By Last Updated: March 7th, 2023

How to Plan an Unforgettable Celebration of Life Service

When we die, our stories live on. Funerals, memorial services, and visitations can provide comfort and closure to family and friends after death. People naturally want to gather and honor the person who has passed away. When planning the event, it’s important to consider the wishes of your deceased loved one, as well as the needs of the family. Many families choose to forego the traditional funeral service and have a celebration of life service instead. Here’s everything you need to know about celebrations of life.

What is a Celebration of Life Service?

A celebration of life service is a joyful gathering in which loved ones share stories, with a focus on remembering the life of the person lived. The difference between a funeral and a celebration of life is the focus of the event. At a funeral, the focus is on mourning the loss of a loved one. Instead of a more formal religious ceremony, a celebration of life is held in a casual setting, such as a park or a family member’s home. In some cases, a family may choose to hold both a funeral in the immediate aftermath of a death, and celebrating the life lived at a later date. A celebration of life service can be a healing experience for everyone.

Celebrations of Life Around the World

In many cultures across the globe, people share traditions in which they celebrate their loved ones and ancestors after they die. For many, it’s a yearly festival full of music, food, and meaningful rituals.

Japanese structure in water, black and white photo

Dia de Los Muertos – Mexico

Every year, people from southern and central Mexico honor their deceased loved ones in a festive celebration called “Dia de Los Muertos,” or “Day of the Dead.” Families decorate an altar, or ofrenda, to remember and celebrate the family members who have passed on. They fill the ofrenda with the deceased’s favorite foods, drinks, and favorite things. These customs go all the way back to the Aztec belief that the souls of dead loved ones can come back to visit for one night each year. The souls can enjoy the gifts placed on the ofrendas, and reunite with their families. Ofrendas are adorned with marigolds, or Cempasúchil, also known as the “flower of the dead.” Its scent is said to be able to guide the souls back home.

Obon – Japan

This annual Buddhist festival has some similarities to Dia de Los Muertos. Japanese people also believe that each year the spirits of their ancestors return to the world to be with their families. During Obon, people hang lanterns in front of their homes to guide their loved ones back to their families. They make food offerings at altars and temples, and they visit gravesites. Obon dances, call bon odori, are performed. At the end of the festival, people place floating lanterns into the lakes, rivers, and sea to guide the spirits of their loved ones back to the spirit world.

Aboriginal Mortuary Rituals

Aboriginal people honor the dead with a smoking ceremony to help their spirit move on. To announce that their loved one has died, they paint ochre and put up a flag where the deceased once lived. The friends and family then proceed with a death ceremony, in which they celebrate with the body in the home. After the in-home celebration, the body is wrapped up and set on a platform to naturally decompose. The occasion is marked by singing, dancing, and a feast. During these rituals, the Aboriginal people avoid saying the name of the person who died, for fear that it will disturb their spirit.

No matter which part of the world you live, celebrations of life can offer friends and family a chance to marvel at a life well lived.

Planning a Celebration of Life Service

Given that this isn’t an ordinary event, there are many things to carefully consider when planning a celebration of life service. The following information can be a helpful guide for planning a meaningful gathering for honoring a departed loved one.


Picking a place that has significance to the deceased is a great way to surround friends and family with the spirit of your loved one. This will ensure that guests feel connected to the person who has passed. Some options are:

  • a favorite park or garden,
  • a restaurant or tavern they frequented,
  • an arena for their favorite sports game or musician,
  • a potluck at their home,
  • a beach barbecue, or
  • a charity event for their favorite organization.

Start with a Poem or Story

Breaking the ice by sharing a favorite poem or story can be a wonderful way to start the celebration. You can invite others to share by giving them a prompt ahead of time. Ask questions like, “What did you learn from them?” “What’s your favorite story about them?” “What’s something about them that makes them unforgettable?” Ask them to write it in the form of a letter to the deceased (it could be your own version of an obituary, what you will remember them most for) for a more meaningful connection. This can be an informal part of the celebration, where people gather around a campfire, or a bit more formal, where they stand to speak in front of a room. If you choose, you can also lead the guests in a group prayer.

Display Photographs

Before the event, gather photographs of your loved one for display at the celebration. These photos can be from all ages and stages of life. This is a great way to share childhood pictures, milestone moments, memories, and significant events with your guests.

Handwritten Letters

Some people don’t feel comfortable speaking in front of a crowd. Others may not be able to attend the celebration, but would still like to contribute. In that case, ask them to write letters to or about the deceased. You can ask permission to display the letters so the guests can read about the impact their loved one had on people. This can help them feel a sense of pride for who the person was and how they made a difference in their communities.

someone hand writing a memorial letter to a deceased loved one

Set Up a Memorial

Whether you plant a tree, decorate a wall, or place flowers at a special spot, setting up a memorial is a lovely way to remember your loved one. You can choose to make it an interactive piece, to which all the guests contribute something meaningful. A memorial release is also a way to honor their memory during a celebration of life event.

Dance to Their Favorite Music

If you have the celebration at a concert, dancing to their favorite music will likely happen. But you can play their favorite music anywhere you have the event. Put together a playlist beforehand, and ask people to contribute songs that trigger happy memories of your loved one. If you have any musician friends, see if they would sing or play a song that reminds everyone of the person you are celebrating.

Hold a Fundraiser or Silent Auction

What better way to honor the contribution of your loved one than to continue contributing in their honor? In lieu of flowers, ask people to donate to the deceased’s favorite charity. You can also hold a silent auction and ask people to donate items in the person’s honor. People can bid during the event, with the proceeds going to charity in your loved one’s name.

Hire a Videographer

Even though the event is intended to be joyful, it can still be an emotional day for everyone. You may not remember what people said or did at the celebration. Hiring a videographer can help you capture the memories of the day, so that you can look back on them later.

people's hand 'cheers-ing' deceases loved one at outdoor memorial celebration

Food and Drink

Some people choose to have the departed’s favorite restaurant cater the event. For potlucks, people can bring a favorite dish that was significant to a memory of the loved one. Set up a bar with their favorite drinks. This is a nice way to connect and share stories about your loved one over a feast of foods they loved the most.

After the Event

It can be hard to adjust to a new normal after the dust settles and everyone gets back to their normal routines. During this difficult period, self-care and connection are vital. Make plans to stay in touch with friends and loved ones. Find a support group. Stay connected to your community. It’s important to remember that you’re not alone in your grief, and processing grief is never a straight line. There will be peaks and valleys. So set up a support system for when you hit the valleys. The best gift you can give your departed loved one is your health, happiness, and well-being.

Honor Their Memory with a Hashtag

With social media becoming more and more the norm, people have online lives in addition to their offline ones. To honor social media mavens and gurus, you could create an honorary hashtag. Think of it like a virtual memorial. Encourage attendees and participants to share thoughts, memories, and photos. You can also memorialize a deceased person’s Facebook page.

Create a Scholarship in Their Memory

Was the deceased an educator? Creating a scholarship in lieu of flowers is a great way to honor a passed teacher, tutor, or professor. By helping a student, you’ll see the person’s influence continue to live on.

Go for a Commemorative Hike

Was the deceased an avid hiker or outdoorsman? Southern California has many surrounding trails and parks which offer the perfect place for hiking. Honor the departed with one last trek.

Plan a Unique Memorial Celebration of Life with Opal Cremation

What kind of unique celebration of life should you have for your loved one? Only you can really answer that. Think about what made your friend or family member special. Write down what you’ll miss about them. Then contact Opal Cremation of Southern California to plan the fondest farewell for your loved one.

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