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How to Have Celebration of Life Event Instead of a Funeral

Norma Smith Davis

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Perhaps your friend or relative didn't go to church and no minister or priest knew them well enough to speak of their life. Or perhaps the person was what is now termed as “spiritual, not religious". That usually means they believed in God in some form, but didn't adhere to the religious dictates of any one religion or church.

There are many ways to honor this life you esteem that are not held in a church per se and are not administered by a church person. The key is the reverence and compassion that goes into the planning, the personal details that are attended to and the respect and love that is present at the celebration. Here are some things to help you think through what you want at a Celebration of Life event. Gather select family members and close friends and think through some of the following.

1. Decide how many people will come

If your loved one had tons of friends and business contacts, then plan on 100 or more. Ask one of his/her business associates what to expect from that aspect of the person's life. How many relatives will come? If this is a person under age 18 count on many more. If the person is in public life try to estimate how many members of the public may attend. Getting a rough number will help determine the size of the location you will need.

2. Select a place that is warm and inviting

Some ideas for an Celebration of Life event are the same as selecting a place for a wedding. Ideas for outside celebrations include gardens, parks, ocean beaches, national and state parks, and wineries. Inside ideas are large houses, places where dances are held, club houses, bed and breakfast inns, even hotel meeting rooms can be warmed up! And hotel banquet rooms have the advantage of having chairs, table, dishware, etc. Of course that all comes at a cost, but it is convenient. Try to select a space that is not going to packed in, but also not so large that the celebration gets lost in the space.

3. Decide on the date.

Selecting a weekend date allows people to come from out of town. If the person has asked to be cremated the celebration can be as long as a month or more away. This allows time for preparation, thoughtful reflection, preparation of slide shows, old pictures, etc. All of these take time and add a loving touch.

The time of day depends on whether or not you are going to have a sit down or cafeteria-style meal or just hor'se deurves and drinks. If you plan your time for 2:00 or 3:00 people know they are not going to be provided a full meal. This will keep the cost down. However, since eating together is one of the things that unite people, it is best to serve food and drink of some sort. It can even be potluck.

4. Get the word out

One way to do this is to go through the person's email list and send notices. Placing an “ad" in the appropriate newspapers, although it is not inexpensive, is a good way. Lots of people read the obituaries every day. (Call your newspaper to check on their rates. ) Set up a phone tree by calling 10 to 20 people from the person's life (work, relatives, friends, social clubs, neighbors) and ask them to call the people they believe will want to attend. As you ask them to make the calls, ask them to estimate how many people they will want to contact. That's another good way to estimate the number of attendees.

5. Plan the food

The easiest and least time consuming way to do this is to have a caterer take care of the food. Whether it is hor's de eurves or a full meal, the caterer will bring the food, the dishes, the silverware the linens, even the tables, everything needed. At the end of the day, they whisk it all away.

However many people find it comforting to have a do-it yourself cooking gathering the day before the celebration and pitch in together to do the preparations. Potlucks are also perfectly appropriate. For generations friends and neighbors have provided the family of the deceased with food. Often we like doing it. It makes us feel we have helped in some way. So don't hesitate to announce that it is a potluck.

6. Make a Decision About Flowers and Donations

Many people ask attendees, not to bring flowers and to make a donation to a favorite charity of their choosing or one that was a favorite of the deceased. Since a decent bouquet costs over $50 this can be a real boon to the charity. One family I know asked for donations to be made to the children's educational fund. Some people thought this odd. I personally was delighted to contribute to that since education was very important to my friend who died.

7. Select Decorations or a Theme

This isn't always necessary, but since you will want to provide a program of some sort, flower arrangements baskets and note cards for leaving the family condolences or placing cards, you may wish to create a color scheme so that the room looks pulled together. Cream and one other color is often a safe and tasteful choice.

If you have asked that people not send flowers then you may want to get one big bouquet for the front of the room (or ask one of the people you know can purchase it without overextending their budget). You can buy matching (or not) potted plants for the tables and then at the end of the event, give one to each of the people who helped out.

8. Decide On The Contents of The Program

Select someone who is good with computer graphics to do your program. Besides listing who will be speaking or performing, you may wish to include a favorite poem or saying, a prayer or a meaningful graphic or other things appropriate to your person. Think of the person's nationality, culture, interests for clues on this. A simple cream-colored 81/2 by 11 paper folded over is easy. Depending on your time and resources you may wish to make it more elaborate. If you don't have the right person among the close family or friends, any graphics or print shop can do it for you.

Another idea is to take favorite picture and crop it closely and put it on a half sheet of 40 or 60 weight paper. Then put the program on the back. Many people like to keep the picture for a remembrance or to put on their bulletin board or frig for a time.

9. Decide Who Will Do What

The day of the celebration you will need the following duties filled by people you can trust to be responsible.

  • Greeters:

    Two to four people to make sure people are welcomed, given a program (more on that later), shown where the guest book is or the basket for cards and messages to the family. If nametags are being used, make sure there are enough greeters help people sign them quickly.

  • Master or Mistress of Ceremony:

    During the service itself a relative or friend can take this role. They will stand up and begin the formal part of the program, thank people for coming, make announcements, etc. This person can also introduce others who are coming up to sing, read a poem, speak or perform. Attendees like to know who the person is and what the relationship is. These names can also be on the program. If you have more than 25 people you will want a microphone. People must be able to hear the proceedings. Definitely have one if the celebration is outside. Hint: In a pinch you can use one of those children's karaoke machines.

  • Four to Six honors or Remembrances:

    Honestly most people have to pare this number down to no more than five or the celebration will be too long. Give everyone 3 minutes. That is enough time to have significant family members/friends play a piece of music or read a poem. It might go a bit longer for the close friends or relatives to speak their heart. But again make sure these are reliable people and people who will feel reasonably comfortable speaking in front of others.

  • One Person to Circulate So The Attendees Can Speak :

    Often people who attend want to express what the person meant in their life. This serves two purposes. It helps people who are grieving to say what is in their heart. It helps the family and close friends to know that their loved one touched many lives other than their own. This can be very comforting to them. However, the person you select must be skilled at getting people to keep their remembrance short and at interrupting gently when necessary. If you have someone in your group who is a public speaker, they are a good choice. You will need to provide a handheld microphone so your volunteer can scoot around and allow people to speak into a microphone from where they are seated. Another way to do this is to have microphones with stands in two places in the hall, but people are more hesitant to speak if they have to stand and walk to the microphones.

    The person you ask to do this job of circulating with the mic should monitor the number of people who speak about all the different parts of your loved one. Life. And ask for people from areas that have not been represented.

  • Clean Up Crew:

    If you have rented a public space or put a deposit down, you will need to clean up thoroughly. Get a group of people who know in advance that they will need to stay late and take down chairs and other clean up duties.

    There are many thoughtful ways to personalize a Celebration Of Life event. One family of an inveterate and voracious reader put all her books out and asked the participants to go through them and take as many as they wished. Those attending found it touching to have such an appropriate remembrance and selected those that had been dog eared and underlined as well as those that didn't seem to have been read yet. The family designed a bookmark that matched their programs and had a quote about books on it.

    Did your person have a passionate interest, a favorite hobby, or love a certain kind of music or dance? Did he/she have a collection of something that no one in the family wants, but having one piece would be a nice remembrance for the people who helped out? One friend loved scarves and had over thirty scarves and wraps, so they put those out for people.

    There are so many ways to personalize a Celebration of Life and make it reverential and honoring without having it as a church service. However, many churches go along with the family on informal celebrations and have only a couple prayers, so you don't have to rule them out. If your loved one was not a regular attendee of the church you will probably be asked to pay rent of some type. But many churches are lovely and give comfort to those who are religious among the family.

    One more thought. You may not wish to have your Celebration in a church, but you can still ask a minister, spiritual leader or friend to say a prayer.

    If you have an interest in more on this subject or have suggestions to add, please make comments below. I want to know if there is interest in this subject. Norma Smith Davis is a management consultant and can be reached at her website

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