When most people think of funerals, they think of family and friends standing around a casket, dressed in black, with tissues in their hands, feeling bad about what they might have said or failed to say to the person who died while he or she was living. Certainly, the majority of end-of-life events include some sort of memorial service. However, there is a growing trend towards celebrating a person’s life with a living funeral.
What is a living funeral?
A living funeral, also called a life celebration, is a chance to rejoice in a person’s life while they are still around to share your stories and enjoy the gathering of friends and family. Such an event can be as simple as an afternoon tea for those closest to you or as elaborate as a big, society wedding reception. Unlike traditional funerals time will be on your side and you will be able to take the time to carefully plan an appropriate final act. Living funerals also allow the guest of honor to be involved in the planning as well as experience the love and support of those their lives.
One of the most poignant and talked about holiday commercials this season comes from Germany and shows an aging grandfather putting out the word of his own (premature) demise after being told by various family members that they don’t have time to travel to see him for a holiday dinner. When the family DOES gather for his supposed funeral, he surprises them by being alive and hosting that dinner they were all too busy to attend. When asked why he pulled such a stunt, he replied that it was the only way for him to get everyone together. The last frame shows them all eating and enjoying one another’s company. Such is the logic of a living funeral.
Watch the commercial here.
Others will remember the book “Tuesdays with Morrie” by Mitch Albom (and the Oprah Winfrey-produced movie by the same name.) In this real-life story, Morrie Schwartz, who was in his 80s and dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease, attends a friend’s funeral and is saddened to realize that his friend will never get to hear all of the nice thing people are saying about him or hear their stories. When Morrie returns home, he starts planning his own living funeral, complete with a gospel choir.
My friend Ray
My first experience with a living funeral was in June 2012 when my good friend Ray invited me to his “Birthday Party.” Ray was battling cancer, and I’m pretty sure he knew it was going to be his last birthday party. Ray had never heard of a living funeral. However, he knew that he wanted to have a party with all his friends and this was his way of doing it. He rented a pavilion in our hometown park in Oyster Bay, New York. He hired a great band band. (Ray loved live music). He called the caterers and he had the grills going with some of his favorite foods. It was great, far better then any funeral could have been! Yet, in a very real way, it WAS Ray’s funeral, his goodbye present to us.
There was no formal ceremony at Ray’s “birthday party” except for a couple announcements and, of course, the happy birthday song that made it hard for me to hold back my tears. (I wasn’t alone.) Ray brought out years of scrap books and shared some stories with us.
I had to laugh when I noticed Ray surrounded by girl friends including his wife Deb all huddled together, looking at pictures. Ray looked up at me and gave me that “yep I’m the man look.” (Ray was a stud). Shortly after the party health permitting Ray took some trips and experienced as much life and friendships as he could. I gave him a good book on funeral planning that day and offered my experience. Looking back, I think he already had made his funeral plans and he never mentioned the book. His wife didn’t even know about it. Funeral planning may be my profession, but Ray was way ahead of me.
Planning your living funeral
There are many different ways you can host a living funeral. In fact, there’s really NO wrong way to do it. You can sneak it in, disguised as another type of event like Ray did, or you can call it exactly what it is–a chance to say goodbye and celebrate a life well lived.
A living funeral doesn’t have to replace a traditional funeral and it probably shouldn’t. They both serve separate purposes. Even after a great living funeral, there is still a need for ceremony, ritual, closure and to say one last goodbye. Ray died later that same year we had gathered for the birthday party, and he had a pretty good traditional funeral as well, although it was a lot sadder than the birthday party. After the funeral, we all went to the restaurant Ray had picked and he threw us one last party on him.
1. Choosing the right time. Choosing the right time to have a living funeral can be a little tricky. Ideally, you want the guest of honor to be healthy enough physically and mentally to understand and enjoy the event. However, you don’t want it to be like celebrity autobiographies, where you have a new one every five or ten years. If a person is old enough or infirm enough that his or her life expectancy is uncertain, celebrating now is a good idea.
2. Finding a good location. Like a wedding or a graduation party, you want to find a place that is meaningful to the guest of honor, can accommodate the number of people you expect to attend and be appropriate for the weather. Unlike traditional funerals, there are no taboos to living funeral locales. Beaches, amusement parks, theaters, ball parks, party centers, parks, even bars are all acceptable venues.
3. Who should officiate? If you are going to have a ceremony, where friends and family share their favorite stories about the guest of honor, you may want to have someone officiate to keep the pace going smoothly and to add some structure. Since a living funeral isn’t a church rite, you don’t have to have a priest, minister or rabbi (although you could.) One popular trend in living funerals is to hire a celebrant to officiate. In the popular vernacular, a celebrant is someone who following an interview process, writes and officiates at a non-religious funeral or memorial ceremonies. In most funerals that use a celebrant (instead of a member of the clergy), the emphasis of the ceremony is on the person, his or her life and his or her achievements without the scriptures, homilies and communion associated with a religious ceremony. Such a format is naturally well-suited for a living funeral.
4. Should you have a ceremony? The choice to have a formal ceremony at the living funeral is a personal one. The event can be a glorified party, as was Ray’s birthday bash, or be a more solemn affair, as you might have for an octogenarian like Morrie Schwartz, with friends and family members sharing their favorite memories and anecdotes. It’s unlikely that any two living funerals will ever be alike.
5. What about food? Food is optional at a living funeral, but sharing even desserts or a light meal can help to put people at ease. If you don’t want the expense of a caterer, it’s appropriate to ask those attending to bring a dish they’ve made for the guest of honor or to simply bake (or buy) a plate of cookies. Obviously, the time of year and the venue will also influence your decisions about food. “Breaking bread” is a time-honored way for friends and family to stay close.
6. Picking appropriate music. Music, too, is optional, but can I highly recommend it to help set the tone and mood of the event. Choosing the guest of honor’s favorite band or genre of music is never wrong. You can also bring in local musicians, such as a bluegrass trio or classical quartet. If you are having a formal ceremony, a soloist can be used to break up the speakers.
Some Ideas For Sharing Your Life
- Things to put on display like: Photos or a memorial video with highlights of life, Family tree graphic, Diplomas, Awards or trophies, uniforms resumes and titles held.
- Hobbies stuff, Sport memorabilia, Projects and creations like art.
- Invitations, Who will officiate, Speakers, organizers, ushers, program handouts, musicians or DJ.
- Decor, seating, tables, restrooms, parking, handicap access and assistance, the influence of weather on your selected location.
Getting started with your living funeral
You don’t have to be a skilled party planner to organize an enjoyable and memorable living funeral. Increasingly, traditional funeral directors are offering these types of events as well as their traditional funeral services. Hospice facilities are also embracing the concept of living funerals as part of their breath of services that aid in the transition between life and death. Hospice workers know that terminal illnesses often isolate people from their usual social contacts and routines. A good ritual, especially one centered around that person like a living funeral, can help to shatter that isolated feeling. Far from being depressing, a living funeral can actually help a sick person feel more connected to his or her friends. Like any funeral or memorial, a living funeral is truly an unselfish gift that is very important to the one’s we love. This is also an opportunity to showcase your loves, frame your life and cement your legacy!
My friend Ray was the most generous and thoughtful person I have ever met. I am virtually certain that he had never heard the term “living funeral” when he planned his birthday party. However, he didn’t need to know about “living funerals” to know that he (and his friends) needed one. He just did what he always did and thought about the needs of the people closest to him. That was Ray, he had good instincts. I dedicate this article to my good friend Ray Sullivan… Miss You Buddy.