeans is acceptable, but something that is still suitable for the occasion. Ripped or skimpy clothing for instance, is not a good choice. If you are unsure about what to wear, choose an outfit that you’ll normally wear to work, but not something too formal.

 

Children

With kids, the options are more flexible because most people appreciate that children are not comfortable wearing clothes that are too formal and stiff. Stick to colourful and lively options that are fitting for a celebration ceremony.

What to say at a celebration of life

Including a few specifics sharing memories or personal details of the deceased when paying your respects will help your condolences come across more genuine. Mentioning a few things that reminds you of the deceased like stories, personality traits, or happy memories can illustrate your affinity for the person who has passed.

How to say it

When paying tribute to the life of the deceased, try to avoid morose or somber content, particularly at a celebration of life event. Timing is everything – avoid speaking about the deceased person immediately. Give the attendees time to address the person’s life first. Allow them to share positive memories and sentiments as well. Never bring up negative situations or emotions and when speaking about the deceased focus on positives. If you are at a loss for words, sometimes a simple hug can let the family know that you share their loss.

What not to say

It is important to let the family know that you share their grief and that the deceased person meant a great deal to you but remember to focus on the deceased and the type of person they were. Avoid making the story all about you and your life.

Quotes and sayings

Sayings and quotes are ideal to use during a eulogy. Try to be mindful of the ambiance and tone of the individuals or person you are speaking to since some might find celebrations of life really challenging while other might enjoy the celebratory nature of the occasion. It is perfectly acceptable to experience mixed emotions when attending a celebration of life event of a loved one or person who has passed away.

What to bring to a celebration of life?

Sending flowers

Even though flowers are considered a customary gift, it isn’t the best choice to bring floral gifts to a celebration of life event or funeral. Rather send a bouquet before the time to the family’s home or memorial service if you wish to gift flowers.

Donations

A charitable donation to the deceased’s favorite charity is an excellent gift that will be highly appreciated. You can also consider sending a fruit platter or snacks basket to the family of the deceased.

Sympathy cards

A sympathy card is a commonplace and thoughtful gift for a celebration of life ceremony as well as funerals. It can be gifted alongside other gifts like snack basket or gift card.

Celebration of Life Gifts

Even though it isn’t customary or required to bring a gift to a celebration of life service, it is a lovely way to pay respects and the family will appreciate the thoughtful gesture. Just take note that not all gifts are appropriate for these types of events.

Adam Binstock

Founder of You Are Forever & The Cremation Institute, he providing end of life advice since 2010. He has particular knowledge and interest in memorials, cremation art, & non traditional funerals.