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You’re probably reading this guide because you’ve recently experienced the death of a loved one. You are likely feeling overwhelmed and highly emotional. This guide is intended to help plan an event to remember and honor your loved one, and to alleviate some of the stress associated with the grieving process.
This guide provides information about some of the different options available to celebrate the life of your loved one, and how to plan a memorial event, including everything from when to hold the event to customizing the program.
If you'd like, we've also made this guide available as a PDF for download. Click below for your copy.
Culture, religion, location, and time greatly influence end of life ceremonies, rituals, and celebrations. “Funeral” has a very specific meaning for certain religions, for example. There are many options for this type of event in our culture today, some may be religious, non-denominational, spiritual or non-religious.
Although there are differences, a celebration of life, memorial service, funeral or other ceremony is designed to allow those whose lives were touched in big and small ways by the deceased to show their respect and honor their memory. They also serve as an important step in the grieving process, allowing survivors to pay tribute to and celebrate the life of their loved one, as well as gain support and fellowship from others.
Below, we further define a few event types as well as options for disposition.
A celebration of life is an event focused on sharing stories of the deceased and commemorating the joys he or she brought into the lives of others. As the name implies, it's meant to celebrate the life of your loved one, opposed to grieving the loss. While there are often tears, these events tend to be creative, and focus on happiness and laughter. A celebration of life can take place immediately, or weeks or months after death and the body is typically not present.
Funerals are typically held in a religious facility or funeral home, though home funerals are seeing a resurgence. The body is present at a funeral, so scheduling is dependent upon the choice of disposition, and must take place soon after death.
A memorial service is similar to a celebration of life, in that the body is not typically present. A memorial service may be held in a place of worship or funeral home, although if the body isn't present, many other locations may be considered. Parks, other outdoor settings, favorite gathering spots and other venues are popular options for memorial services. Timing can be immediate or several months after death.
Burials typically involve purchasing a casket, cemetery plot or vault, and a grave marker or monument.
For those who wish to minimize their impact on the environment after death, a green or natural burial avoids formaldehyde preservation. Green burial settings are not maintained by landscapers and don’t have traditional grave markers.
Cremation uses heat to reduce the body to ashes, which may be scattered or placed in an urn for keeping or burial.
The most memorable events are highly meaningful, and capture the unique life and personality of the deceased. The following questions can help define the essence of your loved one.
A memorial service or celebration of life can be held any time after death. You may choose to make arrangements immediately, though it is also acceptable to wait several weeks or even months.
It can be difficult to make decisions immediately after a major loss; planning the event several months into the future allows you to enlist help from others, or even hire a professional planner. Waiting also allows people to make travel arrangements, making it easier for friends and family to attend. You also will find more options available (location, venue, other services) if you’re not dependent on having the event in the next 7 days.
Decide the type of service you would like to hold. Depending on the disposition of the remains, there are a number of options for the event. Here are some examples, but there are many other options:
After you’ve determined the type of service and timing of the event, it’s a good idea to make a list of everyone you’d like to invite. Immediate family is a good place to start, then consider more distant relatives. Next make a list of friends, and not just current friends—include friends from different chapters of the person’s life: friends from childhood, school, different jobs, and different locations. Don’t forget to include your support network as well.
If people will be traveling in for the service, consider the accommodations they’ll need. Will they be able to stay with you or other family? Are local hotels or accommodations by owners available? This may impact the timing you choose.
Things to consider when choosing a location are:
Who will lead the service/event? If the individual was religious or spiritual, the officiant or celebrant likely has a standard service that can be personalized. If a host will be leading the event, you can still choose meaningful customized elements, such as readings and music.
You may want to choose religious prayers, readings, poems, quotes, personal writings, or song lyrics that were significant to your loved one. Next, choose the reader or readers who will present them.
Also, it can be touching to have people share personal anecdotes or memories about the individual.
If you choose to have a eulogy, choose who will write and deliver it. Rarely are eulogists experienced, so you may share these guidelines for preparing and delivering a eulogy:
For additional details on how to write a eulogy, see the Hazeltine blog post, Writing a Eulogy for a Celebration of Life of Memorial Service.
Select songs, hymns, and other pieces of music that were enjoyed by the deceased, or that hold special significance. Determine who will provide the music? Professional musicians, DJs, family/friends, or a playlist on an audio system are all options. You may choose a combination of live music for parts of the program, followed by a playlist of significant songs as background music as guests socialize.
Options for food and beverage include DIY (with help from friends and family), hiring a caterer, or full-service food and beverage provided by the venue you select.
You may choose to provide foods that were particularly liked by the deceased. Another option is a particular ethnic cuisine. Depending on the time of day, you may choose to provide light snacks, like appetizers and desserts, or a full meal. Be advised that many guests may have dietary restrictions, so inquire with your caterer/venue about options.
Many events, especially a celebration of life, choose to include a bar, which adds to the celebratory feel of the service.
You may choose to capture the event with photos or video, to keep the memories for years to come. This job can be undertaken by a family member or friend, or you can hire a professional.
In some cases, some families choose to webcast the event, which allows people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend to participate in the service.
Traditionally, people send sympathy flowers to express their condolences. However, it is commonplace for families to request memorial donation instead of flowers. In the obituary, social media and event invitations, you can indicate whether flowers or memorials are preferred, or whether both are acceptable.
The typical way to indicate memorials are preferred over flowers is “in lieu of flowers…” but there are other ways to suggest survivors show their support. For example, “those wishing to make a memorial donation, may contribute to [specific charity name] or the charity of their choosing."
For help writing an obituary, see the Hazeltine blog post, Writing an Obituary.
Personalizing the event can range from simple to elaborate, and can be done by a few people or by everyone attending.
One family was celebrating an individual who had a deep love of baseball. The invitations and printed program had baseball-related artwork and wording. The music included songs you’d hear in a ballpark; and the readings were from people with significant ties to the game. Peanuts, cracker jacks, and hot dogs were served. The theme helped honor and remember the departed in a very personal way.
Some traditional ways to remember a loved one are with a memory board of photos, a display of photo albums, a video or slide show, or through displaying personal memorabilia.
To involve guests, you may ask that people bring a few words about the departed to share or post for others to see. It could be a favorite memory, a sentence or two on how they knew each other; or ask them to send a photo or song to be included in the slideshow or playlist.
Download the Celebration of Life Planning Checklist
Seven Ponds: End of Life Resources
Contemporary Songs for a Celebration of Life
Writing a Eulogy for a Celebration of Life of Memorial Service
Create a Memory Board for a Celebration of Life
Hazeltine National Golf Club is a private golf club located in Chaska, Minn., about 30 minutes southwest of downtown Minneapolis. The club opened in 1962 with a mission to build and maintain a golf course suitable for the conduct of national championships. Hazeltine is one of only two courses in the United States to have hosted the U.S. Open, PGA Championship, U.S. Senior Open, U.S. Women’s Open, U.S. Amateur, and Ryder Cup. Hazeltine’s meeting and event space, golf shop and specified services in the learning center are open to the public. More information about becoming a member at Hazeltine is available at www.hazeltinenational.com.