How To Make A Memorial Service A Celebration Of Life

When a loved one passes away, the family or a close relative, is likely to organize an event that honors and pays tribute to their memory and life. Unlike a traditional funeral, which occurs inside a week or two of the beloved’s passing, a memorial service is held without a casket or a body present and can be held weeks or even months afterward.

While it is not uncommon to have the loved one’s ashes present in an urn, a memorial service will have similar elements to that of a funeral, in that you can expect there to be a eulogy read, there may be songs or prayers given, and there may be time for reflection, visitation, and reception.  While a memorial service is still considered a formal event by many, it also allows for a great deal of flexibility and personalization.  Instead of it being held at a traditional church, it may be held on a beach, in the family’s home, or in a garden. Due to how flexible memorial services can be, they are relatively easy to turn into celebration of life events, which is what we are going to cover below in today’s article.

Before we get into what a celebration of life is and how to turn a memorial service into one, we are first going to see how traditional memorial services are held across various religions and why some individuals prefer non-traditional memorial services.

How Traditional Memorial Services Look Across Various Religions

Just as many religions celebrate distinct traditions for wedding ceremonies, baptism, and worship, they also have different traditions that surround a loved one’s passing. These traditions change how the individual is celebrated, how their funeral is prepared, and how intertwined religion and spirituality is during the service.

Catholic Memorial Service

Catholics believe that death marks one’s passing from the physical world to the afterlife, where their soul will live in either Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory. A priest will be contacted, and rites will be administered so that the memorial service can be planned.

With devout Catholics, generally the body is embalmed and presented for Funeral Mass; however, after Funeral Mass the body may be cremated (a modern acceptation). Generally, a priest will oversee the funeral liturgy, but if not available, deacons or laypersons can also oversee it.

When the body is buried or interred, a final Rite of Committal will be given at the gravesite by a priest, where the family and friends will gather.

Buddhist Memorial Service

Buddhists believe in Samsara, the thought that one will be reborn after death several times over before reaching eternal enlightenment. The body may be buried or cremated, and monks or family members may take part in the spiritual chanting that occurs.

A Hoji, is a Buddhist ritual or memorial service that is done for the deceased and is held on the day of their death or on the eve of that day. When the date is set for the memorial service, a Chief Mourner will contact the temple that the individual belonged to and confirm the service. The name of the individual will be announced, and the mourners will wait together in prayer for the entry of the priest.

When the priest reaches the altar, all participants are asked to follow what they do and to listen quietly. The memorial service will contain chanting, incense for purification, and prayer beads. Everyone takes part in burning incense and the final chanting and sermon is given by the priest. The end of service is announced by the Chief Mourner.

Jewish Memorial Service

The Jewish believe that once a person has passed away, the body should be interred as soon as possible and not left unattended until the burial has happened. The body will be washed and purified immediately through a process known as Taharah.

Yahrzeit

After the funeral is held, there are two memorial events that the Jewish participant in. The first is called the Yahrzeit, which is always observed on the calendar anniversary of the beloved’s death according to the Hebrew Calendar.

This memorial event is held annually on the night preceding their death anniversary and involves the lighting of a Yahrzeit candle (also called Yizkor candles). This candle is to burn for a full 24-hours, often lit from sundown to sunset the next day and is allowed to burn out naturally.  Those mourning will recite the Mourner’s Kaddish.


Yizkor

The second memorial event that occurs is the Yizkor, which means “may [God] remember” and is recited four times a year. It was originally cited only on Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement, with the sole purpose of honoring the deceased by committing to giving charity in their memory.

The idea behind this is that by doing good deeds as a survivor of a loved one, you can elevate the souls of the departed. The Yizkor is also recited during the last days of the pilgrimage festivals since the readings in the Torah mentions the importance of donations during these holidays as well; which are the Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot.

Those who do not have a religion or faith may be celebrated through a humanist memorial service. This type of service generally does not have any specific arrangements with regards to religious traditions and instead, the format is left up to the individual and placed in their Will, or arrangements will be made by the individual’s family. The focus of a humanist memorial service will be on the life of the deceased, special memories that others share of them, and a celebration of their accomplishments in life.

What A Celebration Of Life Is And How It Differs From Other Services

A celebration of life event allows friends and family members to pay tribute to and honor their loved one in a personal and informal manner. Instead of the somber mourning that is typical of funerals, a celebration of life event will be more about embracing and celebrating the individual’s passions, personality, accomplishments, and intellectual pursuits.

The atmosphere will be more relaxed and may or may not include elements from traditional memorial & funeral services that are personalized and uplifting rather than structured, serious, and formal. For instance, instead of prayers being said, storytelling may occur, and uplifting songs may be played as people mingle, share, and talk about how the individual brought laughter and joy into their lives.

The focus is not on the death of the person but rather on the story of their life. This type of event is typically held in lieu of a memorial service after the body has been cremated or buried, but it can also be held in place of a traditional funeral.

Why You May Want To Have A Celebration Of Life Service

There are several reasons why families may opt to have a non-traditional celebration of life service to honor their loved one.

The individual is non-religious.

A memorial service that typically follows a similar structure to that of traditional funerals, may not adhere to individuals who are not a part of any religion. So, having a vicar, priest, or other religious leader take hold of the memorial service and deliver it to family and friends may feel odd or out of place. This is mainly due to the religious leader having no personal relationship to the bereaved or the beloved and is therefore, more of a stranger than someone sharing in their own grief for the deceased.

Having a non-traditional memorial service where a eulogy is presented by a mother, father, sister, brother, or close relative is going to be more apt. You may also consider replacing prayers and religious music with your favorite stories of the individual and their favorite musical album.

Plus, a non-traditional memorial service does not have to be done in a church, as it can be held at deceased’s favorite garden, park, entertainment venue, or home.


You can personalize to the individual's interests.

When we think about and share stories of our loved ones, we often think about what defines them as a human being. They were caring, charitable, generous, and therefore, were volunteers or donators. Maybe they were a sports lover and played on competitive or recreational teams for most of their life or maybe they loved to go camping and hiking every few months as an avid backpacker. Perhaps, they had a thirst for travel and became worldly in their knowledge and experiences.

A non-traditional memorial service allows you to take your loved one’s interests and hobbies and make them central to the ceremony. This opens the ability to feel connected to them while you mingle and share in your remembrance with those in attendance.

To figure out how to work these interests or hobbies into a memorial service, write down all of the major aspects that shaped your loved one’s life, whether it be, nature, sports, books, volunteer work, or science and take some time to truly understand what these meant to them and why these hobbies and interests inspired them.


The passing of a loved one was traumatic.

When a loved one passes away suddenly or due to a condition or illness that is debilitating and painful, it can be very difficult for family members and friends to decide on a funeral home, pick out a casket, or even have the financial capacity to provide a traditional service. For many, having a non-traditional memorial service in the family home can help the grieving process, provide healing, and be therapeutic in a way that a traditional venue cannot provide.


You can make the event uplifting instead of solemn.

If the deceased individual lived a very full, cheerful, and joyous life, having a traditional service may not be fitting for them or attest to their personality.  An individual who has brought so many smiles, laughter, and happiness into the world will want to be remembered in that way and those mourning are more likely to find closure in remembering them in this way.

A non-traditional memorial service can be festive, be filled with decorations, and even have a live band to lift the mood up and away from the muted atmosphere that we have come to expect with traditional services.  Having a true party or celebration for a vibrant individual is a fantastic way to honor them and their achievements.


They may want to say good-bye beforehand.

Those who are terminally ill or those who know that their end days are near, may want to hold a living funeral or memorial service to say goodbye to their loved ones while still alive. While memorial services tend to be to honor one after they have passed (and without a body), living memorial services are becoming more popular.

It gives the family and friends of the loved one time to discuss the final chapter, enjoy one another’s company, and say what needs to be said. Plus, those who are ill or dying do not necessarily want to wait until the time is too close to say goodbye and instead would rather gather everyone into one, uplifting, and final event.


The deceased specifically requested no funeral nor memorial service.

While there can be a few reasons for this such as the family being unable to travel far distances or the family being unable to agree with one another (or are on the outs);  it is important that you still honor your loved one’s memory while understanding their wishes. You may feel angry, bitter, or worried that you may not find closure with the absence of a traditional service, but that does not mean you cannot honor your loved one in an alternative way.


The deceased was cremated.

While you do not have to have a non-traditional memorial service if the individual has requested to be cremated, it does give loved ones an opportunity to consider a non-traditional memorial service that suits the deceased.

The ashes can be stored in a memorial urn and placed in a special location in which the service centers around or the ashes can be converted into a unique memorial vessel such as a diamond, hourglass, or tree. This is a decision that should be considered if the individual has not specified beyond cremation in their Last Will.


A non-traditional service allows you to adopt rituals that heal.

A lot of memorial services in cultural traditions have the service repeat more than once. Some may choose to remember their loved one annually, others may choose to remember their loved one on a monthly or weekly basis. In adopting a non-traditional memorial service, you have the flexibility to choose when and where you want to remember your loved one and do so at any time that is convenient for you.

For instance, some people have mixed feelings about visiting their loved one’s gravesite while others find solace and comfort in visiting. Having a non-traditional memorial service at their place of rest allows you to engage in meaningful rituals such as, inviting others to share stories, bringing flowers or trinkets or simply, saying goodbye with others in silence.

While the gravesite is one idea, it can be anything from creating an annual dinner for the family, walking along their favorite trails, or participating in their favorite activities.

Breaking Away From The Norm - Why A Celebration Of Life Service is Acceptable

It is very important to understand that while the traditional way of celebrating and honoring loved ones is still very much in practice and very much wanted by those seeking closure, breaking away from the conventional methods of doing so is not bad, wrong, or unworthy.  There are certain circumstances that may require you to honor your loved one through other means, and in doing so, you are not invalidating or taking away from their memory, their life experiences, or your relationship to them.

Please remember that memorial services, regardless of how they are done, are there for three reasons. The first is to remember those that we love and honor the relationship we have with them and we can do this through the sharing and acknowledgement of memories, moments, and stories.

Secondly, the service is there to help us find meaning and to encourage us to live life with zeal and passion. It teaches us to embrace and celebrate the life we have and the love we experienced with our beloved. Third, a memorial service, traditional or not, provides us with a way to support our family and friends by openly sharing in our grief, listening to one another’s vulnerable moments, and connecting or uniting the community through our loss and pain.

Whether you choose to have an alternative memorial service, a traditional one or a celebration of life event, as long as you are acknowledging the existence of your loved one, you are allowing them to live on and are thereby paying tribute to the significance of their life.

5 Steps To Arranging A Celebration Of Life - All You Need To Know

Step 1 - Determining Who And When

Who should be invited and how should they be invited?

Anyone who had a close bond with the individual or anyone whose life was impacted in an unforgettable way. This means close friends, family members, and mentors. If the individual was involved in a community, such as a sports team, church, or club, the figurehead of that community is another good invitee.

If the celebration of life event is being held alongside a traditional memorial service, the details can be included in the obituary or via the regular channel that this is announced on. If the celebration of life event is separate, stand alone, private, or takes place sometime in the future, writing invitations or calling is appropriate.

Who should be involved in the planning process?

While you may be comfortable planning and conducting the event yourself, if you are going to have a lot of guests in attendance, it may be best to involve a friend or family member to help. Generally, you want to involve a friend or family member that has your loved one’s best interests at heart, who knew them well, and can act as a gracious host or hostess during the event period.

You may also want to involve a hired celebrant who can direct a portion of the ceremony or even consider hiring an event planner to help with the logistical details of the service.

How much time is needed to plan?  Does the event need to happen right away?

The event does not need to happen right away. Celebration of life events can be held on the anniversary of the deceased’s death or it can be held on any day you choose that would have been special to them. As for how much time is needed to plan the event, this would be dependent on what you want involved.

If you are planning on holding the event at a public venue, you will need to start planning several months in advance in order to get the booking and guest numbers. The same goes for if you want to take the gathering of individuals out to do the beloved’s favorite activity. If you are just holding the event at home, less time is required.

Step 2 - Decide On A Budget And A Location

What type of budget is appropriate and who pays for the service?

A budget that fits within what you can reasonably afford is what is appropriate. Knowing what your financial constraints are will give you a better idea of what type of venue you can have and what type of mementos, food, and service can be provided.

In terms of who pays for this, generally, one family member will step forward, however, the cost can be split amongst the family members and friends. In some cases, the deceased will have prepaid for some of the services or has left some money to take care of the service expenses.

Where should the event take place?

While the venue will, in part, be dictated by how many guests are coming, you should also consider child-friendly places and handicap accessibility. Possible venues include outdoor spaces like parks, campgrounds, botanical gardens, churches, or places you can rent like off-season wedding venues, public halls, or movie theaters.

What time of day should the event happen and how long should it last?

Generally, anytime between 10am-2pm (mid-morning to early afternoon) is acceptable for many types of celebration of life events. However, an early evening service that does not interfere with work schedules is also perfectly suitable for a celebration of life service.

There are no set guidelines on how long the service should be. This is most often determined by the family and what they are most comfortable with. Most events last anywhere from one to two hours.

Is weather an issue? Should the event be held indoors or outside?

    1. If the event is being held during the winter months or rainy months, hold it inside. If it is summertime, you may be able to hold the event outside. When in doubt, book a venue that has both an indoor hall or seating area and an outdoor open space.

Step 3 - Make A List Of Materials Needed (i.e. Photographs, Etc.)  

What kind of support materials will be needed?

Consider including memorial photographs, picture boards, and decorations like a memory table, flowers, candles, and quote boards. If kids will be present, provide coloring books or crafts that can be used after the service. Have a guest book present.

Is a program/pamphlet needed? If so, what are some options for this?

Since celebration of life events are very informal and have little structure, a program may be needed to outline what is going to occur, however, it is not required. If you choose to have a pamphlet or program, you can have a free template made or you can mimic some of the sample templates found online. If you would like a professional program created for you, Everlasting Memories would be happy to assist.

Is a slideshow a good idea? Should you create your own? What are some low-cost solutions for this?

A video slideshow is definitely a good idea as it is a fantastic way to outline the deceased’s life in a beautiful and sentimental way. There are plenty of low-cost slideshow programs online that you can download and demo for free or pay a nominal fee for or if you already have Microsoft 365, you can use PowerPoint. If this doesn’t work and you do not want to pay for a slideshow maker program, you can always use Google Slides. It is recommended that you burn the slideshow onto a DVD for those who may want to keep it or have a public link to it online.

Should the event be videoed?  Is this something you may want in the future?

It can be if it is a memory that you want to keep for years to come. A family member, friend, or professional can capture the event. Some families choose to webcast the event to those who cannot be in attendance.

How should military service/public service be recognized?

Consider having the national anthem played, a salute played, or their squadron military anthem played at the beginning of the ceremony to mark its start. You can also put up pictures of their service in the slideshow, place out their uniform beside their memorial photograph, or even give out small military-themed tokens in honor of their service. If they have service banners, these should also be displayed.

If your loved one served in the armed forces, you can apply with a form to Veteran Affairs to receive a flag in the United States.

Should I provide anything for guests in the way of tokens or mementos?

Yes, memorial service gifts are a great way to give a little something back to those in attendance. While guests may not expect a token or memento, they are another fantastic way to personalize the service. Common tokens include memorial coins with an engraving and etch of the individual, memorial bookmarks with their favorite quotes or sayings, memorial keychains with their initials or photographs included, and memorial photo magnets that can be placed in the home.

Step 4 - The Ceremony

How should the body be displayed?

It is recommended that the body be displayed in a ceremonial urn that is personalized or decorated in a manner that represents your loved one’s personality and zest for life. However, if the family is not comfortable with the urn at the celebration of life, a framed photograph of their loved one is perfectly acceptable.

Whom should speak? Is a minister needed?

Most families will hire a non-denominated celebrant to oversee the celebration of life. This individual will honor the person’s memory by taking on the main speaking role of the service. If your loved one was religious, you may opt to have a minister or pastor take on the main speaking role. As for others, family members and friends may want to speak and share their thoughts and feelings.

What should be said? Are religious readings required?

Religious readings are not required unless the individual was religious or was devout to a specific faith. As for what details should be shared; uplifting or humorous anecdotes or stories. Not every biological detail needs to be shared and private moments also do not need to be shared but can be if you wish. It is recommended that things are kept to an uplifting and positive atmosphere.

What type of music should be played? Where can you find funeral music for free?

For music, any tracks that were meaningful to your loved one’s life should be shared with everyone. If music was not a big part of their life, then it would be appropriate to choose instrumental music that is uplifting. Plenty of music streaming services offer free downloads or you can use an online service that offers copyright free music.

Should others be invited to speak?

If they shared a close relationship with the deceased and have a meaningful stories, anecdote, or experience that is suitable to share, then yes by all means invite them to speak.

Should non-conventional/non-traditional ceremonial practices be included?

Yes, absolutely! The beauty of celebration of life events is that they can be customized to suit the individual. Include a group hike, a beach walk, a sky lantern release, or a group movie marathon. Activities that symbolize and celebrate your deceased loved one should be included to pay tribute to them.

Step 5 - Entertainment After The Celebration Of Life

What options are there for entertainment after the celebration of life ceremony?

There are several options for entertainment after the celebration of life. Some of them include:

  • A reception with some refreshments and snacks.
  • Have readings done by close family members.
  • Have an open mic session.
  • Play your loved one’s favorite films and have a movie time set up.
  • Have live music come in.
  • Put out an arts and crafts table.
  • Host a picnic.
  • Have a campfire service.
  • Go bowling.
  • Grow a memory tree.
  • Have everyone create a memory capsule.
  • Or have a lighting ritual - think paper lanterns or tree lighting.

Alternative Types Of Non-Conventional Memorial Service

If a traditional memorial service does not feel like the right choice for your loved one, but you still want the opportunity to say goodbye in an unconventional way, there are plenty of alternative services or routes that you can take.  While some of these can be done alone, all of them are suitable to be done with gatherings of fellow family members and friends.

A scattering ashes ceremony.

A scattering of the ashes ceremony is commonly a private occasion done amongst the family but can be small or large depending on what the deceased wished and what the family believes is right. It can involve music, prayers, or the sharing of positive memories.

When choosing to scatter the ashes, you will want to purchase a scattering urn so that the ashes can be dispersed easily and without issues. The ashes can be tossed into the wind, scattered into the ocean, or placed along a riverbed, lakeside, or garden.


A home/land burial.

A memorial service at home in the form of a burial would take place on your own private property and does not have to include conventional burial products like the headstone or outer burial container. Most families tend to use wooden caskets and create beautifully made headstones of their own.

Features of a home burial include washing and clothing the body (body preparation), transporting the body to the burial site, and preparing the burial site (digging and lining it). Families will also need to place the body in the grave and bury it. Please note that you will need permits for many of the actions taken with a home burial and it requires you to own your land.


A green or nature burial.

A green burial, also known as an eco-burial or natural burial, allows loved ones to return to the old ways of interment. In our current way of burying an individual, many bodies are embalmed and placed within a coffin that is lowered into the ground to stay forever more.

With a green or natural burial, the interment occurs without the embalming and without the concrete vault that lines the grave to keep the coffin in place. Instead, the body is wrapped in a shroud, placed into a biodegradable coffin, and can decompose naturally into the earth’s soil. Since the embalming period is skipped, funerals need to happen rather quickly, within a 24-48-hour time period and are done at natural cemeteries.


Donating to science.

This is a unique way that many individuals choose as a way of giving forward to future generations. When one donates their body to science, the body is used either with medical research or with medical training. The decision to donate your body to science can be conducted at the time of death by the family or it can be made in the person’s last will and testament.

Generally, there are no costs associated with whole body donation, as the collection, transportation, death certificate and cremation are all arranged by the organization that has accepted the body. If you deal with a medical institution directly, there may be some expenses involved.


Take a trip to honor your loved one.

One way that can help us feel closer to our loved ones is to take a trip in their honor to their favorite places or a place they always wanted to visit. Whether it's a trip that was on their bucket list or somewhere that was special to them or the two of you, it provides a great opportunity to honor them.

In taking the opportunity to honor their favorite places, you can feel more connected to them while still allowing yourself to grieve. The change in scenery can help the ruminating thoughts, get away from social expectations, and re-establish that you will be okay.


Have an honoring party to celebrate them.

This is a fantastic alternative because the party could take many forms. You could have an actual party that serves your loved one’s favorite drinks or food, or it could be a dinner party, a wine party, or a party that involves their favorite activities.

Those who attend could all gather and head to karaoke, go ice skating, or play instruments by a campfire. The only thing required with an honoring party is that you pay tribute to the loved one and their life lived.

FAQ's About A Celebration Of Life

How should I be dressed for a celebration of life event?

Knowing what to wear for a memorial service can be challenging as the location, time of day, and the type of activities at the service will dictate your outfit.

For women, you want a conservative outfit that isn’t disrespectful but also isn’t black as a memorial services tend to be more uplifting and less formal. Instead, choose a pantsuit or skirt suit, a blouse and dress pants, a professional dress with jacket, or a blouse and a long skirt. Wear proper footwear depending on the location and activities such as flats or boots. Avoid wearing neon colors or loud prints, miniskirts/low cleavage, and noisy accessories/sparkly jewelry.


For men, a suit may not be necessary unless the family chooses for the event to be a black-tie or formal ceremony, but you cannot go wrong with a dark colored suit. You can opt for a semi-formal attire with dress pants and a button-down shirt. Do not wear graphic t-shirts, swim trunks, or noisy accessories. You will want boots, dress shoes, or loafers.

Exceptions include uniforms, fitness clothes, or specific activity clothing. For instance, if you are all going bouldering, hiking, or rock climbing - you’re going to want specific outfits. When in doubt, wear a semi-formal outfit and bring along the activity clothing.

Can the living help plan the service before they pass away?

Yes, absolutely. Those who choose to pre-plan their memorial service does so because it is a great way to discuss and lay out the logistics and details of the end of life ceremony.  Those that do help in the pre-planning may also pre-pay for certain products and services such as cemetery plots, ceremonial urns, or caskets.

Can the celebration of life be held at home?

Yes, memorial services being held in homes are on the rise due to economics and the changing of social values. Whether the home is an apartment or a house, many choose to hold memorial services at their homes as it offers a closer and less secular environment to connect with guests and reminisce. Expect there to be speakers and possibly some food and beverages. It may be held in the home’s backyard, garden, or inside.

Is it okay to bring pets?

The answer to this is situational and is dependent on the memorial service. If the deceased owned a pet, that pet is more than likely going to be at the memorial service. In most cases though, you will not see or be able to bring pets to memorial services if they are on the side of more traditional settings. Why? Children can be uncomfortable around pets, funeral guests may have allergies, pets can be distracting to guests, and they may not be allowed in the venue.

Should thank you cards be sent out afterwards?

While most people do not expect a thank you note or card during your time of grief, it can be nice to recognize those who directly assisted you during the memorial service arrangements.  However, it is not necessary to send thank you notes for normal acts of kindness such as words of sympathy, charitable donations made, or those who attended the service only. If you do want to send out thank you cards, send them to a select few such as musicians involved in the service, pallbearers, those who delivered the eulogy, or anyone who directly helped you with arrangements.

Are honorary pallbearers required?

The title of honorary pallbearer is often reserved for friends or relatives who are elderly who cannot bear the weight of the casket or those who may be too emotional to do so. Since memorial services do not have a casket or body present, having honorary pallbearers or pallbearers in generally is not required.  If you plan on having the cremated ashes present at the memorial service and want someone to “walk in” the urn, then you may designate them as a pallbearer of sort.

Celebrate Their Life

If you do choose to have a non-traditional memorial service or celebration of life event, please remember that it does not have to conform to any guidelines or rules and should be unique to the deceased.  While the event may feel like a send off party, the goal and focus of the ceremony should be on those in attendance and their ability to connect with one another and positively reminisce in a comfortable and uplifting environment.  Celebrations of life are meant to highlight the love you all shared for the special individual and the journey that was their beautiful life.


Mjl. (n.d.). Yahrzeit: Remembering on the Anniversary of a Death. Retrieved from https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/yahrzeit-remembering-on-the-anniversary-of-a-death/. All subsequent information taken from this reference.

Wolfson, R. (n.d.). Yizkor: The Jewish Memorial Service. Retrieved from https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/yizkor-the-memorial-service/. All subsequent information taken from this reference.

Updated November 20, 2019 by Frances Kay