Attending a Celebration of Life

What Is a Celebration of Life? Etiquette, What to Expect, & More

Last Updated on October 24, 2020

What is a celebration of life service? Is this different from a funeral? What should you expect if you’ve been invited to or plan on going to one? What should you wear, and is there any other etiquette that you need to be aware of?

Today, we’re going to be answering these questions for you. We’ll talk all about life celebrations and what to expect. With this information in mind, you’ll be better prepared before you attend one.

Let’s explore together.

What Is a Celebration of Life?

So, what is a celebration of life exactly?

Essentially, a celebration of life is an event that focuses primarily on the life a loved one lived, and the legacy that they leave behind. Sometimes even with a party-like atmosphere, a celebration of life tends to be just that – a celebration. The focus is on happy memories of the deceased rather than on the sad fact that they’re no longer with us.

If you’re thinking that this is not too far off from a funeral service, well, you’re probably right. It’s a term that can mean different things to different cultures or to those who live in different parts of the country (or world).

Sometimes, a life celebration occurs instead of a funeral. Other times the family may wish to hold a traditional funeral service and then a reception that they call a life celebration.

In other words, you can expect a much less sad and somber affair than the funeral; it will be an event where family and friends can remember together happier times spent with the deceased.

Celebration of Life vs ……?

Now that we’ve defined it, we can further explore the differences between a “life celebration” event and other more traditional services.

What’s the Difference Between a Celebration of Life and a Memorial Service?

It helps to know that a memorial service typically takes place without the decedent present. This means that there is no body nor cremated remains at a memorial service. A memorial service could therefore take place any time (soon, or much later) after the decedent has been cremated or buried.

The focus of a life celebration is one of joyful remembrance, and not necessarily feelings of sorrow. So it’s plausible that the one you attend could also technically be a memorial service, if no remains are present.

So a memorial service may tend a little more toward being formal and serious, whereas a life celebration is often less formal and more celebratory.

This leads us to…

What’s the Difference Between a Celebration of Life and a Funeral?

A funeral is a service where the body is present. That’s the main difference between a funeral and a memorial service, by the way – the memorial service, as mentioned above, does not have the body present.

So difference between a celebration of life and a funeral is again that emphasis on life rather than death; joy rather than sorrow; “let’s raise a glass in memory of…” rather than “let us pay our respects to…”

What Happens at a Celebration of Life?

Since it’s a celebration that focuses on the person’s life, there will most likely be sharing of memories and stories among family and friends. There may be singing or joyful worshiping, or there may be a playlist on featuring the deceased’s favorite songs.

You may hear poems read or excerpts spoken. You might encounter karaoke, an open bar, a potluck, photo booths with props, blowing bubbles…

The point is, life celebrations can be highly, highly personalized, from order of service to the food right down to the decor.

Each event is different. That’s primarily because each person is different. The whole idea is to veer away from “the norm” and do something unique.

It’s also worth noting that some families and cultures use this term interchangeably with the term funeral. But because the focus will be on celebrating life, you can generally expect the atmosphere to be positive.

And of course, it’s perfectly normal for there to still be feelings of sadness even at a life celebration. To celebrate life isn’t to deny the reality of death and sadness, but rather to shift the emphasis from the dead to the life they lived and the legacy they left us.

Celebration of Life Etiquette

When it comes to proper etiquette at a life celebration, when in doubt, go into it just as you would a traditional funeral.

  • Dressing well is always in style
  • Show up a few minutes early
  • Pay your respects to the family (here’s what to say)
  • Consider bringing flowers, a card, or a small sympathy gift
  • Sign the guestbook
  • Participate as needed in the service (prayers, silence, singing, standing/sitting, etc)
  • Attend the reception

If you know the family already, you may already have an idea of their personality as a whole and therefore a clue into how they’ll be running the service.

Otherwise, consider it a traditional funeral until you arrive and get a feel for the atmosphere. You don’t want to walk in there with a big smile and cracking jokes when that’s not what the family intended, after all!

Bringing Gifts, Cards, or Flowers

Just like for a funeral, when it comes to gifts, it’s most likely perfectly fine to bring a gift or sympathy card with you to give to the family. You could also send flowers before the service, unless the family indicates a preference in lieu of flowers.

Gestures like these are thoughtful no matter how you look at them, so unless the family has specifically instructed NO GIFTS, a gift or card is entirely acceptable.

See here for some meaningful sympathy gift ideas.

What to Wear

Again, when in doubt, you can’t go wrong by simply wearing what you would normally wear to a funeral. But keep in mind that it’s also possible that the family has a preference as to dress code.

Check the invitation. Maybe their loved one’s favorite color was blue, and they’ve requested that everyone wear blue to the life celebration. Or maybe the decedent had a bright and bubbly personality, and there’s just no way he or she would have wanted dark and drab colors at their service.

To reiterate, the dress code it’s simply all up to the family. If they don’t mention anything, assume that they are expecting traditional, conservative funeral attire.

Note: Even if you miss a dress code memo and look a bit different from others around you at the service, try not to worry about it too much. The important thing is that you have showed up to show your support for the family as they prepare to commemorate the life and legacy of their loved one.

That’s what they’re going to remember.

More Resources

To help you learn more about celebrations of life and what they entail, here are just a few more links that you may find interesting:

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What is a celebration of life? What should I expect?

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