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Timothy E. Ryan Owner/Senior Director
N.J. Lic. No. 3103
Many families today want a service which celebrates the life of their loved one. We introduce them to the concept of a life celebration, and provide support in designing a celebration that is as unique as the life of their loved one.
It's interesting; funerals and celebrations-of-life have much in common, yet they often appear very different. Each is a ceremony; a gathering of people who share a common loss. It's just that one is more rooted in tradition, while the other is the result of recent changes in social values. But both serve to do three things:
1. Help the bereaved family, and their community, publically acknowledge the death of one of their own.
2. Support the grieving family by surrounding them with caring friends, co-workers, and neighbors.
3. Move the deceased from one social status to another.
Yet they achieve those things in very different ways. First, let's take a closer look at what most of us commonly see as very traditional funerals.
It's not surprising funerals have been around for a very long time. Composed of three activities, the visitation, the funeral service, and the committal service, performed at the graveside; this funeral is the one we'd easily recognize from contemporary literature and film.
Held prior to the funeral, often the night before but sometimes on the same day, the visitation (or viewing) is a time when people come to support the family and, more importantly, pay their respects to the deceased. This often involves stepping up to the casket to view the body; either in the company of a member of the surviving family or on your own.
The Funeral Service
Commonly held in the funeral home or church, the traditional funeral service is led by an officiant of one kind or another; most commonly a pastor or the funeral director. This individual follows a very predictable funeral order of service which includes the singing of hymns; and invocations, Bible recitations, Scripture readings, and prayers led by the officiant.
The Committal Service
This takes place at the cemetery, after a slow and respectful automobile procession from the place where the funeral was held. The committal service ends when the casketed remains are lowered into the ground, and final prayers are said.
If you'd like to know more about the history of funerals in the United States, you may like to visit the website of the National Museum of Funeral History. But for now, it's enough to know that a funeral service traditionally has these three distinct components. Now let's look at a celebration-of-life service.
Author Barbara Kingsolver, in her book The Poisonwood Bible, wrote “To live is to be marked. To live is to change, to acquire the words of a story, and that is the only celebration we mortals really know.” We think this reflection is at the heart of a celebration-of-life. While a funeral, as we've described it above, has more to do with the orderly and often spiritually-defined; a celebration-of-life is more concerned with telling the story of the deceased. Celebrations-of-life are just that: a time people come together more to celebrate the unique personality and achievements of the deceased than to merely witness or mark the change in their social status.
Celebrations-of-life are similar to memorial services, which can be described as a hybrid event; combining the flexibility of a celebration-of-life with many of the activities of a traditional funeral order-of-service.
There's more room for creativity in a celebration-of-life than a funeral. Since celebrations-of-life are commonly held after the individual's physical remains have been cared for through burial or cremation; there is much more time available to plan the event. And without doubt, this allows you to make better decisions about how you'd like to celebrate the life of someone you dearly loved.
We always enjoy working together with families in planning a celebration of life for their loved one. While it can be a challenge to put together an event that both pays tribute to and celebrates the life and spirit of, a complex individual; it's also one of the most rewarding things any one of us can do for someone we've loved and lost.
Sarah York, opens her beautifully-crafted book, Remembering Well, with the very personal story about how her family chose to pay tribute to her mother. "My mother died in April 1983. . . she didn't want a funeral. 'Get together and have a party,' she had said when the topic was allowed to come up." However, she was quick to tell readers that the survivors did not honor the request. "We needed the ritual. We needed to say good-bye, but we also needed a ritual that would honor her spirit and would be faithful to her values and beliefs."
When Ms. York acknowledges the position of her family; that they needed not a party but a ritual; she teaches us all something important: the celebration of life events we plan with families should be shaped as much by their own emotional and spiritual needs, as their desire to celebrate the life lived.
While celebrations of life are not burdened by social expectations—they can be pretty much anything you want them to be—it's important to realize that the event you're planning should meet the emotional needs of the guests. So, think about exactly who will be there, and what they're likely to want or need. Then, bring in those unique lifestyle and personality characteristics of the deceased; perhaps add live music or refreshments, and you've got the beginnings of a remarkable celebration of life.
Celebrations of life are intended to lift everyone's spirits by focusing on positive memories. And as we wrote in the above introduction, if you'd like to learn more about celebrations of life, we invite you to read our 9 Steps to Planning a Celebration of Life. There you'll discover how our experience in arranging and hosting life celebration will guide you in the process.
Remembering Well: Rituals for Celebrating Life & Mourning Death, Sara York